Find yourself on a tropical beach almost anywhere in the world these days, and you’ll encounter two groups of people: locals making a living by fishing and serving the tourist economy, and expats furrowing their brows about the slow internet.
I grew used to this scene while I was living in the idyllic coastal town of Puerto Escondido, Mexico, last winter. My family and I had relocated there for a few months to take writing sabbaticals.
When you live in paradise, you still need money to survive. So after a little while, you start to notice the mysterious hustle of those who attempt to live outside of the service industry. You start to observe the storied “digital nomad.”
The digital nomad lifestyle is coveted by many office-bound young people, mostly thanks to a whole genre of Instagram photos that have become cliches in their own right: the stylish minimalism of working in chic cafes all over the world, or the wholesome, sun-drenched life of someone driving from beach to beach in a refurbished vintage van.
The photos don’t tell the whole story. In truth, most digital nomads do pretty ordinary, unglamorous laptop-enabled stuff: graphic design, web programming, maybe remote legal consulting. There are even some therapists who live the digital nomad life, seeing their clients over Skype.
But there’s one subgroup of digital nomads who caught my attention in Puerto Escondido: the coaches.
I first met two women named Jill and Krista at the beach. One afternoon, our kids began spontaneously playing in the waves together. It was a lovely way to meet; I recall feeling, as we introduced ourselves with the waves lapping at our feet, like I was very lucky to be encountering new friends under these circumstances. We were lucky, and we all knew it. But it turned out we still didn’t see it in quite the same way.
Jill and Krista—not their real names—both told me they worked as “coaches.” In my regular life, in Montreal, I had never heard of coaching, at least not this kind.But I now learned there were many types of coaches—life coaches, business coaches, sobriety coaches, mindset coaches.
Krista was a yoga person who coached people on concepts related to using yoga as an inspiration for everyday life: being more “open-hearted” and avoiding what she calls “fear-based living.” She had been heavily influenced by a book called A Course In Miracles that basically argues that “only love is real.” (This is the same text that author and fringe left-wing US presidential hopeful Marianne Williamson has based her career on.)
Jill was a “mindset coach” who helped female entrepreneurs refine their “messages” so as to get more clients. It’s another way of describing marketing: coming up with compelling ways to sell products and attract the right clientele. But “marketing” sounds traditional and hierarchical, and coaching is all about individual success. “Mindset” belongs to one person, reflecting something internal about their personality—even their essence. A mindset coach, from what I could deduce, helps people feel that they’re emotionally connected with their sales pitch. Although there are plenty of men both selling and buying “coaching,” the world of “mindset” coaching seems to be dominated by women.
Jill’s and Krista’s coaching takes place over a number of different platforms, and I began to expose myself to the crumbs of it that they give out for free. Paying clients shell out hundreds of dollars for month-by-month “offerings” and courses, which can include access to scheduled phone and video-chat sessions with coaches, online chats and posts shared by coaches in private Facebook groups. As freebies, Jill and Krista (and seemingly every other coach) are constantly posting Instagram stories and Facebook Live “events” which consist mainly of themselves speaking directly to the camera in an informal, off-the-cuff style.
“Hi lovelies,” they might open with. “So, today I’ve been thinking about how scary it is for some of us to admit that we really want—crave!—success. Why are we programmed to be so apologetic about ambition? I know some of you are feeling me on this!”
It’s common for coaches and coaching clients to have kids, like Jill and Krista. The typical client is a mother of young children, trying to start an online business from home. Often, coaches and their clients are not their family’s primary breadwinners.
But both Krista and Jill seemed to be making pretty good money from their hustle. They rented huge, breezy beach houses with pools, multiple floors and roof patios. Mainly, though, I knew they were earning money because they publicized it. Part of being a coach is modelling your own success for your students, including sharing your monthly income, so when one of them made ten grand one month, I found out about it on Facebook.
Coaching is huge, worldwide, I came to understand. It occupies the same interstitial economic zone as multi-level marketing: a Wild-West, largely online world where people try to earn extra money from home. This work-for-yourself subculture has a very low barrier to entry: few official credentials exist in the world of coaching, as in the world of online selling. And it has grown in recent years as long-term, well-paid work is increasingly hard to come by. Coaching can seem like an attractive alternative way of “getting ahead,” and it also caters to people who are trying to come up with alternative income streams.
This appeal is what motivates both the coaches and their clients—everyone is trying to accomplish the same thing. Sometimes it’s hard to parse what exactly is being sold—a product? A service? Is anyone offering anything that anyone actually needs?
When we met on the beach, I had felt lucky to find myself in the right place, at the right time. But after getting to know Jill and Krista a bit better—and then later from lurking on the free coaching sessions they post on social media—I came to learn that “luck” isn’t a concept embraced by the contemporary coaching movement. Instead, coaches consider themselves part of a group of exceptional people who have embraced a “limitless life,” as some of Jill’s marketing copy puts it. They believe that their fortunate circumstances come from “conquering fear” and “manifesting magic.”
If you had asked me on the day we met how I had ended up on that beach in southern Mexico at all, I would have told you that privilege, hard work, and yes, luck, had brought me there. My husband and I were working in fields where taking leaves of absence didn’t mean losing our jobs—that’s luck. We had spent over a year working extra jobs and saving up to take six months off to write. It wasn’t as intriguing as “manifesting magic,” but we have receipts.
