‘Let yourself be quirky’: Oprah Winfrey’s life coach on how to be much happier

·10-min read

“This has almost been like a global meditation. What isn’t working in your life rises to the surface. Going back to the way it was? It’s not going to happen.” Martha Beck – the bestselling author and Harvard-trained sociologist known as “Oprah Winfrey’s life coach” – is talking about responses to the pandemic.

“Every act of creation begins with the destruction of the status quo,” she continues. “It looks like chaos. But, really, it’s a freedom from the tyranny of ‘how things have always been done’. Pascal said that most of our misery comes from the fact that we are unable to sit quietly in a room. And, by the billions over the past year, we have been forced to sit quietly in a room. Now people’s questions are coming from a much deeper place. Before, it was: ‘How do I change my life?’ Now, it’s: ‘What do I want from my life?’”

Beck, 58, has been listening to these questions for years in her coaching workshops, not least through her association with Winfrey. She first appeared on her TV show in 2000 and between 2001 and 2020 was a columnist for O magazine, which in its heyday had a print circulation of 2.5m (it is now digital-only).

Of course, as Beck says, the last person who needs a life coach is Winfrey. But still, she is not a bad connection to have. In any case, the message Beck has been pushing her entire career has found its moment: life is short, so don’t waste time pretending to be something you are not. (I paraphrase.) During the pandemic, Beck has been speaking to devotees from her home in Pennsylvania, surrounded by the forest she loves, and working on her new book, The Way of Integrity: Finding the Path to Your True Self.

Beck has lived this idea on an epic scale. Raised in a devout Mormon family in Utah – she was the seventh of eight children – she renounced her faith and her family, writing a book about surviving sexual abuse at the hands of her father, a prominent church elder. She had three children with her husband before leaving the marriage and coming out as a lesbian. (Her husband also came out as gay.) She quit Harvard – where she had gained a BA, an MA and a PhD – to become a career coach when she realised that the life of an academic was making her miserable.

When it comes to waking up and smelling the coffee, this is a woman who owns the T-shirt factory. For almost 30 years, she had no contact with the family in which she grew up. (Most of her family rejected the account she gave of her experiences, saying she must have “had sex with the devil” as a child.) During the pandemic, though, that changed: “My younger sister recently contacted me after 30 years. She has left the Mormon church and we’ve been texting every day for the last six months. It’s unbelievably sweet to have that love and friendship back,” she says.

The work Beck is best known for is about following your gut instinct instead of being led by societal expectations. Her books are called things such as Finding Your Own North Star and Steering By Starlight. To self-help sceptics, she is a straightforward eye-roll.

But Beck is not easily dismissed: she has a playful eccentricity and unusual intellectualism, she is painfully self-aware and her extraordinary upbringing speaks for itself. She describes herself in her new book as being “born with the approval-seeking personality of an orphaned lapdog”. She goes on: “From childhood, my one overarching life directive was: do whatever it takes to win approval. Raised in a devout Mormon family, I obeyed every rule of my religion and worked hard at school. Then I went off to Harvard, which was about as far from my childhood culture as I could get without moving to Pluto. I managed by letting everyone I encountered assume that I agreed with them, passing for a devout Mormon at home and a rational atheist at school.”

Over time, she argues, these kinds of cover-ups in our lives, big and small, can make us feel uncomfortable to the extent that we acquire physical symptoms. To quote a typical Beck column: “The body truth goes ahead of the mind lie.”

This kind of thinking is easy to lampoon. There are a lot of people who want to believe that the pain in their neck is related, say, to the fact that they can’t stand their husband. (Lose the husband, lose the pain in the neck.) But Beck is used to pushback. When self-help became part of the mainstream conversation in the US around the time The Oprah Winfrey Show launched in 1986, there was a lot of criticism and sniffiness: “There were fringe elements who were going towards new age and religious ideas … And most of it doesn’t work. But some of it does. And as more and more of us have experiences which go outside what our cultural materialism tells us is possible, we have a choice. We can either lie and say it never happened. Or we can throw the doors of our perceptions open wide.

“There are things that are not dreamed of in our philosophy. I have coached thousands of people. And there are very few who have not had experiences which are not entirely explicable. But we don’t talk about these things always because it’s not culturally acceptable.”

Still, a stigma persists. She expects it and it doesn’t bother her. “Standards of prestige in the mind of Harvard academics go like this: supreme court justice, Harvard professor, doctor, lawyer … then you get down to cosmetic surgeons, janitors, prostitutes and finally life coaches,” she says. “But you know what? Who cares?”

