The totally unregulated business of life coaching wants you to leave your past behind and barrel into the future as an ever-perfectible you.

The Game of Life (Coaching)

BUOYED BY THE POWER of personal testimonials such as those above, life coaching—or executive coaching, or personal coaching, or wellness coaching, et al.—has become one of the country’s fastest-growing professions. Its numbers have doubled since 2004, according to the International Coach Federation (ICF), a professional organization made up of 15,000 coaches. Conceived by a Seattle-based financial planner in the 1980s as a way to help his successful young clients define, meet, and then surpass their career and life goals, coaching now claims at least 30,000 practitioners globally, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, though other sources put the number at 75,000. (By way of comparison, the American Psychiatric Association has just upward of 38,000 members.)

Instead of requiring the patient to mine his memory bank and past relationships in order to understand his current emotional state—the crucial requisite of psychotherapy—life coaching embraces a positive, can-do spirit that some might characterize as thoroughly American. In its most extreme form, a life coach is a taskmaster, a consummate motivator hired not to hold your hand, but to kick your ass and help you achieve your goals—whether it’s to make more money, get a new job, or lose weight. Likewise, the language that defines the experience of being coached eschews the touchy-feely tone of psychotherapy: Those seeing coaches are “clients,” not “patients,” and when coached as a group, they are “team members.” In coaching, life is not something to get weepy over; it’s a game to be met head-on, ideally with someone not merely cheering you from the sidelines, but showing you the strategies you need to win.

However, while life coaching started out as a fashionable vehicle of self-empowerment for fast-track entrepreneurs, it may be on the verge of becoming a victim of its own success, or at least of its lack of therapeutic self-examination. Talk to life coaching’s detractors, and they’ll tell you that the very definition of a life coach is far from established; that there are no mandatory regulations governing the profession; that you need more education and licensing to be a bikini waxer, for example, than you do to be a life coach. In fact, if you want to be a life coach, all you have to do is call yourself one.