The Problem With Life Coaches
It seems that everyone I meet these days wants to be a life coach. “My passion is to help people find their passion.” “My purpose is to help people find their purpose.” I hear this at many of the personal development retreats and career workshops I attend.
This is a noble and beautiful goal; to dedicate your life to empowering others to reach their full potential. In a world where 70% of Americans are disengaged with their jobs, and millions of people are depressed, unfulfilled, or addicted to prescription pain medication, we certainly need more coaches, enablers, and givers.
In 2012, the International Coach Federation (ICF) reported that life coaching is a $2 billion a year industry. Since there is wide disagreement on the value of professional coaching certification programs and many coaches don’t pursue formal training, this number is probably higher.
The problem I have with life coaches is not their lack of certification or qualifications. I have many friends who lack formal training, yet are excellent coaches. Furthermore, I’m not sure anyone can be certified in something as broad as “life coaching,” whether it’s a 2-week, 2-month, or 2-year program.
The problem I have with some life coaches is that they sell their life, disguised as a coaching product. Perhaps a result of the growing popularity of the lifestyle design industry, these life coaches spend more time trying to live and sell a lifestyle that suits them, rather than investing in the service they are allegedly providing to others.
I see a lot of life coaches post photos on Instagram of themselves on the beach or at yoga retreats with captions like, “Live life full! Be free! #lovemylife” These pictures are in places like Hawaii, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Bali — often at all-inclusive resorts or very pristine beaches. Usually the coaches are incredibly attractive people with tan skin who seemingly spend a lot of time at the gym or do yoga all the time (as in, like, every second of every day).
We should all strive to live a beautiful life (whatever that means for each of us), I’m just not sure the point is to sell that life. Depicting an idealized life that others should aspire to is dangerous. It misleads clients into thinking that their goal should be to emulate and idolize their all-knowing coach. It also misleads other coaches into adopting deceiving marketing practices and making false promises.
Here’s the thing: you don’t need to have a pristine life to be a coach. Coaching is about inquiry, asking the right questions, listening, empathy, and empowering someone to become their best self. I know many talented coaches whose life doesn’t look that great on social media — some of these coaches aren’t even on social media at all! They make a living because their clients recommend their services. They are talented coaches because they know how to coach, not because their life is perfect or they know how to run an auto drip campaign on MailChimp.
I don’t do much 1-on-1 coaching, because personally, given my background and lack of coaching training, I think I can provide more value writing, speaking, and doing workshops, but when someone approaches me about hiring me as their career coach, I ask them why they want to work with me. If they say anything close to “your life is awesome, I want your life,” I don’t respond to their email. Don’t get me wrong, my name is Smiley — I love my life. But it’s my life. It’s not intended to be someone else’s.
Trust me, my life isn’t for you. I have five roommates. My kitchen has a mice problem. My sink is constantly full of dishes. There are fruit flies everywhere. My bedroom is so small it barely fits my bed. I bring tea bags with me wherever I go to save the $3 (that adds up to like $60 a month!). I can’t for the life of me find a moisturizing cream that keeps my hands moist — I’ve tried like seven different kinds. I can’t drink coffee or alcohol anymore since I have really bad acid reflux. I love to do yoga but I fart a lot when I do it, so I can’t go to class more than once a week. My back is already starting to hurt — and I’m only 31!
These are the kinds of things I spend my time thinking about — it’s just not Instagram life coach worthy material. I can’t post a picture of me wallowing in back pain with the caption, “Love my life! #lifeisamazing. Sign up for my 3-step plan to fulfillment now — it’s only $495 — ahhhhh, my back!”
I refuse to sell some notion that my life is ideal or perfect — it’s inauthentic and it’s bullshit. I see some life coaches prancing around the beach and I’m like, “#Livefree?! You just quit your job! I know your ass is broke! Ahhhhh, my back!”
All of us (myself included) are sharing our highlight reels on social media, but I am immediately turned off by life coaches who make life seem easy or perfect in order to sell their product. These coaches give a bad reputation to talented coaches who have a tangible and valuable service to offer.
The coaches I know who make a living from coaching, don’t spend their days at the beach. They are on video calls with clients, working with executives and senior managers in office buildings, meeting with students at universities, and running trainings at leadership development programs. They don’t work 4 hours a week. They work 40 or 50 hours a week, sometimes more. Their life isn’t perfect (no ones life is perfect), but they are still a great coach.
When we depict an idealized life others should aspire to, we ignore the fact that most people’s lives are actually really complicated and nuanced. Most of the time, when people are “in flow,” “coming alive,” or “living with purpose,” they are not at the beach or sipping a green smoothie or doing endless yoga or traveling in a foreign country, they are studying in a dimly-lit library at 1 in the morning, sweating in a noisy warehouse, or a managing a classroom full of restless children. Or, they are cooking dinner for their family.
The goal of coaching (and personal development work in general) should not be to get people to ignore these day-to-day rituals, but to find more personal meaning in all aspects of their life. It’s not about escaping to the beach and posting a photo (#lovemylife!), it’s about finding meaning, purpose, and joy in the day-to-day (and sometimes mundane) rituals that make up our lives.
We need more coaches. More business coaches, relationship coaches, career coaches, leadership coaches, communications coaches, and even more life coaches. But we need coaches who are honest about the services they are able to provide to their clients (and just as authentic about the services they are not qualified to offer).
By all means, design your ideal life and travel to exotic locations—just be conscious of what it is you’re actually selling. I’m all for personal development retreats (even ones on the beach) that offer honest and practical solutions for navigating the complex and nuanced world we live in. I have participated in retreats that are extremely powerful; offering someone permission to be who they are, embrace their fears, overcome roadblocks and barriers, set new intentions, align work with purpose, integrate health and wellness into daily routines, and build a community of like-minded peers.
Life is not easy. There are no 3 simple steps to fulfillment or 10 ways to do anything. Happiness cannot be bought for $495 (or $4,095). There is not one answer and there is no quick fix, so let’s stop selling one.
Special thanks to my friends Peter Rubin (a business coach and relationship coach), and Lauren Weinstein (a consultant and coach) for reading a draft of this piece and offering feedback. If you are interested in learning more about pursuing coaching as a profession, I recommend reading Coaching is Calling, by Lauren Weinstein.