Even the World's Top Life Coaches Need a Life Coach. Meet Martha Beck

Words of wisdom from the head of a multimillion-dollar empire.

In the conference room of an oceanside hotel in Pismo Beach, Calif., Martha Beck stands on stage, nearing the end of an effusive 90-minute keynote speech for the semiannual Meet and Greet of the (mostly) women enrolled in her life coach training program, when she stops abruptly. “Integrity check!” she says.

She’d been telling the 80 or so trainees a story about her diagnosis many years ago of fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition. She’d been an avid runner before the diagnosis; she’s started running again, even though exercising is often painful for people with fibromyalgia. Her point was that we shouldn’t always believe in our limitations, no matter how expert the source who presents them or how concrete they may seem. Also, maybe we don’t need quite so many rules! She reminded everyone that so much of what we know is told to us with great authority, and we accept it. Part of Beck’s credo—part of any trained sociologist’s credo—is to understand that most rules put in place for our lives are a social construct, so it’s our constant job to ask, “Wait, is that presumption that I have true? What proof do I have that it’s true? How did I come to believe this, and does it serve me to continue believing it?”

A little earlier, she’d illustrated her point by inviting a trainee onto the stage. She asked the woman what was on her mind, and the trainee, who hasn’t given me permission to share her story (so I’ll say it in the broadest terms), said she was having a trust issue with someone she knows. Beck coached her through the problem, teaching her that the only person the trainee needed to trust was herself, and that once she trusted herself, she would know how to live. Beck employed several of her best-known techniques: some questions, some kinesiology. She had the woman raise her arm and try to keep it raised as she made a statement she considered true about her conundrum. The body weakens when it’s lying, Beck explained. So if Beck applies pressure to an arm and it goes down easily, the person knows she’s lying to herself (or others). If it stays strong, well, then the statement is true. The trainee’s arm withstood Beck’s pressure, and she learned from this to trust her instincts. She then made a namaste gesture with hands, bowed, and went back to her chair.

Photographer: Phyllis Lane

Now, in the long seconds after Beck suddenly stops, the room falls silent. She looks at the people in her audience, meets their eyes. Many look as if they’d been created in her image: flowing fabrics and decorative, loosely draped scarves. Beck wears a turtleneck and some stealth jeggings, short motorcycle boots, and a long cardigan. Her smile is slight and confident; she’s the calmest, most attentive person in the world. She squints, inhales as if smelling something familiar but unidentifiable, and turns her head two degrees. Then she looks back at the crowd: “I’ve just done an integrity check,” she resumes. “And I realize that if it’s OK with you, I would like to stay and talk to you again after lunch. Would that be OK?” Would it! They’d been scheduled to do workshops after lunch, but another chance to listen to the woman in whose image they were re-creating themselves? No question. The (mostly) women rise from their seats and clap. Some go off to have spinach salads, while others do quick integrity checks, decide the better move is a hamburger from room service, and run back to their rooms.

For the uninitiated, Beck is the Matryoshka doll of life coaches: She coaches herself, she teaches other coaches, they in turn coach, and so on. She grossed $3.5 million last year, but more significant than her own earning power is her role legitimizing the field. Life coaching used to be a fluke that people rolled their eyes at or likened to psychic readings—a sphere of half-truths at best and rarely sustainable as a full-time job. According to a survey done by the International Coach Federation (ICF), as of 2012, there were more than 15,000 life coaches operating in the U.S. and 41,300 coaches worldwide taking in a total of $2 billion. While numbers are hard to verify (the business is unregulated; some coaches operate out of their homes and call it something else), the federation’s report found that accredited life coaches charge from $85 to $214 per hour.

To understand how life coaching transformed into a viable career option and (almost) shame-free resource, Beck is as good a place as any to start. At first her operation was small: People came to her for coaching, so she coached them. Then there were so many that she decided to write a book, then another, then another. Oprah Winfrey came calling, first for some live coaching on her TV show, then to grant the people what they wanted with a monthly column by Beck in O, The Oprah Magazine—the most strangely compelling, likable, and knowing column of words you could read every month—which sold more books and left more people seeking out Beck. Finally, she began hearing from her readers, who loved her insight so much that not only did they want to apply it to their lives, they wanted to do what she does.

