The life coach entered the public consciousness some years ago, as just another human accessory for people with more money than friends, alongside the personal trainer, the PA, the psychic and the nutritionist. If the average person encountered one, it was probably on TV, where life coaches can be found telling people to make bereavement sculptures, or to throw away all their stuff. The very term "life coach" seemed designed to convince sceptics that the discipline was nonsense. In Lucy Kellaway's satirical novel Who Moved My Blackberry, the protagonist, marketing executive Martin Lukes, is in regular email contact with his life coach Pandora, who takes the Rogerian notion of "unconditional positive regard" for her client to absurd levels: "I, your number-one fan, sincerely believe you can beat your best by 50% by year end. What is stopping you? Strive and thrive!"
Then, at the end of August, it was reported that the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, and her civil servants were receiving life coaching. It transpired that other government departments, including No 10, the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury, regularly employed life coaches at the taxpayer's expense. I still don't know what a life coach is, exactly, but if someone with as much priggish self-belief as Patricia Hewitt needs one, then I probably need two. But how do you find a life coach? Where does one start?
"You can start anywhere that makes sense," says life coach Dr Sally Ann Law. "Either with a little bit of background about who you are and what's been going on in your life ..."
I am sitting in Law's bright attic office at her home in Crouch End. I chose her because she has a really nice website - elegant, understated, informative - although I can't quite pretend that I am just here for life coaching: even if I had managed to conceal my notepad and tape recorder, she would have eventually spotted the photographer and his equipment. If I frame my questions just so, however, it may be possible to steal a bit of free life coaching while I'm here.
Law is, I think, the sort of life coach I would choose: she seems calm and utterly trustworthy. She has a reassuring manner and a PhD in psychology. I'm sure she would never tell me to throw all my possessions into a skip.
She also harbours a degree of scepticism towards the profession that rivals mine. Her website takes pains to point out that hers is a wholly unregulated field, that training schools are subject to no single accrediting body, and that basically anyone can claim to be a life coach. She doesn't even much like the title. "When I first set up my website, I tried to think of a different term," she says. "And I thought, well, I'd be mad, if people are putting 'life coach' into Google, and I'm trying to be so precious and different, and they never find me."
Luckily, she comes very near the top of the 28.5m hits one gets on typing "life coaching" into Google. There are an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 life coaches working in the UK, and probably almost as many different explanations of what exactly a life coach is. Law describes life coaching as a form of help for people who, though otherwise mentally well, "are either struggling with something specific - career relationships or something like that - or just have a diffuse sense of, 'Why am I not happier?' "
In its faintly obscure origins, life coaching owes at least as much to management consultancy as it does to therapy. It combines the terminology and style of executive "mentoring" (a combination of managerial training and career counselling) with elements of humanistic psychology and the populist get-out-of-your-own-way mentality of such personal development gurus as Anthony Robbins. How these disparate strands are woven together depends largely on the personal tastes of the life coach in question. For its adherents, life coaching is a logical evolution in the science of mental wellbeing in a world where psychology has become highly medicalised, and where financial imperatives favour pharmacological solutions. For its detractors, life coaching is either unlicensed psychotherapy, or an expensive way to have a nice chat.
"It isn't therapy, and it isn't talking to your best friend - the way I see it, anyway," says Law. "To me, life coaching is helping people work through issues that are bothering them, that they keep getting stuck in their own heads with, and trying to help them get a bit of clarity, sort out what's noise in the equation and what's really important."
While most life coaches operate solely over the phone, or even by email, Law prefers to see her clients in person, one to one, in Crouch End. She doesn't insist on long-term goals - "If you're paying attention to who you are as a person, then you're going to design the right life for yourself" - and she doesn't give homework. "I'm not going to send you away with tasks to build your confidence. You're not going to have to take something back to Woolworths to see if you can bear to talk to the sales assistant."
My other life coach, Chris, does give homework. His website is also impressive, and sprinkled with inspirational quotes such as "Fear is that little darkroom where negatives are developed." His "Living on Purpose" course - at £50, the cheapest he offers - is conducted entirely by email. Chris could, for all I knew, be a bit of computer software, although I had to dismiss this theory after he rang me up when my credit-card payment failed to clear.
