The Emergence of an Industry: The Business of Coaching

As you might know from following this blog or just poking around, I work part-time with a coaching business. In that role I have thought hard not only about the craft of coaching, but also about the business of coaching. In other words, I am thinking deeply about two questions:

1. “What is coaching?”

2. “Why are people buying coaching?”

History of the Nine Dot Problem - Art of Play
The 9-Dot Problem from Paul Watzlawick’s Change

I have tried to write about question #1 n times and failed n times. Someday, perhaps, I’ll publish a magnum opus. My answer, for now, is that coaching can mean many things to many people. If that sounds like a cop out, that’s because it is. And, for better and worse, it’s also true.

#2 is turning out to be the easier question to answer.

Earlier this year I turned through the book The Sovereign Individual. I did not finish it––I stopped in the middle. Not because it’s a bad book, but because it was published in 1997.

If you were lucky enough to read The Sovereign Individual in 1997, it would have been an exciting and provocative look into the future––something like a non-fiction version of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. As for me, in 1997 I was more concerned with Legos than futurism. And reading The Sovereign Individual as history in 2020 was more sobering than exciting, despite a new forward from Peter Thiel.

Nevertheless, I was pleased that The Sovereign Individual added a word to my vocabulary: macropolitics. For the purpose of this essay, you can think of the relationship of politics to macropolitics* like this:

Politics: The election of Donald Trump.

Macropolitics: The economic, social, technological, and environmental conditions that led to the election of Donald Trump.

If you are familiar with Paul Watzlawick’s Change: Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, one of my favorite books, then you’ll recognize “macropolitical change” as change of a “higher order” than “political change.” This means that political change will not change macropolitics, but macropolitical change will likely change politics.

My argument in this essay is that the rise of the coaching industry is a consequence of macropolitics. Joe Biden? Donald Trump? It doesn’t matter, coaching is coming.

A Good Business Idea

“Want a good business idea? Simply find something––anything––that people do for themselves or each other. Then convince them that it is too difficult, tedious, demeaning, or dangerous to do themselves. (If necessary, make it inconvenient or illegal.) Finally, sell it to them. ––Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity

I love this elegant––if cynically worded––idea from Charles Eisenstein.** I particularly enjoy the mental exercise of starting with a product or service, and then working backward to fit it into Eisenstein’s framework. Try it with your own corner of capitalism.

Because of my work, I tried to fit personal and executive coaching into the framework. And, of course, it works: It used to be that people didn’t need coaching. Today they do.

This is in part because they have been, in Eisenstein’s words, “convinced” that they need it. But also in part because people are unable to get coaching and mentorship where it used to be available for free.

I’ll just briefly address the “convincing” that’s happening before moving on to the––much more interesting––latter point.

Some part of the growth of the coaching industry is linked to the insatiability of capitalism. Buried deep in the hearts and bellies of men and women today there is a desire for “more.” “More what?,” you ask. And how reasonable it is that you ask it.

The answer to the question “More what?” has been planted there by the spades of advertisers and fertilized by generations. (Think: “Whiter Teeth” or “More Savings on Car Insurance.”) By now, the persistent capitalist longing for “more” is embedded firmly into our culture. It’s an essential part of the socialization and enculturation of our children.

And, of course, just like toothpaste, coaches can use the same method to lure clients: offering “more.” Only, because of the vagueness of coaching (Remember: “Many things to many people…”), the deal can look especially Faustian. This is why coaches sometimes come across as charlatans––and certainly, some are. Something about a man’s teeth being too white makes him seem untrustworthy, after all.

Tony Robbins' top book recommendations
“Just look at these bad boys. I bet you wish you could have teeth this white. Buy my fucking book. I coach Bill Clinton.”

But like I said, the capitalist Slings and Arrows (Selling and Advertising) are the least interesting part of the macropolitical picture. I believe the below trends are responsible for the growth of the coaching industry. To be sure, there’s more happening than just these four trends.

  • Corruption and failure of institutions and the resulting popular anti-establishment attitudes
  • Erosion of human relationships, Gen Z will not “Bowl Alone”––they don’t even bowl
  • An unpredictable, illegible future and the rise of the gig economy
  • Fragmentation of consensus reality rising from social media including “fake news”

I suspect that you are finding yourself mostly nodding along in agreement with me that each of these phenomena is, in fact, happening. And so below I do not try to prove them. Instead, I accept them as my premises. If you don’t accept my premises, I’d be interested to hear why––let me direct you to my contact page.

The rest of this essay merely tries, point-by-point, to explain how the premises will impact the emergence of the coaching industry. I’ve done my best to subdue my own bias and to present the phenomena without sentiment.

