THE MERCHANT OF JUST BE HAPPY
c.2013 New York Times News Service
On a cool mid-September afternoon at the California horse ranch of the life coach Martha Beck, two blindfolded, crouching men came to an impasse. The men had been told to think of themselves as animals and to use only their sense of hearing to try to locate and tag each other — all in an effort to awaken the senses and instincts presumably deadened by desk jobs and smartphones.
But neither one would move, so nothing was happening. One of the men, a lawyer who seemed to have chosen to embody a bobcat — or a mountain lion, maybe? — waited for the other to approach. The other man, a tech executive who was some sort of monkey and had rolled across the ground a moment earlier, was now still.
“The way we do anything is the way we do everything,” Beck told the two frozen men as they tried to figure out their next move. Ten other men, who were not blindfolded, looked on, shifting, waiting for their turns. They were assembled for Beck’s first-ever all-men’s coaching weekend, which she had titled “Escape From the Man Cage.”
Over the course of the weekend, which cost $3,000 per attendee and had filled quickly to capacity, the men would be led through animal tracking, fire-building and, of course, life coaching to help them figure out what was preventing their happiness: Were they living too cautiously? Too passively? Consider the crouching men. The way you do anything is the way you do everything.
Beck has offered personal and professional growth weekends like this to women for years — well, not just for women, but women are usually the ones who show up. Coaching is a nearly $2 billion industry worldwide, according to a 2012 study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the International Coaching Federation, a trade association. And in this industry, Beck has carved out a very successful niche. She’s well known in certain female-centric circles, especially the ones who once watched “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” where she made guest appearances, or who read her monthly column for O, the Oprah Magazine.
Over the years, many women have told me that their lives have been changed by reading one of Martha’s Beck’s best-selling books — like “Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live” (Harmony) — during a job layoff or when having to cope with a newly empty nest. I have yet to hear such comments from a man.
But Beck has long believed that men are in need of attention, too. “When I tell a woman you really need to quit your soul-sucking job, she goes home, and she can tell her husband, ‘I need to quit,’ and he’s like, ‘OK, let’s do it.’” she said. “If I tell a man he needs to quit his soul-sucking job, he has to go home and fight with his wife or fight with his parents and fight with his in-laws and fight with everybody, because men aren’t supposed to be happy; they’re supposed to do well.”
This won’t do for anyone, according to Beck, and she has been spreading the anti-soul-sucking message through coaching retreats at her ranch, coaching trips to Africa, corporate coaching — General Electric is a client — and, in the largest part of her work, training an army of emissaries in her life-coach training program. Telling people they are free, it turns out, can be a multimillion-dollar-a-year business.
She is as bewildered by her success as anyone else: “Everything I’ve ever taught in terms of self-help boils down to this — I cannot believe people keep paying me to say this — if something feels really good for you, you might want to do it. And if it feels really horrible, you might want to consider not doing it. Thank you, give me my $150.”
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
It’s hard to pinpoint when the business of life coaching began — or, rather, everyone in the industry has a different answer. It might have roots in sports coaching. Or it might have sprung from the excitement aroused by motivational speakers of the 1980s. Or it’s the natural outgrowth of the positive-psychology movement of the 1990s. Or maybe it started in ancient Greece.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Coaching includes two broad categories. There are executive and leadership coaches — they train people to be better at business — and life coaches, like Beck, who talk about leadership in one’s own life, from the home to the office and everywhere in between. There is often tension between the two, with executive coaches tending to disdain the sometimes exuberant spiritual sides of life coaches. But they often tread the same territory: how to move forward, make a change, get past an obstacle.
“Every coaching is life-coaching on some level because everyone is a human being,” said Magdalena N. Mook, executive director and chief executive of the International Coaching Federation, a certifying body for coaching that aims to be the industry’s standard trade organization.
