Becoming a Life Coach
1 NOT A THERAPIST
Pervis Taylor, 33
It’s 9:00 a.m. and along the streets of Brooklyn, Pervis Taylor carries his work in his front pocket. He’s a life coach after all. His cell phone is his best tool. The majority of his sessions take place on it, or on his laptop. He’s a bright young guy, thirty-eight years old, African American, with a loosely-cropped haircut, featuring a patch of bright white hair on the right side of his head.
Pervis, born in Texas, lives in Brooklyn and has been a life coach for six years. According to his website, he specializes in work with “young professionals and youth of all ages.” He deals with issues of masculinity and trauma, and has lately been creating a program to give young men of color a way to speak out about pain in their lives. A writer (he has three
books available on his website), he’s gentle in his demeanor but tough in his examination of his clients’ problems.
Why start with Pervis Taylor? Well, he’s young. So you might question his wisdom and experience. But at the same time, he’s firmly established in his career, having made his living entirely from coaching for years now. Book royalties, presentations, appearance fees, one-on-one coaching sessions—all these have lent his career a look and a feeling of legitimacy. He has made as much as $90,000 in a given year and as little as $35,000 (slightly less when he was starting out). He connects to young people easily and readily. He has clients in the movie business. He has celebrity clients. He has written books, developed videos of his work. He is broadly qualified, with a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Columbia University, yet he has veered away from the practice of psychology because he finds life coaching more liberating.
He is unafraid of stating his feelings about religion, frequently citing his background as a Christian minister, but he actively counsels many clients who claim no religious affiliation. In those cases, he does not seek converts. His job won’t allow that. As a life coach, he says, his role is to draw the best decisions from the clients.
It’s no surprise when he answers my call from the streets
of the city. It’s morning, and the background is a ruckus. Cacophonous. For a moment, it sounds like a piece of heavy machinery is toppling from a rooftop onto the pavement.
He’s promised to outline a day in his life as life coach, and starts in fast: “On Mondays, typically I wake up and pray, and then I go into the gym. I’m out of the gym by nine thirty. I send out some social media with my #BEGREAT hashtag. I never miss a day.”
He updates Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook every morning. He has people who count on him there. And he’s proud of his carefully constructed messages. He takes time every day to reflect on upcoming sessions with clients, for which he keeps a log and notes toward questions he might ask. He’s been constructing a daylong presentation with another life coach, which he’s hoping to implement as a long-term, extracurricular component with some outer-borough high schools. Then there is the outreach to potential clients. “It’s like any job. I’m not doing it well if I’m not dealing with every facet of the work,” he says. “Life coaching is much more than phoning a friend. I like giving my clients the time they need, but I need to be prepared for every call. I want to give them work to do, pose questions for them. Give them thoughts to rely on.”
Social media has certain principles of success, behaviors that lead to an expanding clientele. Including the frequency and timeliness of posting. Every day Pervis crafts an inspirational thought, hashtags it with his proprietary phrase (#BEGREAT!), and posts as close as possible to the same time as the day before.
His Facebook page is cross-promotional, one part life coach, one part youth minister. His Instagrams are casually illustrative, but accurate—where he is, who he’s with, and what excites him today. In his group meetings, he uses video to give voice to the young men of color he’s meeting in his early group presentations. He sometimes transports these moments to the social media channels as inspiration to newbie client, casual viewer, and avid follower alike. Every expression on social media is a representation of his trust in the process. He further documents his various appearances, on radio and speaking engagements. He ends many of his entries with his simple assertion #BEGREAT, often enough so that it easily becomes a kind of slogan. All this before ten o’clock, with a few jabs at his phone.
His Facebook entries often tell stories about the work he’s undertaking as a life coach. They are both expository and inspirational. One entry reads:
The director of the CUNY Black Male Initiative invited us to present for all the CUNY schools. I asked him curiously as to why we got the invite. He said, “Pervis, we get tons of proposals from many organizations. However, never have we been approached by two men of color teaching other men of color how to be whole.” These things are a reminder to always choose purpose over popularity. Be Great!
Pretty sweet morning, his work executed solely by using his phone, while crouching over a cup of expensive coffee. Most independent life coaches have a measure of this kind of control over their days. Oddly, the life coaches consulted for this book rarely wanted to share information about their living circumstances, their hometown, even their favorite restaurants. They preferred the anonymity allowed by distance, the control that an agreed-upon time and date for client meetings over the phone offers them.
After the updates, Pervis is quite clear that the work does not stop. The whirlwind of self-motivation keeps him moving. “For the rest of the morning, I’m either prepping for client calls,” he says, “or developing the Black Male
Initiative that my partner and I are trying to get going at a local college. Right?”
