Report — From the May 2014 issue

50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong

Inside the industry that’s making therapy obsolete

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Not too long ago, there was a consensus about life coaches: the people who sought them out were suckers, and the coaches themselves were no better than con men. In 2006, The Daily Show described a life coach as “a really expensive friend with limited credentials.” That same year, the New York Times began an article with this advice:

To figure out what you want to do with your life, you could: A) Study hard in school, get internships in the field that interests you, work diligently and learn as much as possible at your first real job. Or: B) Hire a life coach.

The term became a punch line, shorthand for all the excesses and narcissism of the self-help industry. In a 2007 episode of The Simpsons, Homer hires a life coach named Colby, voiced by Stephen Colbert, who guides him through a crash landing in a private jet by telling him that he has “what made America great: no understanding of the limits of your power and a complete lack of concern for what anyone thinks of you.”

Illustrations by Katherine Streeter

Illustrations by Katherine Streeter

But then, after the recession began, something shifted. Today, coaches no longer appear in tongue-in-cheek articles for the Fashion & Style section of the Times; coverage of the industry, which now realizes about $2 billion in annual revenue, leads the Business section. Coaching (serious coaches tend to drop the “life”; they think it’s cheesy) has developed dozens of subspecialties — executive coaching, wellness coaching, career-transition coaching — to serve hundreds of thousands of clients. Worldwide, there are at least ten professional coaching journals, dozens of professional coaching associations, and hundreds of coaching schools, along with a research institute affiliated with Harvard Medical School.

Beginning in the fall of 2012, I followed a class of aspiring life coaches as they went through five months of training. I was curious to know if coaching was a skill that could be taught, and whether the students, a group of people whose lives were clearly in transition (they were, after all, in the process of changing careers), could effectively counsel other people.

For schools, I had my choice. No particular course or legal licensing is required; anyone can call himself a coach, take clients, charge money. But some programs are more respected than others. On the high end, there are university programs geared toward executive coaching, which can cost as much as $12,000, and courses affiliated with the International Coach Federation, the industry’s largest professional body, which requires 125 hours of training at an accredited school plus another one hundred hours of documented real-world coaching for the highest level of certification. Of the 50,000 life coaches worldwide, some 11,000 are ICF-certified, and their certificates typically set them back around $6,000. Other programs provide their own closed universe of accreditation: they certify you with their own certification, which is recognized only by them. Some training courses are in person, but most are teleclasses. The cheapest I found was a webinar that cost fifty dollars and offered a printable certificate.

I settled on the Coaches Training Institute. Founded in 1992, it is recognized by the ICF and has trademarked its “co-active” coaching model — a name meant to suggest the collaboration between the coach and the client. The company’s president at the time, Karl Sniady, allowed me to attend classes as long as I agreed to get permission before using anyone’s name or divulging identifying details — not just the students’ but also the instructors’, because, as he explained, in the immersive learning environment of CTI even the instructors revealed personal information about themselves, things they might never before have admitted aloud: infidelity, addiction, depression. I was warned that there would likely be a lot of emotions coming out in the room.

The twenty-seven future coaches met in a beige fifth-floor conference room at the Millennium Hotel in Times Square. In the first of five three-day modules, entitled Fundamentals (the others are, in order, Fulfillment, Balance, Process, and Synergy, each spaced about a month apart), students were introduced to the co-active model’s particular vocabulary: they “designed their alliance” and “danced in this moment.” Everyone agreed to talk about “real stuff” in these sessions, i.e., no fake problems. “We really want you to bring your authentic self,” Wendy, one of the instructors, explained. “Be yourselves. It’s really the easiest person to be.”

Most of the skills introduced in the first session were no different from those necessary for being a good friend, but a few seemed more coachlike, such as rejecting clients’ excuses and challenging them to meet goals beyond what they think they’re capable of. To my mind the most useful of the techniques was “holding the client’s agenda,” which essentially meant that a coach shouldn’t just say what she would do, or what she would like her client to do, and pretend it’s what the client wants for himself. Instead, the coach should find out what the client really wants and reflect it back to him. (I explained this concept to a friend, and he said he’d used the same trick while working in a clothing store. The customer would try on an item, and if his face registered disgust, my friend would mirror that expression. If the customer seemed pleased, he’d look pleased back.)

