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Career Capital in the Fitness Industry: Part 2

In the first installment of this two-part article, I discussed why "Follow Your Passion" isn't usually very good advice in any realm, but especially in the fitness industry. In case you missed it, you can check it out: Career Capital in the Fitness Industry: Part 1.

To briefly bring you up to speed, author Cal Newport emphasizes that acquiring "rare and valuable skills" is far more important to long-term job satisfaction, as we're more likely to enjoy careers in which we are wildly proficient. These skills are known as "career capital," and we can "redeem" them for improved quality of life - whether it's better pay, more influence within a company, more flexible hours, working from home, or a number of different benefits. As Newport's title related, you need to be So Good They Can't Ignore You.

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Newport's points got me to thinking about what "rare and valuable skills" one needs to be very successful in the fitness industry. I think it's a particularly interesting question, as there are a ton of people that make career changes to enter the fitness industry because (and these are just a few factors):

a) A lot of people love to exercise, so being around exercise all day seems fun.

b) It's perhaps the starkest contrast to a desk job, which many people abhor.

c) Wearing workout clothes to "work" sounds cool.

d) Fitness jobs generally provide more flexible hours, albeit it inconvenient times (you work while others play).

e) There is very little barrier to entry in the fitness industry; anyone can be a personal trainer TODAY, if they so desire.

While a lot of people are able to make enough to "survive"with this transition, it's a big stretch to say that a lot of people THRIVE. Folks who make a ton of money and have outstanding job satisfaction are few and far between.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people fall flat on their faces with this career change. It's usually that they can't get a sufficient, sustainable clientele off the ground, or that they just realize that the new career isn't what they expected it to be. What separates those who manage to succeed, though? Here are the "rare and valuable skills" I see as tremendously valuable for "sustainability"in the fitness industry.

1. Professionalism

This matters in any industry, but it's especially important in the fitness industry, where it's tremendously easy to differentiate yourself because there are so many remarkably unprofessional trainers out there. There are trainers taking calls on their cell phones during sessions, and others who refuse to wear sleeves while training clients. There are coaches who have been using the same program for 25 years, and others who are sleeping with clients. Heck, I once had an intern show up for his first day of work in a Miller Light t-shirt! You really can't make this stuff up. Call me crazy, but....

[bctt tweet="If you want to thrive as a fitness PROFESSIONAL, it's a good idea to actually act PROFESSIONALLY."]

Professionalism isn't something that comes in a day, though. I didn't really appreciate what it meant when I was just getting started in the fitness industry; my views on it have changed over the course of the past 15 years. Image - both your own and that of your business - evolves over time. As an example, it might start with showing up on time and looking the part early on in a career, whereas 15 years later, it might be making sure that your staff doesn't say anything stupid on social media to detract from your professional image. So, you could say that you're actually cultivating a specific kind of professionalism within the fitness industry - and no matter how good a person or hard a worker you think you are, it takes time to build.

2. Versatility

I think this might be the single-most important factor governing success in the fitness industry.

Being versatile enables you to make friends with introverts and extroverts alike. It helps you to work with kinesthetic, auditory, and visual learners. It makes you to be accessible over multiple communication medius: email, phone, text message, and Skype (to name a few). It assists you in managing different personalities on your staff, if you wind up in a leadership position. It makes evolving easier in a very dynamic field. It's what allows you to acquire new skills and become a bigger contributor to a team. One of our Cressey Sports Performance staff members, Chris Howard, is a great example. He can evaluate athletes, write programs and coach - but also has a master's degree in nutrition and is a licensed massage therapist. And, he can make friends with anyone. He's built versatility capital.

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I should note: don't confuse versatility with trying to be everything to everyone. It just means that you'll be able to get better results underneath the specific umbrella where you're most qualified - and chances are that there will be more "umbrellas" under which you can choose to fall. Yes, you can redeem your versatility capital for the ability to pick what you enjoy doing (and that's what Chris has done at CSP).

3. Perseverance

Again, perseverance is important in any career, but it's particularly vital in the fitness industry, where you will have to pay your dues early on. This might include unpaid internships, brutally long hours (including the dreaded AM/PM split), and standing around on hard floors for 12 hours each day. And, you have to realize that in that last hour of the day, no matter how much your feet hurt and you want to go to sleep, you have to deliver the same quality product to clients.

This is why I always laugh on the inside when I hear an up-and-coming trainer complaining about having to work "floor hours" at a commercial gym. They don't realize that every single second they spend on that gym floor - even if they aren't actually training a client - is building a little toughness that'll sustain them over the long haul. It's better to build a callus (have plenty of exposure to being on the floor) than it is to develop a blister (jump into a training position cold turkey, only to wind up with knee and low back pain and a cranky demeanor by the end of your first day).

