Coaching: Reduce Struggle and Develop Talent
Co-authored by Henning Bartsch (User: Henning Blue)
Coaching is a service that empowers the coachee to achieve what they want and provides a relationship for support and growth. We believe that coaching is a promising way to develop the talent within the EA community and thus contribute to a more thriving and impactful community. Concretely, we claim that coaching holds substantial promise for those of you who are struggling on your path to impact and those of you who have found your path and want to excel at it. Among other things, a regular coaching practice can be impactful for you by facilitating deep and reflective thinking, accelerating learning, and building empowering personal and professional habits. Consequently, we encourage more of you to try coaching by running an experiment (5-8 sessions) and address the current funding bottleneck by following one or more of our proposed solutions.
In the following, we define coaching, why we find it promising, address some common counter-arguments, and conclude with some suggested calls to action for those of you who find our reasoning compelling (and perhaps even inspiring).
PS. Kudos to Alex Cristia (who’s a Research Director of a multidisciplinary lab and a coach) for writing this excellent blog post that paints a legitimate picture of coaching and argues that more EAs would benefit from trying out coaching.
What is coaching?
This section presents our practical definition of coaching, two definitions from leading experts, and a brief outline of our own coaching practice.
A Practical Definition of Coaching
Coaching (1) empowers the coachee to achieve what they want and (2) provides a relationship for support and growth. While we’d like to point out various features and nuances, we try to condense coaching into these two core components.
Naturally, the coachee’s best interests stand at the center. The key here is to identify what the coachee wants and how coaching can be most impactful in solving that. Relevant topics are brought up by the coachee or worked out together, informed by the coach’s experience and area of expertise. As the coach provides powerful questions, ideas, tools, and mental models, he guides the coachee to generate their own insights and solutions. In that regard, the coaching process is characterized by being productive and goal-oriented as well as adaptive to the person, their situation, and values.
The coaching relationship constitutes the other fundamental aspect. The coach can provide social accountability for the coachee to seriously and consistently work on their growth areas. Linking to the therapeutic literature, the relationship itself can be a significant factor to facilitate positive outcomes (Lambert & Barley (2002), McKenna & Davis (2009)). The shared personal understanding allows the coach to better calibrate to the coachee and their situation and builds trust in the coaching process. The coach encompasses various roles, always grounded in careful listening. Depending on the situation, the coachee may benefit from a supportive, comforting, and encouraging voice. Other times the coach may challenge the coachee instead by questioning certain assumptions, encouraging higher standards, or pointing out uncomfortable things.
Expert views: The International Coaching Federation & David Peterson
With our practical definition in hand, we move on to integrate a few selected expert views on what constitutes great coaching.
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” In their public testimonials, people highlight that initially, they believed that “coaching was reserved for people who were deficient or struggling in some way” but through daring and experimenting they now see it as “an opportunity for self-reflection and development that [they] didn’t even know [they] needed”.
Pioneering executive coach David B. Peterson argues that coaching primarily aims at facilitating people’s learning and insight process and becoming more effective in translating that into change and performance improvements (Peterson, 2010). He claims that coaches have a keen “understanding of how people learn and develop” and advocates that coaching is likely the highest leverage activity to move from good to great.
Outline of our coaching practice
As a concrete example, we briefly outline our coaching practice, which reflects the approach we find most effective. We focus on weekly or biweekly sessions lasting two hours. As preparation, the coachee writes a short report on recent developments and each session aims to formulate effective action steps, which will be executed in one or two hours following the session. A collaboration typically lasts between five weeks and up to a year. This is a relatively resource-intensive approach and other coaching practices are much less demanding (e.g., one-hour sessions every other week for one or two months without specific action steps). Making explicit cost-effectiveness estimates and comparisons for the different approaches involves a lot of complexity and is beyond the scope of this blog post and we encourage you to decide based on your motivation, judgment, and resources.
Why is coaching promising?
Now that we have an understanding of what coaching is, let’s look at different arguments and pieces of evidence that support the promise of coaching. In particular, we focus on reducing struggle on the path to impact and optimizing performance and well-being.
Supporting people struggling on their path to impact
Many of us have been struggling on our path to impact. Most notably are the inspiringly vulnerable (and popular) stories shared by the EA applicant and Denise Melchin. It seems as if there’s a tendency to coerce ourselves into strongly relying on a few EA heuristics around impact while pursuing a narrow set of jobs believing that this is what a “good EA” should do. Sadly, these good intentions are rooted in naive models around what an impactful career looks like—including neglecting the importance of intrinsic motivation—which leads to many “forgetting ourselves”. For more context, please check out an example of Sebastian’s own naive thinking here or the important discussion on the 80K podcast with Holden Karnofsky on building aptitudes and kicking ass.
A note on nuance: Deciding on a career path is super difficult for most people in modern society! So the problem at hand isn’t exclusively due to a specific dynamic within the EA community.
With this light analysis of the dynamic, we now present some pieces of evidence and reasons for how coaching can address this:
Having a thoughtful and caring individual ask questions and create a hopeful and non-judgmental space for people to explore questions around intrinsic motivation, career, and lifestyle seems straightforwardly useful. In fact, it seems similar to the career advice Karnofsky gives.
