Three years ago, Spenser Brassard, a 26-year-old Edmontonian, hired a spirit coach—a woman who used chakra clearing and energy healing to help clients find their true paths. Endowed with a Tinker Bell face and a chipper disposition, Brassard was thinking about having a baby and hoping to connect with her child’s essence. Her coaching sessions changed her life, though not in the way she’d planned. Instead of telepathizing with her future child, Brassard realized she was destined to become a coach herself. “I wanted to feel empowered, to see people tap into their own guidance system,” she says with conviction. Brassard took a 20-hour course online and by phone and began training 20-somethings in the art of self-discovery. She’s currently seeing eight clients, all under 30, most of whom are women.
The definition of “life coaching” depends on whom you ask, but the rough consensus is that it’s a practice that uses action plans to help people achieve their goals and reveal their best selves. It’s counselling with less stigma, cheerleading with more cred, and it’s one of the fastest-growing wellness industries: the International Coaching Federation (ICF), the closest thing the field has to a professional association, ballooned from 2,100 members 15 years ago to an estimated 47,500 in 2012. Companies with vague, buzzwordy names like BeyondBreakthroughs and Clear Vision Coaching charge $500 an hour, sometimes more for executive clients. (Most of the coaches I spoke to charge around $150 per one-hour session, on par with the rate charged by psychiatrists.) All this adds up to a global annual industry growth rate of 18 percent and profits of around $2 billion each year.
Every generation has its own self-help dogma. In the technicolour postwar boom of the ’50s, an American Reformed Church minister named Norman Vincent Peale sold seven million copies of a book called The Power of Positive Thinking, trumpeting the idea that an optimistic world view would translate to material wealth. Twenty years later, the boomers adopted hippie New Age spiritualism. Then came the pharmaceutical revolution in the ’90s, when Prozac and its class of chemical uppers were prescribed for depression, alcoholism and general ennui. For millennials—my controversial cohort, born between the years 1980 and 1999—solemn psychobabble has given way to bubbly life coaching. Starlets like Demi Lovato and Ariana Grande have both hired coaches for their retinues, though Grande’s guru quit, citing the mini-Mariah’s diva antics.
The current coaching craze splintered off from the church of Oprah Winfrey in the early 2000s. Martha Beck, O’s buoyant, motherly life coach, trademarked the inspirational rhetoric about essential selves and obstacle clearance that now seem cliché. She nailed the template for life coaches as educated (Beck holds a PhD in sociology from Harvard University), glamorous (did I mention Oprah?) and decidedly feminine—aside from the executive subset, it’s a world dominated by women, both as coaches (75 percent) and clients (60 percent).
Beck extended her Oprah-endorsed brand into a$7,770 US training program for aspiring coaches (Brassard is one of 3,600 graduates). By the mid-2000s, real universities, including Harvard, the University of California and New York University, offered studies in the field. At Concordia University in Montreal, the curriculum is largely practical. Jim Gavin, the co-director of the school’s coaching programs, has his students practice coach each other; assigns them his own textbook, Lifestyle Wellness Coaching ; and drills them on the IFC’s 11 core competencies, which include active listening, powerful questioning and planning, and goal setting. Gavin’s program is among the most legit in an industry that’s unregulated and unstandardized. “Anyone can call themselves a life coach,” says Gavin. “If you want to become one, just print up a business card.”
Despite these questions of legitimacy, it’s easy to understand why millennials are latching on to life coaching. As a 20-something myself, I can confirm that the stereotypes are true for many of my friends: we’re as coddled as purse dogs, indulged emotionally and financially by our parents. We grew up expecting not jobs but careers that would nourish our souls as well as our wallets. And when the 2008 recession came, it shattered our fantasies and plunged us into the most punishing job market since the Great Depression: millennial unemployment in Canada currently sits at 13.5 percent, more than double the national estimate. As a result, 42 percent of Canadians between 20 and 29 live with their parents, and household debt among my generation has soared to an average of $73,000. Deflated and disillusioned, many have turned to coaching to pull us out of our emotional and financial funk.
A coach tackles this angst on three fronts. She’s a confidante, a paid friend hired to listen, advise and sympathize. She’s a trainer, able to provide her clients with action plans, goals and exercises to get what they want. And she’s a moral mirror, reflecting back those generational ideals of optimism, fulfillment and self-actualization.
Sarah Vermunt is a 34-year-old Toronto coach whose tactfully titled practice, Careergasm, helps 20-somethings find meaningful work. “Millennials want it all and they want it now. They want their work to matter and they want it to be part of their identity,” says Vermunt. “For me, coaching is a series of conversations. I ask a lot of uncomfortable questions—what do they want, what’s holding them back, what do they want to fix about themselves—and force clients to articulate what they think out loud.” Brassard’s approach is more like The Secret: “Once my clients open their minds to possibilities, opportunities fall in their lap. Things align with their lives,” she tells me. Such vastly differing strategies make it difficult to filter the self-help from the snake oil.
Meghan Wilson, a 30-year-old who lives in Calgary, is a corporate refugee who quit her client services job to pursue a career as a fitness instructor. “I didn’t want to worry about fiscal deadlines anymore. I was looking for work with value and meaning, something that would offer me more than a paycheque,” she says. She hired a coach who helped her achieve that objective. “When I tried therapy, it was like, ‘What are your daddy issues?’ Here, we created mission statements and action plans,” she explains. They worked on figuring out what she wanted and learning how to ask for it (“If you make reasonable requests, people will react reasonably,” she told herself). They even created an alternate personality so Wilson could engage in a dialogue with herself: an imaginary parrot on her shoulder named Crystal. For Wilson, the parrot represented the “bad self-talker” inside her head—it helped her isolate negative thoughts and look at them objectively. “I really liked being able to separate those thoughts and put them in their own body,” she says. “Any time Crystal would pipe in with, ‘Don’t say that, it’s stupid,’ I acknowledged that she was trying to protect me.”
