Why So Many Coaches?

questionsI’ve been mulling the proliferation of ADHD coaches. I always want to err on the side of thinking people are well-intentioned, so I attribute this in part to what I think is really a wonderful impulse: the desire to “pay it forward” when you have experienced support yourself. But this alone can’t account for the crazy-ass, exponential growth of all kinds of different coaching — not just ADHD coaching. You can hire a coach for most anything, from a generic “life coach” down to niches like parenting coaching, or even coaching to get laid (aka a “dating coach.”) The International Coaching Federation grew tenfold in a decade: from about 1,500 members in 1999 to 16,000 in 2011.[1] So what’s going on?

We’re confused. If you’re old enough to read non-fiction voluntarily, “constant change” and “complexity” are probably part of your vocabulary for describing the world you live and work in. Nothing is simple, dammit. Part of this is an unfortunate general by-product of adulthood, but in fields like psychology, sociology and economics, writers talk about the particular effects of a modern life that constantly demands complex decisions on the part of ordinary people.[2] Presented with an endless array of decisions to make — from biggies like what career to pursue down to picking the “right” running shoes from umpteen brands, we get tired, stressed out and confused. A coach, consultant, or Lululemon “educator” (I shit you not) becomes a welcome friend/expert who helps you bear the cognitive load of a world that demands your active attention at every turn.[3]

We’re lonely. I hinted at this in my previous blog where I talked a bit about how caring for others and being cared for, in like-minded communities, plays a powerful role in our desire to be better people. Many of those like-minded communities were, in the past, geographical (that is, being physically proximate to a community of other people in daily life), religious, or civic in nature. All of these social structures, which used to give us a sense of place and purpose have weakened a great deal.[4] Coaching and support groups may well be replacements for forms of community that we no longer encounter as part and parcel of the rhythms of daily life. I don’t mean to romanticize community too much. Sometimes it is a total pain to be accountable to a community of people, and we may not even like everyone in our community. I am saying, though, that a sense of community, on the whole, is an important social need, warts and all, so we’ll always seek it out.

Coaching is a great small business model. You don’t need any credentials to call yourself a coach, and sophisticated online platforms make it easy to market yourself through a combination of blogging, virtual one-on-one or group engagement, and podcasting. So you can fire up your coaching or consulting business with almost no upfront investment of time or money. I would argue that this model is all the more alluring as standard jobs disappear and people look for viable ways to earn a living as small business operators. I’ve also thought about this in relation to the erosion of publicly funded services. Many quasi-therapeutic interventions (ADHD coaching or grief coaching for example) serve as private-sector responses to the kinds of troubles that under different socio-economic models would be addressed through public services.[5]

Self-help books don’t work. This kind of ties in to my earlier point about communities and our connections to others as an impulse to “self-improve.” Lots of self-help books suck, but some of them are really good. All share the same quality, however, in that at some point you have to stop reading and start doing. I wonder if coaching hasn’t proliferated in part because of a slow, collective realization that most of us need some form of accountability to others to finish things we start: even things we really care about. Investing time and money in a coach’s services or a coaching group is a form of self-imposed accountability when the how-to books alone aren’t cutting it.

Coaching is for winners. When I first started investigating this coaching business more thoroughly, I saw quite quickly that the coaching model and its expansion is driven in no small way by executive coaching. In another blog, I talked about why this is problematic. Here I’ll just observe that executive coaching has a long lineage in self-help books, conferences, and consulting gigs aimed at improving productivity in the form of sales. In sales culture, being better means gaining money and status in one’s organization. It also means that corporations with sufficient resources may be willing to foot the bill to get more out of their top talent. This is why executive coaching is the dominant model among the spectrum of paid interventions that are labelled “coaching.” In essence, executive coaching is in demand, and lacks the stigma of the therapeutic model that tends to be associated with supports for people suffering from mental illnesses and addictions. The “executive” angle takes coaching mainstream, and this has trickle-down effects.

I started this whole foray into coaching wondering how you can sort the wheat from the chafe: that is, given that coaching is wildly unregulated, how can people have assurance that they are getting good help? That’s still an important question, but its also intriguing just to sit back and ask what the proliferation of coaching tells us about ourselves and our society. Simon Western finds us bumping along intersecting rivers of ideas about our “wounded” and “celebrated” selves — healing and seeking authenticity as powerful forces that don’t let us rest in being okay as we are. For better or for worse, coaching taps into this pervasive, contemporary pressure to better ourselves.


[1] These figures are cited in Western, S. (2010). Coaching and mentoring: A critical text. London and New York: Sage Publications.

[2] I love Barry Schwartz’s (2004) book The Paradox of Choice. He goes into lots of the science behind decision-making, showing that 1) consumerism presents us with lots of choices, many of which are about stupid stuff that doesn’t matter; and 2) that we’ve only got so much brain power (executive functions) to make choices. The “paradox” is that we buy the idea that it’s great that we are so “free to choose,” when we are actually slaves to choice because we’re constantly depleted by exercising it, making it difficult to focus on what really matters to us. Do we *really* want to waste our brain power choosing from among 50+ kinds of toothpaste?

[3] Seriously, how am I going to choose from 126 shades of $20 eye shadow with out my Mac consultant?

[4] This was the topic of Robert Putnam’s (2000) Bowling Alone. Coolest book. He uses US survey data to show a gradual decline in memberships in social organizations, diminishing our collective “social capital.” The erosion of traditional social relationships and social institutions is also a theme in the work of British sociologist Anthony Giddens.

[5] See Esping-Anderson (1990). The three worlds of welfare capitalism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.


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