How existential philosophy shaped my coaching practice by Yannick Jacob [Guest]
The following series is a result of conversations with Yvonne Thackray to explore existentialism and what it can add to coaching. Transcripts have been edited in a joint effort to both share and introduce existentialism, an exciting philosophy to practicing coaches, which has enabled Yannick develop his coaching practice.
What if there is no overarching “meaning of life” provided by somebody or something outside of ourselves? How do we navigate our lives? What’s a “life-well-lived” anyway?
What if there isn't a destiny or some sort of script that we follow and we're not just actors in a play? Do we have free will, agency, actual autonomy?
And if we do, how do we handle the weight of having to take responsibility for our actions and lack thereof? To what extent are we influenced by outside forces and able to make “excuses” for where we’re at in life? Are happiness and success really choices we can make?
“We are condemned to be free [to choose]”, as Jean Paul Sartre, one of the most prominent existential philosophers, famously said. Yet that also means that we get to choose, we have agency and what we do matters and has meaning, as long as we attach that meaning to our actions, as long as we make that choice.
Can we ever know for sure that what we do matters?
No, but we can take that leap of faith as to bridge life’s inherent uncertainty and to step positively into a future we cannot ever fully predict. I believe that the world’s larger than you and me, and a human brain cannot possibly comprehend its complexity and inner workings. Living life as a human being is tough and challenging and we cannot escape the human condition and its accompanying inevitable inner conflicts, paradoxes and dilemmas (unless we stop existing). But we can learn to embrace our differing conditions as that is what makes us human and our life exciting because it goes beyond living a chary and comfortable life. And existentialism, viewed through my positive psychology lens, provided the perfect framework for me to appreciate the complexities and suffering of living in a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) while at the same time adopting a positive mindset and courageously taking part in it rather than seeking as much comfort and positive emotions as possible, which, I decided, ultimately leads us to avoid life rather than living it.
Choosing to live life: My instinctual journey to existential coaching
I discovered existentialism as I was looking for an integrative coach-therapy training and I immediately connected with the approach. It seemed to be a fertile ground to integrate a range of tools and techniques from other approaches whilst also providing a solid framework of the human lived experience that encouraged the practitioner to meet the client holistically. Given my positive psychology background integration happened quite naturally.
Something I had to do some thinking around, particularly around marketing, was, "Do I want to become known as an existential coach?" Do I want to put that out there? Because a lot of people still have a lot of negative associations with existentialism as dark, and people sitting in French cafes smoking Gauloises and talking about how we're all going to die and how life is meaningless. However, I didn't see it that way, and this maybe because I came in with that positive psychology lens on it. I immediately viewed it as something very liberating. If there are no rules to follow, yes, there is a void. There is anxiety, but that also means you make the rules. That means you can do whatever you want as long as you are willing to take responsibility for the consequences. There are no rules but the ones you make or the ones you choose accept from others.
I found that anxiety-provoking and at the same time extremely liberating. And if I feel that something is meaningful, then that is meaningful and that's the only truth I can really know in this moment right now, right here. This feels good and this feels right. If there is a book that tells me that's wrong and you're not supposed to live like that, I can still follow my own truth. Time and again history has shown that just because everybody else thinks you’re an idiot, doesn’t mean you aren’t spot on in how you live your life. I think there is great freedom in that. Importantly, it is through these kind of examples applied to everyday living situations that I know existentialism is what a lot of people are concerned about. You just have to know how to translate the convoluted philosophical texts into tangible language and simple examples.
Curiosity about people and their world: from positive psychology to existentialism
I’m quite philosophical, very existential, yet pragmatic, fast-paced and looking ahead more than I dwell on the past (and usually a combination of the two exploring how they make sense in relation to each other). This is why I’m not surprised that I was drawn to existential coaching.
When I discovered the term “existential” and started exploring what the philosophy is about it felt like a home coming; getting to know my roots. As soon as you translate the convoluted philosophical texts into everyday language and situations they make perfect sense to people. But the journey didn’t start there. Every existentialist, while agreeing on the core components, the givens, the human condition and the resulting anxieties and inner conflicts and dilemmas, has quite different angles on the ideas. Mine are inherently influenced by what came beforehand and who I am as a person.
