I recently had a really great exchange with a young individual who is striving to become a “thought leader” or “public intellectual” in the fitness community. They want to “break into” the industry, have their work recognized and begin making a difference. This is an admirable, but difficult goal.
Many individuals in their late teens or early twenties, at the beginning of a road that leads to a fitness career, feel time pressure and like they are trying to enter a crowded space where it’s hard to stand out. On top of this sense of urgency and fear of obscurity, many up and comers also feel pressure from time and energy constraints, as they try to balance study, work, and the time and energy required to create an online presence.
Your Instagram feed moves fast. YouTube channels pump out videos daily. Facebook debates can reach epic levels of conflict and controversy and get resolved so fast they can be completely missed by taking a weekend off line. Hell, these days with journals publishing online, and research reviews and science communicators becoming more and more common, it even seems like science is moving faster! This all creates a sense of urgency. This makes you think you need to be known, and known yesterday. You need to learn how to market yourself, you need to learn exercise science, you need to learn nutrition, you need to get a great physique, you need to have successful clients, you need to have letters after your name, you need to be unique, you need to have a brand, and you need to have all of this yesterday.
I get it, I understand that pressure. I understand how that can lead to stealing content, to creating echo chambers of the same material, to manufacturing cringe worthy fake personas, to 1000’s of eBooks with the same content, and to an army of guys “not flexing” with their shirt off and gals wearing yoga pants looking back over their shoulder who behind the scenes, are struggling with an eating disorder.
That last paragraph wasn’t meant to shame anyone, although it could be seen that way. In reality, it truly is me saying I get it.
However, if you are an up and comer, the most important thing you need to understand is that the sense of urgency, and your actions that stem from it, are a self-fulfilling prophesy that can doom you to mediocrity. You don’t actually know how to market yourself. You don’t actually know nutrition or exercise science. You don’t actually have successful clients or even know what is needed to reliably help people succeed. You haven’t finished your degree. Hell, you are still figuring out who you are and how you are unique, so how could you stand out or have a “brand”?
You don’t actually have value to add…yet.
Also, the “lucky” ones, who have the genetic gifts of a great physique and a low body fat, end up only having that, because they got a following too early. They got a following before they had anything deeper to provide than the cuts in their abs. You’ll notice most of these folks fade into obscurity. To last as one of these one-trick ponies, you have to constantly pivot and hustle; creating new flash-in-the-pan mediocre programs, eBooks, or products, or rely on sponsorships from companies that are always looking for someone who looks better. Over time, these people get a less engaged audience as they continually go against their own image, making constant micro-betrayals to their brand by changing their beliefs, practices, or personas to fit the next sponsorship or gimmick. Imagine how exhausting that is! No wonder every 3-5 years it’s a new set of faces doing the same thing, before they too burn out and a new generation of attractive but largely unhelpful “influencers” emerge.
Again, I don’t say this to denigrate these people, hell…I’m glad I didn’t have an incredible physique in 2005 a year into lifting and that Instagram didn’t exist at that time. I didn’t yet know at that point that I had a knack for learning, coaching, or communicating. I didn’t really even have a strong sense of self, or an awareness of how I could contribute. I didn’t have value to add. Maybe if I’d had that early false opportunity and mass social reward in 2005, today I’d be a washed up Insta-model selling Fit-tea to a surprisingly low percentage of my large number of followers. It’s a scary thought, because I can easily see a young-me going down that path in my insecure early twenties in some dark alternate reality.
I’ve also seen another version of this happen in the “evidence-based community”. I’ve watched smart, well-read individuals, who are way ahead of their peers intellectually, get a decent following, but never quite reach a larger audience. Again, their intellect is rewarded early, and then they lean too much on their intellect too early, without yet having the emotional intelligence or experience to make their content relevant to a broader audience. Then, they don’t emphasize strengthening these weak points. They continue doing what was initially rewarded, still lacking the experience, still lacking the ability to communicate outside of their echo chamber of people who think like them, and still lacking the self-awareness to recognize the problem is with them, not the rest of the world.
In both cases, whether you have natural brains or brawn, a big part of the problem is the sense of urgency. Don’t listen to that voice.
To give you some personal perspective, I’ll reflect on my career. Before I do so, I have a disclaimer. Let me be clear, I know I’m not a huge influencer making a massive difference. I’m not delusional. But I’m aware that I’ve had a largely linear career. Meaning, I’ve maintained the same personal mission statement for a decade. I’ve reached or surpassed every goal I’ve set for myself for a decade. Most importantly, I’ve tangibly seen our positive influence on our tiny little corner of the fitness community. Finally, my career gets more enjoyable, more rewarding, and I make a larger positive impact with time. So, no, I’m not a shining example of mainstream fitness success. Yet by my own standards, the standards of my loved ones, my partners, and the standard of making the positives changes I set out to make, (which are the only standards that matter), I’ve succeeded.
