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.

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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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