Starting with my studies at UG and PG level
As you can tell, I didn’t follow a straight line and headed straight too existentialism. I took a more progressive pathway and it started most naturally for me with my curiosity, a strong interest in the world and how people make sense of it, so I've always been interested in what's going on for people. That first led me into psychology. I realized quite early on in my life that I'm very quick to adapt to things, to get bored once I understand the pattern and see through the “system”, and then choose to move on rather than investing a decade of my life to become a master of something narrow and specific. This tendency has influenced how I shaped my path. Some might call that multi-potentialism or being a generalist or having a portfolio career or, less flattering, being a jack of all trades and a master of none. But I wanted that versatility and decided that I’d follow my gut. It was only much later (through my first coach and then Emilie Wapnick’s TED talk) that I discovered the aforementioned positive terminology and realized the immense value of having strong foundations across many fields of interest, which fuel the ability to integrate and connect dots.
I chose psychology because I figured working with people is one of those areas that is never going to get boring. Once you think you've figured them out, they'll probably change. People never fail to surprise you when you least expect it. That’s what makes life so gruesomely unpredictable and hence wonderfully exciting. Even if you did figure out a certain group of people and how they operate and how they think (most of the time), you can always just work with a different group of people.
At first psychotherapy and counselling had peaked my interest during my BSc but then I fell into this Masters Programme in Positive Psychology. At the time I was in my third year of my undergraduate degree in psychology and I did a module in Positive Psychology. I was lucky enough that at the time it was run by Ilona Boniwell. At some point I went to Ilona and asked, "I read that there’s a masters in positive psychology by Martin Seligman in Pennsylvania, the only one of its kind in the world. Can you tell me more about that?" And she responded, "There's another one now. It's here. With me. You can join cohort 2!” And I was like: "Wow, that's great. I'll do that then." Another one of those moments when I followed my interest and passion with no real sense of what kind of job that would lead to or how it could be monetized. At that time I had never heard of coaching.
While the Masters felt like a coincidence, really it made a lot of sense as I was researching flow and engagement at the time for my undergraduate dissertation. Then I found out about coaching through Positive Psychology as a lot of coaching psychology was informed by positive psychology research into optimal human functioning, the building blocks of happiness and generally “what’s right with people”. There were a lot of interventions for what most people seem to be striving for: some form of feeling good or better about themselves, some form of happiness. I’ve learned that Coaching and Positive Psychology go hand in hand as one is producing knowledge about how people live a good life and coaching is about the process of helping people to achieve it. And I feel so lucky that I'm part of the first generation of coaches who could actually study positive psychology and coaching so early on.
Coaching fits my personality
Finding coaching helped me to realize that it’s a lot more “me” than psychotherapy or counseling. I'm quite a positive upbeat kinda guy; I do also like to go deep and I like to have deep conversations. I am really curious about suffering and what helps people go through crisis, but at the same time I don't want to spend my whole day listening to people's severe suffering, psychological illness and mental disorders. I did an internship in a psychiatric institution and realized that can be really frustrating because the success rate is quite low (if you see success as helping somebody be okay or feel good sustainably). A lot of people fall back into their patterns or their illness and get re-admitted, especially at the extreme end of the mental health spectrum. I have the utmost respect for the psychiatrists, neurologists and psychotherapists I’ve met there. That kind of work clearly takes a toll on you. It is important work but not what I wanted to do every day all day. Also, this kind of work is limited to a very small share of the population. I wanted to work with people who are generally okay and able to cope with life (most people) and help them to live better (whatever that may mean to them).
So I found Positive Psychology and it was one of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had. Researching happiness and what’s right with people felt amazing. However, I felt that a lot of Positive Psychologists were a bit too positive for my taste. It somehow lacked the kind of depth and the kind of challenge that I knew life throws at you on a regular basis. Striving for a life that's full of positive emotions consistently, for me that was just not realistic. I need an approach that would appreciate the dark side of human existence and how challenging and difficult it is to be human in a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous). So that’s when it dawned on me that any coach training I would pursue would have to integrate elements of psychotherapy and counselling, something that appreciates human suffering as an inevitable part of the human experience of being in the world.
