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The Art of Attraction: James Norton wants to take guys on an epic journey of personal growth and picking up chicks
The classes are uncomfortable, often torturous for students. Sometimes the pressure is too much; A.K. didn't come back after the first outing.
"Did you go out three times last week?" Norton asks S.W. Between classes, students are supposed to talk to at least one stranger a day and keep a journal of interactions.
"Yeah," S.W. replies. "But the last one was weak. It was sloppy."
Sloppy is okay, Norton tells him, but slow is not. He notes that S.W. often tries to think up the perfect thing to say before approaching a woman. But, the coaches warn, in the time it takes to conjure the right come-on, the moment will have passed and whatever S.W. says will sound rehearsed.
Tonight's lesson begins with a discussion of self-possession, or what Norton calls "frame."
In every conversation, there's an alpha and beta, he says, and "whoever's frame is most dominant has the lead to say what's going to happen." It's a repeated theme: Men are supposed to be leaders, women followers.
The students are asked to list their passions, dreams and five qualities that make them "awesome." That last one often proves to be the hardest.
Norton says students have a much easier time coming up with reasons not to talk to any given woman, so the next topic is the elimination of negative thoughts. Anxiety is useless, Norton tells them. "It's not what reality is. It's a future projection of reality."
The coaches breeze through bullet points on how to exude energy by smiling and being playful. They talk about how a wingman can help a guy zero in on a woman by distracting her friends, and ways to build trust to grease the wheels for sex.
"It's really about listening," Gluecksmann tells the men. "This creates comfort. This creates familiarity."
But it's not just about listening. Earlier, the men learned a technique called "body rocking" -- leaning in toward a woman, then away from her. It's meant to be a teasing motion, as if to say, "Maybe I'm interested. Maybe I'm not."
And the emphasis is on physical contact, or "kino" (short for kinesthetics). "The longer you wait to touch her, the weirder it gets," Norton says. First go lightly, Gluecksmann tells them. Arms, shoulders, hands. "Then more intimate," he instructs.
Tonight is "Operation Number Close," Norton announces with the gravity of a military commander. "Work on seeding the advance, finding stuff out about her and figuring out mutual things that you guys can go and do together."
As they head to the bars, the group begins another round of high-fiving. S.W. is rebuffed four times in a row. He sighs loudly and stops under a tree.
"What are you thinking?" Norton asks.
"That this is stupid," S.W. says flatly, out of earshot of the others.
"Why is it stupid?" Norton replies.
"I don't know," S.W. says. He is a strikingly handsome guy, with dark brown hair, smooth skin and light eyes. The right photographer could turn him into a model for Seventeen magazine, but he self-consciously holds his elbows when he stands and often speaks at a near-whisper. "Low morale tonight."
"Why?" asks Norton.
"I can't see it working," says S.W.
"Is it true?" Norton prods. "Have you tested it?"
"I've been testing it my whole life," S.W. says.
"Maybe you were doing it a little bit wrong. We're going to work on that. But I gotta tell you, guy, I don't see any reason why you won't succeed at this," Norton says. "You're really good-looking. You're funny. You have a good personality."
The pep talk goes on for five minutes before they make their way to meet the others at a crowded bar. Soon S.W. is laughing with a stranger. It's a guy, but a stranger nonetheless. When he moves on to a group of boisterous men and women, they receive him warmly. One girl even smiles as he shifts toward her; he leaves half an hour later with her number.
Congratulated outside, he shrugs: "For what? I got a number. Big deal."
Pickup is kind of like the hero's journey," Norton declared at a pickup artist conference in New York City last summer. Wearing a tuxedo with no tie and an unbuttoned collar, he stood in a white-walled Manhattan loft addressing 50 guys, many adorned in distinctive attire -- orange eyeglasses, aqua pants, a fedora -- intended to elicit a second glance. "You decide that your life is no longer working, and you decide to go down a different path. So you go inward and start trying to figure out what's right and wrong. You're going to start finding the dragons and demons and everything else that's in your way. And you're going to come back stronger, better -- more of a hero to everybody."
He was riffing on Joseph Campbell's classic 1949 text "The Hero With a Thousand Faces," which deconstructs the arc of history's most famous protagonists, from Odysseus to Jesus. Each hero's quest begins with a call to adventure, includes many trials and finishes with an ultimate victory.
Norton is a seeker, set on a continuous self-improvement project. He quotes freely from Campbell, as well as Napoleon Hill, author of "Think & Grow Rich," and Timothy Ferriss, who wrote "The 4-Hour Workweek."