If I complete the course, I will receive a short sentence that gives my reason for being on Earth, something like "I show the way" or "I explore in wonder". My current one, "Pay off the mortgage and die", is not listed in the examples on the website, so I'm hopeful. After a day or so my first exercise arrives. I am to compile a list of my positive qualities, headed "My Qualities". This vaguely reminds me of the sort of primary-school assignment that would have caused me to burst into tears. The answers must subscribe to the format "I am [quality]", which I find very constraining. I can't put "I am play the guitar a bit." I ignore the exercise for a week.
Although the concept of life coaching may be 20 years old in America, the industry has expanded exponentially over here in recent years, for reasons that are hard to pinpoint. "I think the availability is creating its own demand in a way," says Law. "People read about it in magazines and think, 'Well, I better go to see one.' " Also, she says, people move around a lot these days, and find themselves removed from their normal family network, operating in a social milieu where burdening your friends with your problems is considered impolite. Many of her clients are from other countries and have come to the UK for work reasons. "They're grappling with issues of, 'Shall I stay, shall I go, where's home, what's real?' "
For other people, she says, a happy outcome might mean "daring to write a book, or become a dancer, or go to drama school, buy a house in London ... decide to leave a relationship, or decide to stay in a relationship, but work out ways to do it differently". Some people come for career advice and end up addressing other issues. "And some people say I don't really know why I'm here, but I Googled life coaching and a lot of the things you said on your website speak to me." How strange, I think. Then I remember that's how I ended up here.
My first email exercise for Chris proves to be as excruciating as I had expected. After several hours, I've only got three qualities listed: "I am patient", "I am intelligent" and "I am modest", and I've spent most of my time fiddling around with the order. I am allowed to seek the help of family and friends, but consulting my wife proves to be a mistake. "Let's see," she says. "Compassionate? No. Helpful? No. Sympathetic? No. Engaging? No. Brave? No ..."
Eventually I manage 20 adjectives I can live with. I mail them off to Chris. Exercise two arrives in my inbox within 24 hours. I am to solicit a similar list of my qualities from several friends. I begin to wonder if I really want to know my life's purpose that badly.
If finding a purpose is the aim of life coaching, for an increasingly large number of people, going to see a life coach ends with the decision to become a life coach. It's easy to see why. Most coaches have themselves come to their calling after reaching some personal or professional crossroads. Law found herself promoted away from the bit of her job she liked best: interviewing people. Chris, according to his website, spent 17 years in corporate management before finding his true purpose. For those who are trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives, life coaches aren't just facilitators; they are templates. Templates who get up to £200 an hour. As Law says, "I work for myself. I can set my own hours, work around the kids."
The Coaching Academy - top of the Google list - offers a one-day introductory seminar, which travels around the country, for £49. "To call yourself a life coach, you would need to do our diploma course," says the woman on the end of their Freephone number. The course, she tells me, will take between six and eight months, with virtually all the coursework (about one evening a week's worth) done at home, and will cost me £2,497 + VAT. There is an optional "intense sales and marketing weekend course" to help new life coaches set themselves up in business (an additional £497). The Coaching Academy is, she says "the mostly highly accredited in Europe." My e-coach Chris studied with them, and he sits on their executive council.
Law does not train other life coaches, but, she says, "Some people have none the less insisted that they come and be trained, so there have been four or five people who have come for sessions who want to be life coaches, and I've made it clear that I won't give them a certificate." She remains suspicious of courses that offer life-coaching qualifications (although she herself trained with a life coach called Charles Bentley, who has a very impressive website), "given that anyone can call themselves a life coach right now, and that same person can say, 'by the way, I not only coach, but I train'. That's exactly what people are doing."
Law does not, however, wish to condemn life coaches who work differently from her. "I don't think the majority of life coaches are charlatans," she says, although she admits that those trying to find a good life coach are more or less on their own. "They know, if they do any research at all, that it's an unregulated field, and if they're choosing that person, then very possibly that is the right person for them. It's OK that there are life coaches doing it other ways."
I finally send Chris a lame version of exercise two, and confess how difficult I found it all. "Yes, this is real work, isn't it?" he answers. This is swiftly followed by exercise three: a list of memories following the format, "I was fulfilled and happy when I ..." I stare at the screen. No examples spring to mind. He wants at least 10, preferably 20. At this point I think it would be easier simply to declare myself a life coach, set up a website, and be done with it. I also do training, by the way.