Ana Sarnoski quit her job in the development office at the University of Florida in 2019, shortly after she gave birth to her second daughter. The frequent travel and attendance of weekend and nighttime events were getting to be too much. Once the pandemic hit, she found herself missing the income, and the self-confidence that came with it. She started to wonder what her return to working life would look like given her disinclination to return to a job like her former one.

Sarnoski considered hiring a traditional career coach, the kind that could help her identify her ambitions and turn them into quantifiable goals and actionable steps. Ultimately, though, she reached out to Lindsay Morlock, a New Jersey-based spiritual coach who has seen a barrage of work-related questions that “speak to something much deeper than a career.” Morlock said that her business had quadrupled over the past 18 months, and in September, she quit her job as chief operating officer of a fundraising consulting firm in order to coach full time.

Working with Sarnoski over Zoom, Morlock led full-moon breath-work sessions and palm readings of hand prints that Sarnoski had mailed to Morlock. “According to Lindsay, your hands are basically the blueprint to your life purpose, and you just need somebody to read them,” said Sarnoski, 40. Per her hands, her life purpose was not to return to the fundraising cocktail party circuit but “to be a healer,” specifically of service to new mothers who are vulnerable to the spiral of postpartum depression. “It was mind-blowing to me,” said Sarnoski, who enrolled in a Pilates teacher training program and recently launched a custom healing macrame business called Guided Knots.

The pandemic, and the layoffs, closings and remote work that followed, set off countless professional identity crises. In September, 4.4 million people quit their jobs — a record.

Here to serve the needs of the great reckoning of the remote-working class is a raft of newfangled career coaches. These professionals are far more like personal dream catchers than data crunchers, relying on the powers of journaling, body work and stream-of-consciousness voice memos. Career coaches are tilting away from talk of performance and parachutes and who moved whose cheese and are helping clients navigate a career ladder that, for many, seems to have turned sideways.

“I don’t believe in five-year plans — I’m much more into a vision or intention,” Alyssa Nobriga, a Los Angeles coach, said of her work with individuals. Her clientele includes Hollywood actors, and she also runs a program for 200 other coaches.

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All this soul-searching landed on an already-thriving industry: Between 2015 and 2019, the number of professional coaches worldwide increased by 33% globally, according to a 2020 report from the International Coaching Federation, a nonprofit dedicated to the profession. There are an estimated 71,000 professional coaches worldwide and 23,000 based in North America.

The $2.85 billion coaching industry is unregulated, and the work that it entails is rather loosely defined. Coaches, who charge widely varying rates, are increasingly borrowing jargon and techniques from the therapist’s tool kit, but it’s not therapy — a distinction coaching experts and mental health professionals both make clear.

The questions Rana Rosen asks her clients are both practical (“What’s the next micro-step?”) and geared at “unlocking knots” and “finding your deeper truth,” such as: “Tell me who you’re jealous of” or “Tell me what you do when you’re distracted.”

Rosen and the company she founded, Henceforth, are highly sought out by media professionals, some looking to escape the contracting industry. Magazine editors pass around her phone number as if it were a buzzy restaurant’s secret reservation hotline. (Rosen attributes her popularity to her “knack for seeing people’s essence.”)

The two most popular programs that Rosen offers are Align ($555), which she calls “a concise deep dive,” and Potent (ongoing, $333 per month), which includes more access to Rosen and the regular exchange of text and voice memos.

In conversations with more than a dozen career coaches, every one said that the pandemic had profoundly shifted what clients were seeking. Rosen said she had seen a newfound sense of resilience in many workers. “I’m finding people are more open to taking the perceived risk of finding work they like and care about,” she said.

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What people want

When Caroline Webb started work as an executive coach, the work focused largely on helping clients ascend in the corporate world. “The field was perceived to be about climbing up the ladder, and performance,” said Webb, an economist and former McKinsey executive who wrote the bestselling book How to Have a Good Day.”

“The narrative has shifted,” she said. “One of the biggest priorities today is helping people see not just what job they might want, but how they want to work differently.”

The once-dominant approach of establishing goals and goal posts, mostly around promotions and pay structures, has given way to an emphasis on self-reflection and inner truth-finding.

“COVID really took the Band-Aid off the certainty that people were living with,” said David Dowd, founder of Creativity Expansion Wrks, who poo-poos the word “change” (it’s “evolve”) and has been working as a Manhattan-based career coach for 50 years. “What worked isn’t working anymore,” he said.

The quest to be a superperformer might also be losing some relevance. “If you think about what humans are better at than robots, it’s empathy, creativity, wisdom and inspiration,” said Webb. When she works with C-suite executives, the focus tends to be less on turbocharging a specific outcome than helping them develop compassion and leadership and stress-management skills — “this idea that you’re a human being first.”

The coaching industry sprung up in earnest the late 1970s, an outcropping of the Human Potential Movement, which emerged in West Germany in the 1960s and gave rise to Werner Erhard’s EST school, known for its confrontational and often-combative techniques. The apogee of results-focused coaching was illustrated by alpha coach Tony Robbins’ appearance on the cover of Fortune magazine in 2014.

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With executives under pressure to be more compassionate and inclusive, the field is expressing a softer side and splintering into specialties. “Now, there’s career coaches, there’s health and wellness coaches, there’s leadership coaches, executive coaches, life spirit coaches, spiritual coaches, dating coaches, health and wellness coaches, coaches who specialize in workers with ADHD,” said William Pullen of the Institute for Transformational Leadership at Georgetown University. “And awareness of coaching has increased — more and more people are looking to coaches for support and help.”

‘The khaki pants whisperer’

Just before the pandemic, Eva Talmadge, a 40-year-old freelance book editor who had recently moved to Washington, D.C., for her husband’s work, decided that she wanted to find a steady job. She was lonely, and she missed water-cooler chatter and benefits. “What I needed was the khaki pants whisperer,” she said.

Talmadge sought out Denise Fowler, a Virginia coach whose Career Happiness Coaching website flaunts professional bona fides (including an affiliation with George Washington University) and a picture of a balloon with a happy face — a combination of the five-year-plan type practicality with the newer focus on purpose and authenticity.

Fowler helped Talmadge to rewrite her LinkedIn bio and résumé and to translate her skills for the particular needs of the Washington nonprofit and think-tank world.

Following Fowler’s advice, Talmadge rewrote her online materials to come across as chattier. Fowler also diagnosed other problems: “She said that Times New Roman was the baggy khaki font of resumes, so it’s now in Garamond.”

But the coach’s best piece of advice turned out to be the simplest and most spiritual one — to be open. Talmadge overcame her reticence to brazenly network and told an email list of independent editors that she was actively looking for work.

A few weeks later, a member reached out about a gig editing for a Berlin-based think tank. Talmadge proofread her Garamond-font résumé one last time and sent it off to the organization. That’s where she works now.