What’s involved during the late morning hours, that time that Pervis—he wants to be referred to as just Pervis—calls “prepping”? Lesson plans, curriculum review, rehearsing? “Reading mostly,” Pervis says. “I’m trying to stimulate my thoughts, before I get to the clients and stir up theirs.” He is moved by the same material that tends to affect his clients. He acknowledges this is a pattern that comes from his training as a Christian, where he used the Bible as inspiration, and he brought gospel with him to his learning. But he’s broadened his reading somewhat recently. This morning he’s reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, a classic of personal-growth literature, and How People Grow, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend, a book on the connection between personal growth and Scripture. Those, followed by the Bible.
Yes, life coaches plan. They prep. But life coaching—one-on-one sessions with a trained individual, a person devoted to helping you improve your life—is also highly improvisational. It demands a flexible approach, which allows for changes from week to week, if not on the fly. “You have to be pretty fluid,” Pervis says. “That’s why it helps to read a lot. It’s more busy than it probably seems. Some days,
pitching for a program presentation feels like the most important component of the job. Other times, I can’t wait to get past that, to my sessions with the clients.”
A signed contract for ongoing group work can represent an essential part of building a career as a life coach. The importance of the programs that Pervis creates lies in the fact that they include more people, a wider audience, and so, when planned right, the sessions can be more easily duplicated, increasing volume of potential clients. A life coach must be a businessperson first. They must ensure their own financial survival, without throttling their audience with matters of cost. A good presentation brings on more clients, more work. Pervis is happy to work that end of the job, since it gets his message to young men who need the help. “We have a contract with the city universities of New York with our Black Male Initiative program, which we’re calling Alchemic Solutions, where we are coaching young men of color in emotional intelligence.”
“Emotional intelligence” sounds a little buzzwordy, doesn’t it?
Pervis laughs. “We’re teaching them how to develop an emotional lexicon and how to process their emotions. They need to express their hurt.”
In connecting with clients, Pervis is part healer. Pitching classes afterward to school administrators, he’s part hustler. Working with his partner, fellow life coach Jeffrey Ulysse, also in his early thirties, on the program to empower young men of color, using feedback from public-school teachers, he’s a fully integrated professional. It’s a broad dynamic of work—inspirational, emotional, pedagogical. He needs to do well by his various programs every day. They are his bread and butter.
His writing is another way of delivering his message to clients. His new book provides an income stream as well as forming the basis of the program he’s building for young men of color. He self-published the book, which to his mind makes him more of an entrepreneur, not less. Most life coaches seem to claim “best-selling” as an adjective of choice for their books, when listed on their own web page. Pervis uses the term “internationally sold” on his books, which is a bit confounding. He’s got a new one, with a pretty cool title.
“It’s called Surthrival Mode,” he says. “A book that teaches men how to deal with their emotional traumas by processing them.” A car horn blares on the street behind him. “The book does the work I try to do as a coach and teacher, by navigating through barriers and enabling the client to show up in life and within their relationships.”
It sounds a little like he’s reading copy off the back cover of his own book just then. And the blurb doesn’t tell much. I repeat the title—or at least what I took it to be over the low din of traffic. Survival Mode.
“No, no,” he says. “I bridged ‘thriving’ and ‘survival’ together. I made a new word. Surthrival.” He pauses there. Lets it sink in. “Surthrival Mode. Yeah. Just a sec,” he says to me. We’re on the phone. He’s walking, carrying his phone at his side. The street is all clatter and banging. I can hear him greet someone, excuse himself, at some doorway. He’s arrived at a coffee shop. He quiets himself when he sits. It’s nice to feel him settle.
“Pervis,” I say, “please tell me that you don’t walk around the city like this while you do your sessions.” He’s young; it seems possible. This sort of urban traipsing around might be a kind of “surthrival” mode in itself. “Tom”—he laughs—“of course not. I have to be very focused for my sessions with clients. I owe them that much.”
EVERY LIFE COACH HAS a different habit when it comes to their clients. Some carry long lists of active clients to whom they speak at regular intervals. Once a week is typical. Once
a month appears to be the outer edge of what’s acceptable. Most calls are scheduled, often in big chunks of time in the evening or afternoon. It’s not unusual for a life coach on the East Coast, like Pervis, to have clients in western time zones, making it easier to place calls late at night.
Availability is an absolute, but training clients to trust the schedule is essential too. “When you have six people who need to speak with you, you can’t have them calling anytime they want to,” Pervis says. It is a matter of maintaining focus and purpose in your communication. “Random calls can take things over, and pretty soon you aren’t coaching anymore,” he says. “You’re just answering the phone.”