On the third day, Wendy and her co-instructor, Ron, led an exercise meant to expand the emotional range of the coaches-in-training — or, as she described it, to help them play the keys on the piano they don’t usually play. To do this, the students would first “acknowledge” one another, starting with Aaron, a reserved psychotherapist in his early forties, who sat silently with his arms crossed as the group spoke to the “qualities of his being.”

“Aaron,” someone ventured, “you are self-aware.” “Aaron, you are thoughtful,” said another. “Aaron, you have a good sense of humor.” Aaron absorbed each compliment with much stoicism and only the slightest hint of unease. After they’d exhausted their praise, the class was instructed to tell Aaron what they’d like to see more of in him — the other keys on the keyboard. “Aaron, I want to see your sense of humor.” “I want you to lose control.”

“And what would an archetype or metaphor be for what we’d like to see him embody?” asked Wendy. A wild man! they decided. An assistant handed Aaron a name tag and a marker. He dutifully wrote wild man on the tag and stuck it to his shirt.

The class moved on to the next student. In a short span, they deemed one person genuine and perceptive but in need of confidence (henceforth warrior), another student earnest and sweet yet lacking in explosions (superhero). The class’s only black man was found to be soulful and deep and was encouraged to share his inner wisdom. The group decided he should be a movement leader. The black women in the group all ended up being labeled divas of some sort.

After everyone had a turn, it was time to share these new identities — not just by saying them but by becoming them. Wendy demonstrated. “When I took this course, I was shy,” she said, “and they had me be an Egyptian queen.” She strutted into the center of the circle Bangles-style. A few people didn’t need the class’s encouragement to tap those other keys. One woman stood up on her chair, yelling, “I’m a table dancer!” A cowgirl came out guns blazing. A thin blonde in her fifties, a firestarter, ran around the circle yelling in people’s faces. There was a surfer dude and a teen rebel. “I am fireworks, I snap, crackle, pop!” exclaimed the fireworks. One person tried with some difficulty to embody a secretary of state. Mark, a goateed yoga instructor with an MBA, was a bear hug, which was enacted with a twenty-seven-person huddle. Finally Aaron stood up. “Okay, I’m going to do a cartwheel now,” he announced.

Ron looked displeased. “A real wild man would not announce it first,” he said, “but that’s okay.”

A life coach helps her client explore what’s possible, live purposefully, and take actions toward whatever goals emerge from this purposeful exploration. Depending on your perspective, this can seem like a radically insightful practice or a whole lot of New Age nonsense. The coach borrows from Carl Jung and Alfred Adler the notion that each person should be the artist of his own life, creating a unique path to fulfillment. Coaching also fits neatly, of course, into the great American tradition of self-improvement that runs from Benjamin Franklin to Henry David Thoreau to Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill. From Carnegie and Hill, in particular, coaching’s creators adopted the idea, often sublimated but nevertheless implied, of self-improvement as a wise business investment.

For their methods, life coaches often draw from the father of hypnotherapy, Milton Erickson, whose work was popularized in the early Seventies. Erickson was known for his unconventional therapeutic practices; he once had a patient strip naked in his office and point to her body parts to cure her of her indecision about marrying her boyfriend. He also stimulated transformation through language: formulating vague questions to force patients to fill in the gaps and reflecting his patients’ own words, emotions, and behavior back to them.

Illustrations by Katherine StreeterOne of the coach’s basic techniques is to trigger insights by asking Ericksonian “powerful questions”: What was it like? What do you want? What’s available to you? What are you missing out on? What else? (“Imagine what a four-year-old would ask,” explained Wendy during the first training session. “Short and curious, not too smart.”) The only question that was definitely not powerful was a “why” question. Whys elicit stories, and stories are irrelevant to the goal of coaching, which is action.

In 1972, two of Erickson’s more entrepreneurial acolytes, Richard Bandler and John Grinder, met at UC Santa Cruz. They incorporated Erickson’s techniques into something called Neuro-Linguistic Programming, which they taught as a ten-day, $1,000 course. NLP was billed as both a method for achieving self-fulfillment and a way of cultivating business skills that managers could use to motivate employees. Its basic teaching was that changing the way you talked about your goals could help you attain them: speak as if you’ve already accomplished something and watch as you “step into” its completion. Social scientists spilled plenty of ink debunking NLP’s effectiveness, with little effect on enrollment.