She’d already been teaching small groups her methods, workshop-style. But the demand was suddenly immense. Martha Beck coach training was born. In 2011, Martha Beck Inc. (MBI) grossed $2.1 million, according to Beck. Revenue has risen 63 percent since then—much of the growth happening by 2013—at a company with exactly two full-time staff members (Beck makes three). Corporations frequently book her, too, for upwards of $35,000 a session. The attendees at Pismo Beach will bring to 4,121 the total number of people she and her team have trained to be coaches since 2008.

Coach training is an eight-month telecourse and Internet-based program. The cost is $7,770 for instruction led by Beck and master coaches, life coaches who’ve taken the certification course, completed 75 hours of paid coaching, and taken on extra training. Certification for a life coach costs $850 (and includes being listed on the Martha Beck website as a coach); the master coach certification costs an additional $8,500 and includes six months of instruction that culminate in a retreat at Beck’s home, the North Star Ranch, in Central California.

“How did I come to believe this, and does it serve me to continue believing it?”

During training, Beck requires each aspiring life coach to collect fees for their time, even if it’s a small amount—say $20 or $40 per hour. Once they’re certified, they’ll make up to $200 an hour asking people if they’re sure their suppositions are true, and pushing back gently and supportively against people who are sure theirs are.

What’s surprising is that the coach trainees aren’t people who believe they’re doing so well in life that they want to tell you how to live yours. Instead, they seem to be people who didn’t know how to live and found a way to at least ascertain what they want out of life. This skill, this ascertainment, is what they want so badly to share. They’re among the humblest people I’ve ever met. Performing my own integrity check, I must say that Beck and her army initially had me thinking I’d debunk a subculture that’s trying to, at best, feel their way through life by the squishiest means, and, at worst, feel their way through people’s wallets. But once with Beck and her acolytes, I had the undeniable sense that, for all their peculiar ways of speaking, they were gaining an understanding of the human condition—and accepting it—to an extent that few do.

Photographer: Phyllis Lane

The prospective life coaches in the audience know exactly what an integrity check means, and what an integrity cleanse is, too. Last August, Beck incorporated the integrity cleanse into her coaching curriculum. She’d been hanging out with her friend Byron Katie, another prominent figure in the self-improvement arts and sciences, and Katie’s husband, Stephen Mitchell, who noticed that Beck spoke about some of her business obligations with a palpable dread. She rolled her eyes and resented the constant attention and promotion that went along with being a best-selling author of four books and a novel, an in-demand speaker at such places as Gulfstream, General Electric, and the Chopra Center, and a sought-after personality in her industry. Mitchell, a scholar and a poet, had translated Beck’s favorite version of the Tao Te Ching, which she gives to every guest in her home and has given to me twice. He’d said to Beck, “Then why are you doing these things?” And, Beck says, she looked hard at the two and their work and saw that “they just live their truth so deeply—so deeply.” She spent the day watching them run their business—books and workshops based on Katie’s method, The Work. “And it was just like absolutely no variation from the deepest integrity,” she says. “Like every product had to feel like the truth. I can’t even describe how honest these people are. And I, just, it was like somebody gave me a big drink of water in the desert.”

So Beck went on an integrity cleanse. She decided she wouldn’t be dishonest with anyone about anything for any reason. When she feels her expression is becoming disingenuous—politely smiling when she’s annoyed, patient when she just wants to get out of there—she reconsiders. Recently on a conference call with a few people ready to give her a pile of money, she realized she’d had enough. “I’m going to get off this call now,” she interrupted, then asked her chief executive officer, Bridgette Boudreau, also on the call, if she would handle it. Boudreau said yes. Beck hung up, walked outside, and tilted her face toward the sun.

The integrity cleanse is now part of every life coach’s training. They learn to stop in the middle of an interaction if they’re being more accommodating and less truthful than they should be, and say, “Integrity check!” Then they check their own internal truth meters. In the world according to Beck, we all possess one, and it never breaks. What’s difficult is finding it beneath the layers of politeness and trauma we endure in our lives.