This RCT found that coaching enhanced goal attainment, increased resilience and workplace well-being, and reduced depression and stress. Furthermore, the qualitative responses indicated that participants found coaching helped increase self-confidence and personal insight. It seems plausible that greater goal attainment, resilience, self-confidence, and personal insight are valuable assets for people grappling with combining EA principles and intrinsic motivation while finding their career path.
This study found that coaching increased self-efficacy beliefs to set one’s own goals. I.e., participants felt more confident in their ability to set good goals. Improving such abilities is plausibly valuable on the path to impact.
Finally, coaching can be a regular slot to consistently work out what an impactful career means to the coachee and thereby decreases the likelihood of procrastinating on these otherwise icky questions.
Achieve consistent high levels of performance and personal well-being
Having decided on a career path is crucial for your impact and personal well-being. However, you also have the opportunity to perform at a high level within your career path and, thus, increase your impact and personal satisfaction. Among possibly many factors that influence performance, we focus on those where coaching can be particularly impactful. Note that there’s a lot more nuance on the effects and mechanisms of coaching, but for the scope of this post we keep it pragmatic.
We argue that consistent high performance is achieved through good habits in your professional and personal areas, where the coach can facilitate building habits that work best for you. Depending on your current level of performance and experience, it can be advantageous to work with a specialized coach. However, in the following, we’ll present some general mechanisms that will increase performance and personal well-being.
Accelerated Learning and Deliberate Practice:
Reflection and implementation: When you aim to close the performance gap between your current level and your peak, you have to critically evaluate what’s working well and what needs work. The crucial part, however, lies in doing this reflection regularly and then translating insights into practical implementations.
Two minds are better than one: While the coach isn’t an expert in everything, i.e. your specific profession, the coach provides a broader outside perspective. In the coaching environment, discussions and targeted, thought-facilitating questions can enable powerful insights. You’ll explain how you think (and feel) about an area, goal, or decision that can lead to better understanding and opens possibilities.
Deliberate Experiments: You are encouraged to run cost-effective experiments to test out and iterate over ideas to find what works best for you. Based on valuable feedback signals gained from those personal experiences, the coach facilitates implementing useful and robust changes.
Accountability: If you’re striving for high performance you may already do some of the things above. However, most of you will tend to be far less consistent and rigorous in your improvement efforts without a coach. The great advantage of a coaching commitment is social accountability and regularity to seriously work on developing a better version of your habits and yourself.
Stabilize and Optimize Personal Well-being:
Being human comes with having substantial ups and downs regarding your relationships, emotions, and health, all of which can affect your performance. Coaching can (and we believe should) also address the more personal areas of your lives. When you assume a holistic view people, the strict separation between the professional and personal is dissolved and an inter-dependency emerges.
Hopefully, the intrinsic value of reaching consistently high levels of personal well-being seems clear to you, i.e. feeling happy instead of miserable, it also has positive ripple effects for other life areas, in particular performance and impact. For instance, it does not only pay off intrinsically to manage your emotions well or get high-quality sleep, but it is also instrumentally valuable for your work, to better cope with adversity, and to feel energized.
The points for accelerated learning and habit building from above can also be applied to optimize aspects of your well-being. Coaching can address developing a better understanding of what well-being actually means for you and also help mastering basic human functions (e.g., eat, move, sleep) to provide energy and clarity on most days
Built on the assumption that balanced and happy people tend to work better, investing in personal well-being can be seen as leverage for maximizing performance and thus impact. If you neglect or don’t invest in building proper systems and understanding around well-being, you risk fluctuations, inconsistencies, and frictions that severely affect your performance and quality of life. No productivity tools will save you if you cling to bad habits when it comes to digital media, sleep, nutrition, and relationships.
Now that we’ve made the case for the promise of coaching, we briefly discuss common reservations for picking it up.
“Coaching isn’t the most effective way of achieving what’s important to me”
We argued that coaching is particularly useful for finding your path to impact and achieving consistently high performance. Certainly, there are other ways of achieving that.
It might be that for some of you there are better solutions, for example:
Some professionals are fortunate enough to have an exceptionally dedicated and well-rounded manager/mentor that provides great one-on-ones every week.
Some of you are more bottlenecked by substantial health issues (mental and/or physical) and it’d be more valuable for you to address that with a domain professional.
For a more realistic and nuanced evaluation of alternative strategies, we’ll briefly outline some questions and considerations: If you would not pick a trained coach, ..
How likely is it that you will achieve the outcomes that are important to you?
What kind of quality would the produced outcomes have?
Here, we want to emphasize the consistency and rigor of the underlying process, which often determine which goals are achieved (mediocre vs. ambitious) and when. Regarding the quality, we point to potential issues of short-sightedness and lack of sustainability with alternative options (e.g. bias towards urgent issues; not addressing underlying patterns; changes that don’t last). Overall, we suggest that you experiment with different activities, from formal coaching to peer groups, to get a personal sense of their cost-effectiveness.