Still, we began to hang out with Jill and her family in their yoga mansion—that is to say, a massive, palm-roofed, multi-storey new-age fantasy, the kind of place where yoga retreats are held.
My family was renting a humble concrete shoebox with a water tank on the roof that had to be filled daily by switching on a very loud pump in the yard. I was working on my dissertation during that time; we did feel lucky, and thrilled to be missing a Montreal winter, but I struggled with my writing, and there were moments where I wondered if the coaches were right.
Maybe the reason I was perennially broke, and was struggling to find my voice in my dissertation, was because I wasn’t inviting abundance into my life. Maybe I was leading with fear rather than love. Maybe I had set my expectations for myself too low.
A lot of people need encouragement to keep on going in our relentless social order. We work harder for less money than previous generations did. The crumbling of old institutions have destabilized many of the pathways to financial security that used to exist—long-term contracts with benefits, graduate degrees leading to middle-class incomes, functional business models for media and the arts.
My curiosity about coaching led me to get in touch with a graduate student in the American Midwest who I’ll call Talia, who researches neoliberal wellness fads. About a decade ago, Talia was a recent college grad in a depressed economy, working a dead-end job she hated. She hired a coach to help kickstart a new business.
“I worked with these coaches and wanted to believe in the ‘fail forward/spend money to make money’ message because I was so miserable in my day job,” she told me in an email. “I graduated during the recession and had no real career. I was doing what I had to do to make enough money to get by, but I was not ‘living my best life’ or even a life that felt purposeful at all. The inspirational messaging and the encouragement to fulfill my potential was what I ‘needed’ to hear at that time.”
After investing approximately $20,000 USD in coaching, web hosting and other tools to get her own wellness startup off the ground, Talia gave up, unable to break through to an eager clientele that her coaches urged her were out there waiting.
Talia doesn’t believe the coaches she hired had dishonest intentions, nor did they misrepresent their own track record of success. Their methods of self-motivation had worked on them—the problem is that that doesn’t mean they can work on anyone else. “It’s not about believing harder in yourself or spending more money to make money — it’s about being in the right place at the right time and with the right connections,” Talia wrote. “No amount of… marketing tactics can change that.”
Startup culture has spun a narrative that the world is full of kaleidoscopic possibilities. The right message, at the right time, with the right twinkle in your eye, could make anyone a millionaire. Maybe it’s just a question of training your eyes to twinkle right. Jill believes that the right mindset can create financial “miracles.” When I remarked on Krista’s new car, she told me that she’d “manifested” it. The woo-woo language of visualization, miracles and manifestation is inescapable in coaching circles.
The thing is, there is no trick. You can’t manifest wealth with your mind. The coaches’ own life stories prove this; they got lucky. “[Successful coaches] were the people who got into the industry early,” said Talia.
In the end, coaching is a symptom of capitalism’s limitations: people are looking for tricks to outsmart a system that’s offering diminishing returns for regular people.
Over time, I realized something else. I felt a deep ideological chasm between me and the coaches. It was hard at first for me to see this, because Jill and Krista seemed like social-justice bleeding-hearts just like me. There’s a heavy dose of wellness-culture energy in the coaching hustle—mind-body interconnectedness, “practicing gratitude”—and maybe I’m naive, but I found it easy to conflate these ideas with compassion for those less fortunate.
Don’t be fooled. The belief that each of us contains a grain of potential just waiting to germinate can easily bleed into the belief that poverty is the result of laziness. Would income inequality simply evaporate if all the poor folks worked harder at manifesting their dreams?
Krista and Jill’s coaching hustles reflect an overall trend in pop feminism that’s visible everywhere from t-shirts to mugs to best-selling books like Jen Sincero’s You are a Badass and Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. Both authors encourage their readership to conquer self-doubt and take risks.
These books are catnip to exhausted women yearning to catch an updraft. They’re also trickle-down neoliberal pablum straight out of the Mulroney era. Business and life coaches encourage clients to make a project out of themselves, to look inward for meaning. Community interdependence, social change, collective action—these don’t factor into the manifestation mindset.
Despite coaching’s promise to show a more flexible and creative way to success, it relies on the same fundamentally conservative values that underpin the corporate establishment. Winners work hard, the coaches will tell you.
The nature of the work itself—getting yourself into “alignment” and harnessing your “mindset” to visualize great things—is more New-Agey than traditional manuals on making sales. But the emphasis on self-reliance is the same. According to coaches, you are an island. Your success or failure is up to you. Leaning on your community is not part of the narrative.
Shortly before we returned home to Canada, Jill invited us to a barbecue at her house. There were a dozen people there, the kids splashed in the pool and the adults drank Victoria beer as the sun set across a gorgeous wild beach that you could see from their roof deck.
Jill seemed bored and distracted; we had never become close friends, and I vaguely blamed myself for failing to interest her in my chit-chat. She checked her phone a lot; she seemed to wish she were elsewhere. As dinnertime approached, I went searching through the kitchen for something to use for a salad dressing. The cupboards were empty save for a shaker of salt. I was bewildered; they were a family of five. What kind of house with that many people has empty cupboards?
Since I left Mexico I’ve continued to follow Jill and Krista’s online updates. They both seem to be making a lot of money—way more than I am. Sometimes I still catch myself wondering if I missed an important message. Am I underestimating my worth? Are there really thousands of dollars in income floating around out there, just waiting for me to claim them? I’ll never know. But I do keep a lot of snacks around, and I’ll share them with anyone who asks.