‘I still harbor a lot of anger and disappointment.’ Illustration: Maria Medem/The Guardian
Brooke Castillo, the ‘queen’ of life coaching, has convinced her fans they can find meaning and money in the field – but is she selling them an unattainable fantasy?
by Rachel Monroe
Wed 6 Oct 2021 06.00 EDT (theguardian.com)
In November 2020, Olivia* was ready for her life to be transformed. She had just stepped away from her long career in business and paid $18,000 for a six-month program to become a life coach. “It was a big decision financially, but it felt right,” she said. “I wanted to start bringing the work I’d done on myself to see if I could help others.” The program, she believed, was the key to a career that would be both lucrative and emotionally satisfying.
Throughout her life, Olivia had explored her inner world via spiritual retreats, therapy, and psychology books. But she’d been dismissive of life coaching, which she regarded as “bullshit” – until she heard about Brooke Castillo.
Castillo, a lean, blond Californian who lives in Austin, Texas, was once a small-time self-help guru, the author of self-published books with titles like, If I’m So Smart, Why Can’t I Lose Weight? Over the past handful of years, she’s become the reigning queen of the world of life coaching, thanks to her savvy marketing techniques, fusion of new age therapyspeak and girlboss rhetoric, and the parasocial relationship she cultivates with listeners to her popular podcast, the Life Coach School (LCS). Castillo doesn’t merely coach people to improve their lives. She’s built a multimillion-dollar business by persuading her fans that they, too, can find meaning (and money) by becoming life coaches.
Olivia initially discovered Castillo through the Life Coach School podcast, which regularly ranks among iTunes’s top business podcasts; its episodes have more than 45 million downloads. In episodes with titles like Self-Image and Why Change Is Hard, Castillo delivers firm but friendly advice about boundaries, time management, and emotional regulation. She is accessible and direct; she sounds like a no-nonsense big sister who wants the best for you.
Like many of Castillo’s listeners, Olivia was a successful professional middle-aged woman. And, like many, she found Castillo at a time when she felt an itching dissatisfaction with her life. On her podcast, and in her persona, Castillo offered the promise of something better. She had learned to manage her mind and was rewarded with a fulfilling life: a happy marriage, two teenage sons, a pristine home and a thriving multimillion-dollar business helping other people self-actualize. Soon, Olivia began considering quitting her job to become a life coach, too.
Coaching is an entirely unregulated industry – there are no oversight boards, no standard curricula, no codes of ethics; if I wanted to hang out my shingle as a life coach tomorrow, no one would stop me. Coaching is distinct from therapy, in that it tends to focus on helping functional people improve their lives, rather than treating people with clinical issues – although those lines aren’t always clear.
Castillo, who has an air of efficiency and an undergraduate degree in psychology, founded the for-profit Life Coach School in 2007; in the years since, she has inspired thousands of people to enroll in an online certification program that costs as much as a year of college. If they complete the program successfully, she proclaims them to be “certified” life coaches. The certification is not recognized by any outside authority, but Castillo likes to say that in the unruly world of coaching, her program is the gold standard, the “Yale of life coaching schools”.
The Life Coach School caters to the idea that anyone who works hard can build a thriving career as a life coach. Last year, with more people than ever anxious, indoors and online because of the pandemic, the company made $37m in gross revenue. As employees left their jobs in droves, seeking better working conditions and more fulfilling careers, LCS trained a record number of aspiring life coaches. “Our enrollments went way up,” Castillo told me. “People that had been on the fence about changing their lives, this was a good catalyst for so many of them.”
But the rapid rise of Castillo and the Life Coach School also raises questions about an unregulated industry at a time when the demand for mental health services is outpacing supply. Operating in the murky realm of “empowerment”, where personal development and financial success blur together, LCS is certainly having a moment; its revenue more than quadrupled between 2017 and 2019. Is Castillo empowering her largely female client base with the tools and support they need? Or selling them an unattainable fantasy?
Castillo, now in her late 40s, wears her cropped blond hair swept to the side, her eyes ringed thickly with liner. She came of age in California during the golden age of self-help. Starting with Robin Norwood’s Women Who Love Too Much as a teenager, she embarked on a decades-long journey of self discovery. By day, she worked in a cubicle at Hewlett-Packard; in her spare time, she took long walks and listened to personal development gurus’ cassettes on her Walkman.
