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Someone On Your Team

It’s not therapy, but it can help with everything from writer’s block to overeating: life coaches help clients develop a game plan for life.

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Life Coach Eric Maisel

“What I love about coaching is that it’s not therapy. It’s very practical,” says Vivian Nesbit, a Taos actor, writer and radio producer. About a year ago, Nesbit began working with San Francisco creativity coach Eric Maisel. “I came to him with all these plates in the air: three book ideas, a radio show, an acting career, this music thing—I do everything but paint. I was looking for balance. He helped me prioritize.”

Nesbit, 48, hasn’t slowed down, but she says Maisel has taught her to focus. She has chosen one writing project to complete. She’s expanding the radio show she produces, Art of the Song: Creativity Radio (which can be heard locally on KWMR 90.5). She’s put her acting career on hold. She’s still a very busy woman, but focused busy, not panicked busy. 

Life coaching is the offspring of the motivational speaker trend popular in the ’80s and early ’90s. Both aim to get you where you want to go, but there the similarities end. Life coaches eschew the hotel conference rooms, cheesy PowerPoint presentations and one-size-fits-all platitudes of the self-help gurus. Instead, they typically work one on one, focusing on each client’s specific needs. There are coaches who specialize in everything from creativity to health. Many work with people stuck in the doldrums of life, not knowing what they want. What these coaches share—whether they put “life,” “creativity” or “executive” before their title—is their focus on a short-term, step-by-step process to help clients achieve their goals. 

Barbara Waxman, a life coach specializing in “midlife and better,” calls coaching a tool. “It’s not advice,” she says. “It’s not my opinion. It’s an extremely powerful way of identifying the next steps.” Unlike therapy, coaching is generally short term. Waxman runs her business, called the Odyssey Group, out of her secluded Kent Woodlands home. She came to coaching two years ago after 15 years as a strategic planner in the assisted living industry. She has master’s degrees in gerontology and public administration as well as certification from the Hudson Institute in Santa Barbara, which she calls “the Harvard of coaching.”

“I’ve had a lifetime interest in aging,” says Waxman. “I was born without that gene that says to be scared of old people.” She sees coaching as addressing an issue particular to our era. “There is a baby boomer turning 60 every eight seconds,” she says. The boomers “are healthier, wealthier and more educated than any other generation.” These adults don’t intend to spend their golden years playing canasta in a retirement home, she adds, yet “many people are looking at the next 30 years and getting depressed because they think it’s all downhill.”

Waxman guides clients through a “process of self-discovery” in which they get to know themselves, often for the first time. The journey helps people identify their values, then take steps to align their lives with those values. Coaching doesn’t look back; it’s resolutely forward facing. Waxman describes it as “entrepreneurship turned inward. It’s looking at the next chapter and giving it as much value, time, capital and effort as you would give to a new business.” 

While Waxman often works with executives and entrepreneurs, Eric Maisel works with a slightly dreamier crowd: writers, musicians, painters and artists who may not yet have found their “creativity container.” The author of Coaching the Artist Within and arguably the world’s foremost creativity coach, Maisel is a novelist and former family therapist who disliked the diagnosis aspect of psychotherapy. “Most people I was seeing just had problems living, not mental illness,” he says. Fifteen years ago, he segued into coaching. “I became interested in working with creative people and I just did it,” he says. “I think I invented creativity coaching.”

Maisel has worked with artists famous and unknown, with Oscar winners and artistic newbies. They talk by phone or in person in his “office,” a San Francisco cafe. Maisel also leads workshops in deep writing (an intensive process intended to break through writer’s block), teaches classes in overcoming performance anxiety and offers courses in becoming a creativity coach. (His book on becoming a coach begins, “At this point in time, it does not look to be possible to make a living as a creativity coach. It is wonderful work but not lucrative work and if you are thinking of becoming a creativity coach so that you can give up your day job or your current career, please think twice.”)

Maisel believes he has succeeded because of his background. He’s written more than 30 books, so he understands both the creative process and the commercial reality of published authorship. And as a therapist, he learned to listen. Nesbit, the Taos writer, likes the combination. “I worked with other coaches,” she says. “I tried a business coach, a career coach, but I needed someone who was out there publishing, someone who was immersed in it. I needed a mentor and I found a mentor.”

Writer Lisa Taggart, author of Women Who Win, has been working with Jill Jones, a creativity coach trained by Maisel, for about a year. “I am skeptical about writing helpers of all sorts,” she says, “but I heard Eric on Michael Krasny’s show (KQED radio’s Forum), and his answers to callers’ questions were so well thought out. He mentioned that his coaches-in-training work with clients for free. It’s not the sort of thing I usually do, but I called.”

Taggart and her coach at first e-mailed once a week. Now, she checks in monthly with a detailed e-mail and gets a response, often with “homework” assignments, within a day. “Having someone to report to helps me be honest with myself and keeps me from making excuses,” she says. “As she’s gotten to know me and my projects, she’s become even more helpful; she’s tailored her coaching style to me.”

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