Friday, April 03, 2015

Life is not a course. Get a Life, not a Coach

When a Brooklyn couple was found to have committed suicide with plastic bags over their heads, it came as a surprise, as they were both ‘life coaches’ and hosted a ‘positive thinking’ radio show, called The Pursuit of Happiness. This caused some reflection on whether the whole life coach, pursuit of happiness was quite what it seems. Among all the hype around a culture that believes ‘life’ can be ‘coached’, there are skeptics – I’m one.
Google’s Jolly Good Fellow
A good example is Chade-Meng Tan, who runs courses at Google for all those oppressed, smart, rich privileged kids on how to be ‘happy. Employees sign up in their droves for the promise of some personality uplift that would make them even averagely acceptable to other human beings. His book, titled ‘Search Inside yourself’, suggests he’s gulped down a bit too much of the Google cool-aid. He’s a software engineer but his business card has the downright, creepy job title of ‘Jolly Good Fellow’. His TED talk is a mishmash of pseudoscience, Buddhist monks and world peace, through what he calls profitable compassion. It’s the usual bullshit about Google being a force for compassion and intrinsically good. I’m not denying that the folks at Google are OK and not a bunch of evil monsters but less face it the majority sell ads and their social responsibility has a massive vacuum at the center – they’re consistent and massive tax evaders. How about a course to get Google to pay their taxes to bring happiness to the poor - Chade? The second half of the talk bizarrely focuses on ‘Leadership’ where he claims that compassion is the key quality. He clearly hasn’t heard of Steve Jobs.
The drivers behind life coaching are a combination of positive thinking and the finding of your true self. But do life coaches satisfy any need beyond narcissism? Since Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism, there have been people trying to stem the wave of narcissism that has infected the relentlessly reflective, always on culture. Using a professional life coach is to outsource yourself or at least some responsibility for your emotional welfare to another person. You want them to heal you, make you a better person, more positive, happier, more content, more successful.
I have no problem with providing help for the vulnerable but the irony is that life coaches are usually used by people who already have the advantage of status, comfort and money. This is the where narcissism is camouflaged as coaching and the need for new age courses on anything that ends with -ness ‘happiness’, ‘mindfulness’, ‘wellness’ flourish.
Life is not an illness
The Life Coach industry sees life, like the Abrahamic religions, as a sickness. The starting point is to see people through a pathological lens, as fallen from grace, even victims. The life coach has a therapeutic, counseling role is to cure you, guide you out of your state of sin. They position themselves as priests who peddle therapy as salvation. . It smacks of a deep-seated need for a religious substitute, a higher power, who has the moral authority to give you a 'sense of direction'.
Life is not a course
Who has the arrogance to describe themselves as being able to con another person into believing they need them to help direct their entire ‘life’? How can you set yourself up as an ‘expert’ on ‘life’? Get advice on tax, law, finance, but ‘life’? Life is not a course and a life coach is nothing more than a paid, inauthentic friend. Paying for a friend is undignified. I suppose it does act as a sort of dating agency to match up those who feel the urge to pay for a friend with those with no concrete skills, other being paid to listen and ask reflective questions, a sort of escort agency for lonely minds.
Therapists, life coaches and happy campers are some of the saddest, or at least ill-adjusted, people I know. The belief that human nature is so simple that a simple calculus of happiness, mindfulness or wellness can be coached into you to solve your problems, is as old as witch doctors. Human nature is complex, so life is complex. Relentless positive thinking through coaching comes at a price. It ignores this complexity.
I’m not against getting help, advice and support but when it’s formalized into these expensive paid-for services, with the tag ‘life’, I can feel my left eyebrow raise an inch or so. I’m not even against coaching, in specific domains, such as sport, gym technique, for chronic illness, skills development, whatever. But ‘life’?

Get a life not a coach.


jay said...

Donald, your slam against Chade-Meng Tan is misdirected. He's not selling ads. I've heard him speak, read his book, and talked with Googlers about him.

He's a strange character, to be sure. I'm surprised you didn't attack his penchant for being in photos with visiting celebrities. But his heart is pure. He's genuinely dedicated to helping people find inner peace.

I don't understand why you attack the wellness movement as an empty fad.

Mindful people are more creative and productive than their mindless peers. They feel more content and fulfilled in their lives. Google has not one but hundreds of mindfulness and meditations courses available.

As for those "oppressed, smart, rich privileged kids," aren't they the same people who are innovating for one of the most profitable companies in history? Competition to get into Google is intense, to say the least. And the jobs are high-stress.

A Googler who manages wellness programs (I know that sends shivers up your spine) told me 60% of Google engineers suffer from impostor syndrome: they're afraid they got in my mistake and may get found out. He said Google's the sort of place where you think you're cool to be an ace at some programming language until you find out that the guy who invented that language works just down the hall.

Life coaching is an entirely different affair. Life coaches tell you what to do; wellness folks tell you how to find yourself. Meng is not a life coach and wouldn't dream of becoming one.

Donald, I think where we differ on this is that I feel smart organizations should do everything they can to help workers be happy, fulfilled, productive corporate citizens: whether it's positive conversations or painting the walls bright yellow or giving everyone net access, if it improves the present condition and doesn't cost an arm and a leg, I'm all for it.

Maybe we ought to debate this at Online Educa.


Paula said...

It;s unfortunate that mindfulness is being misunderstood. I don't blame you - as it is being pitched and framed inaccurately in the popular press. It isnt actually about positive thinking and 'happiness' in the 'lets pretend everything is fine' sense. It is actually about awareness of how the mind works. Awareness of emotions, thoughts and habits. Awareness of automatic pilot. Awareness of interconnectivity.

Seeing things more clearly - particularly how our minds work, and how our body and minds are connected and being able to 'be with' whatever arises in a more balanced way is incredibly beneficial. Especially for people with depression, or stress, but to be honest, anyone can benefit from getting to know themselves better. It's where it all starts.

And compassion is part of that too.

It's useful to hear your views as it is helpful to see how misunderstood something like mindfulness can be. It's a shame as it is a really a natural tool that we all have and at the end of the day - everything that we see, experience, and live - goes through our mind. Isn't it worth keeping our minds healthy and giving it some attention?

Donald Clark said...

Hi Paula I'm well aware of what 'mindfulness' is, and know it is not the same as 'happiness' or 'wellness'. If only the HR community and educators did the same. What I do think, is that they are all part of the same movement and narrative around HR/educators suddenly feeling they are reponsible for the emotional well-being of all employees. On mindfulness see