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How Life Coaches Help Finance Guys Stave Off Mental Meltdowns

‘There’s always an assumption that if you’re earning a lot of money, everything is going well’

Last month, 30-year-old equities and commodities trader James Carlos was having a life crisis. He stood in the center of One Canada Square, the heart of London’s Financial District, where he was overshadowed by skyscrapers bearing the logos of HSBC and Barclays. He contemplated what he’d just been told: He wouldn’t be getting the promotion he’d spent the past few years of his career fighting for.

In his pursuit to become an associate at his firm, he’d moved away from his family in Spain, broken off a long-term relationship with his girlfriend and lived off a diet of Cup Noodles and raw vegetables.

Had his sacrifices been worth it? Or had he wasted years he could never have back?

Carlos removed his phone from his tailored navy-blue Armani suit pocket and WhatsApp-ed the only person he trusted to give him clear advice: his life coach. “Does this cut you off from all your long-term ambitions?” his coach messaged. “Remember, there’s more than one way to get to your destination.”

For a year now, Carlos has worked with a life coach — someone who, he says, has helped him “channel my goals effectively” and figure out “how to structure my priorities in life.” Carlos credits his life coach with being able to establish a work-life balance, something that’s still a myth in the world of high-finance trading. “Without him,” Carlos tells me one rainy afternoon in a cafe near his office, “I would have burned out and been sent home with a box of my belongings.”

In his line of work, he continues, “you can easily get lost when you aren’t making as much as your friends or people you work with — basically, when you don’t feel like you’re good enough.”

Carlos’ weekly meetings with his coach — where he goes over his goals, strategies and the potential obstacles he might face, combined with round-the-clock WhatsApp conversations — means the kind of reaffirmation he needs is almost always readily available to him.

It’s becoming an institutional need, too. According to a 2018 poll, two out of three people working in finance in London have experienced a mental health issue related to, caused by or intensified by their work. Meanwhile, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the British Banking Board, 44 percent of people working in finance felt a pressure to “overperform.” A quarter of those respondents add that this had affected their physical health and well-being.

And so, many hedge funds around the world, especially on Wall Street, pay for, and actively encourage, traders and analysts to regularly visit therapists to ensure they’re in the right mindset to be as “productive” as possible (in other words, not full of anxiety and panic).

In the fictional realm, on the hit Showtime series Billions, Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) works as the in-house psychotherapist for Axe Capital. “What’d you take last year?” Rhoades asks one trader, who says he’s suffering from anxiety attacks because he’s down by 4 percent. “Seven point two million,” he responds. “Feel that,” she tells him, as she makes him thump his chest while repeating the figure.

Carlos hasn’t seen many episodes of Billions, but he assures me that his sessions aren’t as intense, and that attending them hasn’t affected his productivity when he’s in the office. Instead, they’re more conversational, centered around establishing mutual goals. Besides, his life coach — like the ones his colleagues see — has a background in business and finance, so “they understand the challenges that we face in terms of deadlines, pressure and the desire to climb up to higher positions.”

This, Carlos explains, is what makes life coaches more appealing to him than a therapist. “With a life coach,” Carlos says, “we’re looking at a bigger picture: What do I want my life to be like? What’s my five-year plan? Ten-year plan? How am I going to make sure I can fund all that?” Having someone who had at least a base-level knowledge of investing meant that Carlos could feel like his weekly sessions had some sort of tangible end result.

Further, Carlos’ preference for life coaches reflects a broader trend: men seeking them out instead of therapists. As my colleague Madeleine Holden wrote earlier this year, “Life coaches often already speak in the masculine, #NoDaysOff language of goal optimization, upskilling and action plans,” rather than discuss emotional vulnerability or interrogating one’s actions and responses in relation to past trauma. As one of Holden’s sources told her: “Therapy is what you do if there’s something wrong with you. Coaching is what you do when you’re good at something.”

Why Men Seek Out Life Coaching Instead of Therapy

When I put this to Carlos, he pauses and stirs his latte. Then, he disagrees. “I know there’s a stereotype that finance guys don’t like being emotional or open with their feelings, and for some people that’s true, but I didn’t go to a life coach to avoid doing the hard work,” he tells me.

Still, the impression I got was that he felt that therapy would be slower or derail him from what he saw as his “life goals,” while a life coach would be the secret ingredient he needed to achieve them.

“It’s common for guys, especially those who work in finance and law, to want life coaches who can help them go in a predetermined direction,” explains Lucy Megginson of Life Design Coaching in Australia. Megginson, a trained psychologist who has practiced in corporate settings in Australia, tells me that most of her clients are like Carlos. These are guys in their late 20s and 30s who are “still ambitious and know what they want in life, but suddenly have to cope with everything else life throws at them: relationship problems, issues with family or even just that the work they found easy when they were younger is getting harder.”

“There’s always an assumption that if you’re earning a lot of money, everything is going well,” she continues. “Even the [finance guys] believe that, which is why many of them don’t think they need help or support.”

Carlos, of course, is past that feeling. He’s also past the rejection of not getting promoted to associate. In fact, he’s preparing to go for a new promotion early next year, something he’s already working on with his life coach. The lack of promotion then wasn’t a setback, he insists, it was an opportunity to pick up more skills in his free time and to impress his bosses. “It’s all part of the plan,” he vows. “I just didn’t realize it.”