Beck’s coaches are trained to do a lot of things, but they don’t give advice, because they don’t have access to your truth meter—only you do. The job of a coach, Beck says, isn’t to tell you how to live your life. It’s to keep digging until the coach understands what the client really wants from her life, her romantic partnership, her friendship, her career; it’s the job of the coach to “help enhance the quality of life and help find what is causing the suffering.”

The Meet and Greet in March was the second of Beck’s gatherings I’ve attended. In 2013, I went to her Coaches Summit in Phoenix. There I found an enthusiastic, ebullient audience of (mostly) women—medical doctors and English lit professors and psychotherapists and investment bankers, all of whom (really, each one I spoke with) had one day realized there was an ongoing misery in their lives despite their successes. They were trying to find what they’d do best, or, as the title of Beck’s first best-seller had it, their “north star.” What they realized is that they wanted to do what Beck did.

“What could I possibly be doing to help these people? I mean, everything I was saying was so obvious”

A licensed therapist told me she was looking to learn coaching so she could help her clients plan the future instead of staying mired in the past. A woman in turquoise capris, who had an MBA and had been an investment and money manager, said she was “stuck in a box” doing what she thought she was supposed to be doing. “I was an impostor,” she said. She started seeing a life coach who helped her realize that the mentoring part of her job, the part she loved, was what she should be doing full time. She quit her job and started training as a coach.

I met a grief counselor who wanted tools to help support those in mourning. Another woman, after a tough divorce, wanted to learn how to help people in transition. She told me that Beck had said that “whatever your hell-and-back is, that’s your gift.”

And then there were the people who help explain why life coaching has had such an uphill battle in terms of legitimacy:

“I didn’t decide to do it,” said one. “It decided to do me.”

“I had a knowing,” said another, who, when I asked what that meant, simply repeated herself.

“I was being drawn to my future self,” said a woman who previously had braided hair at Renaissance festivals until she felt the calling to train as a coach.

Another: “One day I asked myself, ‘Who am I?’ Then I said, ‘Who am I not?’ ”

Which, sure.

But three years later in Pismo Beach, Beck’s audience has changed. Mostly, I meet people who are mounting a proven and potentially lucrative career track.

The North Star Ranch sits at the end of a long, dusty road in San Luis Obispo about 15 minutes after you lose your cellular service. Beck bought it three years ago and has since acquired horses that are of use in one kind of coaching she does. She doesn’t subscribe to just one way to live one’s life, or even one way of coaching. She believes you can use survival training, animal tracking, horse training, just plain talking, religion, atheism, academia, research, personality psychology, other gurus (like Katie)—all in the service of finding, yes, your truth.

Beck is an autodidact, and it seems as if there’s no part of culture or history or academia that she doesn’t know a lot about. A partial list of references she makes during a two-hour interview at the ranch includes: The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, Pablo Picasso, Alexander McCall Smith (author of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series), the reality show Naked and Afraid, Tarahumara Indians, the movie Her, Alan Watts, Eckhart Tolle, Christian mystics, Jewish mystics, and fractals.

Photographer: Phyllis Lane

She says things like:

“We’re in the afterlife. This is the afterlife of my 20-year-old self, and your 20-year-old self. We are living after that life, and that person is gone.”

And:

“Enlightenment is this return to childhood through the heroic saga of the personality, like fighting itself. The ego bloating up and getting punctured. To return after that is an innocence that is also wise, and I think that’s what we’re all trying to get to, but it’s interesting to strip away the layers of artifice.”

She lives on the ranch with her romantic partner, Karen; her middle child, Adam; two women who teach life coaching through horse interaction; and a man they jokingly call a farmhand who also coaches—his specialty being helping gay men heal from trauma and shame.

