In 2002 Jenny Holzer, a more famous artist who projects huge blocks of text onto buildings or writes phrases in neon or LED lights, was approached by a fan of hers at an art show. He wanted her autograph and for her to write her most famous maxim, “Protect me from what I want,” on his right arm with a sharpie. She laughingly obliged the small asian man, and he scampered off delighted. A week later, Wong posted a new project on his website: a tattoo on his right arm that read “Protect me from what I want.” Jenny Holzer had no idea it was Wong, no idea it was going to be a tattoo, and no idea where her words would end up when she first wrote them onto the BMW Art Car in luminescent foil.
Like Tobi Wong, my clients are paraconceptual artists. They are constantly appropriating words, phrases, and ideas into a concept of self. They throw out words like, “healthy,” “toned,” and “fit” to try to express a desired training goal, even without stopping to think about what they mean or what the really want. Most of my clients have internalized these words into an identity of what being a “good person” is and are brandishing them at me like shibboleths. They tell me 50 different training goals that they think “good people” shoot for. They want to look toned, be fit, have great cardio, abs, glutes, and 45 other buzzwords they read on the cover of Shape, Men’s Health, and Self. But these aren’t goals. They’re abstract concepts (yes, even “abs”) and achieving them is unlikely because they don’t mean anything. The problem is “getting toned” is very different than “I want to go to my ex-husband’s wedding and watch his 27 year old fiancee’s face redden with anger when she sees how goddamn hot I am.” One is just words. And one is honest to the point of existential discomfort.
As Dan John points out in Intervention, if a training goal does not expand and enrich a person’s life, then training them for it is a fool’s errand. Not just because achieving it is unlikely, but because achieving it would be hollow. Most regular people do not have overt, well-stated training goals. That’s why when I ask them for their goals they tell me things that they think I want to hear. No one really wants better ‘muscle tone’ (the continuous and passive partial contraction of the muscles, or the muscle’s resistance to passive stretch during resting state) except people suffering from neuromuscular disorders. But if I keep actively listening to my clients talk about their lives, engaging them in deeper questions about why they want to pay me to teach them to pick up heavy things and eat vegetables, and I don’t let them get away with pat answers, they eventually will discover something to train for. Something to keep them moving forward.
I won’t lie, this process takes a long time and can get uncomfortable. Do you want abs, or do you want to feel confident when you walk around without a shirt on? Because the two may be related but they are not the same thing. Do you want to have great cardio, or do you want to be able to play volleyball with your grandkids? Do you want to look toned, or do want to have a relationship with food and exercise that doesn’t dominate your life, keep you up at night, and make you feel terrible every time you enjoy a bite of ice cream? Again, related; not the same thing.
In my experience and my research in Self-Determination Theory, what regular people generally want is to feel more confident in their body, feel like they’ve accomplished something, and connect with the people they care about. But I’ve never convinced a client of that by telling them. They have to discover it for themselves. They have to get past the buzzwords, past the pat answers, and connect with what they really want from me, themselves, their training, and their time. I can’t protect them from what they want, but sometimes I can help them find it.
Here is a great game from my friends Quetzal Francois and Marcia Baczynski, who teach inclusive sex-education to everyone from middle-schoolers, to poly-BDSMers, to elder married couples. Sit down in front of someone you trust (or a stranger, which I’ve done and is pretty illuminating), look them in the eyes, and ask them one question: “What do you want?” Every time they give you an answer, ask it again. For five minutes. Try not to break eye-contact and try not think about your answers. Just answer. Then switch places for another five minutes.