Today, we’re talking about what we both consider one of the ULTIMATE grifts…LIFE COACHING.
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Part I: The Preamble (as it’s come to be called)
I, thankfully, don’t have any personal experience with life coaching. I’m broke and not easily swayed, so I’ve never been sucked into a scam of this magnitude. What I do have is the fact that I’m from South Florida–which could arguably be considered Grift City, U.S.A.--and my parents let me watch way too much television as a child.
This isn’t the episode for it and I feel like it would take a whole episode to fully get into why South Florida is Grift City, U.S.A. but those of you who know, know that it’s the site of many a scam and also the preferred home for the people doing the scamming, including some of the people we’ll discuss today.
So, you might remember when we were kids, brother, late at night, there’d always be infomercials for products and services and stuff YOU ABSOLUTELY NEEDED. And there’s, unfortunately, many of these commercials that stick out in my mind. I don’t know what it is about the combination of late night delirium and being under 14 that makes that kind of stuff imprint on you but it really does…in the most annoying way.
Some of the infomercials that I remember the most vividly were for Tony Robbins products. Well, I guess actually, Tony Robbins himself was the product and you paid to have access to that product. I think Tony Robbins really stands out in general because he was more than just a life coach…he was also a celebrity. He hung out with Oprah and Bill Clinton. He even made a cameo in the Farrelly Brothers movie, Shallow Hal. He was like…around SO much. And as a kid, I couldn’t really decipher exactly WHY he was around. I just knew he was the big, tall guy with the weird voice who sold all those tapes on TV.
Luckily, everyone on the internet is a weird little freak, so I was able to find the Tony Robbins commercial from 1999 that I remember the most. The thing I remembered about it was there were these testimonials from people who had gotten out of millions of dollars in debt after using the program, and it repeated the word “technology” a lot. Googling to try to find this commercial was an absolute nightmare but shout out to DigitaliseMe on YouTube…you really held it down for us here. The commercial was for Tony Robbins’ PERSONAL POWER II. PERSONAL POWER II was a Tony Robbins product that promised that in 30 days, you’d master your EMOTIONS, your PHYSICAL BODY, your RELATIONSHIPS, your FINANCES, and your TIME. According to the commercial, Tony Robbins studied the most successful people (doesn’t specify what arena these successful people come from or what they’re successful at) and then synthesized all that information into this PERSONAL POWER program. The program was 24 audio cassettes long…24. I don’t even know how you’re supposed to finish 24 cassette tapes in 30 days, let alone LEARN from them. But I digress. The commercial explains exactly what you’ll learn from these tapes. You will:
Discover your driving force
Take action consistently
Get what you really want
Create new momentum in your life
Use the power of physiology and gain control
Unleash your financial genius
Condition yourself for wealth
Create a passionate relationship
Overcome fear of rejection
…and MUCH more!! In 30 days!!!
Along with 800 audio cassette tapes, you also get a specially formatted journal to record your daily progress and also a VIDEO cassette on Life Management where Tony gives you the keys for creating a more balanced life. Very confusing considering…isn’t that what the audio tapes are for? Again, I digress but I just have to put that out there.
Now, this was 1999…you’re getting like, I don’t know, 50 to 100 hours of “personal coaching” with this product. How much do you think it was to order this shit from the TV, brother?
It actually cost 239 AMERICAN DOLLARS plus $9.95 for shipping. So, adjusting for inflation, this shit would cost 432 DOLLARS right now. A quarter of my rent!!
Quite. A. Scam.
And that’s just scratching the surface because that’s just the stuff they were hawking for people to have at home. This doesn’t even touch what Tony Robbins and other people were charging for their actual in-person seminars and weekend retreats and personal consulting.
One thing that I thought as I began this research was…is this even still relevant anymore? And it might be tempting to think it isn’t but this pool is DEEP, brother. And it’s still very, very relevant. The thing is, the life coaching industry has evolved just like everything else does, but it’s still pumping out people like Tony Robbins all the time.
Part II: What exactly IS the grift?
I want to be clear that when we’re discussing life coaching, we’re NOT talking about therapy. Mental health professionals, therapists, psychologists…these are not the same as life coaches. While it’s not perfect, the field of psychology is heavily regulated and there are a lot of requirements for getting licensed and for what you can and can’t do with your patients.
