If you feel like you’re stuck in a rut, what you might need is a life coach – or to find out how to think like one.
Susan looks back fondly at her own career peak “but with a kind of queasy detachment, like it happened to someone else.” She was unused to failure: school and awards and internships came easily to her, and she rose like a shot up the ranks of the fashion marketing field. Scoring a top gig as a fresh-faced 30-year-old, she embraced the advice of the work coach her boss signed her up for. For a decade or so, things were golden.
Then life inevitably happened, “and the applause stopped,” she says. A series of babies and marriages and step-kids, nagging chronic illnesses, aging parents and a tumble of jobs down a jagged trajectory in a disrupted industry found Susan at 53 in her words “living out Groundhog Day, swamped by an identity crisis, jumpy and tense, tired and disengaged. Just plain stuck.”
She yearned for something deeper: “I know I’m a walking cliché, echoing millions of other stalled baby boomers and gen-Xers, but dammit I want to make a difference with my life.”
To do that, she had to tap back into a passion that hadn’t seen the light of day for years. Her “eureka” moment came one day over too many cocktails with her (customarily) equally embittered girlfriends. One day, instead of bitching, the other women were suddenly talking about their life coaches and their work coaches. Had this coaching thing reached a critical mass and everyone was doing something about how mired they felt except her? Susan reminisced with them about how much her work coach had helped her negotiate taking over a staff and budgets and the challenges of managing upwards and downwards simultaneously. An idea and a resolve was born. “It was time to get off my ass,” she says. “I started interviewing coaches to find a fit.”
The rise of popularity of coaching has been attributed to something known in happiness theory as a search for flow. Flow is the title of a seminal 2008 book by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a study of what he calls “optimal experience.” The book posits that when you find your “flow,” a state of absorption in an activity where time passes and you don’t notice it, you find enjoyment, creativity and connection with your best life. He says that this state can be controlled, and you can get a satisfying regular dose of
flow, if you choose to do something you love.
Finding that something is the needle in the haystack. Coaching is different from therapy, in that it is action-based: you set goals with your coach and then set about pursuing them in prioritized, manageable chunks, with accountability. Susan’s chosen coach handed her a copy of Emotional Intelligence, the 1995 classic of the self-help genre by Daniel Goleman, a Harvard PhD and behavioural science writer for the New York Times.
Goleman has published many bestsellers, but this one popularized the work of Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, who wrote in 1990 that emotional intelligence (sometimes called EI, sometimes EQ) “is the ability to monitor one’s own and other’s emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use the information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”
As Susan says, “I hate self-help books. Or at least I did. Frankly, that book and my coach helped me realize it is not you, it is me. I had gotten in the rut of being mad at my bosses, mad at the boring work, mad at being broke and sad, mad at my husband, even my kids, for preventing me from having a life. I just had to stand up and say I want the feeling of living a successful life back, and it is my responsibility to make that happen.”
So what do coaches actually do? First of all, they are preternaturally curious about you and know the power of really listening. Take Toronto’s John MacKay. He is a poster child for the curious and questing nature of boomers: he has been a magazine editor and writer, he owns his own PR company, he earned his MA in clinical psychology, he has been an actor and he is now a life coach. Trained as a Co-Active Coach – one of the oldest and most respected designations of life-coaching, and recognized by the International Coaching Federation – he works on the life transition shift from ambition to meaning. He has a special affinity for his cohort, focusing on reinvention, and he loves later life transition work.
“We outgrow ourselves,” he says. “The life we have lived begins to feel constricting. I have this image of the Hulk and his body busting beyond the chains. I think that outgrowing of the self is the natural progression of age. The challenge is to embrace it – and trust it.” Who we are and what we want gets shrouded over time. “The raw edges and raw sensations, the aliveness of our youth is dulled.”
Coaching, he says, comes from a perspective that we are all capable of living a fulfilling life. That we’re capable of figuring it out and making it happen. A coach helps uncover the pearls of wisdom inside us all.
“I think people feel irrelevant when they’re not building something. That’s why I tend to worry about the people who are settling into the 3 Gs (golf, gardening, grandchildren). Don’t get me wrong – those are lovely things – they’re full of love and nature and a competitive game that demands you work on your skills. But is it going to be enough for boomers … who have built their lives on their professional identities?”
MacKay cites Carl Jung as useful for understanding the potential for growth with age. “Jung called this the afternoon of life, just as full of meaning as the morning and evening. Jung believed cultivating a spiritual outlook is key – yoga, prayer, nature – whatever awakens those parts of yourself that you have not developed while building a career and constructing your social persona.” Inner work, MacKay says, is where we develop compassion and wisdom. “For most people, the new purpose and new sources of energy are not going to come from the outer world. The anecdote to fear is movement, and that is why coaching, with its emphasis on forward action, is great.”