Admittedly, I’m skeptical about imaginary parrots and the magical power of positive thinking, so I meet with Stefanie Gorendar, a 30-year-old Thornhill, Ont., coach with apple cheeks, blonde hair that tumbles to her waist and a beachy tan in October. Gorendar usually sees clients in private, as per standard protocol, but I asked if we could meet at a Starbucks near my office downtown. Over the course of three sessions, we tackled exercises for confidence and time management. When I doubted myself, she told me to imagine a colour that would reset my thinking (I chose pink) and suggested I come up with a mantra—I went with “It’s all in your head”—to boost my self-esteem. To help prioritize my work, we devised an urgent-important matrix, a tool that sorted my tasks into urgent and important, urgent and unimportant, important and non-urgent, and unimportant and non-urgent categories. Throughout our sessions, I noticed that Gorendar shape-shifted herself into a bizarro Emily: she agreed with everything I said, laughed at all my awkward jokes, confided that she’s also analytical and neurotic, and even copied my drink orders. I couldn’t decide whether it was comforting or creepy, so I asked her if Single White Female–ing is a calculated coaching technique. It is.
“People like people who are similar to them,” she says, “so I try to match the client’s body position, choices and movement, so that she gets a sense the coach is someone she can relate to. It actually facilitates communication and makes the client more comfortable.” I didn’t find the tactic particularly comforting—I think my fretful Jewish catastrophism is a major obstacle in embracing the Zen of coaching.
For many women, though, such strategies can be effective. Gwen Elliot, a 25-year-old Torontonian, had spent her post-university years working as a TV producer while nurturing a dream of starting her own web publishing business—she’d tried and failed twice, eventually moving back in with her parents. “I had my day job, and then I had my side hustle. When it came time to monetize that side hustle, a coach turned out to be very helpful. I needed someone who’d hold me accountable,” she says, offering me insight into another crucial role coaches can play: parent. Elliot spent her sessions devising strategies to start the company and reach out to potential clients. In November, she launched her self-titled website, where you can download her e-book, How to Connect With Influential People When You’re First Starting Out.
One of Elliot’s biggest challenges, she says, was the infinite options afforded to her as a millennial woman (being educated and white have surely helped, too). “It’s like every opportunity is available to us,” Elliot says. “It can be paralyzing.” Given the unemployment statistics, I questioned her sense of boundless possibility. Gavin at Concordia confirmed my suspicions that paralysis like Elliot’s may be as much about employment limitations as it is about endless opportunities. “Millennials have been born into a generation when it’s very difficult to find jobs,” he explains. “They’re constantly being forced to reinvent themselves and up their game.”
Gavin’s comments raise something about coaching that’s been gnawing at me—the danger of unfettered optimism. It seems risky for a life coach to blindly encourage her millennial clients toward dream following and rainbow chasing. Brassard preaches the gospel of freeing yourself from “limiting thoughts”—the classic psychotherapy notion that the only things keeping us from what we want are the stories we tell ourselves. “In our sessions, we get rid of all those layers and peel away the blockages,” she says, mixing onion and constipation metaphors. “Most of our suffering comes from victim mode. After you determine your essential spirit, you learn how to change those stories and get what you want.” Some coaches, however, take a more grounded approach. Lyora MacRae, a 27-year-old Toronto coach, says she’s guided clients away from risky career moves. “That’s the rub around coaching—if it’s just ‘Rah-rah-rah, you can do anything!’ that can get dangerous,” she says. “In those situations, it’s not just about making the change, but also ensuring you have the capacity to maintain it. Not everyone can just leave their jobs.”
The more I immerse myself in the coaching world, the more I pick up on the cultish red flags: the messianic gurus, the effusive yet vague Kool-Aid rhetoric, and, of course, the converts. Some coaches share my skepticism. I visited Careergasm HQ, a utopian communal space in a downtown Toronto building. Over espresso, Vermunt confesses, “I was totally eye-rolly about coaching at first. I was like, These people have no idea what they’re talking about. And some of them are pretty flaky. Then I realized there was something to it. For me, it was a way to help people figure out what the hell they want so they can get out of jobs they hate.” She quit her PhD in organizational behaviours and human resources 93 pages into her dissertation, signed up for Martha Beck’s ubiquitous training program and started a robust practice of 20 or so clients, aimed squarely at lost millennials.
Increasingly, coaching itself is proving to be its own solution to the millennial conundrum. It combines entrepreneurship, personal branding and meaningful work, plus it’s lucrative: many coaches have leveraged their brands into group coaching, motivational speaking or something called thought leadership: an authoritative platform they can license to other coaches and spin into books and webinars.
For young gurus looking for a quick certificate, the industry’s lack of regulation is a boon. For those who fancy themselves serious coaches—the kind of people who spent years completing accredited programs, like MacRae—it’s a disaster. “I’m wary of coaches who don’t have any training. It also makes me worry for the client,” she muses. “Maybe they’re naturally gifted, I don’t know. But the industry needs more structure.” I agree with McRae, but I also question the core objective on which the industry thrives.
Beneath the screwball mantras, coaching nurtures the painfully unachievable goal of self-perfection—the illusion you can win the game of life, if only you have the right playbook and a cheer squad. How about a coach who tells me the game is never-ending, that it’s full of fouls, bench time and sweat, and that we may never really know if we’re in the right field—that all we can do is keep playing? Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.