And so I found existential coaching. And as I practiced it, I realized that coaching felt a lot more authentic to me. It gave me a lot of freedom to work in the way that I think is useful and valuable. I am quite a natural challenger. I'm quite open, direct. I want to know what's really going on. I want to have deep conversations and I needed an approach that acknowledged how difficult and challenging life is, how tough it is, and acknowledges how many adversities people go through. I felt some sort of integration of therapy, counseling and coaching, would be really useful because we simply cannot avoid anxiety and suffering in our lives.
Fortune favours the prepared
Sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time. Sometimes you are in the right place way too early or way too late. Sometime it’s the wrong place and you stick around because it’s comfortable to be in a place that you know, even if it’s not right for you. For me existentialism came at the right time (though commercially perhaps a little too early, but that just fits the pattern for me so far) because I was ready to look beyond what I knew (positive psychology) and follow an instinct that somewhere out there I’ll be able to find what I’m looking for.
For weeks I had been looking for training opportunities that would allow me to work across the whole spectrum of what human beings experience, and something that would combine elements of coaching and therapy in a meaningful way. It was one of those moments where I had least expected it that I found what I (didn’t know I) was looking for: in a casual conversation with a friend (Nash Popovic, who later founded the first MSc in Integrative Counselling and Coaching at the University of East London), who happened to know someone who had started training as an existential therapist at a small family-run school accredited by Middlesex University (the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling (NSPC) run by Emmy van Deurzen). Nash didn’t say much at the time, just that he thought I should speak to the guy. I think he had a hunch. I don’t think he could have known the extent it would define the course of my life in the way that it did.
As it happened, the NSPC, under the lead of Monica Hanaway, had just created an MA in Existential Coaching and that seemed to be the integrative approach I was looking for. It didn't leave me with a Psychotherapy qualification but a lot of the books on our reading list were about Existential Psychotherapy and a lot of the philosophy, by nature, is about deep questions around the nature of being and what it means to be alive and in the world with others,
The big questions in life that go really to your core of your being and looking at that within a coaching spectrum.
How can we work within a coaching framework that's philosophically informed?
Working on these major transitions in life but with people who are not in crisis but people who are generally operating in the world and that they're quite capable of leading their lives but they just have these questions.
Where next? Developing a philosophically informed coaching framework
Following my natural learning patterns and given my perspective on life and coaching, I naturally integrated positive psychology and existentialism to focus two important questions that ultimately underpin Positive Existential Coaching:
“What are the building blocks of happiness and wellbeing?” and
“What are the inevitable anxiety-provoking aspects of the human condition, the darker sides of existence?”
Bringing happiness and dread together may at first seem paradoxical but it immediately made perfect sense to me.
Having agency and free will
The very first psychological question I was posed during my psychology degree was the nature vs. nurture debate (are we a product of our genetic makeup or the product of our environment? Do we have free will or are we determined to do, think and feel based on our past?). I think this debate lies at the foundation a lot of coaching practice. If I didn't believe in free will and agency, I don't think I could be a coach. After all, we facilitate people making choices as to lead their lives in a different direction, to do things differently than they’d normally flow. We have to believe that changing yourself is possible and that we have agency in the matter. If we were inadvertently shaped by our make up and our past, there’d be little we could do to affect out course of existence.
So while I believe they both matter. There’s space to intervene. And I do think it's always both rather than either-or. We are definitely shaped and influenced by how we grow up and who’s around us in our formative years as well as later on. But I believe there is almost always a space where we have agency and can exert our own free will. I understand the argument that it is an illusion and that a lot of our decisions are strongly influenced by the outside world, probably a lot more than we would like to admit to ourselves. But we have agency in there. And that means we share responsibility when things happen. That's why I like the existential approach and philosophical exploration, because the more we raise awareness of the influences from the outside, the more we can act out our own free will.