Coaching’s other tenets came from a former encyclopedia salesman named Werner Erhard, who, in 1971, established Erhard Seminars Training (est), a four-day self-improvement boot camp that taught participants the “ability to experience living, so that the situations one is trying to change or is putting up with clear up just in the process of life itself.” A few years later, the nationally ranked tennis player Timothy Gallwey published The Inner Game of Tennis, which argued that an athlete’s biggest opponent is not across the net but within the mind. Erhard hired Gallwey as his tennis coach and helped spread the Inner Game philosophy, even hosting, in 1987, a televised broadcast with Gallwey and other athletic coaches on how to apply their techniques outside the world of sports. By that point, Erhard had changed the name of his course to The Forum and built it into a multimillion-dollar business. In the 1990s, he sold the company and its name changed again, to Landmark Education.

Two accountants at Erhard’s institute started the first coaching schools. In 1992, Thomas Leonard began teaching a “life-planning” seminar that eventually became Coach University, and Laura Whitworth founded CTI in San Francisco. As the field grew, Leonard decided it needed its own professional body, and so along with Whitworth and a few other pioneering coaches he established the ICF. (Leonard later disavowed the group and left to start a rival organization.)

The innovation of the coaching schools was not so much the curriculum — Coach U’s was so similar to Erhard’s that in the late 1990s Landmark sued for copyright infringement — but in the professed goal. The schools took the self-improvement workshop and turned it into job training. The student of self-help was expected to become his own motivational shopkeep, one who would sell the personal-growth gospel to others who would themselves become coaches — a kind of emotional pyramid scheme.

Two weeks after the first module ended, I met Aaron, the psychotherapist, for lunch in Brooklyn. Over eggs and coffee, he told me how he’d come to coaching after two decades as a therapist and social worker. He had decided the previous year to open a private practice so that he could see clients without haggling for funding from the city. Aaron argued that coaching was a way to reach people who’ve been let down by other institutions; government, nonprofits, and organized religion, he said, no longer create a sense of community and connection. Aaron wasn’t alone in this sentiment: there was a rabbi in our class who thought she’d have more of an opportunity to reach people through coaching than at her synagogue. For Aaron, though, the decision to add life coaching to his practice was mostly about marketing. “Imagine if I went up to you and said, ‘Hey, I’m a therapist, and I think you’d be really great in my therapy practice,’ ” he explained to me. “It’s much easier to say, ‘I’m in a coach-certification program, and I’d love to try this with you.’ ”

Coaching came across as less threatening, less pathologizing than therapy: people sought out therapy because they saw themselves in some sort of “internal crisis,” as one instructor put it, and therapy was meant to get them back to a baseline of functionality. Coaching, on the other hand, was for clients who were already relatively functional, who came to the coach to help them get wherever they wanted to go. (The executive coach and psychologist Robert Kegan, who teaches at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, says that men in particular have been attracted to therapy in the guise of coaching.)

Illustrations by Katherine StreeterSessions with a coach usually start at around a hundred dollars an hour. Coaches meet clients a few times a month, though many coaches run a phone-only practice. Coaching also tends to be a relatively short-term intervention, averaging just six months. This has made it popular with patients who have been pushed out of traditional therapy by cost-cutting health insurers.

“HMOs limit your choice, where you go, and the kind of services you can receive,” said Aaron. “Coaching disrupts that. It allows you to decide, ‘No, this is what I want.’ ” And who wouldn’t be attracted to a short-term, future-focused solution to their problems when they’re the ones footing the bill?

From the practitioner’s perspective, becoming a coach is much cheaper and easier than becoming a therapist. The lack of professional licensure also seems to have given coaching some cover from litigation. I couldn’t find any examples of life coaches being sued for malpractice in the United States, though some have been sued, unsuccessfully, for practicing therapy without a license.

There are signs, however, that the field is starting to self-regulate. A few years ago, the ICF established a grievance process, making it possible for clients to report coaches who fail to live up to the federation’s standards. Most of the coaches I spoke with wanted to have certification standardized throughout the industry.

Aaron, for his part, was worried that coaches weren’t being adequately trained to handle the emotional muck their powerful questions dredged up. And it was clear he also had aesthetic objections: he wondered what his peers would think when the words “life coach” were attached to his name. Still, he sounded almost convinced when he told me, “There are lots of ways to help people reach happiness.”

