AJ Harbinger is a real-life Hitch. Except he looks nothing like Will Smith and cringes at the term “dating coach.” Every Tuesday, three weeks a month, he sits on a tall chair in a posh house in West Hollywood in front of a new group of six to eight men and lectures them on how to talk to strangers.
Then, for the next five days, he makes them go out and do it.
They practice striking up awkward conversations with pretend bar-goers (local improv comedians) and watch the video footage on silent while Harbinger critiques their body language. They hit Hollywood Boulevard pretending to be students, asking people to write down adjectives to describe their first impressions of them. And they dig deep into their pasts and talk vulnerably about their childhood and personal shortcomings, like a strange, all-male group therapy session for social flunks.
By the end of the program, called the “Art Of Charm Boot Camp” after Harbinger’s popular podcast, nervous men who’d confessed to social phobias at the beginning of the week fly out of LAX having faced their fear of approaching people, talking to authority figures, asking for what they want, and staying calm when asking women for their phone numbers.
That last part was what I felt certain was the program’s underlying ulterior motive when I visited Art Of Charm on a recent trip to L.A. I had been introduced last fall when AJ Harbinger’s partner, Jordan Harbinger (no relation), asked me to do an interview about my new book for their podcast. I said that I was flattered, but my book was about innovation, not dating. Jordan insisted that Art Of Charm had evolved from its original incarnation, called Pick Up Podcast, to a more generalized “business and life coaching program” that applies the lessons of smart dating advice (which mainly boils down to that pesky “confidence” thing) to other fields. I did the podcast, had a lot of fun talking about—indeed—business, and ultimately found myself hanging out with AJ and crew—plus a handful of anxious, twenty-something guys—the next time I was in L.A.
Many of the men who show up to Art Of Charm Boot Camp are indeed looking for dating help, but Harbinger says that 25% of his students are married or in happy relationships. (And a high percentage of his podcast listeners are women.) “But,” he says, “nothing is as terrifying as talking to a beautiful woman—to almost everyone.”
Technically, nothing’s more terrifying than floating away into space forever. Followed closely by being eaten alive by cockroaches. But what AJ is getting at is a valid psychological observation: Male or female, single or hitched, gay or straight, people tend to be anxious when dealing with people of higher perceived status. In social settings, that’s often someone who’s very attractive or famous. In professional settings, it can be superiors, executives, big-shot clients, influential journalists (hah!), etc. In other words, people who have the power, in evolutionary terms, to cast you out of the group.
Fear is an emotion associated with anticipated pain. (See above re: cockroaches.) Former Art Of Charm coach Sameem Rouhani calls it “the discomfort of uncertainty.” It’s useful because we survived as a species by avoiding pain. But social fear in all its forms typically boils down to avoiding a particular type of pain—rejection. As early humans learned, being part of the group was advantageous for survival; being abandoned or rejected by the group meant hardship or death.
The reason the Harbingers’ work with social anxiety in dating maps well to business is because business is inherently social: You’re making things for people, selling things to people, and working with people to make all that happen. And rejection—whether from customers, supporters, partners, investors, colleagues, bosses, “the market,” you name it—almost always feels personal.
Often fear, the emotion, is worse than the thing we’re afraid of. That’s certainly true in the case of social anxiety. Art Of Charm, which launches a new course specifically for business networking this summer, teaches its students to deal with fear in a few steps:
Most people with social anxieties have had only few bad social experiences, or perhaps none at all, that are directly responsible for their fear. “Confirmation bias feeds on what you’re fearing,” says Art Of Charm coach Johnny Dzubak. “You focus on the anecdote that confirms your fear and not the data or reality.”
The first step in overcoming fear, therefore, is to gain “data to overcome negative experience,” says Rouhani. The behavioral math is simple: “If our pain associated with staying the same is not greater than our pain associated with changing, then we will stay the same.” Data can help us see change (or rejection) as potentially less painful than not getting what we want, he says.
One of the most pain-free ways to do this is to trade stories with others who’ve failed and not died, or who’ve otherwise proven that success is possible. This is the upside of the “failure celebration” culture of Silicon Valley. Though failing at something doesn’t make you inherently more likely to succeed the next time, it shows you that the sting isn’t as bad as the fear of the sting. Jumping off the high dive as a kid might hurt, but not as bad as you think it’s going to.
