In a new column focused on “The Examined Life,” Matthew Nisbet investigates the twisted messages about human happiness and flourishing that dominate popular culture, offering readers a skeptical dose of anti-self-help advice.
A few years ago, I moved with my wife and son to an upper-middle-class community north of Boston. As I walked around town, I soon encountered advertising for a local cottage industry of personal coaches and lifestyle consultants. Papered on the walls of food stores, coffee shops, and fitness studios were posters for career coaches, parenting coaches, wellness coaches, and leadership coaches. There was even a local spoon bender who offered spiritual coaching. Alongside the adverts for coaches were also pitches by consultants offering to organize a child’s birthday party, prepare organic and gluten-free meals, declutter a home, and advise on family trips to Disney World.
In today’s culture of non-stop striving, the personal coach and lifestyle consultant have become the high priests of our age, preaching a quasi-religious obsession with the development of the self, writes the psychologist and philosopher Svend Brinkmann (2017). There are about 20,000 life coaches and consultants working in North America today, earning a median $61,000 a year, about twice that of the average U.S. worker (Green 2017).
But as these coaches sell us on achieving self-optimization, their professional advice and services come with several trade-offs that are ultimately not worth the price, Brinkmann and other scholars warn. To avoid the perpetual trap of constant self-improvement and depersonalization that the life coaching industry preaches, we should instead fire our coaches and spend more time building stronger relationships with friends and family, they argue.
Optimizing the Self
Life coaching is the latest evolution of the 1960s positive psychology and human potential movements, which traded the external authority of God for the inner authority of the psyche. Only by discovering the authentic self, or “ego,” could happiness be achieved, details the journalist Will Storr (2017). Encouraged by counterculture authors and celebrities, millions of baby boomers had turned to psychoanalysis, meditation, yoga, and hallucinogenic drugs by the end of the 1970s. Tens of thousands had also set off on voyages of self-discovery to California’s Esalen and similar retreat centers, participating in ritualized encounter group sessions that promised to strip away the layers of the false self so that they could finally live an authentic life.
Yet in contrast to the New Age self-help movement where leaders promised liberation from what they deemed to be a suffocating, capitalism-driven conformity, today’s life coaches sell themselves as relentlessly practical and results oriented, enabling clients to outperform at work and home. Life coaches frequently draw on the example of elite athletes, encouraging clients to achieve the same levels of self-discipline and competitiveness. In contrast to the 1960s, the quest today is not to discover the true self but instead the optimized self. The mantra has shifted from “turn on, tune in, and drop out” to “achieve peak performance.”
“To become yourself, you have to become better—and to become better, you have to reach your goals,” is how the sociologists Carl Cederström and André Spicer (2015) sum up today’s self-improvement craze. “Self exploration and self-discovery [are] morphed into self-actualization and self-enhancement.”
There are no state licensees required to be a personal coach, and certification training can vary from a few hours of online courses to hundreds of hours of classes, depending on the marketed program. Life coaches usually work with clients on a weekly basis, meeting with them either in person or via video chat, with the cost of a typical meeting ranging from $50 to $200 per hour. Though coaching techniques vary, almost all involve an emphasis on goal setting, guiding the client in discovering an authentic “vision” for their professional and personal lives, and then constructing a plan for achieving that vision (Pagis 2016).
Personal coaches tell clients that if they are to achieve their visions, they must take responsibility for their own life and sense of well-being. This is sound advice in most cases. But the “flip side is that we have no one to blame but ourselves for all conceivable problems, whether they are about relationship breakdowns, job losses, or serious illnesses,” write Cederström and Spicer (2015). “The coach no longer defers the client’s anxiety but pushes the tyranny of choice [and responsibility] back onto the client.”