To combat that possibility, Pervis doesn’t cling to an hour-long format. He reserves several hours a week for his sessions. Like most of the other life coaches I spoke to, he purposely calls these meetings “sessions,” and allows them to range from forty-five minutes to more than two hours. Same price either way. “I like to use the end of the day or early evening for my sessions,” he says. “I don’t ever stack them all up on one night.” He currently carries a load of five to six clients, and calls this typical. “There’s a natural limit,” he says. “You can’t just treat it as a matter of volume,” he says.
Five to six clients, each averaging a session a week; most
clients are spoken to in the afternoon or evening. I have to ask him what he charges. It’s always a difficult question, asking someone what they make. I expect some throat clearing, a little hemming and hawing. “What do you charge?” I blurt.
Pervis doesn’t hesitate. He knows people are curious, that life coaches are still sometimes regarded as charlatans and confidence men. “I charge $350 a session,” he says. He makes no apology. He and his partner are charging $1,800 for the group work in the city schools; if they can develop it into something regular, on contract, he knows this too could be a good income stream.
“I’m worth it, Tom,” he says confidently.
At one point, I ask Pervis the same question I ask of all the coaches . . . I want to ask about giving advice. Pervis is savvy, quick-witted, and experienced at defining life coaching for others. I expect he might acknowledge that leading clients to form their own answers seems like it might be construed as a form of giving advice. I half expect he’ll have a direct answer to my question: How do you know the best advice to give a client?
But in response, Pervis just makes a sound like “Nah.” He’s silent for a while. “I don’t give advice.”
“Rarely,” he says, leaning back in his chair now. “I’m not there to provide answers for my clients.”
Don’t they want advice? Don’t they ask?
“They learn not to,” he says. “No life coach gives advice. I think the thing most coaches believe is that you have the best answer within you.”
He pauses, then sips a drink. “I mean obviously I have thoughts and opinions of my own. I could give advice. Yeah. But ultimately a client is more empowered when they come up with an action or a resolution themselves. That’s what coaching is about, unearthing the greatness and the power within.”
“The client,” he replies.
Where did he learn that? The not-giving-advice thing. Do life coaches know this instinctively?
He thinks for a moment. “I’m a minister too,” he says. “In that role, I might give advice based on Scripture, sure. But that’s a different muscle. Coaching is a whole different matter. The answers aren’t there when you sit down. I need to stir up the mind to find the answer.”
Where did he learn this? Pervis didn’t go to a program in
life coaching, and doesn’t mention any specific training on his website. He answers, brave and bright. He’s as earnest as an apple. “I have a degree in business administration, and I’m finishing my master’s in psychology from Columbia,” he says. “And I read a lot. I start and end every session with a question for the client. I might draw that question from any of these backgrounds. Life coaching isn’t very old. The field is still developing. I’ve had life coaches myself. I asked constantly about the way they worked.”
He goes on to note that life coaching is not an exact science, in the same way psychology is not an exact science, the same way therapy is not an exact science. “We’re a diverse group, offering diverse perspectives and experiences. I think all coaches would agree that being a life coach is about coming to a place where your client is empowered. That is not therapy. I’m not a therapist. Because I’m not treating anyone.”
Pervis thinks for a bit. “The thing about giving advice is: People are not monolithic. Situations are not monolithic. There are so many variables involved that to give a broad, homogenized piece of advice is a little dangerous. Life coaches work to know their clients best. You have to aim to make the client into your expertise. Better to help them develop the tools to figure it out themselves.”
Pervis tells a story in an effort to create a case study of the work one of his clients is doing with his coaching. He won’t breach confidences, but he wants to paint a picture. Who are you working with right now? How does a session work?
Pervis ponders for a hot minute. Then he speaks. “One kid I’m working with in the Black Male Initiative, he’s a college student, and his major was computer science. He’s Muslim and his family kinda sorta forced him into that major. Maybe I should say they strongly encouraged him to go into computer science. You know, the money thing, for sure,” he says, referencing the parents’ natural desire to prepare their child for the best career.
“This young man was very discouraged, very shut down, when it came to talking about academics,” he says. “But it was clearly the issue at hand. Was he going to get through years of schooling studying a subject matter he didn’t care about? He was depressed and considering dropping out.”
As usual, Pervis opened the session—this was in a group setting—with a question. But instead of asking the expected question—“What do you want to get out of your education?”—Pervis came at the matter tangentially. He asked: What is your passion? Where is your joy? At first, the student couldn’t define his passion. He certainly couldn’t
connect education to joy. But Pervis pushed him to think about it literally. To use his mind to locate where he felt happiest. He asked the student to think about a map of the campus. Where did he feel something like passion? In what building did he sense anything like joy? By creating a physical setting, the young man found that he felt the rumblings of passion in his desire to understand the human mind, and the workings of his own mind. Psychology classes, though he took them mostly as electives, did this. In those classes, he was excited enough to argue for his positions. This, then, was his passion. He named it that first day. He located his joy in psychology and in the tissue of historical understanding he found in his art history classes.