From inspirational speaker Byron Katie, she learned not to blame outside circumstances for her problems. From channeler Esther Hicks, she learned about the law of attraction (later popularized through the book and film The Secret), and practiced vibrationally aligning herself with tens of millions of dollars. From entrepreneurial guru Tony Robbins, she learned to claim her personal power and transform her life from ordinary to extraordinary.
In the early 2000s, she saw a trim life coach named Martha Beck on The Oprah Winfrey Show who specialized in working with over-scheduled women. Inspired, Castillo enrolled in Beck’s three-day coaching certification program, then began marketing herself as a weight loss coach. She visualized her ideal client: a woman standing in her kitchen at 2am, eating out of the fridge. Castillo taught that losing weight was more about mindset than diet or exercise; if her clients got in touch with the emotions that spurred them to overeat, she told them, the pounds would melt away. Other coaches began asking about her methodologies, and Castillo realized she could reach many more people (and earn much more money) by training groups of people to become coaches themselves, rather than working one-on-one with clients.
In 1995, the nonprofit International Coaching Federation (ICF), an independent credentialing body, attempted to impose a set of standards and a code of ethics on the industry, and met with middling success. Although tens of thousands of coaches belong to the ICF, many more – including Castillo, who has dismissed the ICF as clubby and ineffective – do not. Instead, she opted to create her own certification program via the Life Coach School, which she founded with her husband, Chris, in 2007. Initially, LCS trainings took place largely in person. A couple dozen students would gather at the Holiday Inn Express in El Dorado Hills, California, where they spent a week learning Castillo’s signature product, the CTFAR Model: all circumstances (C) are neutral; your thoughts (T) create your feelings (F), which inspire your actions (A), which lead to your results (R). Course materials promised CTFAR “can literally solve any problem”.
The model was essentially a simplified version of cognitive behavioral therapy with some power-of-positive-thinking thrown in. Her students found it transformative. “There were very powerful aspects to being in that room,” Kelly Hollingsworth, who enrolled in LCS training in 2015, told me.
By 2017, Castillo had simplified her business into two streams: for those who wanted to be coached, there was Self Coaching Scholars, a $297 monthly membership program; for those who wanted to become coaches, there was Life Coach School Certification, a six-month online course initially priced around $15,000. (The current course is three months long and costs $21,000; by comparison, some ICF-certified programs cost as little as $1,000, while tuition for Georgetown University’s professional certificate in life coaching runs $13,995.)
Castillo was open with her students about how much she learned from her own coaches, including a controversial man named Frank Kern. Kern, a self-styled internet marketing guru, was fined a quarter of a million dollars by the Federal Trade Commission in 2006 for making false promises. Around 2014, Castillo watched one of Kern’s free webinars, then enrolled in a $1,500 one-day brainstorming session. At the end of the program, she signed up for a year of one-on-one coaching for $36,000.
Kern’s advice turned out to be relatively simple: create a membership program, and spend an enormous amount of money on Facebook ads promoting it. Castillo credits Kern for helping LCS transform from a business that earned $300,000 annually into one that, just a few years later, brought in $10m. In 2018, Castillo announced a new goal; by 2028, she vowed, the Life Coach School would be a $100m-a-year business.
It was a lofty but attainable ambition, considering that the coaching industry was on the verge of its own boom. One industry group estimates that the number of life coaches grew by a third between 2015 and 2019. As permanent jobs gave way to a gig-based economy, coaching suited an anxious workforce scrambling to monetize side hustles and cope with burnout. It was like therapy, but more outcome-based; it could even help you make more money. Castillo’s methodology, with its blend of CBT, mindfulness and entrepreneurialism, all held together with the force of her personality, promised swift, tangible results to those who put in the work. “My work is very practical, but it’s also magical,” Castillo told me. “I don’t lose anyone, because I’m practical enough that I keep the engineers and woo enough that I keep the tarot card reader people.”
That blend of empowerment and self-improvement was particularly appealing to professional women in middle age. “Brooke is marketing to people who are kind of stuck. New retirees who are bored, empty nesters whose kids are going off to college, stay-at-home moms who are tired of baby talk all day long,” an LCS staff member told me. “People who want something more.”
Meg Blatt found coaching at a fraught time in her life, shortly after she’d lost her job and her mother, with whom she’d had a difficult relationship. Listening to Castillo’s podcast made her feel she could gain a measure of control over her trauma.