“Coaching is too expensive”
We’ve found that among those of you who are motivated to do coaching (i.e. reaching out to a coach) have funding as the biggest concern, leading to you either doing less coaching than you’d want (e.g., every other week instead of every week) or deciding to not engage in coaching whatsoever. That’s why we devoted an entire section on the topic on funding below.
“I’m way too busy”
You tend to optimize for impact over years rather than weeks or days. However, for various cultural and psychological reasons, ambitious people will often experience a strong, almost constant, urge to be exceptionally impactful and productive EVERY. SINGLE. MOMENT.! This dynamic can, for instance, lead to:
High sense of urgency and associated expectations about where you “should″ be
Staying up late to answer emails and compromise your sleep and private life
Heavy constraints on which type of activities are “allowed” and for how much time
A (bi-)weekly coaching session and additional follow-up actions can seem impossible to implement due to high opportunity costs. However, investing in yourself such that you can be more impactful in the long run can likely be a wise decision, as opposed to only optimizing for the next week. One approach, for instance, could be to implement coaching during a less intense time of the year, going intensely and deeply for that period and then discontinue. Despite the importance of strategizing around longer timelines, we’ve often noticed that coaching pays off on quite short time scales and can influence the week of the session in overall productivity and well-being.
Funding is a bottleneck
While we claim that coaching is valuable we recognize that it can be quite expensive which is an unfortunate but necessary aspect of being a coach. In fact, Sebastian strongly considered getting coaching back in 2018 based on a compelling case study but didn’t because it seemed way too expensive compared to his understanding of the value. He only started getting coaching after he heard more about the benefits that his friends experienced, tried a couple of free sessions from his friend, and found an available subsidized coach.
We have seen the following approaches work well in addressing the problem of funding:
Change in attitude: You are your number one asset and investing in developing your potential is an important and admirable endeavor. It’ll make your life better and is likely one of the biggest levers to have a greater impact. Of course, you have other basic needs and financial considerations to take care of (e.g. housing, diet, fun stuff, donations) However, above a certain threshold, it’s wise to see some form of personal/professional development as a recurring investment—for yourself and others.
Apply for funding as a coach: Sebastian applied for the EA Infrastructure Fund (EAIF) and got a grant to provide scholarships for his coachees who benefit a lot from it. The process was straightforward (EAIF really encourages people to apply). Furthermore, Lynette Bye (an EA productivity coach) has gotten funding from EAIF for the last couple of years for her coaching, too.
Get funding from your workplace: Some organizations have benefits in the form of training budgets that you can use on activities like coaching.
While we think a change in attitude is crucial, we do wish for more funding to be available for you to develop your talents (and thus kick ass). Specifically, we encourage (1) more coaches to apply for funding—e.g., from EAIF (they are always open to applications and encourage spending 1-2 hours on the application only!) and (2) would like to see more structures for funding individuals (this might also be possible via EAIF).
Conclusion and suggested actions
We have argued that coaching holds substantial promise for those of you who are struggling on your path to impact, and those of you who have found your path and want to excel at it. However, we recognize that there are costs and legitimate arguments against coaching. Therefore, we encourage you to test our claims by running an experiment for yourself:
Find a coach that resonates with you (this overview of coaches within the EA sphere is a good place to start).
Give it a fair try by wholeheartedly engaging in 5-8 sessions (ideally on a weekly basis).
Evaluate to what extent coaching (and the coach) is impactful for you and decide whether you want to continue, run another experiment or discontinue coaching for now.
With that said, funding is a substantial bottleneck and we suggest that readers (and the community) take one or more of the following actions:
Coaches seek funding to provide scholarships/discounts for their service (e.g., EAIF).
You try to change your attitude around investing in yourself—you’re your number one asset and investing in developing your potential is important and admirable.
You try to find funding for yourself (e.g., workplace training budget and perhaps EAIF).
Best of luck on your journey to becoming your happiest and most impactful self!
PS. Feel free to reach out to us on our e-mails: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Sebastian would be particularly interested in hearing from other coaches who are interested in doing some form of collaboration (e.g., peer seminars).
We’d like to thank Jan Brauner, Magnus Vinding, Max Schons, and Paul Rohde for their substantial feedback. In fact, it was so valuable that it called upon us to step up our game and rethink our contribution. Also, thanks to Freddy for the finishing touches and to Lynette Bye and Kat Woods for some valuable comments. Thanks to the support, we were better able to (hopefully) support the EA community in running cost-effective experiments with the purpose of increasing its talent for the greater good.
Conflict of interest
We value transparency, so we briefly share our backgrounds.
Sebastian works full-time as a coach for people who are trying to do the most good with their life while being happy and free from suffering. Therefore, he has a strong professional interest in coaching becoming more popular—especially among the people he most wants to serve.
Henning is working as a machine learning engineer. His personal and professional development benefited considerably from coaching (e.g., switching from electrical engineering to machine learning). Consequently, he is a strong advocate for motivating people to experiment with coaching and typically coaches 1-2 people at a time.