No successful path is unobstructed. If I were asked, “What would I do differently in my career?”, my first answer would be, “nothing”. Often the very problems along the way created the opportunity and inspiration for breakthroughs, brand growth, and financial reward. Not to mention the potential butterfly effect of altering the space time continuum and some Ashton Kutcher style hemorrhaging through my face. But as a thought experiment and strongly worded advice for anyone building a career, here’s a series of attitudes and tactics I wish I adopted earlier.
1) Build A Website
Social media focus is heavy among the newest generation of fitness professionals. As users shift from Facebook, to Instagram, and now TikTok, playing whack-a-mole with different platforms, or trying to keep an active presence on all of them is a losing battle. Factor in trying to be active on YouTube, a podcast, Reddit forums, and even Pinterest. Whatever platforms you use, they’re owned and controlled by someone else. Algorithms change, organic reach declines, accounts can be banned or hacked, and whole platforms can vanish or become obsolete. TikTok is in limbo at the time of writing, due to threats of the US government banning it.
A website is home for your long form written content in a searchable index and can lead customers to you for years. Social media posts are irrelevant after a few days. A website is a base to build out business products and services as you develop them.
I procrastinated for 7 years getting a website. 7 years of failing to write articles and gather emails. 7 years of missed opportunities. I lacked the professional base where potential clients could research me when choosing a potential trainer. Before my website, I was a trainer focused on coaching my clients and developing new business. My website launched me into content creation and developing an industry brand name.
If you’re moderately tech savvy, sites like WordPress, Wix, and Squarespace allow you to build a website within a few hours. A generous and supportive friend built mine. It isn’t hard to find a reputable professional service to build a website. Ask for referrals.
2) Start Writing
Unless blog style Facebook posts count, my desire to write was bottlenecked by my lack of website. Long form articles were the basis of successful brand development for coaches before social media exploded. The prevalence of social media hasn’t changed this. Social media posts aren’t searchable and only provide portions of the depth of information a good article should. Writing puts you on the radar of the major publishers and curators of our industry. Without starting my own website articles, I would not be asked to write for T-Nation nor would you be reading this TrueCoach article. Then my work is never shared on The PTDC and I’m not asked to contribute to 2 fitness industry books in late 2019. If your ambition is to be published, or to build an industry leading brand, beginning to write articles is essential. Dean Somerset started writing on his website at the urging of a client, with no expectation for anyone but his mom to be reading it. This started Dean on the road to become one of the industry’s leading writers on mobility, assessments, hip and spine training, and more, and has been featured in dozens of major fitness publications. He’s developed several info products, presents around the world, and is among the most well liked and respected trainers in our industry.
Unless you have formal writing education, a few books will guide you to better writing. On Writing Well, by William Zinsser covers everything you need to get started and create professional, engaging articles. Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, and Everybody Writes by Anne Handley help refine your skill. Add the short classic The War of Art by Steven Pressfield to shatter writers block and the fears and distractions which derail you from creating and sharing.
Don’t write to impress industry leaders and mentors, they aren’t buying your services. Write for the person you want as a client. Avoid technical language and write as you would speak in everyday conversation. Learn to edit mercilessly as your first draft will be terrible. Eric Bach takes 6 to 8 hours to write and edit each article, this is after years of practice and experience, so don’t expect to crank out polished work in one sitting. Meticulous editing brings out great writing.
Do not fear trolls or disapproving personal contacts. Failure to share your work out of fear of scorn only allows them to control you and win. Think of your clients and followers who would love to read your work and would benefit from your knowledge. You let yourself and your supporters down by fearing the criticism of people who don’t matter. If your audience starts small, use this as time to practice and refine your work when fewer eyes are on it. As your audience grows, so will your confidence and the quality of your work.
3) Build An Email List
Virtually every fitness industry leader has an email list and will tell you to build one yesterday. Most wish they began sooner. I neglected this for too long and much work still remains.
Relying on someone else’s platform for connection to your followers is risky. Social media accounts can be banned. Users get shadow banned for using forbidden hashtags. Friends have been hacked and don’t always see their accounts restored. Algorithms change over time. Facebook no longer provides business pages with organic reach unless you pay to boost each post. Expect Instagram to follow suit, and we’ve already seen more difficulty growing a large following. Though no major social media platforms have become obsolete since Myspace, it’s always possible. Snapchat and now TikTok, aim to replace Instagram. Eventually a platform you’ve dominated will be disrupted or fundamentally altered.
The only way to truly control your connection to your following is to gather their emails. Your email list belongs to you and is portable across different email service providers. Consider a reputable and free-to-start service like MailChimp or AWeber. Then get to work creating content so good people line up to give you their email addresses.
4) Build A Social Media Following
Though appearing to contradict point #3, I’m both highlighting the value of social media and encouraging you not to rely solely upon it. Social media is a powerful way to scale and reach more people. You’re meeting people where they are and creating a relationship and enough value to connect beyond social media.
Social media is a great place to develop consistency with content creation and sharing. Pete Dupuis, co-owner of Cressey Sports Performance, tests his ideas on Twitter. Strong performing tweets often become long form articles. As business director of CSP, Pete has long taken a brand back seat to partner Eric Cressey. In recent years Pete has grown an individual business brand in part through social media engagement. My personal quest to grow a larger Instagram following necessitated by daily content creation, including the posts which inspired this article.