Life coaching, very simply, is not regulated in any way. Anyone, anywhere can become a life coach, and they are not required to obtain any education to become one. They also don’t have to prove that they have some kind of particular knowledge in order to do life coaching. As far as I can tell, the requirements for being a successful life coach are being charismatic, understanding that vulnerable people are easily fooled, and knowing a lot of snappy catch phrases.
Since life coaching is not technically therapy, our listeners might be wondering what it is. Honestly, the definition of life coaching is pretty nebulous, but according to VeryWellMind.com, life coaching “helps people make progress in their lives in order to attain greater fulfillment” and life coaches “can help you clarify your goals, identify the obstacles holding you back, and then come up with strategies for overcoming each obstacle. In creating these strategies, life coaches target your unique skills and gifts.” So very basically, what this sounds like to me is that life coaching attempts to help you better your life and change behaviors without excavating and dealing with what causes those behaviors in the first place.
There are, of course, different kinds of life coaches. VeryWellMind provided a list of basic categories of life coaches, so the most common ones are:
Addiction and sobriety coaching
Business, executive, and leadership coaching
Dating and relationship coaching
Diet and fitness coaching
Family life coaching
Health and wellness coaching
Life skills coaching
Mental health coaching
Now, if you look at some of these categories, you’ll notice that some of them definitely overlap with what mental health professionals do, and again, they’re doing this work WITHOUT ANY KIND OF TRAINING OR CERTIFICATION.
I don’t know…I’m not the smartest person on the planet, but looking at the bare facts of it, it’s not hard to see how and why this is such a lucrative thing for people do it. You’re basically offering people a solution to their problems while guaranteeing they won’t have to do the often difficult and painful work of going to therapy and working with a mental health professional. In addition to that, we live in a very therapy-averse society. Obviously, this is getting better but there’s still a weird stigma about going to see a therapist. So, you can bank on the shame that some people might feel in seeking out this kind of help from someone else. Going to a wellness seminar run by a life coach doesn’t have the same amount of emotional weight as going to therapy does. Going to a wellness seminar could mean anything, especially right now in the weird wellness haze we’re living in. There’s a lot of money to be made on people who are too afraid to deal with their problems AND too ashamed to say they need the help. It sucks!
Part III: The history of the grift
I’m sure you’d agree, brother, that in order to understand the architecture of a grift in its current state, it’s important to understand where the grift came from. I don’t think you’ll be shocked by any of the information I’m about to give you but here it goes…
There seems to be some conflict in exactly where the idea of “personal coaching” came from. Many of the sites I consulted cite Thomas J. Leonard as the lead on the grift in its current state, but I also discovered that before “personal coaching” became a Thing, motivational speaking was kind of a popular-yet-not-exactly-mainstream racket that was born in the 1950s/1960s. The standout character from this period of personal coaching is a guy named Jim Rohn. Jim Rohn had a bunch of jobs, but mostly, he was a businessman. More specifically, he was a businessman who was heavily involved with the burgeoning multi-level marketing business that was popping up in this time period.
That’s right…the roots of motivational speaking and, in turn, life coaching are firmly planted in what might be the biggest grift of them all: multi-level marketing.
So, people–specifically the Rotary Club and big corporations like Standard Oil–start noticing that this dude Jim Rohn is a very effective speaker and is able to help get their members and employees motivated. Motivated to do what? I’m not sure. I’m guessing motivated to do more fucking grunt work that is absolutely meaningless to them, which means he was extremely valuable to them. He kind of gains a following doing this stuff, and ends up mentoring a lot of people who become big on the self-help and life coaching circuit like the CEO of Herbalife Mark Hughes, Harv Ecker who wrote Secrets of a Millionarie Mind, Chris Widener who along with Rohn wrote a very popular book called Twelve Pillars that laid out their understanding of the twelve pillars of success, the guys who created the Chicken Soup for the Soul empire, and our boy….TONY ROBBINS.
There’s definitely no doubt in my mind that this dude Jim Rohn laid the foundation for what we know of life coaching today, but according to a variety of sources I found, life coaching AS WE KNOW IT was started by Thomas J. Leonard.
Guess what his job was at first, brother….
He was a financial planner. Yup, another fucking businessman. You can kind of see where I’m going with this whole life coach situation, but we won’t go there yet.