So, with that disclaimer stated, I hope it and what follows doesn’t come off as self-serving. I understand how it might, but I write this article to use my experiences to help others who want to do something similar. I want to pay it forward, not stroke my ego. Ok, disclaimer over.
Now let me share a bit of my own story that may be relevant if you are operating out of a sense of urgency.
I started working for minimum wage as a member of the gym staff and then as a personal trainer at the local YMCA after I got out of the Air Force in 2005. Like many new trainers, I had a high school diploma, a certification, a year of lifting under my belt, and a moderate amount of the Dunning-Kruger effect going for me. I worked as a part- or full-time trainer as I could, while building my knowledge base and CV. I knew it would be a while before I got my degree, so I focused on certifications. I counted once; I got nine certifications while I was still doing in person training.
I started studying in 2007, and I finished my BS in early 2011. In this time, I competed in 7 shows, did slightly more than that many powerlifting meets, maintained 20-30 personal training sessions a week, and started 3DMJ with my colleagues in 2009. We started doing online coaching, blog posts, YouTube videos, articles and from 2009-2012 I went with the 3DMJ team to every “local” (relative term, as sometimes we travelled to neighbouring states) powerlifting meet and natural bodybuilding show, coaching at every single one. We handed out business cards (back when that still made sense), interviewed athletes, covered shows in our blog, and helped out backstage or refereed at meets. We hosted meets at Brad’s old gym that I MC’ed and put on local seminars where we struggled to get double-digit attendees (and yes, my mom came to some of them to get the number to double digits).
The end of this time period was a busy one. At the end of 2010 I left the local training studio and going into 2011 I only maintained a few in-home personal training clients. I started doing a lot more online coaching and I also got the opportunity to teach at a local private college that had a degree program for personal trainers. I finished my BS in early 2011, started my Masters, and started a prep that included two more shows, another powerlifting meet, and culminated in my first overall win and pro qualification in the INBA. By mid 2012, I had a master’s degree, a pro qualification, I’d coached close to 100 physique and strength athletes, twice that many non-competitors, I’d written 1-2 articles a month for three years either for our blog or any and every site who’d take me, answered thousands of emails, DMs, and public questions on fitness forums, designed and taught courses, and figured out how to teach exercise science, training, and coaching to a mixed group of students consisting of: 1) teenagers just out of high school, and 2) middle aged, blue collar fitness-hobbyists trying to make their passion their work, after losing their jobs during the recession (by the way, what an awesome group of students they both were and I was privileged to teach them).
I didn’t truly become the “public fitness intellectual” you are more familiar with until 2012 (and this was just the start). After 8 years of immersion in my craft as a lifter, athlete, student, teacher, and trainer, I actually had a few things worth saying. I finally had value to add. I’d learned to do public speaking and how to turn complex topics into digestible content from teaching. I’d learned through trial and error and repetition how to coach people. Lastly, through my education and self-study, I learned the theory of nutrition and training. Also, I finally got the opportunity to provide that value to a reasonably large audience (via Matt Ogus on his YouTube channel).
Honestly, I’m so glad I didn’t get the opportunity to be put in front of a large audience as “an expert” even just a few years earlier. Trust me, while I might not have realized it at the time, and I might have wanted an earlier “break”, that would have been the worst thing in the world for me. Why? Because I would have blown it. Before this point I didn’t have the same value to add. Getting to that point took time. More importantly, it took commitment to a goal, and constant immersion in my craft. It also took a village, and the support, love and collaboration from a lot of amazing people who encouraged me and built with me.
The moral of the story if you haven’t yet guessed it, is you shouldn’t want to be hugely successful early in your career. To contribute something of true value that can make lasting changes to any community you care about, you have to take the time to develop it. Don’t get me wrong, you have something to contribute now! But at the same time, you must respect the point of your career that you are at. A fast track is not a fast track, it’s a distraction. It’s not an opportunity if it doesn’t align with your values and your goals. Any “opportunity” that fast tracks you to having a platform you aren’t ready for, or that doesn’t align with your mission, will only take you a different direction that you may very well wish you hadn’t gone. So, contribute the value you have, to the people who can benefit from it now. But don’t buy into the sense of urgency, don’t act out of fear, don’t try to be something you aren’t yet. Take the time to become someone worth listening to.