More social media followers means more people who may find and consume your long form content. In order to grow a following you need to be active and consistent on your social media platforms. Be careful about mindlessly scrolling social media as this time sink will distract you from your effort to create content worth sharing.
We can waste emotional energy complaining how people treat larger followings as a measure of success and legitimacy. We may know such followings are often seeded by buying followers, but consumers usually don’t care. Or we can focus our effort and energy on building reach and following. We then benefit from the same human nature to validate us based on the size of our following. Meanwhile, blow them away with quality information.
5) Read More
Though a great deal of my early training knowledge came from reading training articles, my love of reading books took a few more years to develop. After a phase of soaking up fitness industry podcasts, I turned to audio books and found I could retain at 2x speed with ease. I averaged reading 1 physical book a month, in part from a heavy schedule and long daily workouts, then turned over 80 books a year with the inclusion of audio. I listen to audio books while driving and cooking, stacking education with activity I can’t bypass or otherwise use productively. It’s easy to get caught up in the number of books so focus on what you’re learning and applying.
Influence, by Robert B. Cialdini PhD is the bible of sales and would have been valuable years earlier. As would Switch by Chip and Dan Heath for behaviour change. Countless other books on sales, human psychology, exercise physiology, leadership, communication, nutrition, habits, business, marketing, creating engaging media, and writing would have fast tracked many of my own career skills.
Many of the fitness industry’s notable success stories like Luka However, Mark Fisher, and Eric Cressey are not only prolific content creators, but voracious consumers of books. John Romaniello is a New York Times best selling author and regarded as one of the premier teachers of writing in the fitness industry. John is a proponent of reading a cross section of literature to make you a better writer as you’re exposed to more ideas and a variety of writing styles, including classic literature like his beloved Hemingway.
I feel productive and fulfilled after reading or writing sessions, an entirely different satisfaction than if my time is spent scrolling social media or watching tv. Over time the books you read don’t as much stand out individually as the collective experience of learning becomes part of your mindset, attitudes, behaviours, and philosophies. You grow both from the ideas you absorb and from the positive habits you develop by reading consistently.
6) Unapologetically Cut Ties With Problem Relationships
Letting people walk out of your life is difficult. If they’re causing you harm, it’s crucial for your long term happiness. Toxic relationships drain you emotionally and detract from your efforts to help others and build a successful career.
Some people will always be negative. Being immersed in their negativity will taint your own outlook. Some are emotional vampires who leave you too drained to care for yourself. If a narcissistic personality gets loose in your world they can cause terrible damage to your sense of self worth as you channel your time and energy into gaining their approval. Some feel entitled to the success of others without putting in effort to attain it. Their jealousy and manipulations can harm your career and well being if they fixate on you. The world is full of great people who will support your career and enrich your life. It’s also full of people who can’t think beyond their own selfish and immediate desires.
Emotionally abusive partners, jealous and narcissistic friends, sabotaging coworkers, and the rare stressful and emotionally draining client, have all robbed my time and emotional well being across my career. With passing time you learn to allow them to leave your life and feel lighter and happier in their absence. You will gain trust and confidence in your ability to not only survive without these people but understand how their presence was directly interfering with your growth and success. Their absence leaves you free to focus on developing yourself and see how you’re able to better help your clients and others around you.
7) Leaving The Commercial Gym
I have a dream career and lifestyle in part because an old friend repeatedly pushed me to become a trainer with him at my old commercial gym. For 6 and a half years I piled up monster session totals, worked with hundreds of clients, built a reputation and referral base, and made a lot of close friends. I also navigated politics, envious and malicious coworkers, and observed a frightening amount of unethical and immoral behaviour(my efforts to address these problems was met with retaliation and threats to my job). I was scared to leave and worried about starting over. I’m grateful for the push to leave but know in my heart it should have come much sooner. Fear will hold you in place and prevent you from exploring the unlimited growth potential our industry offers.
Upon leaving the commercial gym setting and becoming an independent contractor and sole proprietor at an athletic facility, my career exploded. My income increased by 50% and I invested in travelling to conferences. I met industry leaders and caring trainers sharing my path. A friend asked me to co-host and develop a podcast now 150 episodes deep across 3 years. The need for a website launched my writing work leading to publishing opportunities. I then co-organized and MC’d a major fitness conference. The freedom to grow my own brand beyond a commercial gym led down all these paths and to yet unknown future ones. I can never know how much further along I could be, had I taken the frightening jump sooner.
No matter how entrepreneurial you are approaching your business, you’re still working for someone else at a commercial gym. Your clients belong to the gym and you’re lucky if you’re paid even half your hourly session rate. Commercial gyms provide valuable experience early in your career and an easier path to clients. After a few years the relationship inverts to where the commercial gym needs you significantly more than you need it. You will arrive at a point where your income and career growth are capped working for someone else, but change feels terrifying. The next step is setting out on your own and using your reputation and referral network to build a strong sustainable clientele, while keeping a larger percentage of the value of your work.
This list isn’t meant to leave you feeling behind or as though you’ve made irreparable mistakes in your career. You’re reading this because you care about helping people and growing an emotionally and financially rewarding career. Smile thinking of things you’ve already done well and use the rest to nudge toward some important opportunities for the future.