Career coach Ann Sutton of Catalyst High Performance Coaching takes the action part of her mission literally. “Often, my goal is to get my clients doing something special for themselves right away,” says the Toronto-based coach. “Little changes are as important as big changes. It’s surprising the difference a haircut, a new suit, updated make-up, even a new bra can make to a person’s confidence. And confidence walking into an interview is key.”
Sutton understands how careers can evolve. Having started fresh out of journalism school as a television reporter, she went on to get her MBA and enjoyed successful positions in marketing and the digital arena before starting her own business in project and change management.
“Helping organizations restructure or shift priorities sharpened my understanding of how change impacts people,” she says. “And my interest in supporting people as they adapt to changes is what brought me to coaching.”
It is the Robbins-Madanes framework, known as Strategic Intervention, that most intrigued Sutton. “I’m a practical person. This meets my desire to have people take action in smart, strategic ways that move them forward.” It’s based on a variety of disciplines: Ericksonian therapy, strategic family therapy, human needs psychology, organizational psychology, neurolinguistics, psychology of influence, strategic studies and traditions of diplomacy and negotiation. Sutton first meets clients to discuss their needs and assess fit.
Then her work is structured around six or nine session packages based on the client’s goals. Like Susan in our anecdote above, Sutton says, “What all my clients have in common is the desire to make a difference. In my experience, as people get older, that desire becomes more important.”
A common element in coaching practice is to embrace three words. MacKay’s three words are creative, resourceful and whole, and that is at the core of what he believes about his clients. “By doing so, you remind yourself that they aren’t broken, don’t need to be fixed, that they can figure it out and move their lives forward.” Sutton says she wants her clients to feel valued, seen and successful.
Three words is a poetic and rhetorical device, says Sutton. “Most of us can remember three words easily. More than three gets cumbersome. But two doesn’t feel complete for most things as complex as trying to summarize a human experience.”
And in the coaching context, there are many ways three is powerful, she says. “Three goes back to Plato’s description of the primary values of life being the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Philosopher Ken Wilber refers to the objective, subjective and collective (I, We and You) as the three ways we can understand the world. Many people conceptualize humans as body, mind and spirit – and there seem to be physiological centres of neural processing in our brains, hearts and guts.
Behavioural scientist Daniel Pink talks about people’s motivations coming from needs for autonomy, mastery and service.” Sutton concludes there is the ultimate triptych in the context of change: “Coaching starts from the premise that the past is the past, and there is huge power in accepting it, finding the most powerful story to tell about it and then choosing how to act in the present to create the future we want.”
A life coach with a slightly different bent is Kate Arms of Signal Fire Coaching, who cites MacKay’s three words and who uses a movement-based practice called InterPlay as well as traditional coaching techniques, such as clarifying values, shifting perspectives, challenging limiting beliefs, goal-setting, good habit formation and accountability.
Arms works mostly with professionals who want to move to the next level, often “men who need to develop practical skills around emotional intelligence and women who need to accept the power that they have and choose how to wield it effectively.”
This is particularly important with older clients. “The world in which they were raised shaped men and women very differently from one another. Gender norms have shifted, particularly in terms of roles women play in public and corporate life. Expectations around who men and women should be have changed dramatically and are still in transition.”
She has some clients who want to focus solely on work, some on personal relationships and some who want to integrate all their concerns. “Typically, to get traction on a big problem, I work with people for three to six months.” With older clients, there is a concern with legacy as described by all three coaches. “Boomers have more internalized senses of what roles they were raised to fill,” says Arms, “and how they have filled them, and now they have begun to stretch into who they want to become now.”
A mom of four (including triplets), Arms came to coaching when she left a lucrative legal career with detours studying to be a Unitarian Universalist minister and then life as an actor-director. She warns that there is no easy way out. “The classic midlife crisis — affair, fancy car, run off to live somewhere else. But your problems follow you.” However, she says, you don’t have to make a giant change to get unstuck.
“How can I have more fulfillment in my life without actually changing the things I’m doing?” she says is the relevant question for older clients.
“Sometimes total reinvention isn’t going to serve you in the long term. What if you could manage to feel fulfilled without ripping your life apart and putting it together again?” Coaching can be about small, subtle shifts in the way clients look at themselves, she says, “the way they engage in relationships. Micro-adjustments can actually have a huge impact.”
As for Susan, she is still a work in progress. “But I’m doing something, anything, to change my view of the world. I have a new career idea, and I’m keeping it to myself so as not to jinx it. But the sky is bluer today than it was yesterday.”
Coaching is a goals-oriented, time-limited partnership. Some coaches work with packages tailored to a client’s goals; others are more free-form. But expect to pay between $100 to $300 each session.
A version of this article appeared on the “How To Right Your Life,” p. 52-56.