"It's all a work in progress," he says earnestly, before expounding on the "seasons of life."
"People need to die off the old parts of themselves before they can be born anew."
He has studied body language, keeps a food journal and believes in the power of dreams. As a kid, he moved around a lot and was teased about a slight lisp; the teenage Norton filled notebooks with personal musings and confessions. In college, he drifted among psychology, philosophy and art majors before settling on the more practical business management route.
At the start of his freshman year at Guilford College, a small liberal arts school in Greensboro, N.C., Norton signed up for a program that required students to make solo wilderness excursions. For three days, each freshman camped alone on a mountain in southwest Virginia with no food or worldly distractions.
Norton says he came back changed. "It makes you really just stop and be with yourself and start listening to yourself," he explains. "There was a lot of [crap] in my past that I needed to get over -- getting picked on, stuff like that -- and there was a lot of pain and angst and anger behind all of that, and it helped me deal and go through all those things."
As an upperclassman, he led younger students through the process. The last stage of a hero's journey, he told the crowd at the conference, is to bring some benefit back to the community. It's what he believes he's doing with pickup now.
Still, Norton and Gluecksmann have conflicted feelings about the pickup scene. They refer to themselves as "dating coaches" and are hyper aware that "pickup artist" carries a stigma of chauvinism and lasciviousness.
On their company Web site, they go by their pickup pseudonyms, "Brother James" and "Deline." Norton says telling his parents about the business "was like coming out of the closet," he says.
When he mentioned his side job to his friend Megan Walters, 25, she skeptically thought it was "interesting."
But, she adds, "I think saying that he's a 'pickup artist' puts it in a different light than when he actually explains what he does. ... It's not so much about picking up a woman. It's about being comfortable with yourself."
The women approached by Norton's students might disagree -- many of them seemed annoyed by the intrusion. And the Web is rife with opposition to the pickup community and advice on how to identify trained pickup artists. (Are they wearing something slightly ridiculous, seem brasher than most and feel entitled to reach out and touch? Well, chances are ...)
Even coaches such as Norton who say their goal is to make men believe in themselves could be damaging how their students relate to the opposite sex, says Denise A. Romano, a former therapist who maintains the Web site Game Over: What Women & Men Need to Know About the Pick-Up Artist Industry.
She says the tactics used in pickup are "wholly dehumanizing to both women and men."
"Women will have to become even more vigilant," she continues, "wonder which men are lying, which men are only dating them to get laid ... as opposed to being emotionally and psychologically healthy enough to be in a relationship." And Norton's well-organized lessons on attraction don't deal with those messy realities.
For the third class, J.K. joins the group. He emigrated from South Korea as a 10-year-old, went to a prestigious college and landed a high-paying technology job. At 27, he's successful enough to help support his parents but has never had a girlfriend.
"What's the word for 'extreme hunger'?" he asks when describing why he joined the workshop. "Somebody who's been starved -- not in a nutritional way, but just for emotional connection."
And a physical one. J.K. says his ultimate goal is to find "that one true girl to settle with." But sexually, he says, "I'm quite inexperienced, so I guess I'm trying to increase my odds."
On the docket tonight are lessons on keeping a presentable home, approaching large groups of women and expressing attraction.
To see whether a girl is into them, Norton and Gluecksmann suggest a "compliance test" -- giving her an instruction to see if she follows it.
"You want to tell her, 'Look, I can't hear you. Come over here for a second,'" Gluecksmann says. "You're leading them to test to see if she's willing to comply and come with you."
"You're basically saying, 'Do what I tell you,'" Norton adds. And if a woman tries to flip the dynamic -- saying, "Buy me a drink," perhaps -- the guys should reject her demands. Giving in, Norton tells them, would "look too needy."
He says it's about taking the temperature of an interaction, but tactics like these, which equate control with confidence, don't seem so different from tricks taught in more manipulative circles of pickup. This is not a course that includes bullet points on becoming a good boyfriend or building a heartfelt relationship. And for all the talk of self-improvement and forging "emotional connections," in the end, most of Norton's lessons still revolve around helping guys achieve what he calls "the ultimate kino": sex.
Sex is the program's last, eagerly awaited topic. But before they can go for "full closing," they have to learn to go in for a kiss.
"You want to do the triangle," Gluecksmann advises. "Look at her eye. Look at her other eye. Look at her lips. Then you kind of want to lean in."
At some point, Norton tells them, they should make a "statement of intent."
"I look at her, and I'm like, 'You know what? I kinda want to make out with you -- that's what I'm feeling right now,' " he says. "It's you sexualizing the interaction."
Which is the first step toward the bedroom. "Maybe you don't get that far. Maybe you're just friends. But if you're looking for a relationship, that's the ultimate highest point," Norton says. "So you're escalating to get to that point."
Sealing the deal, Gluecksmann continues, is all about logistics. They need to have a place for a woman to park her car and condoms at hand. "You want to provide her with sufficient excuse. Like, 'Hey, let's go to my place, 'cause I got this great collection of stamps I gotta show you,'" he explains. "As opposed to saying, 'Let's go back to my place for some hanky-panky.'"
"And be perfectly okay with her saying no," he continues. "In your mind, it just means, 'No for right now.'"
Regardless of what happens, Gluecksmann says, they must contact her the next day, even if they don't intend to see her again. The coaches instruct their students to be upfront with women about what they are -- or are not -- looking for in a relationship.
"I'm kind of bad," Gluecksmann says he used to tell women. "I'm not boyfriend material." (Though he is now: He and his girlfriend have been together for about a year.)
Honesty is key, Norton insists, because women deserve it, but it's important for the guys, too; if they're just putting on a charade, he says, they may still be thinking they're not good enough.
When he was in New York at the conference, Norton had the chance to put his own skills to use. He locked eyes with 5-foot-10 redhead while out at a bar. He spent the night with her and the next night, too. "The weird thing was, it was just absolutely comfortable. And I have not experienced that in a while," he says. "Where it's just like that person lying next to you, and you're not thinking about anything else."
And when he told her he was a dating coach who went out with multiple women, she shrugged and told him she was seeing other people, too. Ironically, it was a woman as nonchalant as he who made Norton think it might be "time to stop [messing] around."
But his students are still trying to reach a point where they have that option. So as the sky darkens, the group ventures back to the bars with their last nuggets of Professional Pickup wisdom.
The previous week, J.K. talked with several women, including one who seemed to like him. "This girl was just latched on to me, and I was just absolutely shocked," he says. "And I started panicking. I lost my step. And she kind of lost interest." He'll have less success tonight, unable to chat with anyone for more than a few nervous minutes.
It will be worse for S.W. He talks to a girl with his hands in his pockets, drawing a rebuke from Norton about the importance of touch.
S.W. tries the tactic on a woman at the next spot, but she pulls away. Embarrassed and angry, S.W. leaves hastily. He hasn't responded to calls from Norton or Gluecksmann since.
But in an e-mail he says he was glad he took the course. "It is very difficult to judge yourself objectively," he writes, "which is why people are willing to hire professional advisers to help improve themselves."
These days, he continues, "I feel like I could enter any club or bar and, if not meet the girl of my dreams, at least have an ability to interact with people there."
J.K.'s luck with women hasn't changed dramatically, but he's working out more, paying attention to fashion trends and forcing himself into social situations.
"A friend asked me, 'Do you feel you've made progress?' I describe it as, 'All this time I've been standing in the dark, really struggling, not knowing what I'm doing.' But now I'm just seeing a spark of light," he says.
A light was coming on for Norton, too. He went back to New York and stayed with the redhead the weekend after he met her, and again the next week. Six days later, she visited him in Washington.
Nothing in his five years of pickup made him feel the way he did when he was with her. "She lit something inside of me that had been dormant for a while," he says.
Still, a month after they got together, he went through with plans to spend a week in Bermuda with another woman. "After that is kind of where it went downhill," he says. "I think she got really upset that I went."
She stopped returning his calls. He texted and sent her a Facebook message -- nothing.
"The thing he's good at is actually going out and meeting a woman and making a great first impression," explains his friend Walters. "I think he's just like any other guy, though, when it comes to, 'Okay, now I got this girl. How do I hold on to her?'"
In the weeks that followed, Norton was dismayed and contemplative, regretting that things went sour.
"If I could find somebody really special and they could be in my life right now, I'd be pretty [expletive] happy about that," he says. "At the same point, if I'm not there and I haven't found her yet, then I'll still go out."
So his hero's journey continues. He's still meeting women in bars and posting on Web sites, still speaking at conferences and recruiting new proteges.
Still trying to teach other men about emotional connections.
Ellen McCarthy is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at email@example.com. Norton and Gluecksmann will be online to take questions and comments Monday at 1 p.m. ET.