This article originally started as an "embed" story (not quite Iraq, but you take what you can get). I would witness up close and personal how the process of coaching unfolded for a small group of professionals hoping to find concrete answers to some of life's most slippery questions in a five-day "Life/Work Design" seminar from the Crystal-Barkley Corp., which offers various coaching services.
Things didn't go well from the start. The workshop was originally supposed to include seven participants, but only four showed up to our tiny (though mercifully not windowless) hotel meeting room that first, very early Saturday morning. In addition to me, there was a Crystal-Barkley publicist who was there "not to chaperone" me. Of the two remaining participants, one was a temp worker by day, opera singer by night, with a near-pathological cat obsession. The other was a sweet but woefully confused student who wanted to figure out if medical school was really right for her. I had barely walked in and my mission of observing hotshot professionals being coached had crumbled.
The days themselves were grueling, lasting from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. I've worked plenty of 10-hour days, but try sitting in a frigid conference room with four strangers, watching a sunny weekend day slip by outside, while you run through an endless series of exercises all asking the same thing: What do you like? I'm a hopelessly self-absorbed person, so I needed a full day to think about myself about as much as Michael Ovitz needed a $140 million severance package.
There were good aspects to the course. Formally expressing your likes and dislikes — whether verbally or through an incessant set of list exercises — forces you to shore up vague thoughts and feelings. Also, the group setting, as small and artificial as it may have been, at times acted as a nice collective brainstorm, causing us all to think about things we value that might not have occurred to us otherwise.
But as much as I wanted to be a normal part of the group, I remained the odd man out. I'm pursuing my dream career already, while everyone else (aside perhaps from the publicist) had come searching for answers to a particular set of problems and concerns. Skepticism may be the proper mind-set with which to enter into a coaching relationship, but you have to want to be coached. I didn't. I was just some jerk trying to play along. The group felt it. I felt it. So after one lost weekend, I didn't need any coaching to decide not to return for a second one.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.