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Can a Life Coach Help You?
It’s a hot, sunny day in Los Angeles, but I’m sitting in air conditioning-crazy Starbucks, freezing my frijoles off and looking for answers. Since my life coach hasn’t shown up yet, I look elsewhere — to the LA Times astrology pages.
Pisces: You may think you know why someone does what he does, but you can’t be sure. Therefore, stay within your own boundaries and concern yourself with your own interests.
Ah, my own interests — this is what I spoke about with Doug Miller, my life coach, the last (and first) time we met up. I’m seeing him for two reasons: as research for this story on life coaches and to see if said life coach can help me figure out my next step.
For the last few years I have cobbled together a career as a freelance journalist and copywriter. Now, at 37, I am looking to make a change after hitting a tipping point — getting work was taking way too much work. So I am considering going back to school to train for yet another gig which would allow me to sit around and ask people questions (psychotherapist) or maybe a full-time writing-related position (a fun prospect, with the exception of having to wear pants to work).
To be honest, I have never in my life been more excited to meet with an unlicensed professional.
But before we get to that, some backstory on the whole life coaching thing. The concept grew out of executive coaching, in which pros worked with CEOs, teaching them how to achieve their business goals. Now decades old, executive coaching is an accepted part of the business world, and Ivy League schools like Columbia have training programs for aspiring business coaches.
Much like therapists, different life coaches employ different styles, but most pull from a mix of disciplines ranging from psychology and sociology to career counseling and mentorship. Apparently, cherry-picking the best bits of diverse philosophies isn’t just for Unitarians.
In addition to business coaches and general life coaches, there are also dating coaches to help you net Mr. or Ms. Right, wellness coaches to help you articulate and stick to health goals, and spiritual coaches to help you find your higher purpose. Without a governing body or regulations and standards, the coaching world is the Wild West of self-help: hang a shingle, corral some clients and you’re ready to rock someone’s world.
Numbers-wise, there are at least 30,000 coaches practicing globally, according to the International Coach Foundation (ICF), the industry’s primary trade organization. ICF has 7,132 members in the U.S., but the number of life coaches working domestically outside the organization is likely much larger than that.
My first meeting with Doug was largely an intake assessment with a few real world interview tips thrown in to prepare me for an important chat I had slated for the next day. In the assessment, Doug fished for specifics on what career I saw myself in. He told me he was going to come back and provide me with two metaphors: one defining the person I had been up until this point and another to use a model for what I could become.
The prospect made me both excited and nervous. I like a good metaphor as much as next overeducated (MFA, Emerson College, 2004) underemployed (see current situation) white guy, but I’m not sure how I feel about someone else applying them to me and my past. Seeming to sense this, Doug told me that if I was miffed by the metaphor he offered, I had full veto power. He’s good like that, tempering tough questions with whole-hearted enthusiasm, often responding to my stabs at self-reflection with a flurry of compliments like “Excellent. Sweet. Nice…”
Although all life coaches aim to help their clients articulate and achieve personal goals, according to Doug, there are two different styles of doing so. The developmental approach focuses on teaching you how to become your own coach, while accountability coaches are like drill sergeants, laying out a program for you to follow, making sure you hit all the necessary points to reach your goal. In short, it’s the age old question: should you give a man a piece of vegan sushi or teach him how to make it?
Doug prefers the former, but my friend Elana, one of the first people to turn me on to life coaching, has found the latter technique immensely helpful. A San Francisco-based writer and actor, Elana met her life coach in an improv acting class. With work on her one-woman show becoming overwhelming, Elana decided to see if she could benefit from the psychological support of a life coach who would keep her on track, using the accountability approach.
Elana likes that her coach makes her state her goals in the present tense, as if they have already happened.
“It might sound kind of out there to you, but putting myself in the ‘success moment’ helps me feel it and visualize it, making it tangible instead of feeling like a far-off goal. It’s been really helpful,” she explains.
I look up from my horoscope, and Doug has arrived. Dressed in a taffy-pink button down shirt, he’s his usual cheerful self. After a bit of small talk, we dive into the heart of the session, dissecting everything from my thoughts on our last meeting, to my current relationship, to any new developments on the professional/personal front.
Before I know it, it’s metaphor time. As Doug explains, the metaphor technique comes from Harvard educator Robert Kegan’s so-called “Subject-Object Theory.” By objectifying my current situation metaphorically, I should be able to consider my own issues without taking them quite so… personally.
Okay. Deep breath.
“The metaphor that comes up is a ship without a rudder.”
I hate it. Despise it. But when Doug asks me for my gut reaction, the best I can offer is, “I’m not a water person.”
