All photos by Arvida Byström
This story appears in the November Issue of VICE.
My life coach's name is Hailey Jordan Yatros. She's 21. I'm 29. Yatros is a natural encourager; it's one of her gifts. I know this because she told me so the first time we talked. She's also a rule breaker at heart and a lover of crosswords. Her favorite movie is Patch Adams because it makes her feel unstoppable.
I hired Yatros because I wanted to know why so many people in their 20s are entering the multibillion-dollar, nebulously defined life-coaching industry.
"The face of the profession is becoming increasingly fresh," I'd read in the New York Times, "with some clients receiving motivational guidance from coaches young enough to be their children."
Three years ago, there were 47,500 practicing life coaches worldwide, and 9 percent were under 35. That's according to the International Coaching Federation, a professional organization for life coaches. In 2015, 14 percent of their new members were between 25 and 35 years old.
"They're getting younger and younger," said Johan Premfors, former CEO of the Coaches Training Institute, one of the oldest and largest coaching schools in the world. "We used to see a lot of people in their mid careers. Now we're seeing people in their twenties and lower twenties."
From what I could tell, life coaching was like therapy lite. I'd had a couple therapists over the years and found them helpful, if a little exhausting. They'd all been women around my mother's age. I'm sure there was some Freudian reason for that, but I was curious what someone like Yatros could teach me about myself.
Millennial life coaches will tell you their youth is an asset. "Women get to their forties, they have kids, and they realize they haven't lived their lives, and they don't necessarily want to learn from someone older," said Jessica Nazarali, a 27-year-old coach from Sydney, Australia. "Older women are less willing to take risks. Our generation is unapologetic about going after what we desire."
When I googled "millennial life coaches," Yatros came up on the first page. At 21, she was one of the youngest coaches I found, but she had a professional-looking website with positive endorsements, and she'd published a book. I was a writer, and nearly 30, and I didn't have those things. But what hooked me was her splash photo: a close-up of her youthful face with an expression of happiness so intense it bordered on insanity. I wanted that expression—and that shade of lipstick.
Also, I wanted advice. I'd recently moved back to New York after three years away. As a freelance writer, I was underemployed but overworked, with a relationship that needed nurturing and friends who seemed to exist only as green dots on my Gchat screen. Time management seemed like an equation I could never solve. I'd started feeling anxious no matter what I was doing, unless I was drinking or taking recreational drugs or having an orgasm (everything up to the orgasm was stressful). I'd lie awake at night unable to shake the feeling that I was doing everything wrong.
Online sessions are the norm for most life coaches, so it didn't matter that I lived in Brooklyn and Yatros lived in a suburb of Detroit. I hired her for a month at $75 a session (she has a sliding scale)—four sessions once a week via Google Hangouts, her preferred medium. Before our first session she asked me to fill out a questionnaire about my short-term and long-term goals, my general happiness and stress levels, and the important people in my life. These were questions I hadn't asked myself in a while; I felt like I was making progress already.
Google "how to cure anxiety" and you'll get 39 million results. There are 343,000 self-help books on Amazon.com. Barnes & Noble has a sizable section called "Living Your Best Life." It's enough to make a person panic at the thought of all the suboptimal living she's done.
A life coach is a shot of humanity in this crush of data. Hiring one isn't like calling an Uber or getting a TaskRabbit or listening to a self-help podcast. It's an old-school leap of faith that requires blocking out the din of the digital age and looking someone in the, uh, MacBook camera's eye.
That said, our first session got off to a bumpy start. I had a bad internet connection, so our voices were out of sync, and she looked more like a glitchy monster than a beaming, clear-eyed truth teller. "How's the weather over there?" she asked, genuinely excited to know. Neither of us had remembered it was the end of daylight savings, because our devices all reset themselves.
We spent maybe three minutes talking about my family. "I just like to get a little snippet," she said, a refreshing departure from every therapist I've ever had. I talked about being close to my mom and estranged from my dad, and she nodded enthusiastically. "Everything you just said I can completely, one-hundred percent understand, so I think that we might be able to help each other on that."
We got into my questionnaire. I told her about my tendency to jump into serious relationships quickly and then leave them because I feel trapped. She asked me how I was at self-care. I told her I either went to the gym or took walks before work in the mornings, but in general I had a hard time relaxing.
