Let Us Hire Life Coaches And/Or Become Them

Inspired by an in-depth profile of guru Martha Beck


One of my favorite longform writers Taffy Brodesser-Akner is back, via Bloomberg Businessweek, with a profile of life coach extraordinaire Martha Beck, a woman who trains (mostly) other women to be helpers and entrepreneurs at the same time.

During training, Beck requires each aspiring life coach to collect fees for their time, even if it’s a small amount — say $20 or $40 per hour. Once they’re certified, they’ll make up to $200 an hour asking people if they’re sure their suppositions are true, and pushing back gently and supportively against people who are sure theirs are. …

Performing my own integrity check, I must say that Beck and her army initially had me thinking I’d debunk a subculture that’s trying to, at best, feel their way through life by the squishiest means, and, at worst, feel their way through people’s wallets. But once with Beck and her acolytes, I had the undeniable sense that, for all their peculiar ways of speaking, they were gaining an understanding of the human condition — and accepting it — to an extent that few do.

I experimented with the field briefly myself in a harebrained way. With no training, and no bona fides except for being a know-at-all who likes to talk to people about their problems, I put an ad on Craigslist offering my services. A woman contacted me and I met her at a coffee shop for our first session. As she described her life to me, though — her crippling student loan debt, her sister who needed financial bailouts, her expensive accessories habit, her dream to set up her own chocolate-making shop — I realized, with horror, that I could never take her money, not even to help her. I couldn’t even let her pay me for that first encounter. It would have sat on my conscience like a cinderblock.

Now I’m curious again.

We’ve covered the topic on the ‘Fold before from two different perspectives: the dissatisfied coach and the satisfied patient.

Life Coaching For Life Coaches: Why I’m Quitting

The coach compares the business a bit to a Ponzi scheme, saying that, from the informal research she did, “Under 8% of coaches made a living wage and that included their income derived from individual coaching, group coaching, and coaching products.”

My Visit to a Life Coach

The patient describes her successful experience this way: “It was a lot like an accelerated therapy session, except far more confronting.” And she got a lot out of it. If you’re looking for a coach, she advises, “Find someone who can deliver not just thoughtful advice, but thoughtful advice that you can hear.”

That seems to jive with Beck’s philosophy:

The job of a coach, Beck says, isn’t to tell you how to live your life. It’s to keep digging until the coach understands what the client really wants from her life, her romantic partnership, her friendship, her career; it’s the job of the coach to “help enhance the quality of life and help find what is causing the suffering.”

As TBA writes, the field is “proven and potentially lucrative.” Considering that women take a salary hit, compared to men, in virtually all traditional jobs, I understand why so many of them want to try something different. Something that helps people and can bring in money too. And something premised on a simple idea: “If it makes you feel good, do more of it. And if it makes you feel horrible, maybe you should back off a little.”

After all, how can anyone argue with “stripping away the conditions you’ve invented so you can figure out what to do with your life”?

This is what I didn’t fully get when I sat down with Broke-But-Let’s-Sell-Chocolate Girl: “coaching isn’t about advice; it’s about tearing away fear and every other layer to figure out exactly what you wanted in the first place, which is always the right thing.” I’m glad that I did my own integrity check in the moment and was able to realize I couldn’t pass myself off as someone who could help her do that, not in a sufficiently meaningful way.

After all this, TBA’s essay ends in a surprising, thought-provoking fashion that I don’t want to spoil. It complicates what comes before it and underlines why traditional therapy — time-consuming and elaborate though it might be — may have more value than life coaching, at least for some people. We yearn for revelations, for breakthroughs, for quick and simple, even “magical,” solutions. But as a shrewd, sad episode of “Kimmy Schmidt” S2 makes clear, for many of life’s problems, there aren’t fixes; there is just work. Figuring out our patterns of self-destruction and trying to steer ourselves gently out of a cul-de-sac.

The subtext of TBA’s piece seems to be that, if you’re going to pay for life coaching, make sure you’re getting not flash but substance. Something more enduring than the momentary high of someone telling you you’re beautiful; something instead like the understanding of how you are — or maybe, with help, you could be — functional.

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