She once had a more conventional family. She was the second-youngest of eight children in a prominent Mormon family in Provo, Utah. While at Harvard studying East Asian studies and sociology, she married another Mormon, John Beck. She found out during her second pregnancy that her baby had Down syndrome. To the surprise of her colleagues at Harvard, where she had finished her studies and was doing research, she didn’t end the pregnancy. She and John moved back to Utah, but decided to break from the church during a period of suppression, when many people were being excommunicated. The Becks ultimately divorced. They both were gay—he’d known he was for a while, and eventually she realized she was, too. They continued to live together and co-parented while raising their three children. Eventually they moved south, where they both taught at Arizona State University.

Beck designed and taught a career development class at the business school, where she learned that her matter-of-fact approach to finding the life you want wasn’t just appealing to her students, but also was considered essential. Immediately, students began flooding her office hours. They asked if they could book an hour with her. She charged $50, and with that, her life coaching business was born. “I could barely force myself to put it in the bank,” she says. “I just felt like it was highway robbery. What could I possibly be doing to help these people? I mean, everything I was saying was so obvious. If it makes you feel good, do more of it. And if it makes you feel horrible, maybe you should back off a little. And that was really all I said. And they kept paying me.”

“It works every time. I don’t know why”

In 1999 she published a book called Expecting Adam about her pregnancy with her middle child. She then wrote Finding Your Own North Star, the first of several books about stripping away the conditions you’ve invented so you can figure out what to do with your life. The advice in it seemed obvious to her. Not so to her editor and publisher. It became a best-seller. She eventually wrote a book about her life in the Mormon community in which she described the sexual abuse she’d endured as a child. She left the church and is no longer in touch with what she calls her “family of origin.” She calls herself and her fellow coaches “wayfinders.” She believes her abuse and her suffering were a felix culpa—it either made her into a wayfinder or identified her as one.

“I believe, and please, I would say this very, very gently to anyone who’s reading this, this is on the far side of a lot of healing, I was lucky enough to be abused,” she says. “I was very fortunate to be born with a high level of sensitivity, I think as most people are, and then to encounter suffering in a form that was very, very challenging and almost completely destructive, and then to find my way back to peace and happiness and everything.”

She wouldn’t trade what she has now for a “normal” life. “It’s what Ernest Hemingway said, life breaks us all. We can hope to be strong in the broken places,” she says.

At Arizona State, the administration didn’t seem pleased with her popularity, so Beck left the school and went out on her own, increasingly emphasizing not how students could better proceed in their own careers, but how to do what she does. With that, she created a course for her first coach training, and although it would be three years before MBI was an official company, her business, as she knows it now, was born.

No small part of MBI’s success is, naturally, Beck herself and how her touch is insistent but never tough. “We get a lot of letters saying, ‘I read this column, it changed my life,’ ” Amy Maclin, her editor at O, says. “Sometimes she’ll have exercises that force you to get down to it. If you do the work, it changes you. It’s not just pablum. There’s nothing shallow or surface about it. She challenges people.”

Beck believes that people who rise to the top of pyramid-structured businesses are narcissists. Everyone on “the team,” which is what she calls the two full-time employees and six part-timers at MBI, is in charge of what they’re in charge of—coach training, CEO, marketing, social media, though nobody has such clearly defined responsibilities as to interrupt their collaborative methods, which are their pride. “It’s like it’s so sort of incestuous at this point. It’s like who knows who’s touching what,” says Jessica Steward, who largely oversees marketing and is a master coach who helps train coaches.

The team meets via Skype weekly when one or more is traveling. When meetings stop being productive or something appears to be off, they make the decision not to go back to work and work harder, but to shut down their computers and go rest. When business doesn’t seem to be thriving, Beck instructs them all to go out and play at something unrelated to the work. They come back each time to find their concerns resolved. “It works every time,” Beck says. “I don’t know why, but it does, so I guess I don’t really need to know.”

Photographer: Phyllis Lane

The morning of Beck’s keynote, there had been business-building workshops for the coaches-in-training. After lunch that day, there was supposed to have been a Q&A session with the master coaches, but then Beck came back onstage. No one was upset about the program change. As much as she tries to convey to her trainees that they’re each maximally gifted, they still look to her as their superior, gazing at her with sparkling eyes. When she walks into the room, their already shiny murmur comes even more alive.