The painful part of rejection—and the source of many people’s fear of it—is the fact that it feels so personal. Our brains assign that same feeling to rejections of all kinds. But when a customer doesn’t buy, an investor doesn’t invest, or a stranger says “no” to a date, the reason often has little to do with you personally. The price isn’t right; the investor doesn’t have time to do diligence; the last date with a different stranger didn’t go well.
Stories of heroic comebacks or underdog successes can be good for pumping yourself up, and trying to depersonalize negative feedback can be helpful for overcoming fear, but because rejection is inherently personal, the best way to permanently bust the fear of rejection is through personal experience. Which brings us to . . .
Says Rouhani, “The biggest fear with social anxiety is not being accepted and not knowing how to handle that.” As such, Art Of Charm’s boot camp goal is to expose students to rejection in safe environments, to reduce the sting and build up tolerance.
They do this in three ways: First, they use group support and a “buddy system” in stranger-meeting exercises, so someone who gets shot down striking up a conversation has friends to return to for high fives.
Second, they change the goal of social interactions from getting results to simply having fun. This works by turning exercises like talking to strangers on the street or meeting people at the bar into games: How many signatures can you collect? Who can high-five the most people? When the goal of an interaction isn’t a certain outcome (a deal, a date, etc.), it’s easier to be relaxed and authentic, which paradoxically makes positive outcomes more likely. (In my book, Smartcuts, I wrote about how after Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon failed his first audition for Saturday Night Live, he made his goal in his next audition simply to make show creator Lorne Michaels laugh—not to get the part. By focusing on this small win, he ended up performing much better than he had before—and getting the part.)
Finally, Art Of Charm employs a principle of muscle growth called “progressive overload,” which is pushing yourself a little further every time you do something in order to increase your capacity.
For example, says Rouhani, “If your fear is approaching people, ask a stranger for the time.” There’s very little danger of being rejected for such a request, and it’s hard to come up with a reason such a rejection would be personal. “Step 2, go give a stranger a genuine compliment.” It’s slightly scarier, but again, nearly impossible to fail. “Step 3 would be going up to someone and having a basic conversation.” You’re committing to an interaction. “Step 4 would be showing interest, with the intention to make a connection.”
He continues, “Let’s say you spent a week asking people for the time. By week four, you’re comfortable approaching people. You’re able to communicate without fearing the end result.”
The famous Second City comedy school uses this technique to help newbie comedians overcome stage fright and test jokes. Every week, comedy students perform in front of increasingly large and foreign audiences, and they practice their jokes with familiar faces until they get them right. A rejection in front of the class is less painful than in front of a big group, and eventually even that isn’t painful after enough conditioning.
Similarly, during training, Navy SEALs are put into extremely painful situations so they perceive fear in a different light. They realize that they can get through much worse than what they’re up against, and be okay.
That’s what progressive overload is all about. “There’s always going to be a fear of failure in business,” AJ says. “You need to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”
One of the exercises Art of Charm puts its students through involves listing insecurities and identifying the cognitive distortions that lead to them. For example, a distortion called “The Fortune Teller Error” is when you “anticipate that things will turn out badly and feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.”
When we’re afraid, we tend to ruminate on such negative thoughts. To combat this kind of thinking, the coaches teach students to come up with positive mantra-like statements to mull over instead. Rather than asking, “Why would anyone like me?” one repeats, “High-value people like me because . . . ,” and instead of “Will this fail?” you repeat, “From this, I’m going to learn . . .”
“Most people are good at doubling down on the negatives,” says Dzubak. You can turn the tables, he says, by changing your personal social-accounting method. “If every time you do something positive, you count it twice,” he says, “it outweighs the negative.”
Perhaps most important, Art Of Charm preaches the concept of “convergence.” Everyone, they teach, has a “social mask” that he or she wears around others. The closer that social mask converges with reality, the more attractive that person is. This is why true confidence is so important in meeting people: If you’re comfortable with who you are—including what you don’t know and what you don’t want—people will respect you (and maybe even like you) more.
As Rouhani puts it, “When you trust a business, you’re trusting a person. One of the key indicators of influence is embodying what you represent; it’s hard to trust a personal trainer who’s fat.”
Learning to be comfortable with who we are, what we want and don’t want—and saying what we think instead of worrying about what people want us to say—can help us overcome fear more than any other thing, in business or life. After all, things only work out in Hitch after Will Smith becomes comfortable with himself.