Over and over again, she heard Castillo present coaching as a dream career. “You get to make a beautiful living. A living that is very lucrative and helps the planet,” Castillo said in one episode. “Helping the mental and emotional health of the human species is a reward in and of itself, and on top of that, you get paid for it. It’s a beautiful thing, my friends.”
On the podcast, in Scholars materials, and at LCS live events, Castillo showed off her students who had gone from being coached to having lucrative careers as life coaches. Blatt signed up for Scholars and soon decided she wanted to become a coach, too. “You’re sitting in a massive conference room in a lovely Dallas hotel, and there are coaches who are multiple-million-dollar earners sitting all around you, being called on to talk about their experiences and the challenges they went through,” Blatt said. “Like, this person was just certified two years ago and they just hit their second seven-figure year. And that possibility felt really tangible in that moment.”
It was an enticing pitch: earn a living by helping other people while working from home and making your own schedule, with no training or credentials necessary beyond the LCS course. Those high-earning LCS coaches, with their neat hair, pristine rooms, tidy minds and seven-figure incomes, seemed like proof that it was achievable.
Olivia, the Castillo acolyte who took notes on every podcast, also enrolled in Self-Coaching Scholars, where she studied modules on relationships and goal-setting. “Not only did I do the workbooks and the homework and attend every call, but I also gave myself additional assignments,” Olivia told me. “I’m kind of insane that way.”
Enrolling in Scholars felt like being inducted into an exclusive club of women working to live their best lives. LCS sent new students a pen studded with Swarovski crystals. Castillo made regular appearances on live calls and shared behind-the-scenes videos about her life. “Every month, you got a new workbook in the mail. And when that book dropped, social media would explode,” another student told me.
When Olivia quit her job and enrolled in the LCS certification course, she justified the significant cost as an investment in her future business coaching other professional women. She looked forward to a higher level of material and deep engagement with fellow coaches. “It is the very next deepest level of the work that I have to offer the world,” Castillo has said about the certification program. “It is my best work, it is what I’m most proud of.”
But within a month, Olivia was disillusioned. The training largely consisted of material that had already been covered in Castillo’s other programs. Once a week, Olivia and a dozen other students had an hour of discussion with an LCS coach, one of the company’s many contract employees, who seemed harried and distracted.
Olivia diligently did her homework, making videos of herself coaching, but says she never received any feedback. She took tests on LCS concepts, but wasn’t told the results. (Erika Royal, who left her role as a partner in Ft Lauderdale, Florida, law firm Holland & Knight to become LCS’s CEO late last year, told me that this was a sign Olivia was doing well. “If your submissions are just fine, you don’t get a lot of feedback. You’re doing just fine. You just proceed.”) Students were discouraged from asking questions and told not to email their instructors.
Castillo was hardly present at all. “She’s part of the product – you’re buying her,” Olivia said. “These other coaches step in for her, but, you know, I want her, I want the real thing.”
When Olivia complained to customer service, she was met with a reply straight out of the LCS playbook: the problem was just in her thoughts. “Which is very convenient, right? Because it means they can never be wrong,” she said. Sarah Foutz, who was a LCS contract employee for two years and has appeared on Castillo’s podcast, told me she met with similar pushback when she complained about being asked to work extra hours without additional pay, or receiving inadequate training: “They would tell us to ask, ‘How is this perfect for me?’” she said. “It’s using the tools they teach us about changing our thoughts to make a crappy situation feel better. It keeps us quiet.”
By the end of the program, Olivia was so fed up that she tried to fail the final exam just to see what would happen; she passed anyway. Castillo didn’t attend the virtual graduation ceremony. “It felt like get em in, get em in, sell, sell sell. And once they’re in, it’s like, – well, I gotta go sell to more people,” Olivia said. She’s working to develop a career as a coach, but she’s no longer able to listen to Castillo’s podcast. “I still harbor a lot of anger and disappointment.”
After completing the certification program, most LCS graduates launch their own coaching businesses. Some have been resoundingly successful. In 2016, LCS began giving out awards recognizing high-earning coaches. Since then, 122 people have reported earning an annual income of at least $100,000 from their coaching gigs, including 12 “two comma” (that is, million-dollar) coaches and one who makes more than $10m.
Many others have a different result. Doreen* completed LCS certification in 2019. “All of a sudden, in a year, you’re a business owner. It’s just like – what webcam do I use? What business insurance do I get? And how do I get out of my own way?” Like Blatt and Olivia, Doreen had hoped to make coaching her full-time job, but instead had “very few” paid clients. “That’s the story of a lot of people I’ve talked to. They have a few paid clients, or they have none,” she told me.