"Every freaking millennial feels this way," Yatros said. She told me the internet was to blame. "I love technology, but it's what's made us want things now. We want to be the CEO, but we don't know how to be the janitor first."
She suggested I try meditating as a way to practice "present moment living." She'd just finished Oprah and Deepak Chopra's 21-Day Meditation Experience, a downloadable audio program, and she said it changed her life. "I meditate every day on love and all things that are beautiful," she said.
Her career path seemed to contradict her wisdom about being the janitor before becoming the CEO, but maybe she was just climbing the ladder more quickly than most of us.
My homework was to try meditating for 20 minutes a day until our next session and set reminders on my phone to ask myself how I was feeling. "Your body will never steer you wrong," Yatros said. Using my iPhone to get in tune with my body didn't seem like present-moment living, though maybe all those Apple Watch and Fitbit wearers would disagree. She told me to complete an online test that would take $10 and half an hour to tell me five great things about myself, and she told me to read a book called Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, which I've successfully delayed doing to this day.
After the first session, I felt like I'd learned as much about Yatros as she'd learned about me. She lives in the town in Michigan where she grew up. Her pre-life- coaching résumé includes babysitting, food service, and fundraising for a nonprofit. She had a therapist when she was 15 who gave her books by gurus like Tony Robbins and Wayne Dyer, and she's devoured self-help books ever since.
She thought about becoming a therapist herself, but the path seemed long. So she took a course on communication and human relations through Dale Carnegie, a corporate-training company, and has been coaching ever since. Her career path seemed to contradict her wisdom about being the janitor before becoming the CEO, but maybe she was just climbing the ladder more quickly than most of us. "I wanted to be able to help people faster," she told me. "I wanted to start now."
I had some drinks before our second session, which made me feel less awkward and chattier. Yatros seemed more relaxed too. I'd taken the online test earlier in the week and sent her the results. I'd put an alert on my phone to remind me to ask myself how I was feeling. Usually I was feeling annoyed that my phone was going off.
I hadn't meditated once, though I'd thought about it every day. When I admitted as much to Yatros, she waved me away. "I celebrate everything! Even if you got on the call and said, 'I didn't do shit,' I'd be like, 'Wooo!'"
She told me I had a "perfect personality" based on my test results, which showed that I worked well alone but also with people, was good at collecting information but also taking action, and that I was a total teacher's pet. "I think they're amazing," said Yatros about these core strengths, as she called them. "I just love them. I get so excited because they're a perfect balance."
My problem, she said, was that I was stressing out about trying to use all my strengths at the same time. Guilt and shame were the anchors holding my bird down. The universe would open doors for me if I stayed true to who I was in each moment. I should do my very best and let go of the rest. In other words, if I wanted to be a reclusive workaholic I should just do it and trust that, sooner or later, I'd want to have sex with my boyfriend again. This thought actually did make me feel calm.
For the following week, she told me to make a list of everything that lit me up inside, that made me feel like I was fulfilling my purpose, in order to remind myself that I was a multi-passionate person.
"You and I are so much alike," she said. "Seriously, we have so much in common." She told me she loved me and to text her anytime.
Between our sessions, I'd get emails full of praise and encouragement.
"You have such a beautiful spirit."
"You've been on my mind, and I am excited to talk with you again."
"You are so lovely, my dear. I get such a high speaking with you."
"I'm getting so used to our sessions so much I don't want to stop them ever! LOL."
"Cheers to a great week!"
"With all my love..."
Maybe I'm just another millennial wanting a trophy for being me, but it felt damn good to have a personal cheerleader on call. Her optimism never faltered; she had advice for every issue I raised. On dealing with difficult people: "Treat everybody like they have a broken heart." On worrying about being too old or too young: "Forget your age and live." On how coaching works: "There's nothing I can teach you that you don't already know." On patience: "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." The clichés were relentless, but hearing them expressed so earnestly in Yatros's dulcet, regionally accented tone gave them a surprising resonance.
A few days before our third session, I had a fight with my boyfriend. He accused me of being unreliable when I broke plans because of work. I felt burdened by his expectations, though I also felt like he had a right to be mad. It wasn't the first time I'd flaked. But when I told Yatros about it, she told me I was right to push back.
"It's not you that has to change," she said. "It's the other person that needs to understand who you are."
If I'd had a therapist we'd probably talk about my adolescent eating disorders, my childhood OCD, my fears of intimacy caused by my parents' split. But with my life coach we didn't have to go there.
