The Career of the Decade!
March 3I am a coach. Well É maybe I am. I can't be sure. Yet. The literature from Coach University says "career of the decade," "make $100 to $1,500 an hour." It also warns: "Not for people with weak stomachs."The same day I sign up for the four introductory Coach U TeleClasses at no cost, I quit my job at the Pyramid Group venture capital office. I had been temping there, answering phones for seven months. I thought Mr. Marx, the office manager, looked annoyed when I told him, so I showed him an article featuring a picture of Thomas Leonard, the founder of Coach U."I think it's going to be the next wave," I tell Marx."Next wave of what?" Marx goes red at the tips of his ears. He's mad. "This guy is sitting in a cheap lawn chair at a KOA in front of a Winnebago. Who's he coaching? What does he know about anything?""Is it a Winnebago?" I look at the picture again. "Well, I'm going to buy an Airstream and help unemployed people."I read to Marx from another article, about the new breed of personal "coaches." The article describes the way coaching combines techniques from psychology, business management, sports, philosophy, and consulting (I leave "spirituality" out, knowing how Marx will react). I explain that coaches question clients and push them toward getting what they want -- a raise, a house in the Bahamas, a divorce. But coaches aren't therapists (even though lots of underemployed therapists are becoming coaches). Coaches want people to take action, or a series of actions, rather than delve into deeper emotions. Mark looks skeptical when I tell him there are 2,000 coaches currently practicing in the U.S.I quit my job because I am obsessed with the notion of roaming around the country in a computer-equipped RV. In the Coach U literature it emphasizes that I don't have to have any special skills, licenses, or real training.March 7Deborah calls from Worcester, Massachusetts to screen me for Coach U. Deborah used to be a therapist, and then a masseuse, and most recently a financial planner."Coaching is great. You'll be great at it" she says. "I can just tell from your voice that you're gonna love Coach U."She asks how I found out about it. I tell her about the business magazine at the venture capitalist's office. I eventually explain my strategy to coach people in poverty; I tell her I want to help working-class people and immigrants to start a social revolution."Watch being a downer." Deborah cut me off. "Gotta go. If you want to know more about the Coach U, check out their Web site."March 10The Coach U Web site (http://www.coachu.com/) is a virtual Costco of bastardized language. You can type in a word like "coach" and link up to page after page of information and lists, most of it written by Thomas Leonard, the Coach U guru.One list is called "Some things that happen when people start to be coached." It includes:1. They get divorced, married, or move closer to their spouses.2. They clean stuff up, resulting in energy.3. They have different conversations with others than they used to.4. They upgrade 50% of their friends.5. They buff off their car, home.There are also Coach U curriculum samples on the Web site. One lesson teaches me how to detect holes in people's "life cups" -- places where energy might be leaking out. It suggests that I plug these holes with truth, integrity, and Superglue. I have no idea what this means.Then, there's the Coach U Coach Referral page. Type in "Seattle," and you can scroll through names of the 24 local coaches who advertise on the page. Only a few of them have pictures. I select Jim Watson [the coaches' names have been changed to protect their privacy] because he lives near Seattle and looks nerdy. He claims he can help me "find a good match between me and my goal."Jim is charming on the phone. We make plans to meet a few days after my first TeleClass (a Coach U class conducted over the phone).March 11I tell my friend Teresa about the coaching idea. She thinks I've officially come around to the '90s, and tells me to buy a book called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. She says it changed her life, only she uses the phrase "it shifted my paradigm."Covey's book is endorsed by Anthony Robbins, the TV motivational speaker with horse-sized teeth, and by Covey's fellow Mormon Marie Osmond. Covey sets up his Seven Habits by saying he has studied 200 years' worth of "personality based" self-help books, and he's embarking on a new course: "character-centered" personal growth.Frankly, I can't really tell the difference between what Covey means by "character" and what Dale Carnegie meant by "personality." I try to like the Covey book, because it's "the personal leadership handbook of the decade." Teresa says emphatically that memorizing Covey equals success in business. She tells me I need to "read and internalize his words.I puzzle over sentences like "The being/ seeing change is an upward process -- being changing seeing, which in turn changes being, and so forth."March 12There are 25 of us on the Coach U "bridge" (their term for a