Confessions of a Recovering Life Coach
I love people. I always have, and I’ve always wanted to help. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been an advocate for the underdog and have compassion for those less fortunate. The older I get, the more I’ve come to realize we’re all underdogs, and we will all have moments of misfortune in our lives.
When I found life coaching I was grateful – giddy, even. See, I was already a two-time counseling school dropout. I will never forget when, just a semester in, our teachers handed us the DSM-IV; a diagnostic manual to “help us” in assessing our clients’ ailments and mental disorders. I quit what felt like the very next day.
This was the first time I admitted to myself that I didn’t want to help people by first assuming they’re sick. When did the spectrum of human emotion and experience quantify people for the therapy couch?
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are absolutely people who need support in this way who are dealing with more than loss, trauma, or transition. I am not dismissing the therapy world, but I did feel like being a therapist wasn’t my path through which to serve others.
Enter life coaching - an industry I couldn’t believe was really an industry at first. I could serve others by helping them to see their strengths, their goodness, and how to actualize their dreams. I could work from anywhere in the world and charge more than the average therapist. It felt like a dream come true. My first day of life coach training I knew I was in the right place; I could feel that this was the path for me to finally help others.
I was enchanted by how fast the industry was growing and wanted to be at the top, within the top 1% of coaches. This meant I needed to make more than $100,000 per year, because as I quickly discovered, the one measurement most coaches use for quantifiable success is their bank account. And I was no different.
Over the next 7 years I quickly climbed the ladder, working with fewer and fewer clients, charging more and more money. I was making six figures, had a waiting list of clients, and was being sought out for speaking gigs and teaching. This is what so many coaches work so hard for, and I was no exception. I felt like I was at the top of my game.
The coaching industry grossed over $1 billion worldwide in 2016 and is now the “fastest growing industry next to tech” according to the ICF’s global coaching study. I had drunk the Kool-Aid. I wanted my piece of this billion-dollar pie.
But at what cost?
Life coaching, despite its popularity and mega growth, is an unregulated industry. This means there’s no federal- or state-appointed board to keep an eye on things. There are organizations, such as the International Coach Federation, that attempt to implement standards through accredited coach programs and required continued education, but there is nothing “official.”
Quite frankly, there is not even a slap on the wrist for hanging your coaching shingle and charging the big bucks, and many coaches have done just this. What I found from the inside is that many of the highest paid coaches in the world are not certified, some of the most enrolled coaching programs are not accredited, and the overall standard for “good coaching” is quite low.
The faster the industry grows, the more it seems to leave plenty of room for low accountability, unethical practice, and lack of professionalism. Great coaches are being looked over for coaches with bold tag lines, and even bolder sales tactics.
Guess what? People are starting to notice. We are getting a bit of a reputation, and I'm not surprised. Coaching has become a one-stop shop for pyramid schemes, sales funnels, upselling, and “over-promise/under-deliver” outcomes.
What was one little coach to do? Well, leave, obviously.
I thought it was my time to move on, but really what I wanted was to no longer be associated with coaching - which made me sad, because I love coaching. I love what I know is possible and what I think being a coach still stands for.
But here's why I am so irked: we seem to be suffering more. And with all the brilliant solutions available, as pointed out in perfectly poised sales letters and funnels, we should all be buying our way to happiness with ease. So then, what gives?
Well, transformation cannot be sold on a website, or alluded to in a clever and colorful sales page.
Transformation is gritty and doesn't come dressed up in flowery photos of people frolicking through fields with beautifully scripted quotes that say something like, "Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass. It's about learning to dance in the rain."
We're totally missing the point.
This work is gritty. I am all for dressing it up just a tad so you feel slightly better about cracking some of your most vulnerable stories wide open, but don't be fooled - once they are cracked open, anything goes. No cute quote or meme can ease the reality (good and bad) of seeking your truth from the inside out.
