Life coaches are spreading across the planet like Japanese knotweed. A search on Google throws up 231 million results in 0.67 seconds.
t is a con based on a bonkers but tempting premise: We probably don’t realise it, but we all have an untapped inner-self that is superhuman, an all powerful super ego that is capable of bringing us whatever we want. External circumstances are irrelevant.
Whether you are a binman on the minimum wage who left school at 15, or a single mother with one leg, six children and a prescription drug problem, you can soon have that dream job, that dream figure and a marbled mansion on the Riviera.
All you have to do is throw yourselves into the arms of a smiling, high-fiving, motivational coach and — so long as you truly believe — the sleeping giant within you will be awakened.
The rise of this dangerous folly is in danger of turning life into an episode of The Apprentice. Rather than taking an active part in the world around us, striving for social and political change and trying to make our communities better, people are being fooled by the wellness business into striving for a life of dumb positivity, self-promotion, narcissism and individuality which is doomed to end in failure.
The industry message is that we are pathetic to be content to be average humans, those pitiful creatures with complex emotions and desires and fallibilities, that lie and fail and feel pain and despair and mostly try to do our best and grapple with the real problems of the world around us.
Instead, we must become a product to be sold, a walking, breathing advertisement for the self that must exude confidence and happiness at all times, an enterprise designed to create maximum profit, health, happiness, fitness and attractiveness.
We must, as Carl Sederstrom and André Spicer put it in the landmark work The Wellness Syndrome, “become a productive wellness maximiser”.
Or as our own highly-successful life guru Enda McNulty puts it in his self-promotional book, Commit, (I use the term book in the loosest possible sense): “Think of yourself as a human performance system. You are your whole body from the tips of your toes to the top of your head.”
Enda’s banal compendium of statements of the obvious, interspersed with long sections of self praise (modesty is not a recognised concept in this genre) ends with the reminder, “You can’t breathe in the past, you can’t breathe in the future. The only place you can ever breathe is in the now.”
Commit reminds me of Christopher Hitchens’ line, “Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.”
Life coaching is the twin brother of the healing industry. Unregulated, unproven, and unprovable, it peddles an alluring promise of a healthy, wealthy you, if only you truly believe and are prepared to pay for the privilege.
The only proof for this fantasy is the faith it inspires (similar to the TV evangelists) as witnessed by the sycophantic testimonials on the covers of their books and websites. “X changed my life forever. I was unemployed and homeless, but as soon as I learned to visualise, my best self was unleashed and now I have my own Ferrari, a butler, a personal gym and a box in Croke Park.”
Or messages from the CEOs (delighted that their underpaid employees are being brainwashed by a message of personal responsibility) along the lines of, “transformational session with X, who reminded me that being a billionaire is not something to feel guilty for as my Asian staff on minimum wage scrubbed the yacht deck in the moonlight.”
These people have no concrete skills to offer. They can set up as a coach of any kind and get started, the essential qualification being a brass neck.
Tony Robbins, widely viewed as the world’s number one life coach and motivator, started out as a school janitor. They can, and do, award themselves doctorates. They can even establish their own university.
Take Sean Smith, a hugely successful American life coach, who founded the modestly named Sean Smith Elite Coaching University and does a promotional video on YouTube where he looks and sounds uncannily like a salesperson on the shopping channel warning you that those half-price sandwich toasters will soon be gone. His secrets of life coaching are:
Desire — you must really want it; Certainty — project certainty so you can magnetically attract the ideal client; Marketing — this is the most critical step; Performance — you must have the guts to give them a performance (he starts dancing to a loud beat); and, Offer them More — once they are hooked keep them hooked.
The net is bursting with online tutorials with titles like ‘Life coaching in under seven minutes’, ‘How to become a seven-figure life coach’, etc.
One of the tricks is to give a veneer of science to it. Many, for example, describe themselves as neuro-linguistic programmers or masters in NLP.
This is a thoroughly debunked nonsense created by Americans Richard Bandler and John Grinder in the 1970s, two key figures in the unlock the inner potential movement, which led to claims in positive thinking circles that NLP could treat a variety of diseases including Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, HIV/Aids and cancer.
NLP has been ridiculed and rejected by mainstream science, hasn’t a scrap of empirical evidence to back it, but that hasn’t stopped it being added to the CVs of the life coaches.
Take our own Tara Rafter, self-proclaimed “Award winning Life and Business Coach” (like butchers’ sausages, every one of them is award winning).
Tara calls herself The Navigation Coach. Her motto is, “You live once, find your happy place.” She wants to help people who “want to embark on a voyage of self discovery” blah blah blah and when you step aboard the good ship Tara, you will get “My Soul Compass” a Laura Ashley inspired notebook which she describes as “information from my personal growth journey” that will help you to “take the time to get to know yourself and to begin to tune in and listen to your inner voice.”
The punchline? “This book has been created by legends, for legends, right here in Ireland.” Tara is — as you have probably guessed — “a Master Neuro-linguistic Programming Practitioner”.
Let me put this in context. In October last year, a BBC presenter called Chris Jackson, concerned with all this quackery, successfully registered his pet cat George as a neuro-linguistic programmer with the British Board of Neuro-linguistic Programming.
I sat through a YouTube video of multi-millionaire life coach Mike Bayer last week, 20 minutes I will never get back. He comes out in front of a big crowd of employees, asks them to give each other high fives, and says, “I’m not here to talk about me, I’m only interested in you.”
