The Individualistic Turn: How Coaching Reflects and Reinforces the Cult of the Self in Contemporary Culture

Luc Lalande
11 min readDec 23, 2023

“The only certain happiness in life is to live for others.” — Leo Tolstoy

The apparent hyper growth of the “coaching industry” has caught my attention lately. I have noticed a not so insignificant number of posts on platforms such as Linkedin by people who have left their jobs to launch coaching ventures.

AI image generated by Leonardo.ai — Prompt: The Individualistic Turn: How Coaching Reflects and Reinforces the Cult of the Self in Contemporary Culture

I am genuinely intrigued by this phenomenon. Is the rise of the coaching industry indicative of some underlying shifts in society, our culture or something else? So, driven by curiousity I thought to have another creative and critical conversation with my trusty AI companion “Pi” to explore this trend.

Oh, and by the way, the title of this post was recommended by Pi!

Luc: I am intrigued by the phenomenon of the rise of the coaching industry. More specifically, there appears to be a marked increase in individuals who pursue careers in leadership and executive coaching as well as other fields such as life and career coaching.

Pi: Indeed, you’re spot-on in noticing that. The coaching industry has definitely seen some significant growth in recent years. And it’s not just limited to leadership and executive coaching — there has also been a rise in coaching for fields like life and career coaching, as well as coaching in niche areas like mindfulness, creativity, and personal branding.

There are a few factors that have contributed to this rise:

  • Increased recognition of the value of coaching: More and more people are recognizing the benefits of working with a coach, whether it’s to achieve professional goals, overcome personal challenges, or improve their overall well-being.
  • The growth of the gig economy: The rise of the gig economy has created a demand for flexible, on-demand services, and coaching fits that mold perfectly.
  • A focus on self-development and personal growth: As people place greater emphasis on self-development and personal growth, coaching has emerged as a popular tool for helping people achieve their goals and reach their full potential.

Luc: I would like you to apply a more critical lens on the growth of the coaching industry. What are some societal factors about our modern age that contribute to the rise of the coaching industry?

Pi: Sure, let’s look at the flip side of the coin. There are definitely some societal factors that have contributed to the rise of the coaching industry, and not all of them are necessarily positive:

  • The rise of individualism: As society has become more individualistic, people are looking for more personalized and tailored solutions for their problems, and coaching fits that mold. But this focus on the individual can also lead to a lack of emphasis on community and collective solutions to larger societal problems.
  • The increasing pace of change: In today’s fast-paced world, people are feeling more pressure to keep up and stay relevant, which can lead to a sense of insecurity and a desire for external support. Coaching can provide that support, but it also contributes to a culture of constant self-improvement and self-optimization, which can be stressful and unsustainable.
  • The commodification of personal growth: With the rise of the coaching industry, there has been a growing market for personal development and self-help products and services, which can sometimes be more about profit than about real, meaningful change.

Luc: These are all excellent observations. Let’s explore them separately. You mention the “The rise of individualism” as a contributing factor in the rise of the coaching industry. Please elaborate.

Pi: Sure! The rise of individualism can be traced back to a variety of historical and cultural shifts, including the decline of traditional communities, the growth of consumer culture, and the increasing emphasis on personal freedom and autonomy. In recent years, this individualistic mindset has become even more prevalent, with many people placing a greater emphasis on their own personal needs, desires, and goals, rather than on the collective good.

This individualistic mindset has led to a greater demand for personalized solutions to problems, which is where coaching comes in. Coaching is often seen as a way to help people address their personal challenges and achieve their individual goals, without necessarily considering the broader societal context. This can be good in some ways, as it allows for a more tailored and focused approach to personal development. However, it can also lead to a lack of focus on the broader community and societal issues that may be contributing to people’s problems.

Luc: Yes, this is a very insightful observation, that is, the disconnect with community as a source of personal development. In the modern consumer culture, personal development has been “packaged” and marketed as coaching services available for a price. Our social atomization as self-interested individuals exacerbates this trend.

