Home Baseball Content Career Capital in the Fitness Industry – Part 1

Career Capital in the Fitness Industry – Part 1

Written on July 22, 2014 at 7:02 am, by Eric Cressey

I'm a big fan of Cal Newport's fantastic book, So Good They Can't Ignore You.

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Newport goes to great lengths to demonstrate just how terrible "follow your passion" is as career advice. It's a compelling read, especially for those who are working hard to develop a career they genuinely enjoy.

Newport argues against the "passion" approach, as it can lead individuals down a road that may not be financially viable; just because you enjoy something doesn't mean that you'll be able to make a living doing it. This may be because there isn't sufficient demand in the market for it, or because you might not have sufficient "career capital" to be successful enough early on to actually stay in business. "Career capital," according to Newport, consists of "rare and valuable skills;" you need these to acquire the "traits that define great work." And, as the author also points out, being very good at what you do is actually more closely linked to job satisfaction than income alone.

Newport continues with several case studies to support this "Career Capital Theory:" people work long and hard to acquire rare and valuable skills (don't forget Malcom Gladwell's 10,000-Hour Theory) that give them more and more control over their careers by making them coveted and/or indispensable in their field of study. This control doesn't just afford them more compensation and flexible schedules, but also enables them to gradually test the waters to determine whether one specific avenue or "niche" is best for long-term career satisfaction.

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This is a stark contrast to the fitness industry, where many folks have lost their life savings opening gyms because they enjoyed exercise - but didn't have the rare and valuable skills required to be successful in the fitness industry. It leads to the question: why are some people very successful in the fitness industry - even with mid-life career change - while others fail miserably? What are the "rare and valuable skills" that allow them to succeed?

Before I answer these questions, though, I thought I might shine a little light on how Newport's theories spoke directly to me. To be candid, growing up, I never expected to work in the fitness industry. In fact, it was quite the opposite: I went to college thinking I was going to be an accountant.

However, around that time, I had some health problems, and as I got healthy, had to learn a lot about proper training, nutrition, and recovery so that I could put weight back on and get my strength back. I realized that it was something I enjoyed, and learning in this realm came somewhat naturally to me. After much deliberation, I decided to transfer to a new school to pursue exercise science - but I still "hedged my bet" by doing a double major in sports management and exercise science. I had two years of business school under my belt, and wanted to continue to nuture my entrepreneurial spirit (and avoid losing a lot of college credit).

Over the next two years, I worked for $7/hour at a gym to learn everything I could about the industry - all while I was taking classes. Simultaneously, I was rehabbing my shoulder from a chronic tennis-related condition, so I was "accidentally" finding a niche within a niche. Without even knowing it, I was building career capital while testing the waters to make sure it was actually what I wanted to do. I might not have gotten 10,000 hours under my belt by the age of 22, but I was definitely well on my way - and it put me in a position to know that I wanted to go to graduate school for exercise science.

At graduate school, I had the opportunity to "feel out" what I wanted to do without much risk. I got involved in the human performance laboratory to see if research was for me (it wasn't). It was only when I volunteered in varsity strength and conditioning that I found something I genuinely enjoyed, and I recognized that I could do well and be very happy working in collegiate strength and conditioning. Interestingly, I spent most of my time working with soccer and basketball players while I was there.

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As it turns out, I tested the waters in the private sector when I first left graduate school, and enjoyed working in that realm. Over the subsequent few years, I trained as many people - athletes and non-athletes alike - as I could possibly fit into my schedule. I honed my skill set, learned about what I enjoyed the most, gradually created more and more autonomy in my schedule, became financially stable, and recognized a sustainable, underserved population (baseball players) where I had unique expertise. Without even recognizing it, I had built career capital and started to "purchase" the coaching life I wanted.

That was 2007, when we founded Cressey Sports Performance. I've had seven more years to acquire career capital in a number of different contexts - actual training knowledge, interactions with athletes, managing employees, cultivating business relationships, evaluating opportunities, and a host of other areas - to put us the position we're in (opening a second location in Jupiter, FL).

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Back in 1999, I had no idea training baseball players would be my ideal job. And even if I had known, I probably would have fallen flat on my face if I'd tried to follow this passion. I didn't have enough rare and valuable skills to be successful at that point.

Fast-forward five years to 2004, and my current business partner and I watched the Red Sox win the 2004 World Series together. It was an awesome moment for us as baseball fans.

Another five years later, we owned a business and were training two of the athletes that were on the 25-man Red Sox roster that won that World Series. It was an awesome moment for us as business owners who'd earned and redeemed career capital.

"Follow your passion" IS horrible career advice; "build career capital" isn't. In Part 2, I'll discuss what "rare and valuable skills" one needs to be successful in the fitness industry. In the meantime, I'd strongly encourage you to check out Newport's book, So Good They Can't Ignore You.

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  • Mark

    as a medical science student at university and part time personal trainer who keeps tossing up between what he wants to do, this article has really helped me to chill out about everything and see where my “career capital” takes me. Will definitely look into the book. Thanks EC!

