4 minute read

Over the weekend, Energy Arts Instructor Jess O'Brien was in town, teaching at BTC. We got to spend some time together and talk about teaching, studying with different teachers, and trying to run a teaching business. One thing that we came back to again and again was how difficult it is to build up a student base. I think I know why.

People are Lazy, Social, and Creatures of Habit

Now, I know it sounds like a mean thing to say, but in the words of Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg, people are "lazy, social, and creatures of habit." Rather than looking at this as a moral judgment, take it as a reality of the way we are wired to operate in the world. In fact, if you look at studies about willpower and motivation or start to research how our nervous system functions, you begin to see that these qualities are survival responses that drive efficient behavior.

Plus, I know plenty of teachers who love to take the moral high ground about how their students should behave, who, in fact, have no students.

When you start to accept that habit drives lazy, social student behavior more than anything else, some interesting implications arise.

First, people want to be a part of a school just as much as they want to learn the material. Brookline Tai Chi is almost 20 years old and people identify with the institution. I wrote about a "marketing universe", where students orbit the school at different levels, i.e. your hard core students or the ones that drift in and out. Brookline Tai Chi is a planet, exerting major gravitational pull for an entire community.

In the larger Energy Arts community, though, BTC is the exception, not the rule. So what does Jess do about this? He and his teaching partner Isaac have one night a week to teach. How can they create a feeling of belonging to a school? While they don't have a visible physical space as a symbol of their school, they can draw on other symbols. Whenever Jess comes to teach at BTC, he brings obscure articles about martial arts and usually has 3-4 rare martial arts books in tow. A self-described martial arts nerd, Jess can go on and on about history, theory, and training. This is huge. While students might not be able to say, "I belong to a school with a physical address", they can certainly say, "I belong to a tradition." Jess and Isaac both use language that points to a larger lineage. This goes a long way for making students feel like they belong to something.

Infusing the language you use with a bigger sense of a community or a tradition is one key step you can take. You will also need to tell a developmental story to your students, so they understand the larger process they are going through. We'll explore this more later in the series when we look at people who have mastered the blend of systematic offerings that feel fresh and new and inspired every time they teach them.

It's also worth point out that “the language you use” doesn't just mean “the language you use in the classroom”. It's “the language you use everywhere”, in print, on the web, in emails to students. Absent a physical space that people can belong to, or even to support it, you need language that also triggers this sense of belonging. At Brookline Tai Chi, our space is an asset because it's such a clear symbol for people, but I think you can create other symbols (for less than $10,000/month!) that do the same thing. When I talked to Jess about it, I encouraged him to capture the way he talks about martial arts. If he can make everything around the classes sound and feel the same way, people will be eager to participate.

The sense of belonging we are talking about here points to the "social" nature of people. Having a physical space for people to train touches on the "habitual" part as well. In the next post in this series, we'll look at how you create a teaching space that balances the need for consistency with the need to inspire students every single time they come to class.