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Living an Extraordinary Life | A profile of Lauren Zander

Living an Extraordinary Life | A profile of Lauren Zander

8 Mins
February 11, 2016

The biggest moment of her life was about to arrive, and Katie Torpey didn’t even care. It was a Saturday night in Los Angeles, and Katie and her husband had dinner plans with friends. Katie, an award-winning screenwriter, was about to have her splash on the big screens when her movie, The Perfect Man, starring Hillary Duff and Chris Noth, debuted in movie theaters across the United States. Katie had worked for this moment for decades, bartending her way through film school, selling scripts that went nowhere but trash cans.

It was going to be her moment. She couldn’t even think about it.

The fight with her husband had started in the afternoon. It was a silly fight, something about a magazine headline, but it erupted into a screaming match and ended with Katie landing on the living room floor amid shards of broken glass.

A few days later, she told her husband she was going to the post office, and she left—permanently. “That was the beginning of my journey,” she says.

Katie weighed 265 pounds, had bleach-blonde hair, washed out skin, and no confidence. She didn’t walk, but rather lumbered around at 5’6”. She moved to Palo Alto with her sister and tried to regroup. She went on the Atkins Diet and lost about 55 pounds, but she hit a wall and began regaining the weight. She spoke to a friend in New York, who recommended Lauren Zander, a life coach.

After a few email exchanges, Katie and Lauren spoke on the phone. “I want to change my life,” Katie told Lauren. “I want to be happy and thin.”

Lauren told Katie her goals were definitely attainable, and yes, she would help her transform her life.

LAUREN ZANDER IS PIXIE-LIKE with a small frame, almond-shaped eyes, and a narrow nose that turns slightly upward at the end. Her lips are always curled in a delicate smile even though every so often an expletive spills out. “I love my life,” she says in a breathy voice. Then, her coffee-colored eyes narrow and she begins sharing her passion for the “brilliant mystery” of people’s lives, for helping individuals move beyond the repetition of their negative histories, and for leading them to discover and prove to themselves that they can be the author of a new life story.

"Once you take responsibility you become powerful, and you take control of the situation."

Lauren is the chairman and co-founder of The Handel Group, her private coaching company that drives people to get over past traumas, face the truth, choose to take full responsibility for their choices, and work at turning their lives into something they love. Her company now works with organizations like The New York Times Company, Condé Nast, and Vogue. Zander also teaches a popular class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) called “Designing Your Life.” In the last 10 years, she’s trained 16 coaches to use The Handel Method, Lauren’s own personalized brand of coaching. The method challenges and pushes clients to take full responsibility for their lives and for all of the choices they make. Lauren’s memorable catchphrase sums it up: “Maybe it’s you!” Unlike therapists who might offer a sympathetic ear when you say you’ve had a bad day and cheated on your diet, or who may encourage you to think of yourself as a woeful victim, Lauren and her coaches will hold you accountable. If you’ve done something wrong, expect to pay with a consequence your coach and you agree on.

With her no-nonsense approach to life, Lauren and her company have coached more than 2,500 clients.

"I CAN THINK OF ONE of my first clients,” Lauren says, cutting into a bloody Angus steak at Jubilee, a tiny French restaurant on East 54th Street in New York City. “When he was 17 he had a car accident that killed his best friend who was riding with him. He could barely go back to his hometown and never talked to his friend’s parents. He lived in psycho shame. What did that do for his life? He had never had a girlfriend. He was 27. He was a banker, financially very successful, but miserable under it all. I was like, ‘Well, ya think that might be fucking you up?’ He chose then to go back and faced his friend’s parents; [and found out that] they never were angry at him.”

She’s been challenging people’s thinking and helping them fix their lives for as long as she can remember. Her mother’s favorite story to tell is of 7-year-old Lauren explaining to the next-door neighbor that racism is wrong. The neighbor had made a comment about Lauren’s housekeeper, who was black. Lauren remembers looking at the girl and saying, “Don’t you realize your mother could have been black? What makes you think you’re so white?”

IT WAS DURING HER FRESHMAN YEAR of college that Lauren began thinking about what would eventually set her apart from other life coaches. She was studying at the University of Denver and desperately wanted to get into a better school, so she asked her brother to help her get straight A’s. She made promises to herself, and did whatever her brother told her to do. For five nights a week, she had to do two hours of homework. If she didn’t she couldn’t go out with friends.

“It changed my life,” she says. She earned her straight A’s, and transferred to George Washington University.

