The Case for Coaches: Why I Want to be a Life Coach
In 2019, I leapt off the proverbial cliff to pursue a field I had virtually no background in.
I had been thinking about it for over a year. Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar calls on people to ask themselves 3 crucial questions in an exercise he calls the MPS — Meaning, Pleasure, Strengths — Process.
What gives me meaning?
What gives me pleasure?
What are my strengths?
And the place of overlap between all three points you in the direction of the kind of job that will make you rich in the currency that matters (he effectively argues this currency to be happiness).
The results of this exercise led me to the elusive, messy, highly unregulated field of coaching. (What gives me meaning? Connecting with people on a deeply human level. What gives me pleasure? Conversations in which two people are in flow together. What are my strengths? Listening. Empathizing. Thinking about the bigger picture.)
So to selfishly become rich in the currency of happiness, in 2019 I enrolled in psychology classes, applied to graduate school, and embarked upon the education and certification process of becoming a coach. And I learned that as much as my peers and colleagues and parents may have questioned my decision to pursue this field in the beginning, there are a whole lot of objective arguments to be made in support of the case for coaches.
So, here are the top 5 objective reasons I’ve completely abandoned a tried-and-true career path in order to coach people (and the top 5 reasons you may benefit from getting a coach):
1. Everyone has the capacity to change their habits, but to make the changes sustainable, you have to do the inner work first.
Whatever sub-field they’re working in, coaches help people make sustainable behaviour changes in service of their goals. Common examples of things with which someone who gets a coach may be struggling are weight loss, stress and anxiety management, self-confidence, goal attainment, finding a direction in life, career satisfaction and /or progress, time management, feelings of overwhelm, vision setting, or a general lack of feeling happy, at peace, secure, hopeful, or on track.
Everyone has the capacity to make sustainable, effective behaviour change to address areas of struggle, whether that be creating habits that make us healthier and feel better, or creating and executing a plan to achieve that long-standing goal whose obtainment has only existed in our head so far.
But to do so sustainably — to make real change happen, — we have to stop, take a giant step backward to give ourselves perspective, and get real close with ourselves.
No matter what our goal is, if we don’t do the inner work to understand what’s motivating us to achieve this goal, what our barriers are, — both in the real world and within ourselves (we all hold limiting beliefs, whether we realize it or not) — and where we’re at right now in the change process, then it won’t be sustainable. We’ll be running on willpower and external motivators, such as “someone else in my life wants me to do this” or “if I just do this then I’ll be happy”, both of which are short-term drivers unsuitable for fueling us to create real change.
Additionally, there are a few key tools everyone needs in their toolkit for when times get tough on the path to change, including self-compassion, self-awareness, and self-understanding. Everyone has the capacity to make the changes they want to make, effectively, healthfully, and sustainably. But a culture that pushes life as a game of maximizing productivity and material accumulation and bottom lines pushes a life lived on autopilot, in which these skills are not taught or valued.
A coach helps you do the real inner work you need to successfully and sustainably do the real outer work.
2. Conversations about “self-care” are overwhelmingly concerned with defining what constitutes “care”, while neglecting the “self” part.
This is actually what I first wrote about on this blog, and the problem that initially sparked my interest in the coaching field. As people are recognizing that they have the means to think and care about taking care of their health — mental, physical, and more and more as we learn that purpose plays a big role in our happiness, spiritual, — self-care has taken off as a popular buzzword in the wellness space.
If you’ve thought about your own self-care at all and taken that interest to the internet, I’m sure you’ve been inundated with snappy “top 10 tips” lists, articles telling you to drink more water, exercise, take brain breaks, get enough sleep, eat healthy, etc. And if you’re like most Gen Z and Millennials, you’ve seen the same information distilled down so it can be displayed in cute, eye-catching, share-able graphics on Instagram. There’s nothing wrong with this information, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.
Most people know they should be getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and drinking enough water. The most that having this information repeatedly displayed can do for us is make us aware that there’s stuff we can do to feel better. But most likely, it will overwhelm us and we won’t actually do anything with it. Or we’ll start something — like going to the gym — only to stop going the next week, because knowing we should do something isn’t enough motivation for us to actually do that thing repeatedly.
Conversations about self-care must start with the self. If we don’t do the work to know ourselves, to know what self-care tools we like and tend to work for us and the contexts in which they tend to work, then we aren’t practicing self-care that’s sustainable.