As she begins speaking again, Beck asks if there are any questions about what had happened before the break to the coach trainee, the one with trust issues. To recap, a woman had a question about a relationship, and Beck had coached her into understanding that she had a perfectly working truth meter herself. The only way she could really live her life was to understand that if she kept checking in with the truth meter, it wouldn’t let her down. The case seemed closed, and the woman satisfied. Confused, I raise my hand and ask what the woman is supposed to do next. Martha thanks me politely for my help, then asks me to come onstage. She says I didn’t quite get it. She’d like me to understand that coaching isn’t about advice; it’s about tearing away fear and every other layer to figure out exactly what you wanted in the first place, which is always the right thing.

She asks what’s going on with me, and I think for a minute about how that morning I had had a hard time getting dressed. I’d gained some weight recently, or maybe not as recently as I like to think, and had packed the wrong jeans. In general, if I were honest, this was an ongoing situation, turned more frustrating by my many attempts at weight loss. I tell her I can’t figure out why I can’t lose weight, how it consumes me so much of the time, and how bad it makes me feel. She asks when the thought is worst. In the morning, I tell her, when I get dressed and look in the mirror and try to proceed with the day like a regular person.

“What is the thought you have when you’re getting dressed?” she asks.

“I think when I get dressed that my body is disgusting,” I answer.

She asks what happens when I have that thought, how it makes me feel, and what I do next. I tell her that it makes me tired and pessimistic, it makes me avoid eating breakfast because I can’t deal with the matter that somehow got me here. She points out that the stress, plus the hunger, will probably send my cortisol soaring, and cortisol forces an animal hunger for the largest amount of high-calorie food there is. She asks me to imagine the opposite of the troubling thought that my body is disgusting.

“My body is functional,” I try.

She asks the room if they think my body is functional, or if I am, in fact, beautiful.

“Whoever thinks Taffy is beautiful, raise your hand.” Everybody does. She tells me to look around the room. She says to look everyone in the eye and look at the whites of their eyes. If they’re shaking, I’ll know they’re lying. Look how the whites of their eyes aren’t shaking.

Photographer: Phyllis Lane

It’s in this moment that I’m supposed to have a revelation about my body (and maybe I do) that I really come to understand why so many people respond to Beck and want to have what she has. By the time we hit the year 2016, we’ve been inundated with so many people professing so many aphorisms and rules parading as truth that our clichés have clichés. A life coach is really just a coal miner used for digging through the platitudes and finding out what’s true for the individual. The truth of a person’s life isn’t only about the will toward integrity; it’s about discovering what you want under the layers of what you’ve been told you should want all these years.

Now that I’d been seen by all these people who were all also on integrity cleanses, Beck asks me again what the opposite of me saying my body is disgusting is. Finally, I say what I know she wants to hear.

“My body is beautiful,” I say. Everyone claps, and I cry.

I get down off the stage while people look at me solemnly, wishing only for my peace and happiness. Sitting down, I wonder what has just happened. Have I been manipulated? Have I been wrong to lose my cynicism and skepticism even for that one minute?

In retrospect, I think my body being functional was the opposite of it being disgusting—that I was at the beginning of learning to be OK with it on a functional level. But functional isn’t the word that will make you feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth from a life coach. In therapy, coming out with such a verdict can be a good goal. For coaching, the answer and the accompanying feeling have to be magical—they have to elevate you enough to remain with you after you’ve left the session.

So what was my integrity check of that moment? I’ll tell you that in that moment, my internal truth-o-meter was flooded with love and well-being and hope for all the ways I still haven’t quite arrived at the person I want to be. And though I’m not wrong to be cynical—cynicism is the integrity check of my profession, after all—I realized Beck’s essential lesson: What exactly is the harm of believing the thing that makes you feel good rather than bad? And I’ll tell you what happens next, which is this: I get off the stage, and, one by one, the trainees line up, a line that snakes among the round tables and almost out the door. And, one by one, almost all 80 of them hug me and tell me I’m beautiful, just like that.