Within the world of LCS, there’s only one reason you’re not succeeding: your thoughts. “If you can’t make your money back on your tuition, you’re doing it wrong. Period,” Castillo has said. Fortunately, there’s a simple solution: more coaching. Stacy Boehman, whose website tagline is I help life coaches make money, is one of a number of Castillo’s high-profile protegees who specialize in coaching coaches. Boehman has a background in sales, spending years performing live infomercials in Walmarts and on military bases; she has also worked with multi-level marketing groups. Her website is stocked with glossy headshots of former students alongside their glowing endorsements: mentoring with her over the last two and a half years has not only helped me create a $500k business but also my dream LIFE.
Both Doreen and Blatt enrolled in Boehman’s group coaching program. Blatt also signed up for six months of one-on-one coaching with one of Boehman’s deputies for $10,000. Sometimes her coach was like a cheerleader, reminding Blatt of how awesome and capable she was. Sometimes, she delivered a tougher kind of love: “You’re being a huge helpless baby,” she wrote in one message. “HELPLESS HELPLESS HELPLESS.”
As she worked to build her business, Blatt occasionally chafed against the LCS worldview. Was it true that all circumstances were neutral, and that her thoughts were the source of all her problems? What about her abusive childhood? What about the time she’d been sexually assaulted – was that a neutral circumstance? But her coaches helped convince her that it was exactly these kinds of thoughts that were undermining her progress. She enrolled in a $5,000 group-coaching program, and signed on for another six months of one-on-one coaching, hoping to get her mind straight.
Coaches are encouraged to identify a niche – say, doctors who want to lose weight, or female attorneys with imposter syndrome – and Blatt toyed with the idea of working with business owners who, like her, struggled with anxiety. “I had a panic disorder, and tools from LCS really did help me, because it is basically CBT,” she told me. But she was also concerned that anxiety, at least in its clinical form, might be beyond the scope of coaching. When she brought that objection to her coach, she says, “she was like, ‘No, it’s not a problem, it’s your thinking about it as a problem that’s making it a problem.’”
Blatt chalked her initial objections up to “limiting beliefs” and followed her coach’s advice. She made videos and Facebook posts about how she’d overcome her own anxiety, and encouraged people to sign up for a free consultation call. “I was getting people who were clearly disordered – anxiety, depression,” she said. One of her first consultations was with a woman who said that she was so anxious that she’d lost her home, her job and her kids. She was living in her cousin’s trailer, sleeping on the couch, and couldn’t get her life together. Blatt couldn’t quite bring herself to try to recruit her as a client; instead, she recommended that she talk to a mental health professional. “It wasn’t just her thoughts that she needed help with, it was many other factors,” Blatt said. But when she told her coaching community about the consult, they critiqued her decision. “The response was, you’re just talking yourself out of making money. Your thoughts are giving you the result of not signing the client.”
Other students told me they were alarmed by the blurry boundaries around what issues could be addressed with coaching. “I realized about two months in that it was basically unlicensed therapy,” Susan* told me. On several occasions, when people wrote in to LCS about serious concerns – including anxiety, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts – they were encouraged to sign up for Scholars. “No referral to mental health help, no suicide hotline, no nothing,” someone familiar with LCS’s inner workings told me. (Last year, LCS began requiring students seek out and take a suicide prevention course.)
But despite the mounting dissatisfaction behind the scenes, LCS’s surface still appeared glossy; prospective students researching the program online told me they found only glowing testimonials. Staff members were instructed to delete comments that even hinted at criticism or negativity from the internal forum, Foutz told me. “If it comes out of Brooke’s mouth, it is true, it is the law,” she said. “I didn’t know there were so many people who had problems, because none of us wanted to speak up.”
Then, last spring, after George Floyd was murdered and businesses scrambled to prove their antiracist bona fides, LCS was conspicuously silent. Castillo’s staff pushed her to issue a statement, or at least a Facebook post, decrying racism and voicing support for their Black members, but she refused. Instead, on 1 June, LCS published a vague Instagram text post –“Love is always the answer” – that seemed like an attempt to sidestep the national reckoning on race. It had the exact opposite effect. LCS social media was flooded with furious comments; on the internal Slack channel, coaches called Castillo out. The school was inundated with cancellations and demands for refunds.
