When Martha Beck’s middle child, Adam, was diagnosed with Down syndrome in utero, the discovery threatened to plunge the expectant mother into doubt and despair.
“I was very lost trying to figure out how my son’s life would not be a tragedy,” said Beck, then a doctorate student at Harvard University. “My environment at Harvard didn’t provide any paradigm where a child with Down syndrome could have a successful, happy life.”
Beck’s decision to continue her difficult pregnancy led to a transformative journey that she later chronicled in her 1999 memoir “Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday Magic.” When the book became a best-seller, Beck quit her teaching job at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz., to focus on her true passion — to “end suffering and bring people to joy,” she explained.
Beck, 53, now lives on a horse ranch in rural Arroyo Grande and is one of the nation’s top life coaches — offering “inspirations and tools for empowered living” through appearances on “Oprah,” online training courses, workshops and a series of best-selling books that have earned her nationwide acclaim. Her monthly column in O, The Oprah Magazine, which she has penned since 2001, reaches nearly 2.4 million subscribers each month.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
O magazine Editor-in-Chief Lucy Kaylin calls Beck’s work immeasurably valuable, effective and impactful.
“She really has a tremendous instinct for what trips women up … the kinds of things that can leave one off course in life, and, of course, the ways to right one(self),” Kaylin said, adding that Beck is “incredibly wise … incredibly funny and witty and warm and knowing, just like her column. ... She’s worth her weight in gold.”
Beck has called the Central Coast home since 2012. The idea to move here, she said with a chuckle, came to her in a dream.
For 20 years, “I would wake up in the mornings and think I was on a ranch in California — and I’d never lived in California,” recalled Beck. “Before my eyes were open, I knew exactly what was out the window.”
Beck finally went searching for her dream home, and found it in the form of a 100-acre property nestled amid horse ranches, farms and wineries in the rolling hills northeast of Lopez Lake. North Star Ranch, which Beck bought on her 50th birthday for $3 million, now serves as her base of operations — and the sanctuary she shares with Adam, now 28, plus her partner, Karen Gerdes, and two large, enthusiastic golden retrievers, Bjorn and Clair.
Beck took inspiration from her serene surroundings for her latest book, “Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening,” published April 25 by Cynosure Publishing. It follows a woman who discovers the divine spark within herself while wandering a fictional California wilderness that Beck modeled after the nearby Los Padres National Forest.
A life coach
“I’ve always wanted to write for people who feel lost,” explained Beck, adding that the sense of being emotionally adrift is a problem that’s presently plaguing society. “There’s no internal compass and there are no external signs. It’s a very, very chaotic-feeling world right now.
“I write for people who feel lost and want … something that’s a sure light in a dark time.”
One of eight children raised in a prominent Mormon family in Provo, Utah, Beck, too, struggled to find her way at times as she attended Harvard — earning a bachelor’s degree in East Asian studies and master’s and doctorate degrees in sociology. She married a fellow Mormon student and launched a teaching career; she and John Beck, who have three children, later divorced.
After “Expecting Adam,” however, Martha Beck found a different path.
“The moment you’ve suffered and then healed, even to a slight degree, the intention to help anyone else that feels that way is almost a reflexive response,” she said. “The moment I started to feel even slightly better I was like, ‘I want to do this for a living.’ ”
“This,” specifically, was life coaching.
According to the International Coach Federation, a trade organization, coaching places an emphasis on “setting goals, creating outcomes and managing personal change” in a way that differs from traditional therapy, consulting or mentoring. In 2012, there were approximately 47,500 professional coaches generating close to $2 billion in annual revenue, according to a study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the group.
Beck’s company, Martha Beck Inc., grossed $3.5 million last year, compared to $2.1 million in 2011.
Beck said she’s guided by an “incredibly simple” philosophy.
“It goes like this: If you do something and it makes you feel super good and free and happy and joyful and loving, you should probably do more of it. And if it makes you feel poisoned and imprisoned and despairing, perhaps you should do less of it,” she said. “By following that philosophy you start to have a lot of adventures.”