Leonard was a financial planner who, according to LifeCoachingProfessionally.com, “observed that his clients, though emotionally stable and hardly needing therapy, wanted more from him than just the usual tips on how to invest and safeguard their incomes. They wanted help in organizing their lives better and planning and achieving their goals.” I guess….fair enough. We live in a society that is determined to rip our lives of any meaning we can find, so I get why his clients wanted to know more than just what to do with their money, but man…this shit sucks.
After Leonard noticed this trend, he turned around and wrote what would become an incredibly popular book called “The Portable Coach: 28 Sure Fire Strategies For Business And Personal Success.” Now, you know there was no way in hell I was reading this book, but I did read enough to understand what exactly was going on with it. Essentially, the book is laid out in steps you must take to not be the lazy, unorganized piece of shit you currently are. It appears that by the end of this book, you’re guaranteed to “Discover what matters most to you.” This could mean literally anything, which seems to be the most important thing about this whole grift: make a bunch of vague ass promises so people can interpret them as they will.
I won’t go through the 28 steps, or “strategies” as he calls them, but I figured I would share some of the standout ones, and we can kind of discuss what we think is going on here:
Step 1. Become Incredibly Selfish
Step 4. Overrespond to every event
Step 6. Affect Others Profoundly
Step 8. Become Irresistibly Attractive to Yourself
Step 10. Promise Little, Deliver Everything
Step 15. Tolerate Nothing
Step 17. Endorse Your Worst Weakness
Step 20. Develop More Character Than You Need
Step 27. Have a Vision
Step 28. Be Real, Be Human
After the book became successful, Leonard was like “I gotta go BIGGER,” so he did. He founded Coach U and the International Coaching Federation and these became places where more capitalist pigs like him could go and learn how to do the same shit he was doing. Because Leonard created these INSTITUTIONS, he’s regarded as the creator of life coaching AS A PROFESSION. Unfortunately, Leonard died at the young age of 49, so he wasn’t in the game for very long, but regardless, pinpointing him as the kind of father of this profession feels right considering he started doing this stuff in the 80s and 90s and life coaching really did skyrocket in popularity during that time.
Now, let me be clear in saying I don’t think life coaching became popular simply because Leonard wrote these books and started these institutions. We’ve discussed on the show before how the 80s was really the time when people were reckoning with the fact that the facade of the success of the middle class was just that: a facade. So, in tracing this history, I can see how rampant, unfettered predatory capitalism and globalization was really driving more and more people to feel as if their lives had no meaning beyond what they could produce and that they would never achieve the societally constructed version of success that was being sold to them.
To me, that more clearly explains the proliferation of life coaching during this period, and these people literally made BILLIONS of dollars off this shit. Everything from books to video and audio tapes to CDs to computer programs to video games to, of course, the in-person weekend seminars and retreats were AND ARE being hawked by these spineless sickos to people who just WANT TO BE BETTER. And a lot of times, without fully realizing it, what they mean by “better” is they want to be better capitalists, better producers within the capitalist marketplace…not better humans.
Part IV: What’s up with the grift today?
Well, I don’t think I need to tell you, my brother and fellow wellness industry hater, that this grift is ALIVE AND WELL. In fact, as recently as January 25, 2022, USA Today published an article titled “Top coaches to help level up your life in 2022.” A lot of these people now don’t really call themselves “life coaches.” It seems that that title has become kind of hokey and outdated. They are usually referred to as wellness coaches or something to that effect. But the grift remains the same.
When you visit these people’s websites and social media accounts, you see the exact same thing: a bunch of people hawking products that make vague promises to better people’s lives without making them do too much heavy lifting, and without addressing the real thing that’s making them miserable…which is capitalism.
So that kind of leads me to where this whole thing was going this whole time…life coaching is quite literally a product designed to keep people compliant with the system of capital. The language is vague on purpose, just like how the language of our laws is vague on purpose. It’s designed to TRICK YOU…to make you believe it’s good for you so you spend the money you earned at that job that’s making you feel like GARBAGE.
It’s not designed to make people better humans or to make them feel like there’s more meaning in their lives. It was designed to make people better workers and that is extremely fucking shitty. Not just because capitalism is bad but because they’ve created this image of this thing as not being predatory like EVERYTHING ELSE and in fact, it is just like EVERYTHING ELSE.