What is coaching and why do people pay for it?

When I tell people I pay for a coach or that I coach people on the side, and it’s not the sports kind, they usually ask me these two questions: What is coaching and why do people pay for it?

Most people have heard of a football coach. Coaching is a more general term for someone who guides you on how to improve, motivates you when you’re down, and holds you accountable. There are many types: life, career, executive, leadership, dating, productivity, etc. I’ve worked with life and career coaches, and coached others in those areas.

What does life coaching cover?

It’s understandable that a lot of people are confused over what life coaching covers. The term “life coach” is really broad, and it doesn’t help that many coaches describe their work as “transforming your life” or “bringing you light and joy”. These might resonate with some people, or make sense on some abstract level, but never seemed very clear to me. In actuality, life coaching covers quite a few things: your work, your career path, your relationships, your decisions, and your psychology. Basically, the most important and challenging parts of life.

A good life coach should be able to help you with any problem that comes up. Stuck deciding between two career paths? Having a conflict with a friend, family member, or partner and not sure what to do? Keep getting distracted and not finishing things? They should be able to help you find and implement a solution.

How do coaches do this?

First, a good coach should be an expert in the domains above. For example, in the domain of careers, they should deeply understand general career principles, networking, negotiation, and such. Ideally, they’ve actually done what you want to do and successfully guided multiple other people through it. Their level of expertise should be one of their selling points. The idea of hiring an expert isn’t new: we already hire doctors and other professionals to help us, and companies will hire consultants in everything from marketing to design.

You might ask: “But surely they can’t be an expert at everything? They certainly haven’t done exactly what I’m doing”, and you’d be right. But they may not need to have done everything.

First, people’s problems are more similar than you’d think. Although every field is different, they all involve humans, with human bodies, human psychology, and 99.9% similar DNA. This is why Jocko Willink was able to go from commanding Navy SEALs to training corporate leaders. Leadership, negotiation, networking, hard conversations, overcoming procrastination, etc. are pretty similar across different fields.

Second, the problem is usually mental, not domain-specific. People usually already have the information they need, but they’re stuck on some mental obstacles. Maybe they think they can’t leave a job because it’d be bad for their career, but really they’re just afraid of taking risks. Maybe they think they’re lazy, when really they just dislike what they’re doing. The list goes on and on. A good coach will help you dig past the surface-level reason to find the mental barrier, and overcome it.

Why do people pay for coaching?

Let me answer a slightly different question: how do I measure the value of coaching?

Let’s start with what it’s not. It’s not how pumped up you feel after your coaching session, how much material you get, or how many hours you spend with your coach (although these can help).

Ultimately, it’s about the results. What is the delta (or difference) between your life before and after their coaching? 

For a simplistic example, suppose they coach you to implement productivity techniques that let you accomplish 1% more every day, that you think you never would’ve learned otherwise. Also suppose you get paid by the volume of work you produce. If you were expecting to make $100K for the next 30 years, that’s a $100K * 30 years * 1% = $30K delta. Putting aside the fact you wouldn’t get that money now for simplicity’s sake, it would make sense to pay anything below $30K for the coaching. Even if the coach charges you $2K which seems like a lot, you’re still far ahead. If I can trade $2 for $30, I’ll take that trade as many times as I can. Even if there’s only a 50% chance it’ll work, that’s still $15K on average. Obviously there’s a lot more to this, but you get the idea.

Conversely, if you have 20 hours of sessions with a coach, get really pumped up and learn a ton of new things, but nothing ever happens after that, the coaching was worth exactly $0. 

I’ve worked with multiple coaches now. Before signing on with a new coach or renewing with an existing one, I ask myself: What delta might I get from this? How likely and how valuable is that delta? Does that significantly exceed their fee? Could I get the same benefits somewhere else for less? This can be a high bar and there’s no shame in not meeting it, but coaching is expensive and must overcome it.

The answer to the original question should be clear now: people pay for a coach because they expect to get more out of it than they put into it. Obviously a lot of this is oversimplified, but that’s the basic idea.