Her experiences when she left Harvard were also influenced by the fact that she was expecting a child with Down’s syndrome. Many colleagues at Harvard were sceptical that she would cope, as she and her then husband were career academics and would not be able to raise a child with a learning disability. Beck felt this was profoundly wrong and began to hear the baby “talking” to her in dreams. Her son, Adam, is now in his early 30s and a lot of his experience of the world informs her belief that there are many things that we don’t understand.

You have to give up your defences. You have to give up everything that stands between you and happiness

“I had a son in my house who was doing things that were inexplicable from a Newtonian perspective. He’s like the Narnia wardrobe. How can I care what the people at Harvard think?” She has written in the past about Adam being able to sense the thoughts of wild animals and calls him her “handy-dandy portable Zen master”.

But our desire to conform and seek approval runs deep, she says. In her work as a coach, she has spoken to thousands of people who are reluctant to give up on lives they hate, because they are scared of the alternative. Her job, she says, is to inspire people to action. She argues that the vicissitudes of the pandemic have made billions of people question whether they are continuing to pretend to be someone they are not because of what others think.

How do you change that, though? “Burn every bridge but truth. If you want the job that will make you happy, get out of the job that is making you miserable. Scary. But it’s not going to happen any other way. If you need a relationship that will make you happy, get out of the relationship that is not making you happy. Or get out of the mindset that is preventing you from getting your heart broken. Walk out there with your heart vulnerable and open. You have to give up your defences. You have to give up everything that stands between you and happiness. Most people think they’re all about happiness. But ask them to drop what doesn’t make them happy? Suddenly fear comes in.”

There is something extremely attractive about being the kind of person who knows what makes them happy and takes the steps to stay that way. But it is often counterintuitive. Beck describes how she came into Winfrey’s orbit. Shortly after she left academia and was working as a career coach, she was contacted by a producer at Winfrey’s show. They were looking for an expert to talk about stress. “They called all these experts on ‘how to destress your life’,” she says. “The producer called me and I said: ‘Hmm. I can’t really talk to you because I’m going skiing.’ I love skiing. And I will go for what makes me happy over anyone and anything.

Martha Beck in 2005
‘Burn every bridge but truth’ ... Beck in 2005. Photograph: Will Powers/AP

“The producer called back and said it was the only answer she got from all the experts that made her feel less stressed. So I went skiing anyway and, while I was there, I got the call from Oprah saying they wanted me on.”

I think this is the thing that attracts Beck’s followers: she has given up trying to control things and make things happen. In a world where we are encouraged to “just do it”, Beck preaches that sometimes doing nothing – or doing whatever you want, with no agenda – can be the answer.

Beck is known for her practical suggestions and exercises. So, what is a quick fix for reconnecting to people we haven’t seen for a long time over lockdown? “The one thing that has been shown to increase happiness across the board, but also connect people, is to write a letter of gratitude to someone towards whom you feel grateful: a teacher, a family member, an acquaintance. And then call them on the phone and read them the letter. People who do this not only develop close relationships really quickly, but also their happiness is elevated for months. This kind of gratitude is a kind of magic and it’s something we can do proactively, no matter what the circumstances.” (I look forward to the call, friends.)

What advice does she have for people who feel judged and crave the societal approval that she craved for years? Post-pandemic, how do you avoid going back to a life that doesn’t feel quite right? “Notice that, when you’re not yourself because you want people to like you, you hate your life. There’s this idea called “the empty elevator”. Say you don’t like your life on the floor that you’re on and you want to go to a higher perspective … When you get in the elevator, not many people are going to come with you. So you get in anyway and you might be thinking: ‘I’ve made a terrible mistake. No one wanted to come with me. I’m all alone in this elevator.’ And then you get to your new level, the doors open and you find a room of people who are excited for you to be exactly where you wanted to be.”

Now that society is slowly opening up again, Beck says this is the ideal time to stick to your guns and be clear with yourself about whom you enjoy spending time with and what you love doing. “If you are being honest and you are yourself with people, then they connect with you truly. So be true to yourself. Let yourself be seen as quirky or odd. Then the relationships you create with people will be real and solid and indestructible.”

This seems like a helpful post-pandemic message: better to be weird than fake. But there is, she adds, another shortcut to keeping it real and connecting with your true self: “Get a dog. The truth is in that dog’s eyes.”

The Way of Integrity: Finding the Path to Your True Self by Martha Beck (Little, Brown, £14.99) is out now. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Listen to Martha Beck on Viv Groskop’s podcast How to Own the Room from 23 April.