As an aside, I'll never hire anyone I hear complaining about old bosses or jobs....ever. If that's all that you can think of discussing during a job interview or in a cover letter, you have a negativity problem, lack the ability to walk a mile in another's shoes, and don't really understand how true learning and professional growth takes place.

4. Unique Expertise in a Specific Population

I'm a firm believer that the fitness industry is getting more and more "niched." Athletes are specializing earlier, and winding up with more "specialized" injuries that require specific preventative and rehabilitative training approaches. People are more overweight and unhealthy than ever, and it's given rise to entirely new industries. If you need proof, just consider how many more bariatric surgeries and hip replacements we are doing now than we did 20 years ago! The world is changing, and becoming more specialized. As the somewhat hackneyed saying goes, "generalists starve while specialists thrive."

Here's the problem, though: [bctt tweet="You have to be a good generalist before you become a specialist."] It takes years to acquire a skill set broad enough that you can select the areas where you're particularly proficient and leverage them to create a sustainable (and enjoyable livelihood). It's why doctors do residencies and fellowships after they've finished med school course work and clinical rotations! Nobody gets to go directly to a fellowship just because they have an undergraduate degree; they have to earn that right over time. Effectively, they're redeeming career capital to pursue a specialty.

Fitness works similarly. If you haven't taken the time to learn structure (anatomy), function, dysfunction, assessment, and programming in a broad group of clients/athletes, you'll never be prepared to handle a specific population. There is a right and wrong way to move, and you need to appreciate it before getting to how specific individuals deviate from it.

Once you get past this general education stage, though, you can really change the game. Candidly, most of the resumes I encounter for internships and jobs look very much the same. What jumps out at me is when something has a unique specialty that jumps off the page; they demonstrate that they have the potential to add instant value to our business. When they can do that AND fill an existing need we have, it's a great fit.

On our staff, Greg Robins is a great example. When he initially applied, I loved his military background, which made him an instant leader and someone that could oversee our internship program. He also had a track record of building successful bootcamp programs (and got ours off the ground at CSP).

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Since then, he's gotten heavily into powerlifting, attended multiple Postural Restoration Institute courses, and taken a particular interest in hip dysfunction cases and sprint mechanics. He's expanding his skill set in particular realms without diluting the general foundation he'd established. You can't build a pyramid without a strong foundation, but once that foundation is in place, you can do some cool stuff - and cool stuff earns you career capital.

5. A Mental Library

If you haven't heard of Dr. James Andrews, you'd be wise to look him up. Suffice it to say that he's the most renowned sports orthopedist of all time.  I've been fortunate to interact with him at a few conferences and over the phone when he's provided second opinions on MRIs over the years, and he's as good a person as he is a surgeon. Dr. Andrews is widely renowned not only for his surgical skills, but also for his tremendous bedside manner and accessibility.

However, what I think is perhaps even more remarkable - and what makes Dr. Andrews such a sought-after consultant - is the fact that he has an absurd number of case studies compiled in his brain. No matter how ugly and atypical your shoulder, elbow, knee, or hip MRI is, he's probably seen 500 just like it over the years. He can speak to whether these issues respond to conservative treatment, and if so, what the best course of action is. If not, he can speak to whether surgery is warranted, and if so, what procedure is the right fit. You just can't get that with the small town orthopedic surgeon who does two rotator cuff repairs each year, and treated one ACL tear back in 2002. Interacting with a lot of people builds a lot of career capital in your memory "bank."

If you need any proof that being good at what you do is a great predictor of job satisfaction, Dr. Andrews is 72 years old and still going strong. I don't imagine that he needs the money at this point, and he actually does a lot of pro bono outreach work to try to combat overuse injuries in youth sports. Compiling and redeeming career capital put him in a position pursue this mission.

Again, there are parallels in the fitness industry. At risk of sounding overconfident, I get to interact with over 100 throwing shoulders/elbows every single day, so I've built a great sample size from which to draw over the past eight years.

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Some trainers have seen dozens of post-pregnancy cases, cardiac/pulmonary rehab folks, or NFL Combine prep cases . The only way to acquire a fully loaded memory bank is to encounter a lot of people in a specific population.

Closing Thoughts

These are just five examples of where one can acquire career capital in the fitness industry - and there are certainly many more ways to do things. Additionally, under each one of these examples are many specific actions that can build to create a "wealth" of knowledge and experience - "rare and valuable skills" - that can someday surely be redeemed for a career you'll genuinely love. That same success and job satisfaction aren't guaranteed if you simply "following your passion," though, so be sure to take that advice with a big grain of salt.

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Career Capital in the Fitness Industry – Part 1

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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