Lauren says she grew up with the concept of “take away”—a system of promises and consequences. For example, if she didn’t do her homework, her TV would be taken away. “It’s just understanding how humans work,” she says. People tend to find it easier to keep promises to others than to themselves, she notes, and by putting promises and consequences in place for yourself, you hold yourself accountable

After graduating from college Lauren got a job at Landmark Education, a global company that is “committed to the fundamental principle that people have the possibility of success, fulfillment, and greatness,” according to the website. Lauren was in charge of a volunteer program. She naturally began to coach her own volunteers on how to reach their personal goals, like losing weight, balancing a budget, or finding love. She helped to motivate them. “I was quietly doing it, but not realizing I was inventing my own thing,” she says. A few years into the job, she gave a one-year notice because she had so many volunteers—she says she wanted to give her replacement ample time to learn the ropes. When her replacement looked at the work Lauren was doing, she told Landmark the job was more work than what was stated in the description. Lauren had her 100-person volunteer team and had been inventing her own course work on how to help them with their personal lives. When her boss figured this out, Landmark told Lauren she had to stop coaching the volunteers because it was “unorthodox.”  

Lauren was 28. When she quit, three volunteers immediately became clients. Within six months, she had 40 clients.

She was just getting started.

FOR THE NEXT SEVEN YEARS, Lauren coached clients. The first year, she didn’t even have a business card. She had someone do her bookkeeping and manage her invoices, but other than that, she was on her own. When she and her sister started The Handel Group in 2004she says she wasn’t even sure she wanted to start a company. “I still didn’t know what I was,” she says.

"Your life is always starting right now."

She had taken on three people and taught them how to be an effective life coach and successfully implement Lauren’s methods. Her first trainee was a friend named Mel Robbins, a criminal defense attorney. Now, Robbins is a syndicated talk-radio host and calls herself “America’s Life Coach.” Her first book, Stop Saying You’re Fine, hit bookstores in May.

Zander knew she was on to something. She began to train more people how to be a coach. They set their own hours, worked from home and made money. Lauren asks all of her coaching trainees to read Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead. Lauren is a Rand fan, and loves to point out that they share the same birthday, February 2. Years ago, when she first read the book, she began thinking deeply about how the beliefs and premises that individuals hold affect the outcome of their lives, in everything from business success to personal happiness. She asks all of her new coaches to explain how they may now have (or have had in the past) similarities to the main characters. “I loved that each character had such an extreme version of humanity in them,” she says. “Roark wouldn’t lie for anyone. I think his ideals about what he loves and being true to himself are profound. It is the ultimate achievement of the Handel Method.” (See: Understanding the major characters of The Fountainhead )

The company kept growing. Her sister began coaching corporations such as AOL and Citibank. Lauren knew she wanted more. A few years ago, Lauren met David Mindell, an MIT professor of the history of engineering and of aeronautics and astronautics. He knew that a significant number students he taught suffered from depression and unhappiness and he thought it might be because no one had taught the students to deal with the social aspects of life, Lauren says. She asked him, “If I prove to you that my approach works and will make a huge difference to your students, will you let me teach a class here?” She coached a skeptical David.

Within six months of coaching him, she’d convinced him to let her teach. The year was 2006. They listed the course, “Living and Extraordinary Life”, in the catalogue and had about 30 students sign up (one of whom was Samantha Sutton, now a coach for The Handel Group). During the first day of the course, Lauren introduced the students to her no-bullshit tactics. She once told a roomful of MIT students, “I will expect you to do the homework. I’ll boot you out if you don’t.”  

She effectively led them to discover, analyze, and talk about their true beliefs and encouraged them to fully become “the author” of their own lives. She explains that the best way to take authorship of your life is to accept responsibility for mistakes and choices. “The theory I recommend you accept is you created your present life,” she tells them. For these students, taking full responsibility for their choices can represent a huge change.

“The structured, rule-based approached actually resonates very well with students at MIT,” David says. “Students are MIT are very practical and they like structure . . . this course is really about that.” He continues: “For MIT to become known as a place where people are educated as full human beings and for the full range of their life, that would be an extraordinary contribution, both to MIT and to the broader world of education . . . other places would follow.”

Now, students from Amherst and Harvard are attending, and it’s evolved from a week-long crash course in the spring to a full-blown summer class called “Designing Your Life.” Lauren has suggested image makeovers (she had one student trash his inch-thick glasses and peruse fashion magazines to find a new fashionable pair), helped students lose weight, and land meaningful jobs.

In August of 2007, Lauren met another woman whose life she was about to help change dramatically. The woman was Katie Torpey.