There are now about 45,000 coaches operating worldwide. In 2009, the Harvard Medical School established the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, “dedicated to enhancing the integrity and credibility of the field of coaching.” Teachers College at Columbia University has a coaching certification program, also for all kinds of coaches. In 2012, “life coach” finally claimed the most basic legitimacy as an entry in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Beck didn’t think of herself as a life coach, she says, until 2001, when an article in USA Today referred to her that way. But that is essentially what she has been doing since the mid-1990s, when she and her former husband, John Beck, moved to Arizona, where he had a position teaching at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Beck eventually started teaching a career course at Thunderbird, too.
She has traveled in many circles in her 51 years, which seems to work to her benefit as a life coach, or wayfinder, as she sometimes calls herself. The youngest of eight children from a Mormon family in Provo, Utah, she earned a bachelor’s degree in East Asian studies, and a master’s and doctorate in sociology, all from Harvard. It was while at Harvard that she married John Beck, also a Mormon, whom she’d known since high school.
The couple later broke with the Mormon church after coming to terms with the fact that they were both gay. They stayed together for several years for the sake of their children — they had three when they divorced.
Their middle child, Adam, had been diagnosed in utero with Down syndrome, and the 1999 book in which Beck wrote about that experience, “Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth and Everyday Magic,” became a best-seller. She quit Thunderbird to become a writer, but her students kept after her for private career/life workshops. In 2000, she appeared on “Oprah.” Demand for Beck’s coaching services boomed, and she formed Martha Beck Inc., or MBI.
One of the most lucrative aspects of her coaching business is training a band of coaches in the Martha Beck method — about 1,300 so far. Anyone can call herself a life coach, but getting the Martha Beck training, done mostly online, costs $7,000 for an eight-month course. For another $7,000, you can opt for further training to become what is called a master coach. Certification, which allows the coach to use Beck’s logo and to be listed on her website in the coach directory, costs $850.
MBI coach training grossed $1.9 million in 2012 and constituted the bulk of Beck’s business, according to Bridgette Boudreau, the company’s chief executive, in addition to coaching weekends like “Escape From the Man Cage” and her corporate training sessions. Boudreau says Beck has earned $1.5 million on the eight books she’s written and other products, like audiobooks and T-shirts.
At a conference of 310 Beck-trained coaches last year, I met dozens of women — all but four were women — who had changed careers to become coaches. Some had meandered, looking for the right career. Others had been successful in other ventures, but not happy. There was the MBA who had been working as a chief financial officer and hated every part of her job but the mentoring part, so she quit and began coaching businesspeople; the publicist who realized that she wanted to help people and not companies; the geriatric-care manager who wanted to learn to guide bereaved families through grief counseling; the medical doctor now doing health coaching; and several psychologists, one of whom said she wanted to help people look forward, not backward.
A few hours before the men were to arrive for the Man Cage weekend, Beck relaxed in shades of teal — turtleneck, cardigan, earrings — in a circle of rocking chairs outside one of the houses on her ranch in San Luis Obispo, Calif., which she bought a little more than a year ago. She lives there with her son Adam, who is now 25; her domestic partner, Karen Gerdes, who is an associate professor of social work; and two other coaches.
When Beck was 30, she visited Los Angeles. She woke up in her hotel room, but before she opened her eyes, she had the sensation that she was on a horse ranch, one that she owned. The only thing is, she didn’t own a horse ranch. (She didn’t even ride horses.) Years later, when she found the property near San Luis Obispo, which she has named the North Star Ranch, she recognized the destination of that waking dream. She made a bid of $3 million, the exact amount of money, she says, that she had in her savings account. The offer was accepted six months later. “There’s not much left in the bank,” she told me. “It’s all here.”
Beck’s stories are like that. They have a pinch of magic to them, a smidgen of serendipity. They all speak to the same theme: You will have all the happiness and money you need if you can just find what you’re supposed to be doing and do it. The times when Beck has been worried about money, the money hasn’t come. She has learned to simply turn her attention and energy toward the money, and the money will come. It works every time, she said.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
This sort of positive energy talk can sound flaky to the scientifically minded, and insensitive to the person trapped in poverty or impossible circumstance. But Beck, whose clients are not the poor, still manages to impress the skeptical. To those who are turned off by what Beck herself calls “woo-woo” talk, her prodigious autodidacticism — not to mention those three Harvard degrees — helps convince them of the coexistence of the rational and the spiritual.