Pi: Absolutely! You hit the nail on the head. The commodification of personal development and the rise of individualism go hand-in-hand, creating a market for personal growth products and services that cater to people’s individual needs and desires. Coaching, as a personalized and individualized form of support, is perfectly positioned to capitalize on this market.

At the same time, this commodification of personal development can make it difficult for people to see the value in community and collective solutions. Instead of working together to address larger societal problems, people are encouraged to focus on their own individual needs and goals. This can lead to a lack of collective action and a sense of isolation, which can exacerbate many of the problems that coaching is meant to address, such as stress, anxiety, and burnout.

Luc: Let’s delve deeper into the term coaching in reference to personal development and self-help. Coaching, in its traditional sense, is associated with the sports and athletics sectors. Its focus is on such things as: achievement, performance, and levelling up.

Pi: You’re right. Coaching has its roots in the world of sports and athletics, where it’s primarily associated with helping athletes improve their skills and performance. Traditionally, coaching in sports has focused on things like technique, strategy, and physical conditioning, with the goal of helping athletes achieve specific performance-related goals.

This same focus on performance and achievement has carried over into the world of personal development and self-help, where coaching is often marketed as a way to help people achieve their personal and professional goals. Many coaches use the same language and techniques that are used in sports coaching, such as setting SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) goals and providing regular feedback and accountability.

However, unlike sports coaching, personal development coaching is not always focused on specific, tangible outcomes. Instead, it may be more about helping people to develop their personal strengths, overcome obstacles, and find greater fulfillment in their lives.

Luc: Agreed. But also unlike sports which includes coaching for helping teams achieve better results, the personal coaching industry is overwhelmingly about individuals results, not collective or community aspirations.

Pi: Absolutely! In sports, coaching is typically focused on helping teams and athletes improve their performance and achieve collective goals, such as winning championships or breaking records. In contrast, personal development coaching is primarily focused on helping individuals achieve their own personal goals, which may or may not be related to a larger community or collective aspiration.

This individualistic focus has led to some concerns about the coaching industry, particularly around the potential for coaches to exploit vulnerable clients or promote toxic forms of self-help that prioritize individual gain over collective good. While many coaches do operate with integrity and empathy, there are also some who use questionable techniques or promote questionable beliefs, all in the name of helping people achieve their personal goals.

It’s important for anyone considering working with a coach to do their research and choose a coach who aligns with their values and goals, and to be wary of any coach who makes grandiose promises or seems more interested in making a profit than in truly helping their clients.

Luc: My sense is that consumers who derive benefits from coaching services are motivated almost exclusively for self-advancement goals in some form or another. While laudable, these benefits rarely find their way for community development.

Pi: That’s a fair assessment. While coaching can certainly be a powerful tool for personal growth and development, it’s not always directed towards community development or collective good. In fact, many people turn to coaching specifically because they feel that they need help overcoming personal obstacles or achieving their own individual goals.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — personal growth and development can lead to positive changes in people’s lives, which can have ripple effects in their communities and broader society. But the focus on individual self-advancement can sometimes lead to a sense of disconnection or isolation from the broader community, particularly if people are not actively seeking ways to apply their new skills and insights in ways that benefit others.

One solution to this problem could be for coaches to encourage their clients to think about how their personal growth and development can be applied in a more collective or community-oriented way. This could involve setting goals that are aligned with a broader social or environmental purpose, or finding ways to use their new skills and insights to make a positive impact in their communities.

Luc: You also observed that the rise of the market for coaching services is related to the commodification of personal growth. Please elaborate.

Pi: Sure. As the demand for personal growth and self-improvement has grown, a vast industry has emerged to capitalize on this demand. This industry includes not just coaching, but also a wide range of products and services, such as self-help books, seminars, retreats, and online courses.

While some of these products and services can be genuinely helpful, there’s also a risk that they can become overly commercialized and commodified, turning personal growth into just another product to be bought and sold. This can lead to a situation where people are more focused on “consuming” personal growth products and services, rather than truly engaging in the deeper work of self-reflection and personal development.

It’s important for people to be discerning about the products and services they use for personal growth, and to be mindful of the potential for commercialization and commodification. It’s also important for personal growth products and services to be grounded in sound psychological principles, and to be designed in a way that truly supports personal growth and well-being.