LAUREN HELPED KATIE keep promises by leading her to create and participate in an accountability system. She had to stick to her diet of proteins, fruit, and vegetables. She couldn’t eat rice or pasta. She had to work out five times a week and do cardio. If she cheated on her diet, she had to wake up at 6 a.m. and walk her dog. “With consequences, it’s always something that’s good,” Katie says. “My dog loved it. Every morning he was licking my face.”

She lost 75 pounds in about 8 ½ months. She stopped drinking. Her ex-husband admitted he was gay and fell in love with a man after she left him. But, after coaching with Lauren,

katie torpey

Katie (at right) also admitted she’d never loved her husband either. “We went down to the basics,” Katie says. “I started taking responsibility for all the messes in my life. In reality, on my wedding day, I had a meltdown. I didn’t want to walk down the aisle. I put on weight instead of dealing with things. But once you take responsibility, you become powerful, and you take control of the situation.”

Lauren also led Katie to proactively deal with any “haunting memories” or moral failures. Katie called people up she’d lied to, or hurt, over the years. When she was 6 years old, she was sexually abused by a neighborhood boy. She found him, and spoke to him. “Once I dealt with it and let it go, it was like this crazy happiness that came over me,” she says. “I wasn’t lying to anyone, I wasn’t hiding anything. It was so freeing.”

Eventually, Katie reached her ideal weight of 133 pounds. She is half the size she once was. She’s thin—a size 4—and her weight loss revealed sculpted cheekbones and clear green eyes. Her once-bleached hair is now a honey blonde and lies in waves around her face. Her career is better than ever. One of her movies—“a kind of Wall Street meets Goodfellas”—is set to film in late fall. She co-wrote and directed the suspense film Truth About Kerry, released this year. She’s in discussions with a network interested in having her work on an animated series. She wrote a book about her journey with Lauren and is in talks with several publishing agents.

“It’s interesting because I really needed to go on the journey I did to become a better person, a better writer and know what I really want to do with my life,” she says. “Working with Lauren changed everything.”

AFTER SHE SUCCESSFULLY tackled the educational field, Lauren decided to start a radio show and TV show. “I’m a chick with a vision,” she likes to say. Her Biography Channel special Celebrity Life Coach premiered in December 2010 and paired Zander up with fiery actress Sean Young, who starred in Blade Runner and No Way Out. (Viewers watched Young transition from a posture of excuse-making victim to proactive achiever once again.)

Now, Lauren’s role in the company has moved from coaching to launching new divisions in which her method is taught: television, radio, the classroom, online. Her goal is to have her philosophies taught in universities around the world. She also wants to write a book. She is adamant that people need to effectively deal with personal issues that inhibit growth and personal happiness in order to avoid living a bifurcated life. “[People are] dealing with depression, taking medication, never talk to their father, on their third wife, but they run an incredible company.”

Lauren admits she isn’t perfect, either. For years, she wrestled with an addiction to cigarettes. She was overweight and a chronic cheater. But she chose to change. She built promises she knew she could keep, eventually stopped smoking cigarettes, maintained her weight, worked out issues with her father, and found the love of her life. “I am my original student,” she says. “I am the original brat, I am the original chicken.” Now, if she breaks a promise to herself, she’ll have to face the consequences she’s put in place. If she doesn’t have sex with her husband at least twice a week, she doesn’t get to watch TV for a week. Her husband has promises and consequences, too. “We live in it,” she says. “The whole entire method is based on knowing yourself,” she says, and that includes cultivating personal integrity, committing to personal growth, and holding yourself accountable to address and fix your own problems.

As I found out when I participated in a two-day Handel Group workshop in New York City, it takes a lot of courage to do the homework, write your dreams, make promises and keep them. It’s tough. I realized I’d been keeping my family at arm’s length because I felt like they wouldn’t like me if they knew the mistakes I’d made in my teenage years. After the workshop, I decided to write a candid letter to my parents, and now, we’re closer than ever.

Not everyone enjoys Lauren’s in-your-face method—that’s why she has so many different coaches with different styles. But, when one person in a family takes the chance and tries to live an extraordinary life and makes a commitment to do the work, they usually become the voice of change in the family. “Someone’s gotta be in charge to shift,” she says.

“My ultimate goal is for people to change their life,” she says. “I have a deep love of what life is meant to be and I really don’t think people are dealing with what life is meant to be, which is the study of themselves and the creation of themselves . . . you are whatever you want to be.”

Katie has kept her weight off for more than three years. She started a blog about her weight loss journey. In it, she writes about how she tackled her life from every angle, and gives advice to others who want to shed some pounds. “Anyone can change his or her life at any moment,” Katie wrote. “Your life is always starting right now.”

Sarah Perry
About the author:
Sarah Perry
Personal Growth