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Someone to Help Resolve All Your 'Issues'

Dissatisfied with life? A 'coach' can make you stick to a plan designed to maximize your potential.


Five years ago, Bob Pranga's life was a mess.

Unable to get his acting career off the ground, he was $60,000 in debt and working three jobs as a waiter, tour guide and department store clerk to keep afloat.

Instead of turning to a therapist or a credit counseling agency to turn his life around, he hired Rick Tamlyn, a personal or life coach from Sherman Oaks. They talked every week, with Pranga paying $50 a visit to sort out what was important to him and how to develop a plan for getting it.

A year later, Pranga had paid off his debt and reinvented himself as Doctor Christmas, "tree stylist to the stars." He gives Tamlyn credit for his personal transformation--another testimonial to one of the world's youngest professions.

Want to leave your corporate job and start a dot-com? Get the feeling you spend your whole life toiling for things you don't really need or even want? Wish you could meet and cohabit with Dr. Perfect? Those are a few of the problems people bring to personal coaches, whose ranks have swelled to at least 10,000 since the early 1990s. (Oops, did we say problems? Excuse us. Coaches, never negative, prefer words like "longings" or "issues.")

Pranga, 38, now makes his living decorating the Christmas trees of such celebrities as Bob Hope, Andy Garcia, Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, at $10,000 to $15,000 a pop.

The idea for the business came to Pranga before he hired Tamlyn: Actress Mia Farrow admired a Christmas tree with the sparkle of a Bob Mackie gown that Pranga had done for Macy's department store in Manhattan, where the Michigan native then lived.

But Pranga gives Tamlyn, 41, credit for the key insight: showing him how much he loves freedom, and that he had to organize his life around it, rather than jobs with set hours or supervision.

Does that advice sound obvious in hindsight? Nancy Koehn, a business historian at Harvard Business School, says coaching is a gussied-up description of an age-old role. "Every entrepreneur I've ever studied has had something like a life coach. They just weren't called that."

For example, Koehn said, 18th century English potter Josiah Wedgewood had an older, wiser partner whose counsel he valued. And pickle pioneer Henry Heinz, after going bankrupt, started his business anew with reliance on such trusted advisors as his wife, a brother and a cousin.

Personal coaches vary in their methods, but most ask tough questions, brainstorm and nudge clients into remaking themselves. They may function as nags, hand-holders, sounding boards, advisors and sources of information. Most meet with their clients over the phone, a convenience that traffic-phobic Angelenos appreciate.

They help clients formulate plans of action, then break them down into specific steps with deadlines. Ideally, the coach follows up with phone calls or e-mails to make sure the client has stayed on track and to provide encouraging but objective feedback.

"Accountability is big," Tamlyn said. He frequently asks clients: "What are you going to do? By when will you do it, and how will I know you've done it?"

Skeptics wonder what a life coach can do for a client that a candid friend or insightful confidant could not do just as well. Others wonder why clients do not hire a licensed therapist who is sensitive to career issues. But Pranga said he sought out a coach rather than a therapist because he wanted something more "proactive" than traditional therapy. He was less concerned with analyzing what was blocking his happiness than in changing his life.

"We don't go into the 'Why?' place much," Tamlyn said. "We go into 'What do you want and how do you get there?' "

Tamlyn comes from a school of coaching that believes clients already have most of the answers. He begins with the assumption that "nothing is broken" in the person who hires him; the client just needs some help discovering his or her own solutions.

Although personal coaches are becoming almost as popular as personal trainers among the affluent and ambitious, especially in Los Angeles, New York and other cities where trends are set, it was not always so.

"When we first started this years ago, when I said I was a coach, people's first question was 'What sport?' " said Cynthia Loy Darst, who coaches 20 clients from her home in the San Fernando Valley.

The fact that coaches may counsel clients who have psychological problems troubles some observers, including therapists.

"My major concern with any of these things is: Are the people doing it sufficiently skilled in understanding psychological issues to handle what might come up?" said Stephen Goldblatt, a clinical psychologist who heads a San Francisco-based service for the newly wealthy called the Money, Meaning and Choices Institute. He believes psychological training should be a prerequisite for whole-life counseling.

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