Written by Kieran Yates
From positivity to productivity, pets to work problems – these days, if you have an issue, there’s a coach out there who says they can help. We explore the life coaching boom.
“In just four weeks you’ll learn how to manifest your dreams effortlessly” – so says the website of Jude Daunt, a manifestation life coach who, it seems, has big answers for life’s big problems. Daunt is just one of many life coaches operating in the UK today – part of a booming industry that promises advice on everything from fertility to dating to your pet’s behaviour, all in pursuit of optimising you to become your best self.
If you’re already an expert in manifestation, you might be interested in “badassing your brand” with the help of Pia Silva, who offers “no BS agency mastery”; “rebellious coaching” from Martyn Spendlove, who will teach you to how rebel against self-limitation; or the wisdom of “joy coach” Irene Stefani, who focuses on “restless self-actualisation” to bring you that often difficult thing to acquire: happiness. The life coach business, it’s safe to say, is thriving.
According to The Guardian, UK-based life coaches on LinkedIn saw a 153% increase in 2020 compared with the year before, while the number of business coaches soared by 115%. Look a little closer and it’s easy to link this back to a period of lockdown, when many people may have felt the need to ‘work on themselves’ or looked at alternative career options – in 2020, more than half of UK workers (53%) planned to make a change to their career in the next 12 months as a direct result of the pandemic.
The interest in life coaching has swelled, partly thanks to 2016’s Netflix documentary I Am Not Your Guru, in which Tony Robbins showed just how much money was in the top tiers of the industry; podcasts like the Life Coach School, which has over 45 million downloads; or the most listened to UK life coaching podcast, Alex Manzi’s In The Moment (a coach who describes himself as “your friendly neighbourhood mind sherpa”), as well as the slew of popular self-published books.
There is big money to be made because life coaches can set their own prices (incidentally, Jude Daunt’s four-week course is priced at almost £2,000). There is no clear data to see how many coaches there are in the UK today as it is a totally unregulated industry at present, but according to the Coach Foundation, life coaching is the second-fastest-growing industry in the world with an average yearly growth of 6.7%.
Life coaching is no new thing. The self-help genre of books boomed during the 1970s, as a result of interest in spirituality and wellness from the global south in the 1960s. This included yoga, gurus and hackneyed ideas of Indian religions, which caught the imagination of people looking for alternative places to seek advice rather than the perceived 1950s conservatism of family and organised religion. This, coupled with the lingering liberalism of 60s-era approaches to living fulfilling lives started in the US and made its way to Britain from the 60s until the 00s, and pop psychology and self-help books transformed into a bestselling trend.
During the mid-to-late 80s, a period of growth meant that much of the middle classes in Britain had more money to spend on themselves, and this life advice became marketable and increasingly lucrative. Some of the definitive titles from this time onwards include Louise L Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life (1984), John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (1992) and Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (2006), which famously sold over 35 million copies.
But in the years that followed, the reputation of life coaches was seen as outdated and overly earnest as trends changed. This was due to relative political and economic stability for a long period and science-driven cultural attitudes as a result of innovations in technology. Life coaching became increasingly seen as unsubstantiated or overly ‘woo-woo’ (a disparaging term to describe ideas deemed to lean on things deemed less scientific or a bit ‘hippy’).
In Britain, the New Labour period and subsequent years of conservative governance parroted ideas of ‘hard work’, individualism and social mobility towards a better life, and the notion of seeing someone to coach you through life was generally seen as narcissistic and of little value.
Fast forward to 2022, however, and the wellness industry, made up in part of young, dynamic coaches with pithy and informative solutions to our personal and political problems, has had a rebrand. Despite the fact that very little of the current offerings are saying anything new – much is recycled from the global south, pop psychology or established schools of feminist and philosophical thought – it is seeing new interest.
There could be a few reasons for this. As the shift away from organised religion has been declining over the last 20 years in the UK, this appears to be happening across the West. A Pew Research Center survey found 29% of U.S. millennials said they had no religious affiliation, an increase of six percentage points from 2016, with many attributing the pandemic to this loss of faith. The resurgence of 90s trends has also led to new-age fashion practices like crystal work, tarot and astrology being taken more seriously, thanks to apps like CoStar and a slew of TikTok influencers. It is also true that in a time of historic economic, social and political instability, many of us are looking for answers to the upheaval that many of us are experiencing. The life coaching industry was valued at nearly £20 billion in the UK in 2020.
The internet has helped this boom, and showcasing your talents in short, accessible social media snippets has become crucial in the life coach industry, hooked to the success of controversial viral coaches like Gary Vee (10 million Instagram followers) who rose to popularity after launching the #AskGaryVee Show in 2014, and Brene Brown (4.3 million followers) who went viral after her 2010 TED talk titled The Power of Vulnerability.
The result of this is increasingly attention-grabbing posts where coaches live stream over Facebook Live, Instagram Stories and TikTok videos (the ‘life coach’ hashtag on TikTok alone has over 1.3 billion views). The posts range from ‘NEVER ignore the signs of burnout’ to the ‘Dos and Don’ts of dating’.
Part of the success of life coaches lies in their increasingly niche offerings in an overwhelming world. From ‘end of life’ coaches that help you manage death, to those opting for an abrasive Tony Robbins approach, (ie ‘get your shit together’). Robbins is arguably one of the most famous coaches in the field, known for his borderline aggressive style. He built a huge following during the early 2000s with high-cost courses and is a model for many who came to follow in his footsteps.
