Success Coaching Thrives on Failure

The high rate of failure in a society that sees precarity as the key to personal motivation guarantees a promising market for success coaching.
Success coaching, success coaches, Medium, Melissa Chu, Attaining success, being successful, how to be successful, culture news, Peter Isackson, The Daily Devil’s Dictionary

© Sergey Tinyakov

In 2014, Forbes offered its readers this prediction: “[A]ll indications are that the number of people holding themselves out as coaches will exponentially grow over the next few years. While the coach who authored the article, Russ Alan Prince, thought this was a good thing, he correctly feared that many of the emerging coaches may not be “up to the job.”

In today’s competitive late-stage capitalist society, more and more young people in the US, having realized that the standard 20th-century life plan is no longer valid, must choose how to manage their lives. In the previous century, it consisted of a simple plan: get an education, get a job, get a family, get a house and do whatever’s required to get a promotion and work your way up a short ladder. Then coast toward the retirement of a fulfilled grandparent who can finally discover the world on cruise ships and bus tours of Europe.

In the 21st century, as the standard scenario of the past has disappeared for most people, the nature of the decision concerning one’s life orientation has changed. At the same time, the range of choices expanded. Increasingly, the perspective is short term. At best, it concerns only the next two or three years. Get a gig (Uber, Lyft, etc.), learn to smile and serve (to get good tips), start a business (easier without a student loan to pay back), become a day trader (if your focus is just on money), join a tech startup (if you have a feeling for tech), or become an artist and hope someone recognizes your talent and invests in you.

This has spawned a culture where everyone is poised between existential misery and the dream of success. This means there is yet another choice open to the enterprising person who can’t manage to achieve happiness in any of the other choices: become a success coach.

An article published on Medium in August 2018 provides a sample of what success coaching is all about. This one takes it from a negative angle: “7 Reasons Why Smart, Hardworking People Don’t Become Successful.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Successful:

Having attained a level of material wealth by cultivating one’s impact on others that permits ostentatious (and often obnoxious) narcissistic behavior in public, setting that person — in their own eyes and in those of their admirers — on a higher plane than the rest of humanity,

Contextual Note

The article, written by Melissa Chu, uses the standard (i.e., already proven successful) formula for writing about success. It consists of listing reasons why people are or aren’t successful, the secrets of successful people, or again things that successful people do or don’t do. The number of items tends to vary between five and 12. Fewer than five would appear trivial, more than 12 cumbersome. There are limits to the number of things one can keep in mind at all times while treading the road to success.

Here are the seven reasons listed in the article:

1) You don’t reach out to new people

2) You are averse to change

3) You’re not willing to take risks

4) You believe you deserve success based on credentials

5) You constantly go after whatever’s exciting at the moment

6) You can’t commit to a decision

7) You don’t believe in yourself

It sounds like common sense, but the author develops the subtle truth that underlies each item in two or three paragraphs, adding pertinent quotes from admirable, highly recognizable people like Lionel Messi and Russell Brand, presumably cited as models to imitate. Oddly, these lists never cite another possible and universally applicable eighth reason why you, the reader, may not successful: The competitive system in which you’re striving for success happens to be stacked against the vast majority of would-be achievers — including yourself — since it is designed to allow only a tiny minority of people to be considered successful. 

A ninth reason, more a corollary of the eighth than something totally independent, is that the perception of success is predicated on the ostentatious display of superior wealth or talent. This means that if you can’t display the fruit of your success through visible material acquisitions and extreme behavior, you will be deemed unsuccessful and probably, despite real accomplishments, will convince yourself of the truth of that conclusion.

This last point permits The Daily Devil’s Dictionary to take our own first (and possibly last) stab at life coaching. We boldly reformulate the preceding observation in the form of the following dissenting pearl of wisdom: Even if you have nothing to show for it, continue to believe in your accomplishments anyway; it may be the only consolation you’ll ever find. Whether following our advice will make you successful or not is another question, but it should make you happier with yourself. Or perhaps unhappier when it compels you to realize that, despite your greatest efforts and sacrifices, nobody is likely to recognize your very real accomplishments.

