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50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong

Inside the industry that’s making therapy obsolete

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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.

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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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