A few months ago a friend of mine sent me an email, asking me to tell her where I felt stuck. She’s setting up a business as a life coach, and this, she said, was part of her preliminary research. “It should be a major change you’ve wanted to make in your life but haven’t been able to. And write down three reasons why,” she said.
In her flattering preface to the request Phoebe said she had sent the message only to a small group of acquaintances, who were, she claimed, the smartest people she knew. I wondered, assuming this was true, whether she was collecting examples of failures to pitch her business, as one might of a sharp detective unable to shake a cocaine addiction. You see, intelligence is not enough; you need a coach.
Judging from the number of resolutions, prosaic and life-changing alike, that keep reappearing on my bucket lists, as well as the fact that three months after her email I had not yet responded, I was an appropriate subject for the survey. The resolutions have lain dormant on the back of my will for years; like a skin cyst that occasionally flares under stress, they appear at rare intervals to prod me into doing something about them. Actually, one of my resolutions is to have the small cyst on my neck removed, though I think of it only when it has swollen and become intensely painful, exactly the time at which one cannot have it removed. Home treatment—ointments and very hot showers—coax the red excrescence into bursting on its own. Gradually it shrinks to the point where I can’t even feel the bump any longer, and with its retreat goes my determination to have it removed.
The classic problem of procrastinators and addicts. The resolution for change is never so firm, nor the confidence of success so great, as in the hours immediately before and after excess. All the rest is waiting.
I had never taken the idea of life-coaching seriously before—it seemed to me like therapy without the regulations and licenses—but Phoebe is an insightful, accomplished woman. If she was considering this career move, there must be something to it.
I had read somewhere that a manager makes sure you do something, a mentor shows by example how it can be done and a coach helps you acquire the set of skills to do it yourself. (I imagine the intersection of the three is what makes a good parent). Naturally, it’s encouraging to think that life, like cross-country or debating or personal finance, is a matter of skill development, something you get better at with the right kind of expert observation, training, and support.
But if coaching helps you win, what needs to be won?
Phoebe reminded me, however, that there are two kinds of coaches—those who focus on performance and winning, and the others whose mission is participation and staying in the game. The former train their charges for championships and medals, the latter, including my swimming coach, Ada, whom I’d engaged when I got serious about training for the triathlon, for the sense of accomplishment and the pleasure of playing. And to enjoy playing you’ve got to get better. Tennis only becomes fun when you don’t have to chase the ball every second volley.
Her method was no different from the one coaches have always used regardless of their subject. Set the goal. Break it down into a set of specific and progressively more complex skills that could be worked on. Observe, correct, encourage.
One of the first things Ada did was to video-record me swimming a few laps, not for her own use—she knew just by watching me swim what needed to be fixed—but for mine. The video served as illustration as she pointed out the inefficiencies in my stroke and kick, and analyzed the line and position of my body in the water. “It’s your elbow, mostly,” she said. “It should be higher during recovery, and closer to your body.”
Her comment might have remained nothing more than a helpful if abstract tip had it not been for the video, and the powerful, visual evidence of the inefficiencies in my stroke. “Wow, I do that?” I asked. The image of my elbow stayed with me during the drills Ada had me doing the next couple of months. There was no way of explaining it away, no rationalization at hand.
With Ada’s coaching and unfailing support I eventually got to the point where my elbow recovered high enough in drills so that my hand would dangle from my wrist as it glided up alongside my torso, my fingertips grazing the surface of the water.. “That was much better!” she’d exclaim. And I believed her. In the end I managed to shave a few strokes off a 25-meter lap.
Alas, life isn’t that simple, though I can imagine instances in which video documentation might be useful: the friend who turns obnoxious when drunk, the colleague who bullies his way through meetings, me when I slouch.
Though we know that videos can be manipulated as easily as photos are retouched, there’s something about the moving image on film that speaks of incontrovertible evidence. “No, it’s true, I saw it on television!” A friend tells you that you’ve been acting like an asshole recently and you say, “Really, you think so?” You watch a video of yourself being an asshole and you say, “Oh, shit.”
I wonder if a video would help me meet a man I could fall in love with, which is one of the three failed resolutions I’ve resolved to tell Phoebe about, the other two being to go to learn Dutch and to shape some of the stories in Breach of Close into a book. Am I not paying enough attention to the men I met, or am I paying too much? Am I looking the wrong way or not looking carefully enough?
Phoebe would say that coaching is a way of getting yourself to set up an internal camera, a means of fostering a heightened self-awareness as you practice the unnatural until it becomes second nature. But I wanted a real camera.
Maybe a video would help explain what wrong with David. I had met him through a mutual friend, who set up our first meeting. She told me that David was writing a blog and she thought I could help him. “He’s a little disappointed that he’s not getting the followers he expected.” She thought I could give him a few tips.
I didn’t tell her my own blogs had only a handful of faithful and much appreciated readers (I’ve read their blogs and feel myself in exalted company), along with 10,000 followers, most of whom I suspected were bots. I didn’t tell her I do all the wrong things in a blog, that I’m not focused and my posts are way too long and erratically published. It surprises me that I still have any readers at all. I didn’t tell her this because I had clicked on his Facebook profile and was intrigued by the avatar photograph of this handsome hipsterish younger man, with his long thin face and wispy beard, his head tilted upwards in an air of seductive diffidence.
I read a bit of his blog. He seemed to be mostly doing the right things, except maybe for blogging on a somewhat esoteric platform that probably had fewer users than I had followers, even if they were bots. He wrote consistently and well about a subject he knew well, and his posts were headed by witty and masterfully executed reinterpretations of classic movie posters that served the political satire that was the mainstay of his blog.
We met up and spent an afternoon over coffee in an old quarter of the city, talking about writing but also of our lives and former lovers. I offered what little advice I could. I suggested switching platforms and told him about Tumblr, thinking that his photoshopped images were an art that deserved a showcase of its own and might lead others to his blog. I liked him immensely.
The next weekend I took him on a walk to a few galleries in an offbeat neighborhood of hookah parlors and bordellos. He had smart things to say about the works of art we saw, and was intrigued by the whorehouses. To a naïve passerby they are indistinguishable from the other modest, run-down 19th-century houses on the street, with their inner courtyards and pots of geraniums and jasmine. I pointed out the light above the entrance now burning midday, and the trickle of teenage boys and immigrant men entering and exiting the establishment, the only clues to what was happening inside. David was delighted at the discovery and made me feel as if I had given him a secret key to the city.
I called him a few times afterwards and messaged him on Facebook, but the enthusiasm I felt for our encounters was not reciprocated. David seemed to be happy in my company, but in the way, I realized, one might enjoy a summer movie or a meal in an ethnic restaurant, a pleasant enough diversion but not the stuff of daily fare.
Still, I couldn’t help feeling that if I had been a little more or a little less forward (probably the former), something might have happened. I wonder if I’ve gotten so out of practice that perhaps I do need a coach.
Featured image: “Young men in the garden pavilion”, Friedrich Ahlers-Hestermann, 1904.
A former student of the Matisse Studio Ahlers-Hestermann was a founder of the Hamburger Secession. The artists of the movement was noted not only for their reaction to the conservative art scene in Hamburg but also for their public lectures, and their annual exhibitions of contemporary art, in which they exhibited works by Picasso, Kandinsky and Braque. With the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, the group was ordered to expel their Jewish members. Instead, the Secession agreed to disband their union, devoting their last reserves to a champagne party. Ahlers-Hestermann was soon relieved of his teaching post in Cologne. After the restoration of democracy at the end of the war, the artist became the founding director of the Landeskunstschule Hamburg.