Luc: Another negative aspect of the rise of the coaching industry is the emergence of proprietary techniques of personal development. I am highly suspicious of these claims of “secret sauce” of personal development techniques. There seems to be no way to validate these proprietary techniques.

Pi: You raise a really important point. The idea of proprietary techniques in coaching and personal development can be problematic for a number of reasons. First, it implies that there are secret techniques or methods that are only available to a select few individuals or organizations, which can create an elitist and exclusive culture around personal development.

Second, proprietary techniques can be difficult to evaluate and validate, as they are often not subject to the same level of scrutiny as more widely used and accepted techniques. This can lead to skepticism and mistrust among consumers, who may be reluctant to trust a technique that hasn’t been properly tested or vetted.

Finally, the idea of proprietary techniques can create a sense of dependency on the coach or organization that claims to have developed them. This can be particularly problematic if the coach or organization uses their proprietary techniques to create a sense of exclusivity or superiority, or if they use them to pressure clients into signing up for additional services or products.

Luc: Could the rise of individual coaching erode community building efforts and collective action? Offer critical thoughts in response to this question.

Pi: Certainly, it’s possible that the rise of individual coaching could have negative consequences for community building and collective action. If people are focused on their own personal growth and development, they may be less likely to engage in activities or initiatives that are focused on the common good or the well-being of the community as a whole.

For example, if a community is facing a problem like homelessness or drug addiction, individual coaching may not be the best approach for addressing these issues. While coaching may help individuals to address personal problems that contribute to these larger issues, it doesn’t necessarily address the systemic factors that contribute to homelessness or addiction.

Similarly, if people are focused on their own individual growth and development, they may be less likely to engage in collective action, such as protesting or advocating for social change. While personal growth can certainly lead to increased self-awareness and compassion for others, it doesn’t necessarily translate into a desire to engage in collective action or to address the root causes of social problems.

Luc: Would you go so far as to hypothesize that the rise of individual coaching is a symptoms of the current era of consumerism coupled with a deep seated insecurity of the self? Be expansive in your response.

Pi: It’s certainly possible that the rise of individual coaching is, at least in part, a reflection of our consumerist culture and the underlying insecurities that it can create. Our society places a lot of emphasis on individual success and self-improvement, and this can lead to a sense that we are always striving for more and never quite measuring up.

This pressure to improve and achieve can create a deep-seated sense of insecurity, as people feel like they are constantly falling short of their own expectations or the expectations of others. Coaching can feel like a way to address these insecurities and to gain a sense of control over one’s life and personal growth.

However, this focus on individual self-improvement can also be a symptom of a larger problem, which is the individualistic and competitive nature of our society. It can reinforce the idea that success is a zero-sum game, and that individuals must compete with one another for limited resources and opportunities. This can erode a sense of community and collective responsibility, and can make it more difficult to address larger systemic problems.

Luc: If you could suggest 3 ideas for a title of an essay on the rise of the coaching industry as a phenomenon of modern culture, what you recommend?

Pi: Here are three ideas for essay titles on this topic:

  1. “The Personal Growth Industry: A Reflection of Consumerism and Insecurity in Modern Society”
  2. “The Individualistic Turn: How Coaching Reflects and Reinforces the Cult of the Self in Contemporary Culture”
  3. “The Rise of the Coach: A Critique of the Commodification of Personal Development in a Consumer-Driven Society”

Each of these titles highlights the potential tensions and contradictions that arise when personal growth and self-improvement are framed as commodities to be bought and sold in a consumer-driven society.

Luc: Excellent! I will pick №2. “The Individualistic Turn: How Coaching Reflects and Reinforces the Cult of the Self in Contemporary Culture”.

Pi: That’s a great choice! That title does a good job of capturing the central argument of the essay, which is that coaching is both a reflection and a reinforcement of our society’s emphasis on individualism and self-improvement. It suggests that coaching is not just a neutral tool for personal growth, but rather a symptom of a larger cultural trend towards self-centeredness and individualistic pursuits.

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Luc Lalande

Cultivating innovation by connecting ideas to people, people to ideas.