A Research Paper By Debbie Wissel, Career Coach, UNITED STATES
Coaching Books That Have Influenced My Coaching Practice
The art of being a coach is grounded in a liberal arts philosophy, taking from and blending many wide-reaching disciplines from psychology, human behavior, anthropology, sociology, biology, neuroscience, and more. To be a coach, to me, means you are committed to being a lifelong learner and listener so that you can bring out the best in people. In my pursuit of being a better coach, I have and continue to read many books that shape my style and deepen my understanding of the elements that go into effective coaching. This paper summarizes three seminal books on topics fundamental to coaching and that have consistently come up in my own coaching; habits and behaviors, life design, and fulfillment. There are, of course, many books on these topics. The three that have recently stood out to me the most, and are described herein, are:
- The Power of Habit by, Charles Duhig
- Designing Your Life by, Bill Burnett & Dave Evans
- Authentic Happiness by, Martin Seligman
In addition to outlining the key points of the book, I will share how I have and plan to incorporate their lessons in my coaching. I hope you enjoy the read!
Influential Coaching Books Practice
The Power of Habit by, Charles Duhigg
Gretchen Rubin, an author who has made a name for herself writing about happiness and habits, emphasizes in all her writing that positive habits are the foundation of our happiness. And if positive habits are the foundation of happiness, my anecdotal experience leads me to believe that negative habits can be the foundation of our discontent.
And much of our life and our routine are based on the tangible (physical) and intangible (emotional) habits that make up our day-to-day routine.
In my coaching practice to date, the habits I encounter most with my clients are the habitual limiting beliefs and self-sabotaging behaviors that hold them back from feeling like their best selves. Clients may not see these limiting beliefs as an ingrained habit, but with the powerful listening of a coach they come to see that these beliefs are like any bad habit; hard to change but worthwhile to do so.
The main thesis of Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, is that success is achieved by ‘the patterns that shape our lives and that those patterns are the habits we carry out every day. The book goes relatively deep into summarizing studies of mice and of the brain, and how ‘chunking’ and the way that the section in our brain called ‘basal ganglia’ works help to make habits easier to form, but harder to kick. His thesis is that every habit has three elements to it;
- A cue, to do the habit
- A routine, to carry out the habit
- A reward, the, albeit potentially very small, reward felt for carrying out the routine.
The below snapshot is an example of the type displayed often in his book:
Through extensive examples, Duhigg believes that the ‘golden rule’ for quitting any habit is to redirect the ‘craving’ or the ‘behavior’. You can keep the same cues and rewards, but change the behavior that results from the craving or trigger. A small example of this is my own effort to cut back on alcohol. The cues in my house remain the same, but rather than reach for a glass of wine at night, I (try and) reach for a Tension Tamer tea. I then enjoy it as I would a glass of wine, over a conversation, or reading a book. Same cue and reward, different behavior.
Through lessons learned in the Power of Habit, I can bring awareness about habit formation to the conversation so that clients can formulate a workable action plan. This awareness will include the knowledge that:
New habits require mental energy — some might call it willpower. While they can serve to give us energy, habit formation can also tax our mental bandwidth. Acknowledgment of this taxation and where it will fit into a client’s life can help them better prepare and plan for the habit change.
New habits require planning. To break a bad habit, or form a better one, a Coach can help facilitate a client to think through the logistics of their new habit. This includes but is not limited to thinking through the small wins that can reinforce success to the obstacles that may get in their way, from timing, environment, emotions, and other triggers.,
New habits require a belief in the value of the new behavior. The more a client believes and owns the benefits of this new behavior, the more likely they are to succeed. Describing and visualizing themselves with this new habit can solidify its value and benefits of it.
Designing Your Life by, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
Dysfunctional Belief: Happiness is having it all. Reframe: Happiness is letting go of what you don’t need.― Bill Burnett, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life
I discovered Bill Burnett’s and Dave Evan’s book, Designing Your Life, through my own questions on career, time, and family life. I was never sure ‘what I wanted to be when I grew up and I found I always stressed over the question and resented it. These feelings were particularly acute in business school where my 800 other classmates seemed to have a well-drawn map of where they were going and how they wanted to get there. What was wrong with me that I could not do the same? In hindsight, I was thinking with a fixed mindset (per Carol Dweck’s book on Mindset), but hindsight provides little relief in the actual lived experience.
Had I encountered Designing Your Life fifteen years earlier in my journey, it would have saved me a lot of heartache and time. What feels different about this book than others on the topic is the ‘design approach’ to answering career-related questions. The authors ask a series of objective questions that will feel familiar to any student or professional familiar with the Socratic method of hypothesis-testing and learning a subject anew, with a beginner’s mind.
To aid in life design, the book recommends a series of exercises that revolve around defining your values and prototyping what a life well-lived looks like to you.
Your Workview, Lifeview and values provide the foundation for your answer to, ‘How’s it going?’ They determine if you’re living a coherent life in which you’ve got who you are, what you believe, and what you’re doing in adequate alignment.
My first values-driven exercise did not come until later in my career but resulted in many ‘ah-ha’ moments. I realized that the things that were most important to me in life and that I wanted to be known for had nothing to do with the status or prestige of a career. This values exercise helped the answers to many decisions come forward.
Another key tenet of the book is that there is no one path for each person, no one good career choice.
“Dysfunctional Belief: I need to figure out my best possible life, make a plan, and then execute it.
Reframe: There are multiple great lives (and plans) within me, and I get to choose which one to build my way forward to next.”
To help readers reframe, the authors walk the reader through writing down three completely different life paths, each exciting to you. By opening the mind to several different viable and exciting paths, one can feel less pressure and more curiosity about which path they want to ‘try on’ first.
