Friday, January 12, 2018

In praise of life’s unpaid ‘coaches’


Recently, I met a life coach. A lovely woman in her fifties, sociable and full of positive energy. We probably could have become friends, if it had not been for her attempts to recruit me as a client.

Life coaches essentially make a living by optimising individuals’ lives. They like to emphasise that they do not fix psychological problems. Instead, they guide ordinary, mentally healthy people to improve their lives by setting personal and professional goals which help them achieve the life they really want.

Sounds lovely in principle. Yet, I cannot help but see this modern line of business suited mainly to those who discover that their money does not make them as happy as they thought it would and now hope to invest their ineffective riches in finding the kind of satisfaction their materialistic lifestyle has not produced.

Can paid strangers help us identify and live a good life? I asked the life coach why someone would pay a stranger to get the kind of advice usually offered freely by elders, teachers, lecturers, religious leaders, older friends and other mentors we trust and who know us well.

I was given a brochure which explained that life coaching is all about “you”. Aha! Apparently, if I considered myself unique and important enough to engage a life coach, he or she would focus just on me. Me! The number one in MY life, the centre of MY universe.

No offence to any well-meaning life coaches out there, but do we really need a world in which more citizens are encouraged to believe that everything should be about them – that being self-centred is the key to happiness?

What is wrong with sharing our traditional advisors - be it parents, friends or educators – with many others? If masters have many apprentices, teachers educate many students and parents guide many children, are they not better qualified to help us balance our individual, selfish goals with what our family, community or society needs?

Should you, the “number one person” in this increasingly individualistic world, pay for assistance in achieving “personal bests”, to “overcome all self-doubts” and create a life “on your terms”? Should you engage a stranger to make sure you “commit to your goals” and stay motivated to achieve them?

For me, the answer is no. I trust familiar mentors to dispense their (sometimes unwelcome) advice and help me live reasonably harmoniously with those whose goals differ from mine.

I trust elders and counsellors to tell me if I act as if the world revolves only around me – firmly, as they have done since my early childhood. I want them to reprimand me when attempts to perfect my own life interfere with the conflicting needs and expectations of others.

The advisers we do not pay are so much more likely to tell us honestly if we act in ways which are risky, destructive, inconsiderate or simply stupid. Instead of encouraging delusions of grandeur, unpaid mentors encourage us to let go of unrealistic goals and enjoy the company of perhaps unambitious but kind and supportive people.

Who says we need constant commitment to long-term goals? As we mature, abandoned goals and changed priorities may not signal failure, but the wisdom to respond to changing life circumstances and to new challenges flexibly and intelligently. Commitment to the people in our lives may require abandoning our dedication to personal goals, as all young parents can tell you.

I reserve the right to change direction after each epiphany, to be inspired by strangers who pursue noble goals I never considered and to lower my expectations when it becomes obvious that illusions I chase interfere with the harmony in my community. I would rather not live a life just on my terms. Can I keep some self-doubts as well, please? I think they may be a part of my healthy conscience.