“That sense of who you really are is what I call your own North Star. It never moves, like the North Star in the sky. It's a sensation of harmony; your mind, body, heart, and soul all say yes at the same moment. In those moments, you're headed toward your life's purpose.”
Martha Beck is an author and sociologist based in New Hope, Pennsylvania. After receiving her Ph.D. in Sociology from Harvard University and becoming a professor, Beck began offering life coaching sessions to her students. Her overwhelming success as a life coach led her to create the world-renowned training program Wayfinder Life. Beck has written a number of New York Times and international bestsellers, including Finding Your Own North Star and her most recent book, The Way of Integrity. For over 17 years, she has also been a monthly contributor for O, The Oprah Magazine.
In this interview, Martha Beck explains how she started her coaching practice, what our North Star is, and how she manages her spotlight.
TGL: How was your childhood?
MB: I was raised in an all Mormon community at the center of Mormonism in Utah. It's very different from the rest of American culture. Everything is dominated by religion. What kind of child was I? Well, I remember being in a crib with the bars. I remember my parents putting the springs from the crib on the top so it became a little cage, because I would climb out every night. I remember sitting there thinking they were so sweet to think that I was not going to get out. When they left, I got through a crack in the cage. I was a cage breaker.
TGL: Growing up, did you know what kind of job you wanted to have?
MB: My father was a professor, and most of my friends’ fathers were professors, so I had that in mind. I also always thought: I am here to participate in a huge change of some kind. I remember at age three, thinking, I hope I've prepared enough. I haven't done enough. I'm almost four. I didn't know exactly what it was, but it was an intense feeling, and it made me work incredibly hard at school. I went on to get a Ph.D. in sociology so I could figure out how people think.
By the time I was an adult, this feeling had crystallized. It was getting more clear, and I was meeting other people who felt the same way. I call it the transformation of human consciousness. We've reached a point in human history where we need a transformation on a global scale or we will quickly render ourselves extinct. It was strange to grow up with this drive that I didn't understand. I started to meet people here and there, and now almost everyone I
know seems to have grown up obsessed with the same transformation of consciousness. And that's what my whole life has been about.
TGL: You went to Harvard University, is that where you got your Ph.D. as well?
MB: I did all three of my degrees at Harvard. Once I finished as an undergraduate, I did not have a car to go anywhere else so I just kept applying to Harvard until I got a car. By then I had a Master's and a Ph.D. as well.
TGL: Did you think you would go into academia after your Ph.D.?
MB: Yes, because it was what I had seen my father do. People automatically feel that they can do what their parents did easily. I knew a friend of the movie star Carrie Fisher, whose mother was the movie star Debbie Reynolds. My friend said Carrie became a movie star because she didn't know what else to do. It seemed like the easiest thing to do. It's funny how when we expect something to be easy, it becomes easy for us. I thought I would be an academic, but it didn't work out that way.
TGL: You also became a mother while getting your Ph.D.
MB: All three of my children were born during that Ph.D.
TGL: You wrote the book Expecting Adam about your first pregnancy, was this your first book?
MB: Yes, this was the first book I wrote. It was originally a novel because I didn't think anyone would believe me, and it was actually about my second child. I had an 18 months old baby when I became pregnant with this child. The pregnancy was very strange. I was extremely sick, and I started having psychic experiences. There's no other word for it. I would see things that other people were seeing far away, and I sometimes knew things before they happened. It seemed to be connected to the baby somehow. I found out late in the pregnancy that he had Down syndrome. I only had a couple of weeks to choose whether to end the pregnancy or to keep it. Politically I'm pro-choice, but there was something so mysterious happening to me, which felt connected to the baby, and I was bonded to him. I kept him, and that was the beginning of the biggest shift in my whole life. I had this child who would never be a Harvard academic, and yet there was something so magical about him.
TGL: How did your coaching practice start?
MB: I didn't know how to live. I'd grown up in this very religious, strange culture. I was an academic, but nobody I knew at Harvard had children and I did—including a child with a disability. I began to try to figure out my own life. I was teaching several social science classes, and then I started teaching in a business school. I kept wanting to talk with my students about their lives, their careers. Were they happy? Were they on a course that would make them happy? I designed a course and ended up writing a book around it. My students were the first people who started hiring me to counsel them outside of class. Pretty soon I was making more money that way than teaching, so I quit and became a life coach.