big virtual TeleClass). Everyone speaks with a different accent. There's Rudy from Boca Raton, and Lucy from Macon, Georgia. We link up via conference call to Coach U's first introductory TeleClass. The teacher, Jane, officially hooks in and grabs control back from Torrie of Brattleboro, Vermont, who has been trying to organize the class in Jane's absence. Jane is aggressively efficient, with a sweet Southern drawl.Jane wants to know about everyone's career paths, how we all got here. There are investment bankers, massage therapists, corporate refugees, and lots of underemployed therapists. One woman was a personal assistant to Deepak Chopra."I've worked with venture capitalists," I announce when it's my turn."What an exciting group," Jane says. "You're all already well on your way." Then she adds, "We're all coaches and have coached." She encourages us to go out and start working with clients right away. "That's the best way to learn," Jane says. "Don't wait until you know it all."Jane speaks a different language than the rest of us. Some of it I recognize from the Coach U Web site. "I put language around what I do that is intuitive," she says. A few minutes later she talks about "evoking circles," which I picture as equinox parties where people dance naked around fires. They're actually question-and-answer periods.Jane makes a list for us of the five steps of coaching. One step is about not using language as jargon.March 14I am always a few minutes late -- a trait I hope won't damage my future coaching career. Jim pretends not to notice this when I meet him in a cafe. It seems right that I buy his coffee, only I'm out of checks, and the place doesn't take credit cards. Jim looks a little perturbed.He knows everyone who works behind the espresso bar on a first-name basis. They banter while I try to find a pen. Jim looks just like his picture on the Net, only older -- he's wearing glasses, his hair is grayer. I mention the glasses."I think I look better without them," he says. Then he takes them off. There's not much difference.Jim takes out a maroon presentation folder with his card slipped into the slot cut for business cards. The folder is full of articles, his resume, and an "I'm your friend" picture of Jim."I'm trying to decide if coaching is the right career for me," I tell him, "and I'm thinking about getting my own coach. So what you would do is push me, right?""Push you?" Jim says. "No, for me coaching is about three things: Helping people get clear on their vision, finding out what their options are for that vision, and making that vision real.""Okay, then it's like being a paid friend?" I ask."I've been called a human biofeedback machine," Jim laughs. "But I think you'll find two things consistent with all coaches: clarity and action."I tell Jim about how I want to work with low-income people, "but I have this moral dilemma about charging a lot of money.""But they'll pay it, right?" he asks. "You're worth what someone is willing to pay. That's the bottom line."Jim is telling me how he structures his sessions with clients -- they pay a monthly fee, and then talk for 30 minutes or so once a week. The clients make promises to Jim about what they'll accomplish by the next time they meet. He thinks it works because people are motivated by the fact that they've paid money, and don't want it to go to waste."Do you do any research? Do you ask around, say, if you're helping someone start a cafe and you don't know about cafes?" I ask."No, that's for the client to do." Jim holds up his hands as if to distance himself from that idea. "The coach is more of a catalyst. If a client wants to hire someone to do research, that's great. It ain't me."Jim draws me a diagram that looks like an old rotary phone dial. Each circle stands for a different trait. "See, this circle is the skill of empathizing, and this circle is the skill of testing, and coaching is a different skill." I can't really follow the diagram, but I nod.Jim wants to make it clear that coaching isn't therapy either. "We're just dealing with the tip of the iceberg here," he says. "If people are emotionally stuck, it's just like putting clamps on an iceberg and dragging it around."Jim has a diagram for the iceberg. He has a diagram for everything. He draws another one to show me the type of client he's most adept at working with. The picture is a circle cut into four equal parts. The parts stand for seasons. Then he explains that he doesn't work with people in the Fall of their careers, which he calls the "classic waiting-for-pension mode"; nor does he work with people in the Winter, which is a time of confusion and re-evaluation. Jim likes Spring and Summer people."I think you're at the beginning of Spring," he tells me, and that means he could coach me.I ask Jim what he thinks of my desire to coach people who don't have much money. I leave out the part about a social revolution."It doesn't bother me," Jim says. "That's your paradigm. I haven't studied that. It's just one vision of the way the world is. Let me tell you what my guiding principle is: 'Don't ask what the world needs from you, ask what you need to come alive.' The world needs more people who have come alive. If I put that mirror up to myself, I don't care what the world needs. The world needs better salespeople."Jim tells me he could help me with my coaching aspirations. He keeps doing this odd stretching thing the whole time we're talking. It's either a tai chi pose, or he's trying to show off his biceps.March 18At the second TeleClass, Jane asks us to go around the virtual room and share what we learned during the week. "Actually, I'm confused," I say. "These language tools don't make any sense.""Great," says Jane. "Okay, let's keep it laser-like so we all have time to share."Another woman talks about "how stimulating it is to connect to a group like ours that is growing." I wonder how she measures that, since no one except Jane has talked much.Jane wants to teach us about "messaging." "Messaging is one of the coaching tools we'll need," she says. She tells us that advertising provides some great examples of the kind of messaging we'll need to master."Play hard," Jane says. "See how it's directive, it's positive, not a downer. It's not personal, but it's intuitive."She tells us we need to practice messaging so we can do it on the spot, and notes that messaging will be especially appealing to male clients, because it's true that men prefer messages to questions. "They see questions as threats," she says."Let's move people forward out of the stuck zone," Jane says.She tells us it's time to role-play. She asks for a volunteer to play "Joe Bones," a chiropractor who needs coaching to start thinking bigger about his business. She needs a volunteer coach, too. The class is full of enthusiastic overachievers dying to help, which is a relief. I hate role-playing.Jane encourages the two volunteers to push for a transformational experience. The volunteer coach says, "Joe, you could be connecting with your patients on a higher level.""Okay," says Jane, "now let's leapfrog Joe into success territory." The role-players spend the next 15 minutes or so trying to create compelling language for Joe. Nobody seems to be getting the languaging down to Judy's satisfaction, so she interrupts."Notice my coach-like silences, and my laser-like proactive questions. If you're talking to a visual person, come up with a visual example," she says.Jane tells us that when a good message lands there is always "the silence of the kerchunk."I finally remember who Jane reminds me of -- or better yet, what she reminds me of. I used to work with a teacher on Cape Cod who had gone through both est and the Forum. She was always inviting me to a possibility, thanking me for an opportunity, or begging me to be "in inquiry" with her. I'd bet my Airstream (the one I don't own yet) that Jane went through est or the Forum, and Thomas Leonard did too.The Forum and est were masterminded by a guy named Werner Erhard, who combined motivational sales tools with Chinese re-education camp tactics. During the '70s, up until about 1992, his programs brought in billions of dollars by deconstructing people, then giving them an inner-world makeover, based on Erhard's "languaging" techniques. At the time Werner Erhard was considered cutting-edge.In a 1987 Industry Week magazine article, Erhard is referred to as an "executive coach" who "empowers people to take action, and make distinctions." He refers to people as "conversations," and explains that by altering people's language you can get them to make breakthroughs, see new possibilities. He seems to be saying something simple and intriguing, but when you take the concept apart it's nearly empty.Now the only people directly following Werner Erhard are the IRS -- who can't seem to find him, but would like to explore the possibility of Erhard paying $14.5 billion in back taxes.March 19I agree to meet with Donna Smart, another local coach. She smiles exactly like she does in her picture -- chipper. She tries to size me up by my overcoat, which initially makes me feel awkward.I ask whether it bothers her to do all her coaching on the phone or over the Internet with people she has never seen."There's just a connection or not a connection," she says. "What a person looks like is like an outer thing. Over the phone I can get in touch with the inner. Right after I connect with someone, I give them a Myers-Briggs test.""That's the one that divides people into four categories, right? Like you're either an extrovert or an introvert orÉ?""That's right. Which one are you?""I don't know. It turns out different every time."She eyes me suspiciously.Donna talks about the kind of clients she has -- company bigwigs affected by downsizing and mergers. She thinks she'll probably work with employees at McDonnell Douglas and Boeing when they need coaching."You don't see this coaching as a classist thing?" I ask.She tells me one of her clients is an active member of Debtors Anonymous. "I work with people on what's standing in their way and how they move through it," she says.She talks about the beauty of working in a supportive community of people like coaches, who come from a point of abundance -- who are eager and spiritual."When you say spiritual, what do you mean?" I ask.She swirls the tea around in her paper cup, then looks up to see if I'm kidding. She starts talking about abundance.I ask, "Isn't it ironic that some people are talking about an abundance wave, while a lot of people are getting poorer?" Donna says everyone's definition of abundance is different. She's gracious and attentive. It's hard not to like her."All I can do is shift people who shift other people who shift other people. All I can do is this right now," Donna says.She's much more of a professional than Jim -- more secure in her opinions. Donna was already coaching executives before she enrolled in Coach U, so I ask her why she'd bothered to take the TeleClasses."It gave me a lot of languaging and distinctions so I can communicate with clients," she says. "Like distinctions between strength and power -- strength is inside, and power is outside. I'd rather have strength than power." She lists other tidy distinctions.She tells me that Thomas Leonard, the founder of Coach U, is "a real forward thinker.""He's putting together a thousand Top 10 Lists," she says, "and anyone who accesses the Internet can write in their Top 10 List." I don't ask the question: Who would want to?Both Jim and Donna mention the importance of intuition in coaching, but I realize I haven't heard one spontaneous idea come out of either of them. The underlying mode for coaching is starting to seem like control. Control of self. Control of others.March 20I'm late for my third TeleClass."Who just came on?" Jane asks.I feel like I'm at an AA meeting. Jane offers all of us another Top 10 List. Top 10 Places to Have a First Session with Clients.It's role-playing time again. Beth from Chicago plays "Ted," who wants to move to West Virginia. Someone on the line suggests that Ted "get connected to his opportunity."Then Jane kicks into coaching kung fu mode. She has a veritable arsenal of lists and challenges to throw at Ted. She tells Ted to come up with a list of 10 phone calls to make during the week, and to take the 10-step TruValues test."Are you game?" she asks. Ted says, "Sure."I have my own copy of the TruValues test at home that Jane emailed me last week. I remember that one of the Values is "unstick others."Before Jane releases us to the world where everyone either is or needs a coach, she tells us about the Ten Top Tolerations (things that we unconsciously put up with). "I want you to zap them all." March 21I run across a book called I'm Dysfunctional/ You're Dysfunctional by Wendy Kaminer. It's actually better than it sounds. Kaminer analyzes the whole self-help and personal transformation industry in this country from the late 1800s up through the early '90s. What she questions is the lack of social responsibility and awareness and the rejection of reason that's at the core of the personal growth movement. She refers back to George Orwell's ideas about the dangers of "reduced expectations of language" and the "substitution of ideas and feelings for reason."Coaching claims to be centered on actions rather than feelings, but its obsession with "moving forward" makes me think of a powerboat skipping across the surface of waves. Or better yet, there's Jim's own "We can only deal with the tip of the iceberg" theory. Never linger in darker waters.March 27At the official introductory TeleClass, Diane from Seattle tells us all about a bad coaching experience she had. She was trying to coach a woman whose husband grabbed the phone from his wife and said "She doesn't need a coach or anyone," and hung up on Diane.That led to a full-class discussion about mental illness, which the husband, the wife, or both of them obviously suffered from, according to Jane. Jane suggests that we try to identify people's pain in advance, then sidestep it by pushing them off on a therapist.Jane must have been sick of role-playing, because we skip it tonight. Instead she tries to sell us on enrolling at Coach U for two years and several thousand dollars.She recites a list of 10 things, including that we apply every principle we learn in life immediately, and that we work with 100 clients per year."You can add value to other people by working with them," she tells us.March 28 My friend Teresa calls to suggests that I sign up for a $500 Covey Leadership Seminar taught by one of Covey's nine children. I ask Teresa -- who has a degree in classics -- what she could possibly like about Covey. She tells me she never actually read his whole book, but she gleaned the important parts.I remind her that she said it changed her life."It did," she says. "I started making a lot more money in sales after I memorized Coveyisms. People in corporations think you're speaking their language, and then they trust you. It's the same with all that Coach U stuff you're learning. People eat it up. It works.""It's manipulative.""People want to be manipulated," Teresa says. "What did you think this was all about?"