Furthermore, the self is always evolving, always in motion. What worked one month may not work in a different time under a different context. But I’ve found that most “self-care” discussions leave this critical component out. Care tactics are put on a pedestal, are written as prescriptive and cookie-cutter things you MUST do to feel better.
We need to shift the conversation back to the self. Coaches create space for this shift, and help clients create a self-care toolkit that is filled with effective and sustainable tools for them.
3. We’re taught and encouraged to cultivate skills that help us become successful, hard-working, contributing members of society, focused on the external and material world. But this script doesn’t include the space or tools to teach us how to navigate our own foundational inner world.
If someone gave me a magic wand I could wave to instantly change our educational curriculum for kids and teenagers, there are 6 components I’d add or improve in a heartbeat (I’ve thought a lot about this but alas, that’s a topic for a different article).
One such piece I would add is a class that teaches us about self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-love. Firstly, the class would teach students how to recognize when we’re operating from a place of non-awareness — that is, when we’re acting on autopilot and letting subconscious beliefs and emotions drive our words and actions.
Once we’re able to recognize the depth (or lack thereof) of self-awareness from which we’re operating (and this is a moment by moment process; it’s not something we just learn how to do to instantly kill our autopilot switch), then we would learn about the skills and tools that will enable us to truly practice self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-love. While there’s a basic foundation of science here, the actual employment of these skills and tools will look different for every single person, depending on context and who they are.
Why are the skills of self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-love so important? Because we’re all battling our own demons, but we’re never given the space or tools to deal with them (and if we are, it’s in after-thought formats such as guest speakers or dialogues after the demon has grown too big for us to handle on our own). And then they leak out in destructive, limiting ways, to ourselves and others (think of the playground bully who lashes out at their classmates because they don’t know how to interpret and navigate their own insecurities, emotions, or problems).
Instead, confronting our demons becomes part of “life’s lessons”, the personal growth we engage in (or don’t engage in) as we get older. Maybe, if we’re lucky, in adulthood we seek out help from a professional, a therapist or counselor that can help us work through all this stuff that’s built up deep within us over our lives. But wouldn’t it be nice if we just acknowledged the fact that everyone develops self-limiting beliefs and default thought patterns, and then gave people the information and tools they need to work through them?
To formally validate everyone’s internal experiences instead of pretending they don’t impact our behaviour and pathologizing them as something we only deal with “in therapy”?
To teach kids how to get in touch with themselves so that they know that they’re normal and capable of handling life’s challenges (especially the huge changes that the teenage years bring on)?
To set kids up with a resiliency toolkit that recognizes their uniqueness right from the beginning?
To develop adults who don’t live on autopilot?
Unfortunately, there is no such class in our education system (yet!). But there are coaches.
4. “The Coach Approach” works because it protects autonomy, one of the most important factors in cultivating sustainable motivation.
The rise of coaching in the last few decades comes in part out of gaps in what is known as “the expert approach”. An expert is someone whom you consult because they have knowledge you lack. Perhaps you consult them to accurately diagnose your situation — like a doctor, — or perhaps you consult them for their specialized advice, like a financial advisor. An expert gives you information and tells you what you should do. No matter what you think or feel, whatever the expert says is gospel.
Which is good! And needed! We need experts in a variety of fields to understand, interpret, and tell us the facts. But as factual as your doctor telling you that you need to lose weight may be, it doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically change your behaviour in answer to their diagnosis. The facts don’t care about how you feel or what you think. The expert approach does not lead to — and can in fact hinder — sustainable behaviour change.
I say “can in fact hinder” sustainable behaviour change because of this little thing called autonomy. In psychologists’ Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory, autonomy refers to the fact that humans have the need — the drive, — to feel in control of their own behaviours and goals. This drive is one of three basic psychological needs that Deci and Ryan suggest are pillars for motivating human beings to change. Protecting autonomy is critical because it is a source of intrinsic motivation — motivation that occurs from and because of something within us, as opposed to something external like others’ expectations or material rewards.