I believe the more we become aware of the forces at play in our decision making processes, the more freedom we have to actually say, "Hey, I realize I'm driving in this direction and why." If I tell myself, "Oh, I'm just going with the flow, because you should always go with the flow." It feels a lot nicer and more comfortable and right than swimming against the current as that creates tension. However, I believe that within this tension, that’s where life is and where we can let ourselves flow. If we simply let ourselves drift we end up denying our agency and we won’t be able to own where our life is going and we might end up somewhere where we don’t feel satisfied. This is where you hear regret: you hear people complaining that they’ve wasted their lives and they often start blaming a whole host of people or circumstances, when in fact they could’ve taken the wheel and steered against the current. They will probably suffer a fair deal while re-orientating to their true north but ultimately end up a lot closer to where they were trying to get to (albeit almost never exactly where they imagined they’d be).
Exploring the whole spectrum
Currently, there seem to be two schools of coaches out there. At the extreme ends of the spectrum they either tell you:
"Never do anything where you have to force yourself, because you should live in harmony with everything." Or that
"Life isn’t easy. It won’t go the way you want to if you let yourself drift. It’ll be something and if you don’t have any goals and you’re happy with floating down the life stream wherever it takes you and accept whatever you get then that’s all good. But if you want to achieve things, then you’ll need discipline. Discipline is freedom. You can carve your way through the jungle. But it’ll be a tough journey full of work."
There is a spectrum within and I think it's useful to be aware of that. Be aware of the forces that push you into certain directions, and be aware that you have agency to go against outside forces, especially if you believe that that's the right way. And this is where philosophically informed coaching provides the space where people can make these kind of decisions around their choice of mindset.
I believe mindset is a choice that opens up when we lay out these things on the metaphorical table and look at them in the context of what’s going on in your life, past present and future (goals, desires or missions).
And, the only way to make these decisions in a sustainable way is to explore yourself at the very core of your being. And I learned that this does not need to be a conversation that takes place in the therapy room but can be discussed with a coach who is willing and able to hold space for these kind of conversations.
Existential philosophy really helps when it comes to exploring this space. And then being able to place this journey within a coaching framework allows me to be who I am and practice the way I see fit. It plays into all of my skills, strengths, beliefs and values. I believe it’s the applied arm of the second wave of positive psychology embedded within a profound philosophy that offers fertile ground for integration and allows a coach to be who they are and meet their clients in the same way.
What this all means in practice
In practice I find that a lot of the small questions and decisions that people bring to coaching are connected to the bigger existential questions. On a daily basis we face anxiety, dilemmas, paradox and inner conflicts embodied by incongruence and inauthenticity as a result of being human and living in the world with others. But I’ve learned that we can embrace this human condition as the stuff that makes life literally exciting. Perhaps not always comfortable or enjoyable, but meaningful and rich in experience.
Time and again I found that clients who are willing to explore the depth of their experience of being in the world with a positive mindset and the will to exert their agency and hence take responsibility and ownership over their actions and lack thereof, they seem to value their life more and find new purpose in their existence, even if their existence will inadvertently involve suffering and adversity. At the moment a client becomes aware of their human condition and learns to embrace it as something positive (despite the suffering that accompanies it), a positive existentialist is born. What a wonderful journey to accompany! And placing this journey within a coaching framework allows me to be who I am and practice the way I see fit. It plays into all of my skills, strengths, beliefs and values. It’s the applied arm of the second wave of positive psychology embedded within a profound philosophy that offers fertile ground for integration and allows a coach to be who they are and meet their clients in the same way.
Connect with Yannick Jacob via Linkedin
Yannick is an existential coach (MA), positive psychologist (MSc), trainer & supervisor and FMR Programme Leader of the MSc Coaching Psychology at the University of East London. He works with coaches, leaders and anybody who considers themselves to be in a "position of great responsibility" to gain clarity, make choices, build resilience and navigate their life. Yannick believes in balance, understanding, helping people think and developing the courage to live across the full spectrum of human experience as the pathway to sustainable happiness. His book, An Introduction to Existential Coaching, will be published in May 2019 by Routledge.