Help Wanted: Hiring a Life Coach

How hiring a life coach could help you successfully navigate career change.

By Pam Abrams

In Need of Life Lessons

Sometimes the present sucks. At 48, I was pulling in a six-figure salary at a well-known publishing company — and feeling as if I were being slowly poisoned. The career that had sustained me for 25 years was killing me: I could no longer sleep without Ambien; despite regular yoga, my always-iffy back was giving out frequently. I knew the physical symptoms were from the stress I dealt with every day. "I have to quit my job" became my mantra.

But a funny thing happened as I started to look for a new position: I realized I didn’t want one that was anything like what I’d had before. Except I was clueless about what to do next. I didn’t have the luxury of quitting first and figuring it out later; I was my family’s breadwinner and provider of the health insurance. Thanks to my job, we had a spacious house, and my older son had been able to start college without financial aid. Plus, my 12-year-old was finally in the perfect school, and my husband, a psychologist, was happily settled in private practice in an office up the block.

I thought I was chained forever to a fat paycheck. So instead of bolting, for more than a year — okay, closer to two — I moaned about work to my endlessly patient friends. I gave my book group monthly updates. I subjected my husband to tales of work woe on many a Friday night at the restaurant around the corner. To keep my creative side engaged, I wrote two children’s books and threw myself into volunteer work. These activities kept me going until I knew I just couldn’t go anymore.

After months of listening to my agonizing, my therapist suggested I try a life coach. I was wary — the idea seemed so trendy — but by now, even I was sick of listening to me complain. So I went to see Ellen McGrath, founder of the Bridge Coaching Institute, who my therapist had recommended. Ellen and I met in her comfortable office, with its warm yellow walls and welcoming red couches, and began to disentangle my personal identity from my work life.

That’s how I became coaching’s newest convert. There are roughly 50,000 life coaches in the United States today — and the numbers are going up like crazy (the International Coach Federation reports at least 200 new members a month). For $2,000, over the course of seven sessions, Ellen took me through a process that freed me from my old way of thinking and set me on a whole new path.

She started by putting me on a five-step plan. At first I thought the concept was hokey (there’s a lot of jargon in coaching), but I did eventually come around. She asked me to buy a journal that I would devote to the project, so I went to my favorite stationery store and picked out a fat spiral notebook with flowers on the cover. I loved it, and for the next several months, it went with me everywhere.

Making a Change, Step by Step

Step One: Figure Out the Money

For my first entry, I was to write down the practical things I needed to investigate before I quit my job: What were our monthly expenses, other sources of income, insurance costs? I filled a half-dozen pages with lists, and at our next meeting, Ellen and I discussed what my next steps should be.

Although my husband and I didn’t have much in savings, we did own a house that had appreciated in value. We thought hard about how much money we’d need, then refinanced our mortgage and took out a home-equity loan large enough to carry us through two years: one year for me to get started, the next to figure out a realistic financial picture. While he was supportive, all this talk of change did make my husband rather nervous. More than anyone, he would feel the difference when my paychecks stopped. This is where Ellen’s background as a psychologist was useful. "My coach says I’m going to make myself sick if I keep working there," I told my husband one night. It helped us both to see the urgency.

Step Two: Decide What’s Most Important

My next assignment was to take a day off to dream about my future. Ellen told me to find a special place to think, and I chose the Rubin Museum of Art, in New York City. It turned out to be just what the coach had ordered: lovely and quiet, with a great cafe.

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