As we move from the "Age of Information" to the "Age of Authenticity," we need to update our approach to this thing called self-development. As Rich Roll so brilliantly shared on his podcast when he interviewed Danielle LaPorte:
"Efforts to divine truth from bullshit render imperfect results. Anxiety ensues. To cope, we double down on improving upon our self-improvement until we wake up one day and realize what began as a laudable quest for growth has suddenly become an obsessive malignancy — a sort of spiritual eating disorder gnawing away on our very soul."
Thank you, Rich, for capturing what I am trying to say.
An obsessive malignancy...yuck. And yet, he's right. Transformation is the new organic. But instead of overdoing the kale smoothies, paleo-anything, and pretending like raw cacao tastes like your favorite chocolate bar, we're macro-dosing on all things self-improvement.
It's no longer about going to see the "head doctor." Now it's about every variety of coaching, energy healing, astrology, back-up astrology, oracle cards, past-life regression, retreats from retreats, burning sage, stuffing stones in your pocket, and, if you're like me, consuming books like they will be taken away.
To be fair, I have done everything I've listed above. I applaud the intention here to improve, to grow, and be more, and I support it. We've shifted from trying to function to wanting to thrive. But are we?
Self-development being trendy is great for business, but is it great for humanity? And what is the balance? I am afraid that we've sucked all the purpose out of these practices and we're drowning in shallow waters. There's nothing shallow about deep work, but how do you know you're diving in and not skimming the surface?
I know the direction of this article sounds like I will land on some awesome singular truth and give you a few "steps" for truly doing the work. But that would be no different. Because there are no steps.
I think we've defaulted to step-making, program creation, and yes, the perfectly scripted coaching sales page, because the truth is: if we didn't bedazzle the hard stuff, would any of us consume it?
Would we really take the raw action required to practice things like compassion, self-love, forgiveness, and joy? Would we willingly trek through our roots and untangle habits, generational wounds, stories, and strategies that are actually harming us? I don't know if we would.
Once you get on your path to radical self-discovery, that pretty meme and flowery quote on your Pinterest page no longer holds any function or meaning. You will see how diluted it is and how it disregards the ache of healing. It means well. All of my fellow change-leaders mean well. We want you to do the work and we want to invite you in with ease, because know it won't all be easeful.
But would it be okay to use the truth as the invitation? To say, "Your shadow has much to teach you, and when you're in the thick of it, it won't feel that way. It will feel like you're failing and it's winning, like you're broken and can't beat this shadow. And then with a little grace, you'll invite in some light. Although the light can't take away the pain, it can reveal to you its purpose. In that moment, you will find compassion for yourself and for all humanity."
So here I was, on the brink of leaving it all behind, and my gut was screaming at me to take a second look at this. To not be so hasty and to slow down. To return to my roots - and if in the stillness of my heart coaching didn't ring true, then I could move on. But if in that stillness I remembered my fondness for this art, then I was not only to stay, but to stay with purpose.
See, here's the thing. I am a really good coach. Not just because I've read a few books or lived through some experiences, but because I've dedicated myself to my craft.
I've graduated from two coaching schools, one accredited by the ICF. For almost 10 years I've coached more than 250 clients and over 1,800 coaching hours. I've spent more than 300 hours in the classroom learning how to do what I do. I know a thing or two about great coaching because I've been the worst coach...and I've worked diligently to be a master coach. Why aren’t more of us at the table? The coaching industry feels like a speeding train, and I feel powerless to stop it. The truth is, I don’t really have the answer. Except I can do one thing: I can choose to show up - and for my fellow coaches, you can choose to do the same.
Choose to dedicate yourself to your craft, not just the business of your craft.
Choose to spend time with mentors and in the classroom, and choose to represent what I believe is still good and right about our industry. Maybe we can’t change our industry, but we can give our clients real insight into what good coaching actually looks and feels like. Because the world doesn't need more coaches, it needs great ones.