Asa Baav is a coach with a gentler approach, albeit with a clear objective of how to improve your love life. The 35-year-old is part of a growing field of ‘polarity’ coaches – helping people to lean into their inner masculine or feminine when looking for a romantic partner. “My work encourages people to become powerful creators in their love life by ending relationship self-sabotage and dialling up their emotional expression,” she tells me over Zoom.
Baav has been coaching for three years, focusing on dating, relationships and intimacy. Her previous life saw her working in a six-figure salary corporate job. I tentatively ask her what she guarantees. “The guarantee is really that the client finds their voice,” she says. “There are a lot of women – high achieving women – who very often have a career coach, a PT but have never thought of a coach to help them in the area they’d love to develop, like finding a relationship.”
While it’s certainly true that giving ourselves the space to slow down and ask these questions – maybe for the first time – about our love lives and careers can be powerful, it doesn’t come cheap. Baav’s courses range from £800 to £1,000 for her eight-week courses about ‘self-expression’ that teach clients how to ‘show up differently to attract that right person’.
For Baav, coaching can be more effective than therapy. “I ask all my clients to fill out a form and pass them on to therapists if I think they would be better placed. There are some of my clients who have been in therapy for years and years and we have one 40-minute conversation and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, I feel so heard!’” she beams. “I hold you accountable. Unlike therapy, there is a focused end goal”.
For psychologist Dr Audrey Tang, this is problematic. Life coaching is unregulated and this may be one reason for the rapid expansion – no formal governing authority means no qualifications, education or experience is required. While some have course accreditations from NLP or coaching academies (like Baav), these are optional, and to brand yourself as a life coach requires very little third-party regulation. Many coaches also boost their income by creating unregulated ‘schools’ or ‘academies’ where they teach new cohorts how to coach in their style. This ‘training’ can, at worst, act as a kind of MLM (multi-level marketing) offering that upsells meditations, reading lists and pamphlets alongside podcasts and books.
“What worries me are the number of ‘become a coach overnight’ courses that are marketed, which means that people can set up as a coach, charge money and not have training in the ethical standards needed,” she explains. “There is little to stop someone taking an online course and calling themselves a coach and charging you £50 to listen to you for an hour. Reputable coaches have International Coaching Federation (ICF) accreditation.”
To prevent anyone from using unprotected terms like ‘psychologist’ or ‘counsellor’, some accreditations do exist. For instance, if a chartered psychologist (CPsychol) or counsellor is a member of the BACP or if a practitioner psychologist is HCPC regulated and a coach is a member of the ICF, it means that they have attained a standard of professional practice and ethics and in line with the standards of the governing body. This means you can’t call yourself a clinical, occupational, or educational psychologist unless you have HCPC status – and are on their register. Happily, these are easy to find and ask for. “I always say to anyone who is looking for a coach or a counsellor – make sure they are registered with the ICF or the BACP,” she adds.
Kirsty Chapelle is a London-based 29-year-old who works at a record label and has had a career-coach for the last three years. “The industry is very competitive and so I felt like I needed somebody to give me advice on how to manage my imposter syndrome, and it felt like a kind of investment in myself,” she explains. Chapelle had previously done therapy for two years before approaching a life coach which cost around “£120 a session”. Alongside her career-climbing advice, Kirsty was also given insights into handling and investing her money, managing her debt and even day-to-day saving tips. “I was more productive than I’d ever been,” she says.
24-year-old Sara Williams didn’t have such a positive experience. “Over lockdown I got into a really bad habit of just scrolling on my phone obsessively” she sighs. “I felt like every day I was reading stories about climate change, racism, housing crisis… I ended up seeing a life coach because I didn’t feel like I was depressed enough to warrant seeing a therapist but I just needed someone to motivate me,” she explains. “But looking back, what I needed was a therapist. I felt like a lot of the [coaching] vibe was about being a #GirlBoss and being productive when all I really wanted was a hug” she says. “Also, a lot of the empowerment was a kind of feminism that I had learned on my literature degree but was sold to me as if it was brand new. I think what I needed at the time was just someone to tell me I was OK but it was more about how to be ‘great’”.
The success of life coaching can be taken on a case-by-case basis – and it can, for people like Kirsty, be a welcome addition. But that’s not to say that it should replace therapy, especially now. In the UK, public investment in mental health is under attack (in 2019, the Royal College of Psychiatrists reported that funding is at its lowest in six years, and now are asking for an investment of £4 billion for Covid-related recovery). In reality, more funding into women’s mental and physical health may be more effective than a mindset coach and pushing for workers’ rights like secure pay via your union might be more successful than leaning on a career coach. After all, some things, like a national recession or cost of living crisis, can’t be life-coached away.
In her recent book Poor Little Sick Girls, feminist author Ione Gamble is wary of the high-priced wellness industry – of which life coaching is part of, warning that for some, “self-care is another route to optimisation” and “has become something of an aspirational lifestyle choice rather than a necessary practice for you and your community”.
In short, the idea that we can buy a shinier, better life, in a few weeks might be doing more harm than good. In truth, simple things like cooking for our friends, getting to know our neighbours, access to qualified therapists, asking friends and family for help, joining community groups and even building routines that help manage our money, fitness, or administration might be a more valuable way to invoke self-care.
A year later, Kirsty, who reported being hyper-productive after time with her coach, is reflective about her experience and has an Instagram dedicated to giving advice to people entering the workplace. “I needed someone at the time,” she smiles. “But looking back, I could have gotten a lot of the advice from my coach from people at my job if I was only brave enough to ask for it. It’s inspired me, as much as I can, to give help away for free.”
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