TGL: Were you counseling people by the hour?
MB: At first I did it hour by hour like a therapist, but I was always refining my methods. I kept getting better at it and the demand got higher. I actually wrote my first self-help book so that people would go away. I thought, I’ll put everything I know in this book that costs $20, and they’ll leave me alone. Instead, it brought more people. So I started working with groups, and then I started training other people in this methodology. Now I focus on training coaches. I’ve trained about 3,000 coaches.
TGL: How did you become Oprah’s life coach?
MB: I would never say that I was Oprah's life coach, I wrote for her magazine, and she always told me that she would read my article first when she got the magazine. That's when I started writing all my articles for her because I knew she read it and I admired her. In that way perhaps I was her life coach, but she never called me for help.
TGL: How did you start writing for O, The Oprah Magazine?
MB: I wrote my first self-help book, and then I got hired to write for several women's magazines. An editor who was substituting for a friend at a publishing house was leaving her office one night, and she dropped a folder on the floor. Hundreds of pages of paper fell out. Those pages were a book I had written and submitted to them. As she put the pages back in order, she started reading it, and she really liked it. Months later, she became the editor of The Oprah Magazine, and she remembered me from those pages. She called me and asked me to audition. I did, and I've been writing for them ever since. Almost 20 years.
TGL: The Genius List focuses on trajectories, career paths, and you have worked with this term a lot in your own work, for instance in your book Finding Your Own North Star. What do you say to someone who does not know what to do? How did you approach this problem of finding your purpose?
MB: When I was an undergraduate, I lived in Asia to study Chinese and Asian philosophy. A blend of Asian and Western philosophy goes into my teaching. Instead of asking people to learn more, which is the Western model, I recommend that they know less, which is the Asian model. I believe you’re born knowing who you really are. That sense of who you really are is what I call your own North Star. It never moves, like the North Star in the sky. It's a sensation of harmony; your mind, body, heart and soul all say yes at the same moment. In those moments, you're headed toward your life's purpose.
If you went into a room by yourself and let go of everything you were thinking, you would know exactly what your North Star is. It's our thinking and the fear of other people's opinions that get in the way of us knowing who we are. It's always there. You don't need my books. You don't need any books. The thing that will help you most is getting still, finding the last time you felt completely in harmony and looking at what you were doing. Then, find another time you were in harmony, what were you doing then? You will start to track your own destiny as if you're tracking an animal, and you track it through the feeling of joy in your body.
TGL: You actually wrote a book called The Joy Diet, so joy is another key concept in your research.
MB: Joy is the natural state of our psyches when we are free from the pressure of socialization and traumatic experience. If you get rid of those two things, social pressure and any pain that you've been carrying from the past, you are immediately in a state of joy.
TGL: In the past few years there has been a movement around women in business, which wasn’t the case when you started your business. What would you say to women who want to be entrepreneurs but may not have the confidence yet?
MB: First of all, find the thing that brings you joy. If you can create from that space, you can create anything: a relationship, a mood, a food, an object of some kind. Anything you create from a state of joy has an energy that makes other people want to share it. Once you have something that you're putting into the world which people want to share, you have the basis for making a living. I've watched so many people do this, and not just people who were well-off, privileged, white, and had all the advantages, but also people who were homeless, heroin addicts, beggars in Kenya, and in other places where it's not easy. I have talked to women who got out of poverty and built themselves up. They all always say that somebody told them a story where they could imagine themselves succeeding, and it was the story that guided them. So find a story that gives you hope and inspiration.
TGL: During your career you have published a lot of books, and your first best seller was in 1987. How did you live this new recognition when it happened?
MB: It was very strange. They don’t do this anymore, but in the past publishers would send authors to speak at various places. I’d speak in one place, and people in the audience would want me to speak at another event. It just kept rolling. I wanted to be a writer so I could sit quietly in a room and not deal with anyone, because I'm shy and introverted. And suddenly I was in the entertainment industry. I was giving speeches everywhere, I was on television, I was traveling constantly. I actually had to take myself back from that. It got to be a little bit too much. I was out of balance.