He then proceeds to wander around the stage talking about himself for the rest of the time, starting with a vaguely heroic story about him going to Iraq to meet Kurdish families.
As pictures of Kurds flash up on the screen, his eyes fill with tears, his voice falters, and he says, “I saw the pain in their eyes, it transformed my life.
I went on to do 40 episodes on Dr Phil, I wrote a New York Times best seller, sold a quarter of a million books, (pauses modestly to allow the crowd to clap), I wrote a second book and I’m going to be on TV a lot more. This allowed me to help a lot more people. People just like you.”
All of these coaches say their motivation is that they “love helping people”. As Bayer drones on about himself, a sprightly middle-aged woman comes onto the stage behind him and starts drawing on a whiteboard. He tells the crowd his anti-self is a “male witch, I call him Angelos”.
He asks them to draw their anti-selves. “You can name him possibly after a food you don’t like, maybe Mrs Cauliflower or something.” Then he asks them to draw their best self. “My best self is a wizard called Merlin.” Imagine him trying to pull that shite in the Dungiven clubhouse on a Saturday night.
These wizards of Oz tend to develop a certain God complex. Why wouldn’t they, when they can say things like, “You are the only person on earth who can use your ability” and get a rousing ovation.
Because they are surrounded by yes people and wealth and appear regularly in front of unquestioning crowds of employees on a work jolly, giddy as schoolchildren on a school trip, they begin to believe the bullshit and are stunned when they are challenged.
Last year, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the inaugural Abbey Christian Brothers Newry Old Boys dinner. It was a black tie event, men only.
After dinner, before I was called upon, Enda McNulty, a past pupil, went up, took the mic off its stand and began by asking us all to stand, get our hands in the air and “get some energy in the room”. The crowd of 200 cynics sat there in awkward silence as part one of the motivational coach’s playbook unfolded. Or didn’t unfold. This was not, after all, a work day out for Google geeks.
Enda forlornly struggled on for a bit, but there were no takers. When he sat down I was called. I took the mic, looked at the audience for a minute, eyebrows raised (expectant titters) and said, “Enda is available for children’s parties.” (Big laugh.) Then, slowly, “What the f**k was that?” (place erupts).
At that, I see Enda jumping up from his seat and making a beeline for me. Up onto the stage he bounded and suddenly there he was, facing me, fist cocked. He said, “Come on Brolly. Let’s do it here. Now. Man to man.” I said “Don’t you think you’re being a bit negative Enda? Why don’t you go sit down in the yoga position and find your happy place.”
He was red-faced now, fist still cocked. “I only have one kidney. If you hit me and I die, it will be murder.” Over his shoulder I saw the 1994 Down captain DJ Kane spitting out his pint. He stood there for another ten seconds, then turned and walked quickly back to his table. I said, “A big hand to Enda for taking part in that positive thinking experiment. As his reward, I will be sending him a signed copy of my book, The Ten Commandments of the Inspirational After Dinner Speaker.” This was Ireland’s mental strength coach during the last two Rugby World Cups.
Positive thinking is a cruel philosophy, with a sinister purpose. The message is self-absorption, personal responsibility and blind acceptance of the status quo. It is a denial of reality. The positive thinking gurus agree that it is a bad idea to read newspapers or keep abreast of the news. Critical thinking is out. Magical thinking is in. It is an ideology that rules out social and political change, better work conditions and a dignified existence for citizens. A fair society is not part of the agenda. Instead, the industry supports unchecked capitalism. In job centres now in many countries including the UK, the unemployed are told that if they want to get a job, they must upgrade their mindset and be their best self. If the only barriers to health and wealth are internal, states or corporations do not have to be concerned with decent wages or work conditions or human dignity. The only thing that matters is that the individual unleashes her inner superwoman at which point everything she dreams of will soon be hers.
As McNulty puts it in his book on page seven: “People blame their situation on their mother, their father, their upbringing, their school. Their current or previous boss, their partner, their coach, the government, the economy. They do not really want to face the reality, which is this: THE BIGGEST THING HOLDING YOU BACK IS YOU. IT’S ALL DOWN TO YOU . . . It’s a matter of harnessing your inner strengths to get wherever you want to go.”
And this, in a nutshell, is positive thinking. We are all lotto winners. We just don’t realise it yet. Every minute of every day, more and more plastic life coaches are spreading this fantasy with the fervour of young mormons, and becoming wealthy in the process.
Is it any wonder employers now routinely employ these coaches to brainwash their employees and even appoint full-time positive thinking directors? Low wages? Long hours? Unable to make ends meet? Working two jobs to support a young family? In poor health? Get off your knees you coward and unleash your inner potential. You can be rich like Jeff Bezos if only you have the willpower for it.
The problem with this is that willpower alone doesn’t work, which explains why the vast majority of diets and gym memberships end in failure and self-loathing and why we are not all living on our own tropical island. What works is an environment that gives people security, a sense of community, a sense of fairness, a well-funded public academic and vocational education system, and real opportunity. Instead of an unemployed person getting a decent job, they get life coaching.
Job creation requires long-term investment and painstaking work by governments. Much easier to hire a neuro-linguistic processer to teach the unemployed that it’s all their fault, or send them for a one-on-one session with George the cat.