For the second and third CTI modules, Ron was replaced by Eric, a New York native who looked like he might do well as a speaker for a Scared Straight program. Heavyset with a shaved head and small facial features, he wore oversize T-shirts and jeans and mixed a wise-guy toughness (“I was a very good juvenile delinquent”) with typical self-help speak. He described himself as “a clueless badass motherfucker who will vulnerably change you.”

By the time Eric joined Wendy to lead the class, the unserious had been weeded out. Everyone left was planning on making it through to certification. Most of the surviving students were women. (According to Karl Sniady, CTI’s enrollment is nearly three quarters women, most between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-five.) Among them were several social workers and HR managers, a few exiles from the corporate sector, stay-at-home moms transitioning into new careers, and retirees doing the same. Some people already worked as coaches or had a coaching component to their jobs. A subset of these even had employers paying for their courses. Two women, co-workers at a pharmaceutical company, were part of an in-house “change-management team” tasked with helping the company’s employees deal with downsizing and restructuring.

In the second module, Fulfillment, the students were introduced to their inner captains, who would help them ride the current of their life purpose, on the river of their lives, on a boat with planks made of their values, with the support of crew members (an inner appreciator, an inner teacher), while battling a stowaway saboteur bent on diverting their course. They did visioning work in order to identify and name their inner captains, and in coaching exercises they were asked to check in with their captains when sitting with a problem. “What would your captain have to say about that?” was a powerful question.

From the beginning, some students were resistant to the whole boating metaphor. A few of the women decided to go with inner goddesses instead, since a captain felt too masculine. But for the most part, the students had cooperated gamely with what the instructors asked of them.

The third module would focus on perspective, Wendy and Eric explained, which we needed so that we could live in a state of “conscious powerful choice.” To demonstrate, Wendy would coach a student in front of the room. This was a mainstay of CTI instruction, a chance to show off the impact coaching could have. Many of the students were moved to tears during these sessions.

For her perspective demonstration, Wendy talked with a student named Lindsey about a subject I can’t disclose — not that it matters. If there is one thing that became clear in all this coaching it’s that our problems are mostly the same. We are unhappy at work, or if we’re happy at work, we’re working too much and missing exercise or our hobbies or time with our kids. Our parents are sick or dying, or not sick but their minds are going, or at least they’re driving us crazy. Or if not our parents, then our spouses, our friends, our children. We feel disconnected from the ones we love. We feel listless and uninspired. We never followed our passions. We know we’d be happier if we ate right, if we meditated, if we called our mothers, but we don’t. We never do.

A circle had been marked off in masking tape on the floor and divided evenly into pie slices. Wendy asked Lindsey to stand in the center and pretend each slice was a new perspective on her problem. She was instructed to look at the issue from the perspective of an anchor, of springtime, of manicotti. The prompts seemed chosen pretty much at random, but Lindsey managed to find some way to make them work for her. She felt grounded and safe with the anchor, hope and possibility at spring, heavy and weighed down by the manicotti. At the end of the exercise, Lindsey had to choose which perspective she liked best. (She ended up with one foot in spring and one on the anchor.)

Afterward, the students had a chance to practice the method on one another. The mother who felt overwhelmed by her child’s neediness, the daughter who had to put her father in a nursing home, the wife caught between her mother-in-law and her adult children, the frustrated academic — they were now instructed to look at their problems from the perspective of a temple, a porcupine, a feast, a hot-air balloon. It was not the most intuitive way to parse one’s troubles, and a healthy amount of confusion and frustration surfaced as the day wore on.

By day two, a small mutiny was under way. The first order of business was to review the homework, for which the students had been asked to find a new crew member for their boat.

“I keep having a problem with this terminology,” said one person, to murmurs of agreement. “The term ‘crew member’ drives me crazy.”

“I would never feel comfortable using this in a professional environment,” said one of the change-management-team leaders. “We’re open here and we have a problem with it.”

More people spoke up, and the room was soon in open revolt. Finally Eric cut in. “We get it,” he said. “For some of you it will feel like it’s not you, but you’re naturally creative, resourceful, and whole” — a mantra of co-active coaching — “and I believe you can find a way to make this work for you.” Some of the students seemed placated by this, but a few continued to grumble in private.