I was afraid to pull back because I was having success and it was so wonderful: I was not worried about money for the first time, I was able to support my kids. But it wasn't a track of joy. I started going into nature for months and then years at a time and found myself again. I thought, okay, I don't mind letting my career die. Instead, when I gave it up my career rose again, which seemed illogical, but helped me believe that what I had been teaching worked.When I followed what was true for me, the world paid me for it.
TGL: You have said, "If the situation is complicated, relax more. If the situation is really even more complicated, relax even more.” How did nature help you find yourself?
MB: It is so strange, when I was just off in the forest meditating hours a day for several years, people found me faster. My social media presence and everything kept growing, and I wasn't doing anything. I believe there is an energy that moves in the world, which directs people's attention and money and effort in all sorts of ways that we don't see physically.
TGL: You recently published a new book called The Way of Integrity. Could you talk about this new book?
MB: I've written all these self-help things and I was in the entertainment and publishing worlds, and I'm still not always at peace. I've come to believe that the transformation of consciousness is the same thing that Asian philosophy calls awakening or enlightenment. Brain scientists can see it now, it's an observable biological change in the brain. When you undergo it, you don't experience psychological suffering anymore. It changes the structure of the brain.
I wanted that, so I moved to the edge of a national forest in California and woke up every morning hearing only the wind and the birds and no people except my immediate family. I went into the woods and meditated every single day for hours. What I realized was that I needed to bring every part of myself into one whole piece. The word integrity means this to me. “Integer” has the same basic meaning as “integrity": to be one thing in all times and places. In the woods, I shed everything that was my culture, everything that was my dysfunction, and I became what I really was.
And then more people found me. This happens over and over: I go away to try to do something for myself, and then people find me and challenge me to write another book. So I wrote this book, and it’s about how to be completely one being, to be nothing but your own North Star. It's so simple, but in a way it's extreme. It's giving up everything that does not make you happy. One of the things I wrote is that complete integrity will give you everything you could possibly want, but it will cost you everything else. That takes decisions, and it takes courage. You will get to a place where your truth goes against the social norms of the people around you. Now you have a decision to make: do you tell the truth or do you join the group? If you join the group, you lose a bit of yourself. It's that splitting between your true self and the pressure of society that is the root of psychological suffering.
TGL: Sometimes we don’t realize that we are not self aware.
MB: When I'm giving speeches, I ask, "Is everyone comfortable?" And they say, "Oh yeah." I repeat, "Seriously, are you really comfortable?" And they say, "Yes." So I ask, "If you were home alone in your bedroom right now, how many of you would be sitting exactly in this position?" No one raises their hand. And I ask, "Why not?" Finally one person will say, "I'm not actually that comfortable." The reason that's scary is not because they're slightly uncomfortable, they can live through that. But they don't know they are not comfortable, and they believe that they are comfortable. That's the problem.
TGL: How do you solve that problem?
MB: It's not easy because of the fear of social pushback, but it's actually simple. When I was 29 I decided on new year's day that I would not tell a lie for the entire year, 365 days. No lies, not even a tiny, polite lie. If you take that vow, you will find your true self very quickly, and you will lose all your friends. That year I lost my family of origin, my religion, my job, my marriage—just about everything went once I refused to lie. I wouldn't necessarily recommend that to others, but try it for three days. See where it takes you. Not a single lie, not even a tiny one.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
MB: Dante. My whole book about integrity is based on The Divine Comedy, because I believe Dante had an enlightenment experience and wrote The Divine Comedy as a sort of coded set of instructions about how to become enlightened. Also Shakespeare, for the same reason. If you read The Tempest, it's really about someone—Prospero—who’s had an enlightenment experience. And Walt Whitman, Teresa of Avila, Lao-Tzu. I want them all. I want all the great ones, because they all underwent this transformation of consciousness—a real phenomenon we can all achieve—and I want to learn about it from them.
The pandemic is giving us an opportunity to look inward, calm down, and get honest with ourselves. We are moving toward that awakening, because we are biologically predisposed to seek it, to get away from our suffering.
TGL: What advice would you give to The Genius List’s readers?
MB: I love Goethe, the German writer. He said, "When you trust yourself, you will know how to live." And, "Never hurry, never cease." If you never stop and you never hurry, and you trust yourself, you will find happiness.