The implicit message promoted by the life coaching industry, notes Brinkmann (2017), is that the perpetual pursuit of self-improvement defines the meaning of our existence, regardless of the actions we take or the directions we pursue. Yet if taken to the extreme, “this way of thinking resembles psychopathy or antisocial personality disorder,” he writes. “Other people are, at best, instruments at your service, used to maximize our happiness and success.” As an example, he cites the advice emphasized by Tony Robbins, the world’s most famous life coach. Since the 1990s, Robbins has been a consultant to world leaders and mega-celebrities, sold millions of books, and packed sporting arenas for his talks. Robbins preaches a mantra of “Never Ending Improvement” in every aspect of life, which is achievable only by adopting a “growth mindset” and by constantly monitoring results. As he often tells audiences: “Success is doing what you want to do, when you want, where you want, with whom you want, as much as you want.”
Outsourcing the Self
By hiring a life coach or personal consultant, not only do we risk falling victim to our own grandiosity and self-centeredness, but we outsource many of the most intimate aspects of our lives that we previously performed ourselves, setting in motion a self-perpetuating trap. “The more anxious, isolated and time-deprived we are, the more likely we are to turn to paid personal services,” writes sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild (2012). “To finance these extra services, we work longer hours. This leaves less time to spend with family, friends and neighbors; we become less likely to call on them for help, and they on us.”
From this perspective, working with a life coach risks trading invaluable emotional attachments for instrumental rewards. When dating coaches, for example, advise us to focus on return-on-investment, it is the first step toward defining love and marriage not in terms of responsibility and duty but in terms of “what is good for me.” If we hire a consultant to organize our child’s birthday party or plan a family vacation, we immediately start to think about these experiences in terms of efficiency and optimization—the language of commerce and the marketplace rather than of human relationships. In each of these cases, we “detach ourselves from the small—potentially meaningful—aspects of experience,” argues Hochschild. “Confining our sense of achievement to results, to the moment of purchase, so to speak, we unwittingly lose the pleasure of accomplishment, the joy of connecting to others and possibly, in the process, our faith in ourselves” (Hochschild 2012a).
Duty before Self
The confidence and trust that we place in our personal coaches, warns Brinkmann, has replaced traditional friendships and extended family ties. The types of intimacies that in the past we would have shared only with close friends or family are now shared with coaches. When we turn to a coach for parenting or marriage advice, we are asking a paid stranger for answers to the most central life questions.
As Aristotle advised, true friendship has its own intrinsic value. Close friends or family members—such as your own child—are people you help for their own sake. You have a duty to be there for them regardless of whether you believe you are getting something out of it or not. Helping someone else because it benefits you is not a friendship but a partnership based on a contract. A life coach, therefore, is the very epitome of an instrumental relationship, argues Brinkmann (2017).
The profusion of life coaches is part of a broader trend within our accelerated culture in which we are more likely to refer to “network building” than friendship building. The “social capital” that such a network might provide, enabling a mother, for example, to post to Facebook seeking advice on a birthday party organizer or a Disney World trip consultant, symbolizes the pervasive monetization of personal relationships.
To avoid the perpetual trap of constant self-improvement that the personal coaching industry preaches, Brinkmann urges us to fire our coaches and instead invest in building closer friendships and relationships. Not only will such friendships provide the support that we otherwise outsource to life coaches, our friendships will also help us shift from focusing on our inner impulses to what truly should define our lives, fulfilling our duties and responsibilities to others.
Brinkmann, S. 2017. Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Cederström, C., and A. Spicer. 2015. The Wellness Syndrome. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Green, K. 2017. You’re a what? Life coach. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (January). Available online at https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2017/youre-a-what/life-coach.htm.
Hochschild, A.R. 2012a. The outsourced life. The New York Times (May 6): SR1.
———. 2012b. The Outsourced Self: What Happens When We Pay Others to Live Our Lives for Us. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Pagis, M. 2016. Fashioning futures: Life coaching and the Self-Made identity paradox. Sociological Forum 31(4): 1083–1103.
Storr, W. 2017. Selfie: How the West Became Self-Obsessed. New York: Pan Macmillan.