As the backlash built, Castillo released a video with a fellow coach, who is also white. In it, Castillo wept as she talked about how difficult the previous days had been for her. Her eye makeup running, she admitted that she had handled the situation poorly. One coach told me she found it powerful and vulnerable. Many others criticized it for centering Castillo’s experience. “I thought, holy mackerel. I don’t think I can associate myself with her, with her name,” one LCS-certified coach told me.
But Castillo, who has since hired a personal diversity coach, says the experience was on the whole a positive one, and catalyst for much-needed change. “A lot of people were attacking me and were pretty cruel,” she told me. “But the truth of the matter is, it really took that level of aggressiveness to get my attention. I was really delusional and oblivious to that being a weakness and a growth area for me.” In December, she stepped down as CEO and hired Royal, a Black woman, to fill the role. In her new role as CEO, Royal still sometimes seemed to be channeling Castillo. When I asked her about her vision for the company over the next five to 10 years, she paused. “You know, our plan is to get to making $100m a year by 2028,” she said eventually. “So we’re just steadily moving in that direction.” Self-Coaching Scholars now has a module on “Insights for Black Scholars” comprising three hours of videos on subjects such as being Black in corporate America and “Black wealth and money beliefs”. There is no content about racism aimed at a white audience.
The events of last spring and summer forced Blatt to confront her doubts about LCS and the Model. “I was seeing my Black friends in so much fucking pain, and all those teachings, that you could change your thoughts to just feel a different way about that – it was just bullshit,” she said. She severed ties with the LCS community, which she now considers to be akin to a cult. “They had really broken me down. Particularly during the pandemic, my only socializing was within this community, and it had eroded my sense of self, my confidence.”
The events of last summer seemed to have shaken something loose at LCS. Last fall, Castillo announced on her podcast that she and Chris were getting a divorce. She shut down the LCS Slack channel, which had been one of the only ways for the rank-and-file to communicate with her. She seemed less engaged with the community. (“We get in big trouble if we talk to Brooke,” an employee told me.) “Sometimes I wonder if she even knows that there’s a whole group of coaches who are unhappy with her,” Doreen said.
LCS recently announced a new policy that limits some LCS perks – an online coach database; invitations to in-person events – to coaches deemed “active”. To qualify, certified coaches must pass an annual test based on content from the podcast and earn at least $10,000 a year from their coaching business. The new policy sparked another round of defections. “I remember the minute I wanted to change it,” Castillo explained during our half-hour Zoom conversation, all the time she could spare.
She was in a room I recognized from her videos, understated and spotless and white. Her two Boston Terriers – Rocket and Rory – sprawled on the pale furniture behind her. “We had so many people in our audience who weren’t making money as life coaches, because they weren’t trying to make money as life coaches. And it brought down the vibe of the people that were trying. As soon as we changed it, that’s when our student body became much more successful. There was instant energy. It was a group that wanted to be active, wanted to use the tools, wanted to be engaged, wasn’t just along for the ride.”
When I brought up the critiques I’d heard from more than a dozen LCS students and staff, Castillo seemed baffled, but her smile never left her face. “It sounds like these people are attributing their lack of success to the Life Coach School, that we somehow didn’t give them what they needed,” she said. “And so, yeah, I could see that they would be upset at us, if that’s what they’re making that mean.”
In June, Hollingsworth filed a complaint with the Texas attorney general’s office about the new “active coach” policy, among other issues. “The public view of The Life Coach School looks impressive. LCS has created a highly skilled marketing machine that attracts new recruits in ever-increasing numbers,” she wrote. “But behind the paywall, LCS coaches know that there are problems. We also know that we have been groomed to not say anything about these problems, or even to think that they are problems.”
Doreen told me that, despite her frustration with LCS, she still has “a lot of loving feelings for Brooke Castillo”. She has hardly any paying clients at the moment, but she’s still investing in further coaching for herself. I asked her if she had earned her initial investment back. “No,” she told me. “No by a lot,” she said. “Because I’m still spending money.”
For a moment, she sounded deflated. But then, as if some thought process clicked into place in her mind, she perked back up. “I mean, I definitely will make all of my money back. It just hasn’t happened yet. I sleep like a baby at night, because I know that I’m really smart. And I’m really driven. And I have a really, really good idea. So I will definitely make it back. Just, I haven’t yet.”
* Names have been changed
- This piece is part of a series looking at the evolution of mental health and healthcare in 2021.