Gimme an L!

If life is a shit sandwich, coach Devlyn Steele can teach you how to serve it on a silver platter. Steele has refined the art of life coaching, a pop-psych practice in which clients get props from a hyper-organized counselor who knows more about how to live than the rest of us. Steele has created something called The Tools to Life program, which he says can refine our way of thinking about how we live and can teach us to love life, even when it sucks out loud. His life-coaching skills are everywhere these days: on the radio, where he hosts a KXAM talk show; on the page, in his newest how-to book, Relationship Tools; and recently in my dining room, where Steele discussed his life philosophy and how we can all purchase a little piece of it.

New Times: What the heck is a life coach?

Devlyn Steele: It's typically someone who does a lot of motivational stuff, a lot of rah-rah pushing, and I don't do that. I'm about helping people create change, and about a lot more than just a rah-rah session. I get uncomfortable these days classifying myself as a life coach, because anyone can become a life coach just by saying "I'm a life coach."

NT: Okay. I'm a life coach.

Steele: Exactly. I've been using that title for a long time, but I've studied psychology; I've studied business, motivational therapies, religion, philosophy, cognitive science, neuroscience and aviation. And I've put all these things together to formulate a way to really help people.

NT: Helping people through aviation?

Steele: A lot of coaching doesn't have any great depth to it. What I teach is that you can create change in your life by focusing and moving forward. It's about modifying behavior. It's a matter of changing the way you look at your life, of retraining your brain and thinking yourself into success by changing your actions and behavior.

NT: Isn't that what a psychiatrist does?

Steele: What Freud wrote is that we tend to repeat that which we've not worked through. People used to reach for what's called an emotional correctional experience in therapy. Which they don't do anymore, because today it's all about taking the right pill. I work on a different philosophy, something called cognitive psychology, which says by changing your behavior and actions now, you change the results in your life.

NT: So it's kind of self-help with sideline assistance.

Steele: I don't believe in self-help, because people who help themselves probably don't need me. My way-of-life coaching addresses people who want to gain control of their lives.

NT: Why do we need life coaches? Why not just bumble through on our own?

Steele: Well, let's see. Sixty percent of Americans are overweight; less than 10 percent are saving for retirement; one out of two marriages end in divorce; obesity in children is increasing in alarming rates; weight-related health issues are the number one cause of death and medical expenditure in the United States; less than 80 percent of all people report satisfaction with their jobs; and 90 percent of people report sexual dissatisfaction in their relationships. So it appears to me that we're not doing too good on our own, and we need help.

NT: Wow. That many people are having lousy sex?

Steele: These figures are from polls and surveys I've taken for years. And they're one of the reasons I don't like self-help. If self-help worked, the statistics would be different.

NT: Bring on the life coaches! But can I also get a life cheering squad? A group of teenage girls who maybe applaud and do the splits every time I do something well?

Steele: No. We don't need cheering squads, we need to take responsibility for our lives. I understand your sarcasm, but I don't take my work in a sarcastic manner. I'm very, very good at what I do. I create real results for people, and help them through real battles. I lead people through my life course one on one, and I do it with people I never meet, too, in phone sessions with people all over the world. I've turned down tons of publishing deals, I've turned down several infomercial deals, because I'm very pure to my mission. I'm looking for ways to duplicate myself.

NT: Well, there's always cloning. So, before there were life coaches, we were all just doing everything wrong?

Steele: I would hesitate to say that anyone is doing anything wrong, because that sounds judgmental, and I'm not a judgmental person. I'm not just about "Let's get rich, let's get thin." I'm way beyond that. I teach people to get beyond the world of have-nots, which is the world we live in. We focus on what we don't have.

NT: Not you! I read that you'd received four college degrees by the time you were 19.

Steele: I did it in two years and four months, by taking 30 credits per semester. I'm a fanatic about learning. I'm an obsessive reader.

NT: And an obsessive professional. You've held jobs in aviation, music production, manufacturing, advertising and business consulting. I'm guessing you know where to buy really good speed.

Steele: Well, no. I can tell you about re-creating your life the way you want it to be, and that I've re-created my life many times. I'm not very sexy. My message is, "You want results in your life? Well, you're going to have to work at it." Not sexy at all. But I won't take your money if you're not willing to work on yourself. I take payment up front, but if you're not working with me, I tear up your check.

NT: You're tearing up checks? Sounds like you need a life coach. Or a money manager. I noticed one of your rules is "Never complain." How is that even possible?

Steele: Energy is attracted to energy of a similar frequency. If you're complaining, you're attracting more things to complain about in your life. You're looking through the complaint detector.

NT: But what about people who really do have things to complain about? What about crippled people? Or ugly people?

Steele: You know, regardless of your situation, if that's what you focus on, that's what you're going to experience. I work with a lot of anorexic people who see a fat person when they look in the mirror.

NT: I looked through your workbook. One thing you tell people they must do every day, as soon as they wake up, is clap their hands and say, "I'm having a great day!" But how can you be having a great day if you just got up?

Steele: Because you didn't die in your sleep, and because you have another shot at your life, an opportunity to make it better. Which makes every day a great day.

NT: Okay. But do we really have to clap our hands?

Steele: In my program, yeah, you have to clap your hands. It's a way to fight that negative force that wants to pull you in. It feels silly to some people, but I don't have a client who doesn't end up clapping his hands by the second session.

NT: I'm sort of confused. In your program workbook, you tell your clients to go buy toothbrushes and body gel on the seventh day.

Steele: Absolutely! In my program, every seventh day is a shopping day.

NT: Woo hoo!

Steele: Yeah. Shopping days promote self-love. You buy yourself a new toothbrush to say, "I love myself."

NT: A Mercedes might say that more clearly.

Steele: Well, when you brush your teeth, you're taking care of yourself, which is an expression of loving yourself. A body gel with a certain fragrance sends a message to the brain that says, "I bought that; I like me."

NT: What if I'm only occasionally indecisive? Can I keep you on retainer in case I can't decide which wine to serve or what color socks to wear?

Steele: Choosing a wine? Uh, my main focus is to teach people to take control of their lives. I'm not a guru; I don't want to be credited with you changing your life for the better. And I don't want to make those decisions for you.

NT: It must work, because your Web site is full of great testimonials from people. My favorite is the one from Julie, a "former stripper and alcoholic."

Steele: Today, after doing my program, she's in her fourth year at a prominent university. She's walking dogs for money instead of, uh, what she was doing before. She's really taken control of her life, and re-created herself.

NT: Speaking of re-creating yourself, your name sounds like the name of a soap opera character. Is it real?

Steele: Read my book. It's all in there. But mostly what's in there is this message: You can either choose to end up someplace, or you can take yourself someplace better.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela