What's Your Message?
“Reverse engineer an outcome: Think of what you want to be different because you gathered, and work backward from that outcome.” ― Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters
I begin this article with the title, “What’s your message?” For those of you who practice or teach movement, your answer might be just that: movement. However, movement is often just content; these moves or those games. Take it a step further; why does movement matter? What is movement a vehicle for? How does movement change people in a way that reflects a value or philosophy you wish for in the world? If the story is movement, what is its theme? When I think of messages, I think of terms like: communication, community, craftsmanship, discipline, empowerment, change, diversity, cooperation, competition, and compassion. Inevitably the lessons learned through a practice of any kind will not be isolated to the space or time they were learned. They will travel with us into our days, lives, and interactions. Marshall McLuhan famously stated, “The medium is the message.” What McLuhan is saying is that a technology's content is not what matters, but rather how that technology impacts us socially and psychologically. Simply practicing movement is wonderful, however it will most certainly provoke change beyond one’s ability to move. Therefore, the message is worth reflecting on when it comes to practice and gathering people to practice.
Think of a recent training session or movement game you played. For those who aren’t immersed in the realm of movement, think of a recent time spent with a hobby; gardening, skateboarding, knitting, or reading. Or simply reflect on your most recent workday, and how you moved through the steps the job asked of you. Quickly return your gaze to the short list of potential messages above, and then imagine how that game, session, hobby, or job looks when soaked with one of these messages. Keep the same activity going in your mind but change the message. How does this change the action? How does it look the same? Do you keep doing the action at all? If I’m playing a partner game, it will look quite different if the message changes from cooperation to competition. If I’m practicing handstands and my message is discipline, maybe I’d be in the gym at 5am, practicing alone, keeping my eyes on the goal of a 60 second free-stand, and never miss a 90-minute session (not even for holidays). But, if I’m practicing handstands, and the message is diversity, maybe I’m more interested in bringing people from different walks of life together, making sure that everyone is partnering with someone new as frequently as possible, and not focusing so much on hitting any specific handstand goals. If I imagine the message as communication, I might decide I don’t want to do handstands at all, and instead practice contact improv. The message changes the approach and delivery, effectively changing what the content is, and how the content is received.
From my experience as a mover and facilitator, the content emerges from a strong message. Message born from content alone gives way to confusion. In one moment, we’re here to laugh and talk, in another we’re supposed to isolate and focus, and then, suddenly, we’re instructed to win and be inclusive simultaneously; accidental mash-ups due to unclear messaging.
There are mountains of content. None of it is new. How do we decide what to practice or teach? A message can clarify this. There was a time when I did not have a message. I delivered great content, accumulated from various teachers I’d studied from. The participants had fun, but my lack of messaging left me without answers to questions like, “Why does this much strength (or mobility) matter?” or “Why have you chosen these moves and not those moves?"
I taught movement, but I didn’t know why it mattered aside from buzzwords like "health", "community", and "generalist". I’d loosely throw around terms like “basics” and “goals” without any real reflection on how these concepts, milestones, or ideas aligned with my values. I simply regurgitated what other teachers had said to me; teachers who I believed knew and understood more than I ever would. I was handing down other peoples' messages through content and delivery, without sending any of it through my own message filter to decide what fit and what didn’t. And for this, I’m certain there were plenty of times when students received mixed messages.
Covid lockdowns, along with closing our physical space, Movement Brooklyn, provided me a silver lining. It gave me the time to reflect on what I’m sharing, why I’m sharing it, and how I’m sharing it. It was during this time that I began my Behind the Movement podcast, which opened my eyes to ideas, philosophies, and approaches that were novel to me. I continued to read, exploring broad ranges of topics, and began exposing myself to various movement courses, classes, and experiences online and in person. A revelation came when I asked my friend Marlo Fisken what issues she thought hadn’t been talked about enough in movement. She profoundly responded, “How teaching and practice can reflect the changes we want to see in the world.”
I began asking myself what changes I wished to see in the world and looked for ways that movement could facilitate these ideas. It took many hours, writing sentences to describe what changes I wished to for. Each day I worked to trim the description down, hoping to eventually arrive at a single word, a message. I don’t remember the early sentences, but I do recall getting down to “welcome surprise and uncertainty.” Not long after arriving at these four words, I was asked to create a name and description for a new class I’d be teaching. I thought of the book Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. I'd read it a year prior and was reminded of one of my favorite lines, “To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.” My message was coming into focus. I knew then that I wished for us to be more welcoming of surprise, rather than forceful, dominating, and controlling. I wished for infinite play instead of finite play; playing to keep the play going rather than playing to win. An ah-ha moment! The class is Infinite Play, and, what I care about, what I wish to share, is the message of playfulness. To be playful is to welcome surprise and uncertainty.
I asked myself what qualities should be fed and explored to be playful, to welcome surprise and uncertainty. I settled on creativity, adaptability, and cooperation. From that moment forward, everything went through the playfulness filter. Some content went away, some content reemerged, some content was reframed with the message in mind, and some content emerged through exploration of the message. The way in which I presented material morphed. How I explained the intention of concepts changed, and demonstrations of games evolved. When I practice or facilitate, the message guides the trajectory of each workshop or jam within the unique circumstances of that session or gathering. The message has clarified and refined over time, and the process continues to this day.
I propose a North Star rather than a road map. An orientation, not a path. Every time you practice or gather people, a new trail is blazed. Sometimes it’s across a lake, occasionally it’s over a mountain, and other times it’s through the desert, but it’s always in the direction of the North Star. Whatever your North Star is today, isn't what it has to be five years from now. North Stars are dynamic and can change with time, experience, and education. You don’t have to know what your North Star is now and shouldn’t beat yourself up if nothing comes to mind. You might even have more than one North Star. Regardless, it is a question worth asking, and whatever you come up with on the first go is perfect.
What's your North Star?
What change do you want to see in the world?
What's your message?
Let me know what you come up with.