I struggled to process this theory that I should never have to settle, that "the right person will come along and fit you like a puzzle piece," as she put it. It seemed like a millennial fairy tale and a recipe for lifelong spinsterhood. "Relationships are about compromise," I insisted.
Yatros told me to read another book, The Four Agreements,which she said might change my mind. It's a self-help book by a self-described neo-shaman named Don Miguel Ruiz. It was a number-one New York Times best seller in the early 2000s and again in 2013, after Oprah had him on her show. I downloaded it for a flight to California and finished it before landing. Here's the book in a nutshell: When you are being true to yourself (agreement no. 1) people might think you're selfish, but don't take anything personally (agreement no. 2) and don't assume you know what other people are thinking (agreement no. 3). And also (agreement no. 4), do your best.
Ruiz can sound kind of like a yogi on his last day at Burning Man ("When you feel good, everything around you is good. When everything around you is great, everything makes you happy. You are loving everything that is around you, because you are loving yourself"). But sometimes he made sense. He made me think about how often I assumed other people were mad at me. Like my friends, who were just as busy as I was. And my boyfriend, who would probably forgive me for working late every night for a month if I told him that was how it was going to be. A lot of my day-to-day anxiety came from a compulsive need to jump through hoops of my own design. Flakiness isn't letting people down, Ruiz says; it's failing to understand and communicate your needs.
Self-help is a multibillion-dollar industry peddling promises of quick reinvention. No one gets rich on the idea that change is slow and hard-fought. More than once Yatros had told me that "transformation is just a shift in perception." The idea that my life could change because of some thoughts I'd had on a flight was certainly alluring. What if I could have transformative moments all the time?
Then I realized that this is just what life is like when you're young. When you haven't had a lot of experiences, every experience feels transformative. When I first heard John Mayer as a 15-year-old, I knew he was the best musician on Earth. For two months in my early 20s, I thought veganism was the way to lifelong happiness and toned abs.
I had my last session with Yatros in Healdsburg, California. My boyfriend and I were staying in a cabin overlooking a sauvignon blanc vineyard, visiting wineries, eating and drinking decadently. Everything was supremely romantic and wonderful, except for the persistent anxiety knotted in the bottom of my throat. Even in paradise, I was waking up at night convinced that something was deeply wrong.
I told Yatros about it as I sat in the drafty cabin, in an easy chair pulled up close to the gas fireplace, my laptop resting on my knees. We'd just come back from a full day of wine tasting. My boyfriend was out on the deck with the complimentary cheese plate, looking at dinner options on his phone.
"It's like anything I could possibly be worried about or upset about just flows in," I explained. "And everything is hopeless."
If I'd had a therapist we'd probably talk about my adolescent eating disorders, my childhood OCD, my fears of intimacy caused by my parents' split. But with Yatros we didn't have to go there.
"I absolutely have those times and those nights," she said cheerfully. "I usually turn on my TV and start watching a movie because then I get engrossed in somebody else's problems."
She recommended reading an article online or drinking a cup of tea. Or taking a shot of whiskey. Or had I given meditation another shot? I felt awash in a sadness I couldn't explain. I knew that any of those things might have done the trick, but I was looking for something more, or maybe less: some acknowledgement that my dips into existential panic were inevitable and not everything had a fix.
Unlike some life coaches I've spoken to, Yatros's desire to help people is 100 percent sincere. But the thing about empathy is the more you claim to understand someone, the less genuine it seems. Real empathy requires realizing that there are things about one another we'll never know.
And this might be the central irony of the millennial-life-coach phenomenon: The biggest selling point of these young sages is that they don't have "luggage," as Johan Premfors from the Coaches Training Institute said. But luggage isn't always a bad thing. Life experience is what teaches you that you don't know everything, that most of us know barely anything at all.
In the months since I finished my sessions with Yatros, I passed my one-year anniversary of being back in New York. My career has stabilized (by freelance standards), I'm finding time to see my friends, and my boyfriend and I are moving in together. I'm calmer and happier than I've been since I can remember. It's probably just that I'm getting older, finally seeing safe ground beyond the minefields of my 20s. But also, well, I'm meditating. I do it in the morning before getting out of bed. Not every day, never for more than ten minutes. Some days it's more like hitting snooze. But whatever. Those ten minutes are the opposite of the throat-clenching, paranoia-inducing anxiety I felt for so long, so I keep doing it.
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