  • This is an awesome post, Eric. Thanks for sharing your valuable insights.

    What I like most about the career capital concept is it requires a long term perspective and approach, which breeds success. It also helps shift one’s focus from the outcome to the process.

  • Eric,

    I love your term “Accidental Niche”, as I had a similar experience with regard to corporate wellness…I wasn’t looking to carve out a niche there, but somehow it happened. I like to say “Sometimes you find your niche and sometimes it finds you.”

  • Chris

    That’s an interesting topic and one I’ve been pondering for years. I’ve changed careers multiple times. Despite my love for training I realized I wasn’t the best strength coach. I’m not sure I’ll change careers again, but I’m still searching for my niche and my unique skill set. Interesting stuff!

  • Thats correct rare and valuable skill . my valuable life skills got me into fitness industry

  • Glad to see this book come up on your blog. This is an outstanding piece of literature that should be required reading in any ‘career’ class. I wish I could have read it when I was 19-20, would have made my own process of discovery infinitely easier I think. Thanks for sharing with your readers!

  • P.S. you should follow it up with ‘How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big’ by Scott Adams (writer of the comic Dilbert).

  • Azar Ali

    Great article!!

  • Sounds like the real lesson here isn’t not to follow your passions but to follow them strategically! Otherwise you’d be offering up advice on 401Ks and tax loopholes rather than deadlifts and mobility drills! Cheers–A

  • Well said, Andrew! 🙂

  • Thanks, Darren!

  • Thanks, Mark. You won’t regret picking it up!

  • Denise

    Great post!

  • Outstanding advice, Eric!

    As any athlete who puts in “sweat equity” it’s important for fit pros to see its not just about their love for fitness…there’s a whole lot more that comes with operating a business.

    Keep it coming!

  • Thanks, Tyler!

  • Charlie Smith

    I’d love to hear more about your approach to rehabbing that chronic condition in your shoulder from playing tennis. Have you ever posted anything on this topic? Great site, Eric !

  • Pablo elorriaga

    Great article , I ll check out the book….but I had been working in the industry for 10 years( as at right now in equinox) for some reason I can’t make it work and according to people who surround me,I have everything and all the tools to do it … Very frustrating,can’t get out of this mental block that “I m not good enough”meanwhile I see terrible trainers making tons of money in this business .. Thanks

  • Taylor Sun

    Eric,

    Thanks for the Article. As a new practitioner entering the field some of the insights you shared here were quite interesting and left me thinking since I never really felt like I was passionate about this to begin with, in that I was bursting with energy and vigor to get into sport science, rehabilitation and nutrition. Over time, as I studied more, more and more people would remark about the passion I have to which kinda still puzzles me since I don’t feel very zealous about it I just have learned enough latin words that people deer in headlights and say passion.

    I almost feel like over time I just developed a deep interest and fascination in “figuring it out” which isn’t likely.. Do you find that this is common and would contribute to building “career capital”?

    Regards,

    Taylor

  • Eric- you know I enjoy reading your stuff but didn’t you follow your passion. Your success seems to contradict the post. Am I missing something?

  • Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the post and kind words. I might not have been clear enough on that front. Eventually, I did have success, but I discovered my passion in the process of building career capital; it was only after years of testing the waters. I really had about 7-8 years under my belt before honing in on this specific baseball niche as something I enjoyed enough to pursue. So, I think it’s a function of timing and how big the “leap of faith” I had to take was. This was something Newport talked about in the book, actually citing Steve Jobs as one great example. It’s a really interesting story on how Jobs wound up building the Apple I computer after showing very little interest in computers (he quit/left two jobs in that industry) to that point; it was a series of “chance” occurrences that built up his career capital to put him in that place.

    In my case, I avoided what Newport calls “The First Control Trap,” which according to him, “warns that it’s dangerous to pursue more control in your working life before you have career capital to offer in exchange.”

    Hope that makes sense.

  • Charlie,

    Your best bet would be to check out our new Functional Stability Training of the Upper Body (http://www.tinyurl.com/fstupper) resource. A lot of the stuff I initially used to rehab my shoulder is outdated, in my mind. We’re a lot better at what we do know than I was in 2003!

  • Taylor,

    Tough to say – but I would tell you that having a ton of experience and knowledge always puts you in a position to make your life what you want it to be…whether that means only working with clients that you choose, acquiring better hours, or getting more compensation. Think about it – and definitely check out the book!

  • Mcko Labs

    Eric, I love your stuff but I have to agree with Michael here. Follow your passion is a GREAT career advice, especially when augmented with all the things you need to learn and do well to actually succeed. One cannot go without the other. Skill with no passion eventually ends in burn outs. Passion and a plan to acquire skill leads to success. You are the perfect example of passion and skill in action combined, so in a sense your post contradicts itself a little bit, at least in the way you have languaged it. Best, Mauro


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