The expert approach violates autonomy because it assumes it knows what is best for the client. This may be true — the client needs to lose weight to regain their health, — but by directing the client on what to do, the expert takes away the opportunity for the client to own that decision and their actions. The expert approach also doesn’t leave room for the plethora of other factors that may be preventing the client from “just losing weight”, like mental and material barriers; for example, the client has low self-confidence and does not believe they can actually lose the weight, or the client does not see how they can make time in their schedule to eat properly or exercise. Additionally, even if the client is able to lose weight from the external motivation of an expert telling them they must, the likelihood of the client keeping the weight off is low, as external motivation is a fleeting fuel source. If not developed into something deeper — something intrinsic— it runs out.
(If you’re skeptical, take a look at this study that demonstrated how Motivational Interviewing (MI) — a key coaching tool for ambivalent clients because it puts autonomy at the forefront of decision making processes, — can be used to help patients arrive at optimal health decisions.)
Respecting autonomy is one of the core tenets of the Coach approach. Coaches listen and respect that this is not their journey — it is the clients’. The client is in the driver’s seat, while the coach helps to untangle the map from the passenger side. Coaches do not judge, persuade, preach, advise, or offer information (unless they are explicitly asked to). Instead, they help clients get in touch with their own intrinsic values — their internal fuel source, — that will help them make the choice to make a behaviour change.
Coaches win when the client feels they no longer need a coach; when they feel they can coach themselves through the problems they’ve struggled with in the past, and the ones they have yet to confront. Behaviour change is not seen as a problem requiring a quick fix — it is cultivated through brainstorming ways to grow past the problem that work for the client and are generated by the client. And in this way, behaviour change becomes truly sustainable.
Coaches help you ensure the weight stays off.
5. We’re doing okay, but we’re not thriving. It’s time to level up, friends.
We’re living in a time when developed society has the unprecedented ability to think and care about our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. The numbers are pretty clear — from 2015–2017, the wellness economy (this includes things like gyms, wellness tourism, spas, personal care and beauty, and preventative and personalized medicine)grew nearly twice as fast as global economic growth.
“Wellness expenditures ($4.2 trillion) are now more than half as large as total global health expenditures ($7.3 trillion). And the wellness industry represents 5.3% of global economic output.”
— Global Wellness Institute, “2018 Global Wellness Economy Monitor”.
We care about our well-being, and we’re trying to invest in it. Yet depression rates have skyrocketed, and a 2010 well-being assessment conducted in the US showed that 80% of adults were not mentally thriving.
“Thriving” is a subject of great interest to the positive psychology movement, founded in the late 1990s by Dr. Martin Seligman. Seligman developed the new field out of the recognition that for decades, psychologists had focused on pathology — on understanding how to “fix” what was “broken” in human beings’ psyches. But little attention had been paid on how to help “healthy” people improve their standard of living. Positive psychology studies the optimization of human functioning; i.e. how people can move from merely surviving every day to truly thriving throughout their lives.
I’m excited by the research being studied in positive psychology for a few reasons:
I believe it gets to the core of what people are looking for when we say we want to invest in our well-being. Positive psychology isn’t interested in quick fixes; researchers are interested in how people can optimize their well-being and happiness, sustainably, today and for every day after that.
It gives us universal tools and frameworks to improve our lives that don’t require us to spend money and keep spending money. The free Science of Well-being course being offered online by Yale Professor Laurie Santos is a great example of this.
Exponential growth in the wellness economy shows that people want to be well — we care about taking care of ourselves and are thinking about our well-being more holistically than in previous generations. However, we need a deeper response than isolated experiences of “wellness retreats”, yoga, and fitness classes, because these experiences alone are often temporary, band-aid, “quick fixes”.
Coaching incorporates the tenets of positive psychology to ultimately teach people how to get to this deeper level of sustainable well-being — to teach people how to thrive.
And this is really, REALLY important because if the people at the very top of the capitalist food chain are “just doing okay”, how on earth can we expect to improve the lives of others? To create the collective change needed to help our fellow human beings thrive, let alone, in many parts of the world, merely survive?
Coaches help individuals learn to thrive so that they can be part of creating the external environmental, structural, and systematic changes that will collectively lift up others.
So those are the top reasons that I’m learning to coach, and the pillars I’m bringing to my own personal coaching practice. It’s messy, it’s new, it’s evolving, and it’s unregulated. There’s a lot of bullshit coaching practitioners out there, but the good ones…the good ones can truly change our lives in unimaginably needed ways. The good ones matter.