We are living in a time of collapse. Recent human history (including colonialism and the development of the global capitalism that we live in now) is creating social inequality and environmental disasters at an unprecedented rate, with climate chaos threatening to make our planet uninhabitable. When we live inside systems, we tend to assume that they are inevitable. Things are this way, so they must be this way. We look to the past for evidence of what is possible in the future. But the systems we live in are constructed entirely from human thoughts. Other people, in other cultures have lived or continue to live in different ways. Other ways of being are possible. When we look at the long arcs of history, we can see this, but thinking long-term is difficult for human brains. Thinking outside of the societal norms we absorb from birth is also difficult. Coaching is one tool that can help us to do this.
Coaching focuses on deepening our relationships with ourselves and with other people, on figuring out the path from where we are right now to where we want to be and bringing our actions into alignment with our values. In times of collapse, our capacity to be in right relationship matters immensely. I went a few times to volunteer in the refugee camps in Calais. The people I met there–from all over the world– profoundly changed me. My perception, from my privileged existence within capitalism was that I had everything, and these people, living in second-hand tents donated by French and British festival-goers had nothing. But I was wrong. People relied on their relationships. We helped people fix their tents, gave them shoes and coats and food and they invited us in, they cooked for us, they gave us tea, they told us about their lives and hopes and dreams. Being in relationship sustained them. We volunteers had more material things, but our capacity to be in relationship was so much less. Of course, nobody should be living in conditions like these refugees are forced to, like many more people will likely be forced into by climate change and war. But my point is that being in relationship can get people through apocalypse, being in relationship and community with one another gives us dignity. This is a skill we need to to grow. Talking with refugees in the camps also showed me how deeply fragile our lives and societies are. I met doctors, lawyers, computer science students, vegetable sellers–all sorts of people whose lives had been upended, who had converged in a muddy field in France, hoping for something better.
I think coaching is one way to help us find our way through uncertainty and collapse and apocalypse, to find solutions where we think there are none. Coaching is often sold (and seen) as a luxury for rich people, but I think these tools offer so much more. Victor Papenak talks about this idea in his book Design For The Real World – designers can put their curiosity and skills to work making tchotchkes to decorate the homes of the wealthy or wheelchairs that expand the capacity of disabled children. We can use the same skills in different contexts. The same is true for coaches. A lot of coaches say they don’t want to be political. But we are always political – choosing to ignore politics is itself a political decision.
I don’t think coaching can afford to be a luxury in a time of societal and ecological collapse. For many of us in Western countries, personal development is sold as a path to particular -and I would argue limited- definitions of success. But personal development mean can a lot of things, including increasing our capacity to adapt and change. Success doesn’t have to look the way we were taught it would look. At one point in my life, I taught maths to kids in the English state school system. Part of my role involved teaching lessons on budgeting and life planning. I had to sit down and help a bunch of 12-year-olds fill out a budget that included two kids, two heterosexual, married adults, two salaries, two cars, mortgage payments, car-loan payments, student loan payments, holidays abroad and satellite television. The exercise, written as part of the national curriculum, offered children no scope for imagination, no opportunity to think about what they might want their lives to look like. You might not be surprised to hear that neither the kids or myself found this lesson engaging. But imagine instead that children were presented with lessons that involved, figuring out for themselves what success meant, that allowed them to expand their definitions of what is possible. Coaching aims to turn our focus towards the future, to take things we think are impossible and take action towards them. I think we need this skill more than ever, now our past definitions of success are wearing thin.
The pandemic that started in early 2020 has already forced many people to reshape their lives. It is exposing the ideologies underlying neoliberal capitalism and who they serve or fail. It is exposing whose labour is essential for running a society. The economic crises that are resulting from it are doing similar. So are human crises, like Brexit in the UK or wars elsewhere. Further crises are coming (how do I know this? In part, because there is good evidence that capitalism requires crises to generate growth). Governments talk about returning to normal as quickly as possible, about whether or not we can have holidays abroad in the summer, about how we can get the economy back on track for growth. I think these are the wrong questions to be asking. I think business as normal at this point is a limited goal and calibrating our expectations around returning to pre-pandemic life sets us up for misery. We need to be building new models of how to thrive that don’t rely on extraction, growth, haste and the Protestant work ethic of constant productivity.
Perhaps this sounds selfish, but I want to survive. Even more, I want humanity to survive. I think the desire to survive and thrive is common to most humans and we go about trying to achieve it in different ways. Some people think that having more millionaires from marginalised groups will solve the world’s crises. I do not (although shifting the balance of power and resources may be part of our way forward). Climate collapse will mean the collapse of extractive capitalism as we know it, and so I think we need to think bigger, to look outside of the systems we were born into, to look beyond our own individual financial security. I think we need to unhook ourselves from the idea that we can buy ourselves out of crisis, that a level of financial security exists which will guarantee our survival. This is one thought we can believe, but it is not the only one. I think coaching is one way to do the unlearning and learning that needs to be done. It does not surprise me at all that adrienne maree brown, who thinks deeply about navigating apocalypse is also a literal doula. I think we need many guides and many voices to help us navigate these changes, on both personal and collective levels. That’s why I do this work.