“And so, within the first two sessions he shared all that,” Pervis said. “And by the third session, he switched his major from computer science to psychology and art history. And it’s changed how he thinks of himself. His demeanor’s changed, the way he’s showing up has changed. He’s shown up to every single session. He’s very vocal. He’s been consistent. We originally thought that he would be the one that would kind of flake out on us.”
I remind Pervis that it’s easy to imagine that the young man’s parents might not be happy with the change.
Pervis smiles. “A life coach works for the client alone,” he says. “The client made his own decision and that means something. We all want autonomy, and maybe that’s what he drew from this [work] most of all. I have to think his parents see that.”
Pervis puts me in touch with a longtime client, actress Lisa Nicole Carson, forty-nine, who now identifies as a mental health advocate in Los Angeles. Costar of the hit shows Ally McBeal and ER in the late nineties, she saw her career derailed when, shortly after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she suffered several humiliating public breakdowns at work-related events in Los Angeles. She famously disappeared from her professional life in the years that followed.
For seven years Pervis worked with her to understand and control her condition, and to set about reviving her once-promising career. “I was living in the shadows, in darkness, and living in shame,” she says. “I had been humiliated by everyone, peers, the press, everything. And it took me a long time to even process what had happened to me.”
While still in that state, she met Pervis at a birthday party, and he informally listened to her story. When he called, and came back for more listening, she found that he
was encouraging her to take on the one thing she feared most. “People magazine had been pursuing me for seven or eight years. And I had been dodging them pretty gracefully the whole time. But Pervis told me to stop treating it like they were chasing me, and to not dodge them anymore. He asked me, ‘What if you treat that like an opportunity instead?’ He turned it all around for me.”
At the time, being bipolar was not a condition that was much talked about openly. “I’d never had therapy. Pervis was the first person who got me to see that I could really get started, really work to get my career going again, to come out of the shadows. That was Pervis.”
Carson still speaks to Pervis periodically. She’s begun to get roles again, after a ten-year absence from television. Working with a life coach turned her toward asking productive questions about herself, she says. Pervis opens doors to change, she says, by dealing with who she is as a person, rather than a patient. “I’d say if you don’t want a clinical, spacey, distant overview on your life, and if you don’t want your pain to control you, it might be good to get in touch with a life coach, one like Pervis. He’s a listener. He makes me look at my life again and again. Somehow, he’s taught me how to plan for what I cannot control. That’s
something that never seemed possible to me. That’s made me live.”
When Pervis thinks of his current clients, he seems to flip through a list in his head. This act makes him smile. They are young people, making the same mistakes previous generations have made. “Last week, I had a client, so she basically, I guess . . . I’m trying to think of the right word,” he says, before wisely skipping the nomenclature. “She’s great, a brilliant young lady, twenty-three years old, but, she’s used to getting by on her looks, scamming and using men to pay her bills and things like that, hustling in that way, and now she’s realizing she feels just empty.”
Pervis says his goal is to get this young woman to a place where she’s not a victim. A place where she can see that life happens because of her, as a consequence of her actions, rather than as a punishment for them. He does this by posing a question about changing the way she uses language. “She was spending most of her sessions talking about what this person did, what this person did, what this person did, and I had to stop her and tell her, I don’t care about what they do. I’m focused on you. What if the only thing you talked about was you? Like every sentence?”
He was working to get her from a place where she was
constantly pointing the finger at everybody else to one where she started to take responsibility for her role in what happened to her. “Concentrating on her own actions gave her the ability to create the life that she wants for herself,” he says. “It gave her the pen to write the narrative of her life.”
Do potential clients find the fact of his religious faith troublesome? Do they worry they are hiring a minister rather than a coach? Do they resist?
Pervis breathes a little. Some don’t like it at first. It doesn’t take them long to figure him out. “I don’t even have to say anything,” he says. “They’re like ‘Oh my God. You’re religious. I can tell that you’re Christian!’?”
That’s when he explains the job of a life coach. A life coach is not a minister, he tells them. A minister might have a set of answers. Pervis tells them: I do not provide answers as a coach. “Even so,” he says to me over the phone, “some answers are common to all of us.”
He’s asked to name one. What’s an answer that speaks to each one of us? He takes another deep breath, then starts in with what he knows.
“Well, everybody wants to be whole. Everybody wants to understand why they’re here,” Pervis says. “Everybody wants to thrive, wants to understand the meaning of who
they are. Everybody wants to know that they’re loved, to know they matter, that they’re seen and heard. I know these things as a life coach, as a man, and as a minister. But in my work, I answer as a life coach.”
“People just have to be asked the right questions,” he says. And then he is quiet, thinking, percolating the very question that will help me most in the moment to come.