The authors also emphasize that designing a fulfilling life is about the process and the journey, not the outcome.
“Dysfunctional Belief: I finished designing my life; the hard work is done, and everything will be great.
Reframe: You never finish designing your life – life is a joyous and never-ending design project of building your way forward.”
I now recommend this book to family and friends who are about to begin or change a career. I continue to learn from the process and lessons described in the book.
Designing Your Life offers up several suggestions that I am likely to use in my coaching practice, or even with friends. These include:
- Understand the times, activities, and circumstances when you feel in a state of flow. The authors define creative flow in a way where time seems to evaporate and you are deeply immersed, and fully engaged in your work. What are you doing during these times and what does it tell you about how you want to work?
- Write down, no more than 250 words, a ‘work view’ and ‘life view’. These are terms used by the authors but I may prompt with ‘When you think about a job, describe what is important to you? What are the things you will look for in a job or career? What are the things you will want to run away from?
- Similarly, write down what a fulfilled life would look like to you. How are you living and what do you want your contributions to be?
- When you’ve considered work and life separately, how can these two align? Are they aligned right now? What would feel like a ‘coherent balance’ between the two views?
This book also had one of the best ‘reframes’ around networking which I will refer to when I hear others disparage it. With the right intentions, networking is about curiosity and appreciating people, not ladder climbing.
Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman
Martin Seligman has made a name for himself as a leader, if not the ‘founder’ of, positive psychology and as such, many Coaches will be familiar with his work. In fact, ICA has a (relatively new) model dedicated to positive psychology which widely references Seligman’s work. There is much to take away from all of his books, though here I will focus on Authentic Happiness and three of my big take-aways from the book; the value of living a life that leverages your core strengths, pleasure versus gratification, and the happiness equation.
The key tenet of Authentic Happiness is that a life well-lived is a life where we are leaning into our innate strengths as a person and using those strengths at home, in our work, and in our communities or as he says is ‘love, work, and parenthood. When we understand ourselves and our emotions, we can use that information to build a life that feels true to ourselves and authentic (not too dissimilar to the advice given in Designing Your Life).
Seligman delineates six core virtues that he believes and has studied to be essential to a fulfilled life:
- wisdom and knowledge
- love and humanity
- spirituality and transcendence
One of the more helpful aspects of the book was the happiness formula that Seligman outlines.
H = S + C + V H for happiness, S for your set range, C for circumstances in life, and V for voluntarily-controlled factors. What I find so helpful about this aspect of the book is that as a scientist he emphasizes that 50% of our happiness traits are predetermined by our biology; our genetic makeup controls more than half of our positive outlook. This is not to dissuade or discourage but to lift people up; you still have (somewhat) control over 50% of your happiness.
Seligman spends a fair amount of time in the book outlining the difference between happiness or Hedonism and gratification. Shortcuts to happiness, or as he calls pleasure, are the superficial, if not entirely enjoyable relaxing vacation, T-bone steak, a glass of wine, or a large paycheck. But don’t be fooled that these pleasures can bring about long-term happiness. Living a fulfilled life requires us to live a life in line with our core strengths, not a life built on easy pleasure.
The belief that we can rely on shortcuts to happiness, joy, rapture, comfort, and ecstasy, rather than be entitled to these feelings by the exercise of personal strengths and virtues, leads to legions of people who in the middle of great wealth are starving spiritually. Positive emotion alienated from the exercise of character leads to emptiness, to inauthenticity, to depression, and, as we age, to the gnawing realization that we are fidgeting until we die.
In outlining a happiness formula, Seligman encourages us to think about the factors we do have control over and what can help us live in the uppermost reaches of our set range for happiness. To do this, one must take a look at how one views the past, optimism for the future, and happiness in the present. I find the past, future, and present frameworks to be helpful in dissecting an issue.
Though perhaps my greatest take-away from the book leads me back to strengths and self-awareness. For one to feel fulfilled, they must both be self-aware of their strengths and build a life that helps those characteristics flourish. As a coach, I can work with my clients to be more self-aware of their strengths and limitations so they spend more energy focusing on the former.
Common Themes of Each Book
The common themes in these books include:
- Self-awareness makes decision making, habit formation, and leadership easier
- Happiness is derived from living a life of meaning and aligning your values and strengths with how we spend our days.
- How we spend our days, and the habits that drive our behaviors during the day are the foundation of our well-being
- There is no ‘arriving’. Once you arrive, your next journey will begin. From habit formation to finding gratification, the journey does not end but will be enriched by self-awareness in your decision-making.
Self-awareness and an understanding of one’s values are at the core of each book; they help one build a life of meaning and support the habits to do so. Yet, identifying one’s values and understanding the self is absent in almost all mainstream curricula from high school to master programs. As a Coach, I can support my peers by listening and asking the right, powerful questions to help clients access and answer the type of questions that will lead them toward a more fulfilling life.
Other Books That Have Helped My Journey
Better by, Atul Gawande (Gawande’s book Being Mortal is my most-gifted book, especially for friends caring for aging parents.)
The Coaching Habit: Say, Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever, by Michael Bungay Stanier
The Happiness Equation by, Neil Pasricha
The Culture Code by, Daniel Coyle
Becoming a Professional Life Coach: Lessons from the Institute of Life Coach Training, 2nd Edition by, Patrick Williams
Better Than Before by, Gretchen Rubin
Mindset by, Carol Dweck
All Joy and No Fun by, Jennifer Senior
 Barnett, Bill & Evans, Dave ‘Designing Your Life. page, 225
 Seligman, Martin Authentic Happiness, p. 11