Click here for updates on the evolving COVID-19 situation at Rice
Rice University’s Student Newspaper — Since 1916

Tuesday, April 13, 2021 — Houston, TX 73°

Do-err or Don’t-err?

rachel-lisker-channing-wang-col
Channing Wang/Thresher

By Rachel Lisker     3/3/20 10:01pm

Does anyone really know what the Doerr Institute is? Its website describes it as “a large-scale leader development enterprise at Rice University” that is “committed to the early development of leader abilities in young people,” but what does this actually mean? 

Leadership, the nebulous and ever-changing buzzword that it is, gets thrown around so frequently these days that it means practically nothing — so it’s hard to tell what this institution actually does. A deep dive into the coaches affiliated with Doerr reveals TED talks galore, published self-help books and polished websites with glowing testimonials, all frantically trying to convince you that these people will teach you how to be a leader — but a leader of what? Enter the bizarre world of life coaching and the “personal development” industry.

Life coaching is an incredibly lucrative profession that centers around a key premise: success can be taught — and if it can be taught, it can be bought. In the world of life coaching, success is both a mindset and a commodity, as specific or as vague as it is molded to be by those who would sell it. Leaders are not leaders of anything specific, but rather people who have developed the quality of leadership, which is … what, precisely? The entire concept of having good ideas? A carefully cultivated set of personality traits that gives somebody sway over others? This begs the question: Who is qualified to teach such ambiguous qualities? Simple! One can be taught to teach success. The Doerr institute’s program, CoachRICE, provides life coach accreditation for a price tag of almost $6,000. For this price, without having succeeded at anything in particular, you — yes, you! — can teach others how to succeed; and maybe one day, if you’re successful enough, you can aspire to the lofty goal of teaching others how to succeed at teaching others how to succeed; and the cycle continues. 



At first glance, life coaching doesn’t seem much worse than an obnoxious TED talk, or your weird aunt’s “inspirational quotes” board on Pinterest. Still, the truth is that leadership here means an ideology of success for its own sake, and belief that your worth can be measured by it — an ideology used by exploitative organizations and coaches to get their sticky fingers into the pockets of hopeful young entrepreneurs. It is an ideology of trying to be good at being good, of succeeding at succeeding, an ouroboros of greatness with no meaning. The Doerr Institute is uncanny precisely because of this: The inspirational quotes that it parades in its advertising, past their initial appearance of profundity, mean nothing at all. 

Maybe the Doerr Institute brand of life coaching isn’t quite so insidious as I have painted it. A friend who had a session described it as strange but harmless therapy, though ineffective — and certainly, if someone has had their life changed by life coaching, or is a passionate and clear-headed life coach, I’m ready to be proved wrong. Crucially, however, I believe that the affiliation of life coaching with Rice is a step towards normalizing it, lending it prestige that I do not believe it has a claim to. At this point, it might be prudent to explain how this happened, but the facts alone don’t paint a full picture. In 2015, Ann and John Doerr donated $50 million to found the Doerr Institute for seemingly no other reason than a long list of platitudes about leadership. At the risk of veering into speculation, I would say that there are two possible reasons for billionaires to make such a move: the first, due to a genuine, fervent belief in life coaching; the second, because it was an investment. Either way, it was not a decision based on evidence-based teaching needs; the Doerr Institute’s roots are in the world of billionaire philanthropy and whatever messages that world wants to impose upon us.

In accordance with Rice’s apparent “Culture of Coach,” therefore, I feel compelled to give the following coaching for free: Don’t buy into the Doerr Institute, the personal development industry and the shady cult of leadership that it promotes. Rice students are smart, motivated and can surely figure out how to access TED talks online on their own; and perhaps — if you’re currently working for Doerr — do some research into the eerie and exploitative business of life coaching, take a moment to wonder how on earth this got into Rice unquestioned and then be the first among your fellow students to run for the hills. How’s that for being a leader?



More from The Rice Thresher

OPINION 4/6/21 9:35pm
We still need to care about voter suppression in a post-Trump America

Just a couple of months ago, Gov. Greg Abbott declared “election integrity” to be an emergency item for the 2021 Texas legislative session. This was promptly followed by the National Republican Party launching a committee to pursue state election laws, praising Abbott’s initiative. With Senate Bill 7 (SB 7) and its House equivalent (HB 6), in addition to other bills directed at restricting voting access like House Bill 2293, marginalized groups will be further restricted from their right to vote. Shift workers who rely on later voting place hours will be without options. Individuals with disabilities who require vote-by-mail will be burdened with providing proof of their condition. Drive-thru voting will be banned. The role of poll watchers, already infamous for attracting self-appointed vigilantes of voter intimidation, will be able to record voters who receive help filling out their ballots. 

OPINION 4/6/21 9:19pm
Willy Week no more: Students have the power to distance from William Marsh Rice

This year’s Beer Bike Week looks quite different from years past, even in name. Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman encouraged Beer Bike coordinators to rename Willy Week to reflect the different nature of the event due to COVID restrictions. Individual college Beer Bike coordinators chose a variety of new, college-specific names; many told the Thresher that they were further motivated to change the name to distance their college from William Marsh Rice and that they may carry the name change into future years. Coordinators’ swift renaming of Willy Week reminds us that students have a lot of power at this university — and that we can and should use it to foster a Rice community that we’re proud of.

OPINION 3/30/21 9:56pm
Student Association committees deserve more from students

Rice students don’t pay attention to the Student Association. This is clear from recent Thresher coverage on the low voter turnout during the SA election and students’ inability to identify the people they “elected” to the executive team. If it weren’t for current SA President Kendall Vining’s encouragement to apply for Academics Committee chair last year, I would have fallen into that category too. I learned that although the SA is designed to represent and empower all student voices regardless of whether they hold a formal SA position in order to better our campus and broader Houston community, it struggles with apathy (or worse, alienation) and a lack of participation. 


Comments

Please note All comments are eligible for publication by The Rice Thresher.