The day ended with another model coaching session, this time with Eric at the helm, but instead of the usual awe and moist eyes when he finished, the class seemed unimpressed. “It wasn’t inspiring,” said one student, when Wendy asked for comments. “It felt formulaic.” “You lost me,” someone else added.

Eric tried to take it in stride. “If you come to these demonstrations wanting to be inspired you’re going to be disappointed,” he said. “There’s a perspective I want you to try on, which is: What’s the learning?”

Eric was scheduled to return for our final module, but in between sessions, the students began organizing through email to complain about his instruction. Their campaign seemed to be successful. Eric didn’t come back.

In Bright-sided, a polemic against positive thinking, Barbara Ehrenreich cites the loss of the lifelong career as the inciting incident for coaching’s rise. On the one hand, it has become nearly impossible to work in the same field throughout one’s lifetime, and on the other, work is supposed to be the source of a meaningful life. Or as the Fordham sociology professor Micki McGee put it in Self-Help, Inc., workers today must “continually work on themselves in efforts to remain employable and reemployable, and as a means of reconciling themselves to declining employment prospects.”

In good times, the unmoored worker turned out more or less okay. In a New York Times article from the peak of the first dot-com boom, in 2000, Michael Lewis wrote about the conversion of the corporate worker into an “artist” in ebullient terms:

Here were the prosperous children of the great American economic boom, an amorphous, un-pin-down-able labor force. They were not full-time employees of big companies, just temps. But there was now sufficient glory in being a temp — rather than a full-time employee with hours and a boss — that a temp was no longer a temp. He was, in new-economy parlance, a free agent.

Lewis, though, realized that the party wouldn’t last.

[T]his pleasure comes with a price tag: the risk that you may one day find yourself a seller in a buyer’s market, where the buyer is a faceless corporation that owes you nothing.

Into this morass stepped the life coach. For those hobbled by job frustrations, the coach was there to help craft meaning and purpose out of layoffs. For the coach herself, it was a way of achieving success and fulfillment while circumventing a demoralizing slog through the working world. (As Wendy said, “Coaching should be easy. If it feels like work, you’re doing something wrong.”) The self-actualized coach was her own business, her own brand. In one training session, a woman confidently told the class, “The corporate world, they have a vision, they have a purpose. And the people who work for them need to do that for themselves. We’re our own corporations.”

By far the most common questions from the class each session were about how to build a business, how to attract clients, and what to charge. From the instructors’ answers, it quickly became clear that they themselves coached few, if any, individuals. They made their money from training other coaches or from working with corporate clients. A few of the more ambitious instructors really had become their own corporations, with their own proprietary coaching models, books, and tours on the speaking circuit.

CTI, too, has set its sights higher. It has courted the business of multinationals — Cargill and Adidas are clients — and global nonprofits such as Unicef. The company walks a strange line. It is clearly a profit-driven enterprise, making tens of millions of dollars from its training courses, but it also has a stated mission to “evoke transformation.” One instructor told me the company’s goal is to transform 200 million lives by 2020, at which point they will have produced enough transformation to put themselves out of business. (In April, the company held a three-day summit in Napa to determine how best to increase co-activity in the world. Price tag: $1,295.)

To be successful, CTI’s students would learn to walk that line, too. They would need another one hundred hours of practical training to be fully certified, which would cost them an additional $5,000. As the course ended, I began to get emails from students asking me to join their LinkedIn and Meetup groups and check out their websites. Some people actively lobbied to be in this article, thinking of it as a potential marketing boon. Even Aaron eventually embraced his coaching persona. He sent out an email blast asking for help recruiting people to his new practice and offering an introductory rate of 50 percent off to those who joined now.

There was one other thing that Karl Sniady had made me promise before I could join the class: I couldn’t just observe the course, I would have to participate — which I did, sometimes grudgingly but often with an enthusiasm that surprised me. I even did the homework, which mostly involved coaching people I knew. It turned out I was a pretty good life coach. I was told by one friend that he would have gladly paid for my services and by another that it was better than therapy. I now have a certificate of completion for 104 hours of life-coach training, but I don’t think I have a career change in my future. I can be a thoughtful listener, a good friend, and a confidante, I’ve decided, without monetizing the operation.

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Genevieve Smith is a senior editor at New York. Her article “In Recovery” appeared in the June 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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