That’s the message that she has reiterated in numerous magazine articles — in addition to O, she’s also written for Good Housekeeping, Parenting and Reader’s Digest — and six self-help books. They include 2001’s “Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live,” 2009’s “Steering by Starlight: The Science and Magic of Finding Your Destiny” and 2011’s “Finding Your Way in a Wild New World: Reclaim Your True Nature to Create the Life You Want.”
The moment I started to feel even slightly better I was like, ‘I want to do this for a living.’
In “Steering by Starlight,” for instance, Beck instructs readers how to become stargazers who never lose sight of their personal potential by dissolving the thoughts and feelings that make them miserable, envisioning their future lives and finally daring to embrace their destinies. “You,” she writes in the book’s introduction, “are the ultimate arbiter of your fate.”
Only one of her works has ignited controversy — a 2005 memoir called “Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith.” In it, she criticizes the academic efforts of her late father, Brigham Young University professor and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints scholar Hugh Nibley, and claimed he sexually abused her as a child. Her mother and siblings, as well as members of the Mormon community, denounced the book, according to a 2005 article in The Washington Post, but Beck said at the time that the book was written not “to punish my family or the church” but to be “therapeutic for the author.”
Beck’s multifaceted business
According to Bridgette Boudreau, CEO of Martha Beck Inc., Beck trains 350 to 400 life coaches each year through the Martha Beck Institute — interacting with those trainees at twice-annual meet-and-greet events at The Cliffs Resort in Shell Beach. She also offers online telecourses for 400 to 1,000 participants at a time, and does public speaking engagements at venues such as The Chopra Center in Carlsbad and the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Mass., that attract thousands of attendees.
In addition, Beck leads three Self-Transformation Adventure Retreats, or STARs, a year at the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa; each is open to up to 12 clients, who pony up $12,500 each. According to Boudreau, Beck’s fees vary widely — from $295 for a telecourse to $7,770 for life coach training, plus $850 for a certification fee.
I write for people who feel lost and want … something that’s a sure light in a dark time.
Kansas City clinical social worker Kelley Slagle Funk is among the life coaches who have obtained certification through The Martha Beck Institute. She completed the yearlong program at the end of 2014 and is enrolled in the Koelle Institute for Equus Coaching training program run by Beck and founder Koelle Simpson; she visited North Star Ranch in April for an Equus retreat.
“There are life-coaching training programs all over the place now. I really believe that Martha was on the forefront” of a growing movement, Funk said, adding that Beck’s program differs from others in a few key ways. “She literally did this because it worked for her, and not to make a buck. That’s why her program lasts.”
Funk described Beck as a “voracious academic” who takes a pragmatic approach to her work.
“She’s got a lot of science behind what she says,” Funk said, and a great degree of flexibility. “She’s constantly willing to change direction. She’s constantly willing to admit, ‘You know what, I’ve made a mistake.’ She’s constantly changing and tweaking her program. … She doesn’t have any ego in the game, which is really, really unique in this field.”
Although weekend retreats used to be common at North Star Ranch, Boudreau said Beck’s company has held just two private corporate workshops since 2013 there, including one for General Electric Co.
“As a strategy, we’ve moved away from smaller events at the ranch to larger events” at upscale venues.
Folks who can’t make it to such gatherings can still interact with Beck online. Her Facebook page has more than 61,000 likes, and her Twitter account has about 45,900 followers.
According to O editor Kaylin, Beck’s involvement with Oprah Winfrey’s multimedia empire has likely contributed to the life coach’s success.
“Having this perch in our magazine, she really does have access to as passionate and as responsive and open a readership (as) she could ever ask for,” the editor said. “I’m always delighted when I see I’ve got a Martha manuscript to read. Not only will I have something great to put in the magazine, (but also) I know I’ll get something out of it personally. There will be insights and revelations that I’ll take with me for years and years.”