“Excellent,” he replies, before launching into his explanation. He tells me he got the sense that I do well with structure — give me a deadline and I’m your man. But without a deadline, I have less direction. And he continues to illustrate all this in aqua-speak: canal = good; open sea = bad.
He takes special care to highlight my positive qualities (metaphorically, of course). “You, without a rudder, have gone places other people haven’t gone,” he assures me. He also talks about the creativity my rudderless ship situation has demanded of me, before modifying the metaphor. Now, I’m “a ship without a captain.”
He then admits that before settling on the boat/rudder, ship/captain analogies, he played around with the idea of the pirate… envisioning me as a Captain Jack Sparrow type. And this is much better. As he speaks he spins his pen.
We continue discussing the benefits of being a ship without a captain. For one, every day is going to be different. Some days will be smooth sailing, other days will be perfect storm-adjacent.
I tell him one of my favorite things about interviewing celebs, or subjects who do cool, newsworthy things is that I find it fascinating to talk with people who have articulated a goal — usually an ambitious one — and achieved it. There are a lot of reasons I love that, and it’s only in retrospect I admit to myself that articulating and achieving an ambitious goal is not something I’ve done in my own life. Not fully at least.
But Doug doesn’t let me dwell here — onward, upward, port, starboard — he’s on to my metaphor for the future.
“An architect straddles the balance between the freedom and the art of something very unique and beautiful, and yet he has to honor the natural laws he will be building in. Being an architect is a wonderful balance between freedom and structure.”
Man, oh man, do I love this one. I used to be a sucker for Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus school. I loved the sweet spot of form and function that they found. I space out on that a bit before seriously considering how the metaphor applies to me.
We wind down by discussing the architect some more, and then Doug gives me a task: Don’t become the architect just yet. Instead, embody the captain-less ship for a few more days and journal on what that’s like.
No Rudder, Will Travel: The Journal
(an excerpted version)
Friday What do I have on deck today? Um… Not sure. Oh yes, there’s the stress rolling in. This sucks.
Saturday Even those without a rudder or a captain sometimes luck into beaching onto a tropical island…
Sunday A day with loose plans and it feels good… to tweak one of Woody Allen’s old lines, 90 percent of success is having deadlines to hit.
Although initially skeptical, by the time our third and final meeting rolls around, I’m loving Doug. Normally, he meets with clients bi-weekly after three initial sessions. But for the purposes of this piece, he gives me a plan so that I can put metaphorical muscle on my metaphorical architect. He wants me to take time out daily, before beginning a task, and ask myself, “How does this connect to what I want?” He also wants me to reflect weekly on what the practice is revealing to me through journaling.
So far, so good. Since our last meeting about a month ago, I’m feeling much better about my working towards a new career, and have even decided to keep seeing Doug on my own to assist me through the transition. I look forward to chatting with him the same way I would look forward to seeing a good therapist.
Another thing he did during our last meeting? He was the first to congratulate me on my new gig: I got the job offer I really wanted just before leaving to meet with him.
Get a Life
(Or At Least a Life Coach)
Start at the International Coach Federation’s website and their gratis Coach Referral Service by going to Coachfederation.org and clicking on the “Find a Credentialed Coach” link. Here you can narrow down the list of potential coaches, whether you’re looking for a corporate, small business, personal or career coach. You can also winnow the results by specifying coaching specialty, professional experience, desired coaching method and language preference, or even post a Request for Proposal inviting coaches who match your criteria to provide a detailed, personalized response to how they would approach your specific situation.
While you’re waiting for your perfect coach to materialize, get all hippie Horatio Alger and read and complete every exercise in Shakti Gawain’s classic Creative Visualization.
Interview coaches on your shortlist by asking them the four C’s: Coach Specific Training (to make sure that they’ve actually taken one of 90 different ICF-approved programs); Code of Ethics (Are they a member of the ICF? If so, they’re required to uphold certain ethical requirements. If not, what ethical standards do they follow?); Context (What other specialized skills does the coach have? How important is said experience specific/relevant to your personal goals?); And finally, Chemistry: do you feel a connection with the coach? A solid coach-client relationship will be a vital component of your success.
Expect to pay between $75 and $125 per session. Most coaches request three meetings to get you set up with a program and then bi-weekly or monthly meetings for at least three to six months. Business coaches are often twice as expensive as other coaches.
Stephen Krcmar recently left the hills of Silverlake to work and live in the mountains of the Eastern Sierra. Although he still thinks wearing pants to work sucks, he expects wearing snowpants to work from November until June will soften that blow.