The obsession with success has become a feature of our civilization that has banished reality in favor of hyperreality. As the success of success coaches proves, hyperreal success has no need of substance. But it must at all times be visible to others. As the celebrity French marketer Jacques Séguela famously said in 2009, while defending then-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s bling-bling narcissism that shocked many of the French voters who elected him in 2007: “If at the age of 50 you don’t own a Rolex, your life has obviously been a failure.”

Historical Note

The lists that claim to provide a roadmap to success draw on various popular traditions of self-help, remedial recipes and pithy messages of encouragement, from snake oil to fortune cookies and the daily horoscope. In the seven “reasons” listed above, most people will find at least one reason to explain their own lack of success and possibly two or three others. Attentive readers will come away with the impression that they have learned something about themselves or found a possible answer to their ills. They feel encouraged. The simple fact of ingurgitating what they perceive as the wisdom of successful people makes them feel better. The author of one of these lists may even find a customer or two among the readers. But the Medium article itself will act as a calling card to establish the guru’s credentials as a recognized life coach.

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The great American tradition of huckstering that came to the fore in the 19th century had its mythical heroes, the greatest of whom was P.T. Barnum. It spawned generations of snake oil salesmen, street corner preachers, armchair psychics like Noreen Renier or Peter Hurkos and, with the advent of electronic communication, televangelists, especially adepts of the prosperity gospel.

Today, anyone brave enough to deploy the resource of social media to declare their exceptional perception, original insight and special wisdom about achieving success can find a way of packaging and marketing these gifts like any other commodity. This may well be the swiftest path to achieving the kind of success and fame that, in turn, allows such people to sell to the unsuccessful the hope of climbing out of the darkness in which they are trapped.

One exceptional case is worth citing, that of professional narcissist Gary Vaynerchuk, chairman of New York-based communications company VaynerX. Vaynerchuk’s special insight focuses on his deep and broad understanding of how to achieve success through social media. Daniel Roberts, in an article for Fortune, calls Vaynerchuk “one of a growing number of internet celebrity marketers who make their money telling eager beaver entrepreneurs that they, too, can get rich and famous by self-marketing on social media.” Roberts describes Vaynerchuk’s style as “loud, bombastic and blatantly self-promotional.”

Narcissism may be the true key at least to Vaynerchuk’s success and could be seen as a requirement for any success coach. As Roberts recounts, “Vaynerchuk sits in a glass-walled room where he has people filming him throughout the day.” One digital marketer, Curtis Hougland, also gives Vaynerchuk a lot of credit. “He has to be loud to stand out, and he’s not wrong to do that.” Hougland adds: “It’s like people who go to see a fortuneteller. They walk out saying, ‘Oh my god, I believe.’ Because they walked in wanting to believe.”

Life coaching is a legitimate occupation. Success coaching, almost by definition, tends to betray and undermine the first principle of serious coaching, which, like psychoanalysis, assumes that understanding and positive change will come, not from the coach but from inside the one who is coached, through a process of self-definition.

Taking another stab at success coaching, but with the sincerity that irony affords, The Daily Devil’s Dictionary proposes a more realistic list of three items intended to answer the question of why unsuccessful people like you haven’t achieved success.

1) You insist on being honest

2) You always try to be on time

3) You think things through before committing

And here is why you should consider this list to be at least as true as any other list:

1) Honesty inevitably reveals your human weaknesses. Narcissism hides them.

2) Being on time sends the signal that you are not occupied with much greater affairs. It doesn’t impress. Being late shows you respond to the highest priorities.

3) Thinking with nuance takes time and results in complexity. Selling slogans is far more efficient, and there will always be takers for slogans, and just as certainly, not so many for nuanced thought.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

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