Among my community of coaches I am not alone in having an initial impulse of revulsion to the term “life coach.” For me, it has nothing at all to do with any life coach I have ever met in real life but rather the connotation that seems to have developed in our culture. We seem to hold a collective assessment that “any a-hole can be a life coach.” And here’s the thing… that’s not only true, but there’s also nothing wrong with it.
I was watching a tv show yesterday where this woman, a recovering alcoholic, lost her job and promptly fell off the wagon. She’s a fictional character in a situational comedy of course and her character is portrayed as thoughtless, selfish, and irresponsible. Even flighty. And clearly separated from a common understanding of reality. In the end, when she declares her recommitment to sobriety and to right the wrongs of her past (in particular in her relationships) her adult daughter asks her what she’s going to do about a job. The recovering alcoholic mother declares, “I don’t need a job… I’m going to be a life coach!” Insert laugh track. I just groaned.
In thinking about what that provokes in me I guess I just felt insulted. For me and for my respected colleagues. The implication was first that being a “life coach” was not a job – that it wasn’t work. I assure you, it is. It is a business, like any, with paperwork and marketing and invoicing and collections calls… And on good days – on great days – it is soulful rewarding work and when I am in service to my clients I feel useful, valued, honored, respected… I even feel powerful, and most of all, I feel joy. There’s no shame in enjoying work. Indeed, I wish that for every human being I encounter.
In fact, I was thinking about that at my kid’s Tae Kwon Do class the other day. I see the joy in Master Young, my kid’s Tae Kwon Do instructor, as he masterfully demonstrates a perfect spinning round house kick just over the head of a dazzled six year old. I am glad for Master Young that he has found such joy. I am glad that his joy enhances my daughter’s learning experience. His joy gives her joy and gives me joy. It is wonderfully contagious. I like to think that my joy in my work serves my clients and all of their relationships in much the same way.
I also give consideration to the investment Master Young has made in training and schooling and preparation to do this work. Similarly, my colleagues and I invested greatly over the years of our development, training and continued education… The question I’m answering here is, is this a respected profession? I suppose I’ve already answered that when I said I am in service of my clients I feel valued and respected. And yes, there is professional respect for the knowledge and training in the work. But truth be told, that training is not a requirement to wear the title “coach.”
There is no state or federal regulating authority that stamps a person to be qualified to practice in the art of coaching as there is in, say dentistry… or to sell real estate… or practice law… etc… Many of us adhere to a set of standards of ethical behavior and base level competencies defined by the International Coach Federation (ICF). And there are many highly successful and competent coaches who don’t carry a certification from the ICF nor do they have interest in seeking certification by that or any other authority. And yet, there they are, out in the world, helping people live more mindfully, more authentically, and with greater satisfaction. And they call themselves coaches.
Anyone can make the declaration, “I’m a coach” but the legitimacy of that declaration is granted only when we grant the person making the declaration the authority to do so. It is instantiated by speech act. It is a man-made construct, not a capital “T” truth. For some people, evaluating a potential coach based on his or her affiliation with ICF and the level of certifications held may help them feel like they’re weeding out some potential crack pots. It might. But it’ll also weed out some really talented people.
So when I think of this sitcom character and her declaration… when I really put some thought into it… I realize, who am I to suggest that her work in providing (albeit fictional) services to support others (who are also fictional) should be considered less valuable than the work I do or the work done by my honored colleagues? What do I need to be true to grant her the authority to make that declaration? When I really think about it, the fictional drunk in the show is unveiling a deep and meaningful connection about coaching in the real world — that some exceptional coaching work happens in recovery.
One day I was talking to a good friend who happens to be an alcoholic about how coaching has supported me in my life. I spoke of my habits of thinking, that I did not have access to happiness, or that I had to deny myself the experience of emotions, and living in disdain of others, amusing myself with condescension and judgment… and how freeing it was to change and to begin to live authentically, to feel and be real, and he knew just what I meant. Because, as he told me, that is the experience he gained through AA. He learned to powerfully shift to feeling authentic in a state of sobriety – something he thought was not accessible to him before AA. Indeed, I came to see my attitudes towards many of my limiting behaviors and attitudes as being an addiction from which coaching has helped set me free.
So if any junkie, any recovering addict, any comic, any fool… if any human experiencing the human condition can be a coach and be in valued service to our shared community… I say how luck we are to be in that community. I say, coach on, junkie. And I welcome you into my community as I hope you’d welcome me in yours.