Best Self vs. No Self

The premise or goal of coaching is often described as helping people be their “best selves” (as seen in this cute if simplistic explanation of coaching).

The Problem

There’s only one problem with this: the self doesn’t exist, at least not how we think it does. So does it make sense to have a goal of creating a best version of an impermanent and non-existent thing? And if that goal doesn’t make sense, then what goal does?

The illusion of the best self rests firmly on the promise of what we think being our best self would be. When you ask people what that would be like, they’ll tell you about how their life is free of worry and sadness. How they deal with anything that comes up with ease. They’ll tell you about their wealth, their eternal youth (in the form of life or long lasting legacy), and how good their sex life would be.

Basically being your best self is a world of mostly pleasure and joy, slowed only by momentary challenge, which exists mainly to be something we quickly and satisfyingly overcome.

And when people describe this they are essentially describing the end of suffering. Which is what we all want, right? Happiness, joy, fulfillment. Yet 2,000 years ago the Buddha (and thousands of Indian mystics before him) pointed out that you can’t end suffering by pursuing a path of achievement.

Things fall apart, we all get old and sick, we all die. Suffering is part of our lives. For the Buddha the path was to end suffering through the cessation of desire. For Christians, it’s the end of suffering through surrender to the grace and will of God/Jesus/The Holy Spirit.

But what does this mean for coaching and for leadership?

What if, instead of helping people seek a best self in which suffering ceases, we help them create a whole self that allows them to include everything that’s missing and be with all that is?

To me that is my job as coach and guide. As a leader that’s your chance as well. You can try to lead with your best self: a version who never gets mad, angry, or afraid. Or you can bring all of that to your team and your work. You can bring your unguarded heart, your shadow, your weakness—and use all of it to inspire others: to embrace what they wish they could destroy, and bring their whole selves to the vision you are creating together.

No best self or best leader role will ever end the suffering of life or of leadership. But by learning to be with what is—starting first with you and then with everyone else—you can create a wisdom and compassion that leads to liberation of yourself as well as others.