Feb 212009

It’s the first day of dance classes. Nervous men and the women are lined up in rows facing each other. They are in a dance studio with hardwood flooring and mirrors on the wall. There is some nervousness, some excitement and much anticipation. The instructor comes in and shows one of the basic moves to everyone. Then he takes one of the girls and they do a beautiful little dance together, even though she’s just a beginner. When one of the guys in the class try it, they look terrible, even with the girl who danced beautifully before. Why is everyone terrible, except when they’re great with the instructor? The answer is the most important thing they’ll learn in the course. They will learn the dance steps, of course, however they will learn something far more valuable. What they will learn provides a great metaphor for interacting with life.

I took dance classes not too long ago and it was a lot of fun. I highly recommend it. The benefits of taking even one dance course are numerous: you get to meet interesting people, you get to experience the richness of life, prevent boredom, learn a new skill, other kinds of dancing also improves (not just the one you take), you become more comfortable in your body, you learn that no one else knows what they’re doing while dancing so you stop being self-conscious, and you enjoy yourself! If you’re in college or university, check out your gym, they will probably have dance classes. There might also be dancing clubs. If you’re not, check out your local gym, they may have dance classes or be able to refer you to some good places. Or google, “(hometown) dance lessons” and substitute your hometown for the word. One of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had.

I should make this clear: in my class, the guys did the leading and the women did the following. However, the instructor explicitly said that that did not have to be the case. So, any time I say “guys” just substitute in “leader” and when I say “women” you can put in “led”. At least one lesbian couple chose one of the partners to be a leader and the other person to be led. Leader and the led are just roles in dancing, in this case filled by guys and women. I’m not sure dancing where both try to lead or be led would work well. You can find dance lessons that are alternative-lifestyle friendly if you ask around.

At the beginning, everyone is awkward and unsure of what they’re doing. However, an odd thing happens with the instructor starts to dance with someone: they look beautiful together. When the instructor starts to dance with a woman, it’s like she knows the moves, even though she’s a beginner like everyone else. This puzzled me. It took me a while to figure this out but here it is: he was leading her firmly and clearly. The guys weren’t doing that so it all looked like a mess. So, why didn’t they all do it?

There’s a number of reasons why the guys weren’t doing that. The first was that the guys weren’t really sure of the dance moves themselves, so they didn’t really have the attention to spare to lead the woman. The second was that the instructor didn’t explicitly teach leading and just taught the steps. I don’t know whether this was just something he did but didn’t know he did (implicit vs explicit–watch this entertaining video by Tim Ferriss for his dance story). This is important because leading works two ways: you have to be teach how to lead but also to be led. To lead, you have to send clear signals with your arms and body. To be led, you have to keep a taut stance to be sure that you receive the signals through the arms. Finally, I think that a lot of people just aren’t very comfortable leading. There may be self-confidence issues there such as, “who am I to lead?” and others may be in the love-hate relationship with the masculine role that guys seem to have. A guy should be strong and lead, but also allow the woman to lead? A lot of guys get confused by the mixed signals they get about the nature of manhood.

In any case, I started to lead with confidence even if I didn’t feel it and everything went wonderfully. Everyone I danced with had a lot more fun and we looked great. I realize that the role of the leader is a sort of stewardship. You have to fulfill your responsibilities to the other person, as well as listen to them while working towards a common goal. You can try bossing your dance partners around, but it doesn’t work very well. Sometimes your dance partner will tell you clearly what isn’t working through her body. She’ll refuse to do a move or be very resistant to it. How is dancing a metaphor for life?

Life is a bit like dancing. Your life is your dance partner and if you don’t lead, it will be a mess. The vagaries of chance, circumstances and past habits will lead you and you’ll end up with something you didn’t really want. Life will often tell you what’s not working and you won’t get the results you want. You have to listen to your dance partner. But you also don’t want to make assumptions about how life is. Don’t let timidity make you assume that you shouldn’t lead or that something is not possible. Try it and you’ll find out quickly. Let life tell you what’s working and what’s not and learn to listen to it, just like on the dance floor.

Even if you’re wrong, be confident and keep leading. Even if you make a mistake, you’ve learned something and the other person’s learned something and keep leading. Right after a mistake is when leading is needed most and that’s when most people stop or lose confidence. A lot of the dancers got thrown off by a mistake in the dance, lost their confidence and messed up the rest of the routine. If you keep leading, though, the mistake is barely a hiccup and people will often miss the mistake because you don’t make a bit deal of it and just keep on dancing. If you lose a job but go right into following one of your dreams (like living in Spain), or getting another job or starting another business or volunteering, the job less will barely look like a hiccup and it will just like it’s part of the plan. But if you lose a job and just sit at home, you’ve lost confidence after a mistake and ruined the rest of the routine. But you can start dancing and leading again at any time. Even if you’re wrong, you’re right so keep leading the dance.

Life is your dance partner. If you lead clearly and strongly, people can see a beautiful dance and go, “boy, they’ve sure got a great life”. If you let life lead you, you’ll often end up somewhere you didn’t want to. Live consciously.

Jan 092009

This is a question that comes up in various forms: “How do you select which goals to set?” The common response is lobbing another question back, “Well, what do you want?” This is an absolutely bullshit answer.

“Want” has so many meanings it has no real use anymore. It can be used to describe a passing preference between white shirts over light blue shirts or a really deep desire to save the life of a loved one. It can refer to a desire for an emotional hedonistic experience or for a deep spiritual connection. The feeling of desire can often be made stronger or changed, so its not exactly fixed. The situation is made worse when people say, “what do you REALLY want?” This question means that on a scale of 1-10, your desire has to be an 8 or 9 (a real burning desire) without regard to the fact that your desire can be stimulated.

So, I generally simply decide what I want. If I have a passing preference for one state or the other, I simply pick one, decide I want it and commit to it. This doesn’t work in all cases but it works often enough. If I find something better along the way, its usually not too hard to switch over to it (low switching cost). I’m more likely to find out what I like and I don’t like in motion, and its easier for me to change course along the way (often) than it is to stand still and try to figure out what I “really want” before I get started. Just set a goal and get moving! If you’ve to make a big decision like choosing a career, set smaller goals like job shadowing two or three people in the fields you’re considering, or just taking them out to lunch.

Another way to choose goals is to pick goals that if someone came up to you and said they had done it would impress you. I’d recommend more “doing” or “being” goals rather than having goals. Such as, someone with an Aston Martin is impressive but if you’re genuinely impressed by someone who’s written a book or who can speak three languages.

Yet another way is to choose goals based on how they make you feel in the present moment, as Steve Pavlina recommends. He suggests setting hairy, audacious goals that really challenge you and push you to your limits. The goal is personal growth, after all. They have to make you feel absolutely excited, just as Tim Ferriss puts it. Remember, you can choose to look at failing in that situation in two ways: either you weren’t good enough, or that you’ve learned your limits and you can work on improving your limits.

Sometimes I’ve caught myself spending way too long in a state of analysis paralysis, trying to figure out what I “want” more, or what I want exactly. But if you wait too long to decide, you often don’t get anything at all, or your time to enjoy it has lessened. Have fun!

Main Points:

  • Sometimes you can just decide what you “want” and commit to it.
  • Pick goals that impress you in some way, or would impress you if someone else told you they’d done it.
  • Pick goals that cause you to feel excited right now. They push you and challenge and are right at the edge of your abilities/imagination. If you fail, you’ve learned about a limit of yours and you can improve it.
  • Stop sitting around trying to figure out “what you want”. You can figure out what you want and adjust course along the way.