“Martha’s quite immersed in science and study and sociology,” said Kimberly Kleiman-Lee, who heads up GE’s senior leadership development. “What I love is that she has a solid left brain and a solid right brain.”
Kleiman-Lee hired Beck to coach 22 of GE’s top vice presidents this year. The GE executives were taken to Beck’s ranch, where each was put in a pen with a horse, one at a time. Their task was to learn to lead the horse.
“These guys expect to be put in a room with a bunch of experts and have a safe and comfortable conversation,” Kleiman-Lee recalled, “not a pen with a horse and be called out over and over, and not let off the hook.”
The idea that we should be better — more effective, more efficient, happier — is a vein that runs deep in American culture, from Norman Vincent Peale to Tony Robbins to the many New Year’s resolutions made at this time of year. Martha Beck offers a new iteration on the form, combining a sort of enthusiastic intellectualism with an Oprah-style sense of wonder.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
“What Martha was first and foremost is a great teacher,” said Dr. Victoria Silas, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon in Tacoma, Wash., who read two of Beck’s books before joining her in Africa for a five-day coaching trip that cost $10,000 plus airfare. “What she is so good at is absorbing information and putting it in a context that whatever audience she is speaking with will understand. When she talks to a group of scientists, she can talk about how we process things via the cells, the neurons, the pathways. She talks in a way that uses the concept they understand. But she can also talk to life coaches about woo-woo life synchronicities that fall into her lap.”
Before being trained by Beck, Silas had a nagging feeling that being a doctor wasn’t what she should be doing with her life. After the Africa trip, she enrolled in life-coach training. But what Silas found during her training was that her problems weren’t with her job.
“There was an interesting side effect of life-coach training,” Silas said. “I was no longer hating what I was doing. All of the so-called problems that I thought I had in terms of not fitting or being good at it or good enough — I realized they were in my own head and not outside of me.” Silas returned to pediatric orthopedic surgery, where, she said, she is “now happy a large percentage of the time.”
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Back at the ranch, the men stood deep in the woods, trying to trace the scene of a crime: A turkey — at least they thought it was a turkey — had been killed, its carcass picked dry. All that remained were a bunch of feathers and what looked like the bird’s skull.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Over the course of the weekend, Beck had given each man the option of being coached lightly or aggressively — “kid gloves, scalpel or wrecking ball,” were the choices. She was gentle but persistent. One man wept when he confessed that he fantasized about jumping out of an airplane that was en route to meet a troublesome client. Another, a former CEO, spoke of his deep shame over having been fired and slowly stripped of the status of his position. An engineer covered his face and declared that he wanted to be free from the life he’d constructed for himself.
And now they were gathered around the feathers, trying to figure out what had happened there, a forensics lesson that was somehow supposed to help them learn what had set them so far off the path to happiness.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Beck and her fellow coaches asked the men to notice things and name them without judgment: These are feathers. This is bone. One man pointed out a small pile of feces that rested near the feathers. “It’s from a bear,” he said confidently. “It’s fairly new.”
“Are you sure?” asked Michael Trotta, a master coach and wilderness leader who used to be a schoolteacher.
The man answered: “Yes. You can see there’s still some moisture to it. It’s new.”
“Are you absolutely sure?” Beck asked. “Try poking it.”
The man reached for a stick and poked at the excrement. The stick broke at just a small tap.
“I guess it wasn’t new,” the man said.
At this point, Beck interjected that the biggest mistake you can make is to accept your beliefs without challenging them, without applying the scientific method to see if they are, in fact, true. And many of the men, she said, were assuming that they had to do things a certain way: ignore passion in favor of safer bets, act stoic amid inner turmoil, run on an upward trajectory of success and money acquisition at any emotional cost. But these are not rules. These are just theories that haven’t been tested. And, because the way we do anything is the way we do everything, there’s no way she was going to ignore the metaphor from this pile of feces.
“You have to poke the poop,” Beck told the men. “You can’t just make assumptions about it. There’s no substitute for poking the poop.”