Corruption and failure of institutions and the resulting popular anti-establishment attitudes

The same anti-establishment attitudes that led to a Donald Trump presidency are changing the world of “getting help.” For measure, this isn’t a left-and-right thing: Bear in mind that the real leadership of the American left is a bartender-turned-congresswoman.

There is a growing skepticism toward PhD and M.D. as the symbols of a qualified helper. In part it’s an economic phenomenon: The modern economy has proven that the B.A. to be mostly worthless. It’s not a tremendous leap to assume the PhD and M.D. to be worthless, too.

But the skepticism comes also from the schism between the credentialed and uncredentialed classes. The former is arrogant, the latter suspicious. Coaches capitalize on the gap.

And attitudes of “helpers” are changing, too: I have heard a story of a Harvard-educated therapist who thought of pivoting her practice to life coaching. She has been frustrated by the muck of highly regulated work. The American Psychiatric Association cannot move at the speed of capitalism and technology. Coaches can.

Erosion of human relationships, Gen Z will not “Bowl Alone”––they don’t even bowl

In some sense, hiring a coach is hiring a friend. The idea of paying for friendship hurts the heart, of course, but refer to the Eisenstein quote above and shake your first at capitalism.

As people grow lonelier and lonelier and the idea of paying for human companionship grows more and more tenable. (And let’s not pretend that the idea of paying for companionship hasn’t been around for a while.)

I know of people who hire multiple coaches: for life, for business, for tennis lessons, for investing. One can have an impressive network of friends––for a price.

An unpredictable, illegible future and the rise of the gig economy

To a 20 year-old, career and life advice from people who work at General Electric is laughably antiquated. I had a conversation with a teenager recently in which I asked him what he wished older people knew about being young. The essence of his answer was, “I wish people knew how scary it is to be a kid today.” Perhaps you and I, too, were scared of the world at 20, but I believe it would be scarier still to be 20 today.

One interesting aspect of the coach is that he is in some sense the vanguard of the gig economy. There are a few established coaching organizations––those stodgy white shoes with names like Korn Ferry––but often coaches are proprietors who must understand “the gig economy” in order to earn their livings. People understand that.

Fragmentation of consensus reality rising from social media including “fake news”

OK, I lied. I’m actually going to argue this premise a little bit. (I still won’t prove it.)

I suspect this will be the most controversial part of this essay. And, to be sure, I am writing it on the least stable intellectual footing. The words of Christopher Alexander come time mind: “I… confess to a squeamishness which must be at least as great, perhaps even greater, than that of the most skeptical reader.” But what-the-hey, it’s my blog and I can do what I want with it––even if that means rambling incoherence.

I recently learned of a condition called dissociation. I never took a college-level psychology class, so it may be the case that it is covered in 101. But to me it was news at 32: Dissociation is “disconnection and lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions, and identity.” In my words, someone who is suffering from dissociation is having trouble distinguishing what is real.

I think in some sense we’re going through a period of mass dissociation.*** Fake news is part of it, but only part of it. At least as large a part of it is due to an absence of community leadership, a void that was filled by Donald Trump with apparent self-satisfaction.

You know from reading this blog that I believe that one of the responsibilities (maybe the responsibility) of leadership is to define reality. Historically, trusted American community leaders were the editor-in-chief of the Local Tribune, the small-town pastor, and the GE executive. Those are people a man might have turned to in the past for a dose of reality; those leaders helped to big-O Orient the newsreader, the true-believing churchgoer, and the Organization Man. But again, those institutions are corrupt and failing: How many Facebook employees believe in Mark Zuckerberg’s public promises and grand vision?

And the problem is getting worse as institutions are becoming less participatory. How many young people do you know who are journalists? It is against-the-odds to get a meaningful job at a corporation. COVID 19 made it impossible to even join a religious congregation––temporarily, I hope.

The easiest place to look for reality, then, is online––to look to virtual reality for reality. Looking at something that you know isn’t real because there is nothing else to look at. It’s Orwellian. it’s Stephensonian. It’s happening right now.

And so, “What the **** does any of this have to do with coaching?”

This is all to say that it may be beneficial to borrow someone else’s reality. People hire coaches to get some perspective: On their careers, on their tennis games, on their lives. And as reality continues to blur, a good set of lenses will grow ever more valuable.

Which leads me back to question #1…

*I am aware that I may not be using this word correctly for an academic setting. I don’t care––my blog, my definition!

**It’s notable that Eistenstein gives his book away for free, which gives you some insight into his cynicism.

***At my most fearful moments, I worry about the onset of a Western or even global Cultural Revolution in the footsteps of the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. Someday I will have the requisite courage and inspiration to write about it.

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