[This article is best paired with this song. Press “play,” then read on.]
About one year ago, I was secretly dealing with depression and fed up with everything. I was fed up with my career path and my direction. I was fed up with my industry (fitness): how negligent trainers around me were making more money, getting better clients, getting promoted, etc. I was fed up with being a “knowledgable trainer” (my boss’s words, not mine), but making $700 a paycheck. I was also fed up with how online personal trainers constantly posted self-serving updates about how great they were, how great their clients were, half-naked pictures of themselves, and, like, shit about cats.
“I don’t get it,” I thought. “What the fuck am I doing wrong?”
At the time, I was working for a commercial gym that didn’t value its employees and clients — but I needed the paycheck. I wanted to write for fitness magazines, but the only thing I could muster was a few, free guest posts that were sometimes attacked by douchebag commenters. Actually, if I remember correctly, I did a lot of those articles.
I even started writing my “Beginners Guide to Strength Training,” a 30-part series on my blog.
It was fucking hard and discouraging. I was working for peanuts at the gym, running across the street during any gaps in my schedule to write, and running back to the gym to train until 9pm. And why should I think this would get any better? The year before that, I was mopping floors and cleaning toilets as a janitor for one of the top gyms in the country.
It didn’t help that neither of my parents had faith in me.
“Fuck this,” I said. “I’m going to follow my dream and become a strength coach for professional athletes.” It was the dream that inspired me to ditch my finance career and go into fitness in the first place. So I emailed people: I cold-emailed over 50 strength coaches in North America, Asia, and Europe to learn and ask tons of questions. I had a beer one of the best soccer strength coaches in the MLS. I had a call in the backroom of my gym with an NBA strength coach. I Skype-called an English Premier League strength coach just minutes before the Super Bowl kickoff. (I’ll tie in this story at the end.) I visited college campus upon campus. I even randomly met Clay Matthews.
But I’m not telling you this to show how “great” I am; I’m telling you this because I was confused as shit and doing this on my dime. Finally, just before the summer of 2013, I got three offers to become a strength coach intern: one with an NFL training center, one with a prestigious university, and one with a prestigious prep school.
I said “no” to each one.
The problem was that the path to become a strength coach was not what I expected. If you want to be a real college or pro strength coach, the road is pitiful: years and years of unpaid work just to finally get the chance to work from 5am to 8pm for people who don’t give a damn about you because you’re so replaceable. (Just to put this in perspective, the internship at UCLA was from 6am to 6pm, five-days a week with an occasional weekend, a one-hour lunch break, and absolutely no stipend.) One of my mentors used to be a strength coach for a Division-I university… and was on welfare.
Then, I tried being an “online” trainer, where you build streamlined fitness and nutrition programs with video testimonials. I offered free trials and several people stiffed me — they never left a testimonial and stopped responded to my emails. Then I tried calling and emailing sites for partnerships to be their fitness guy. I even emailed every single Top 100 PGA instructor.
One golf coach said that it might be something he might consider in the future. “But I’m not sure right now,” he said. Another one was put off by my pricing model and declined.
So I refocused my energy back at my commercial gym. “Maybe,” I thought, “I could get better at what I do.” Well, I knew something was really wrong when I invested over $5000 of my own hard-earned money in online courses, books, and fitness seminars and their tactics didn’t work at my gym. I had about 12 straight consultations — not one single purchase. Others were converting six clients… a month. I hated it because I knew I had the skills as a trainer; I just couldn’t get the clients. It was getting hopeless. “Maybe I’m just not cut to be a trainer,” I thought. “Maybe it’s time to give up.”
I started to message contacts in the finance world again.
One October night, while studying one of my courses, I listened to an interview with a girl who switched careers and was making a multi-six-figure income. She said this throwaway line that changed my life:
“One year is a long time to waste. Don’t waste two.”
Ugh. That’s exactly what I was doing. I wanted to quit my job, but I was compounding my mistake my holding on. I wasting my life — and it hurt to hear that. I wasn’t that adventurous 21-year-old kid who moved to South Korea and Taiwan to teach English anymore: I was 25, sitting in the same room I lived in as a kid, going nowhere, and struggling to save money. (Some nights, I wished I never left Asia.) When I heard those words, I paused the audio, typed my resignation letter, printed it, and signed it.
“Don’t quit, man,” my friends and coworkers said. “Find something first and then quit.” But I couldn’t. I couldn’t wait anymore. Every morning I woke up, I didn’t want to go to work and I thought about quitting everyday for months. “Maybe I could just call in sick,” I wondered. Training wasn’t fun anymore. (It wasn’t even about training anymore; it was business and sales.) I had no backup plan and there was only one tiny glimmer of hope:
I started writing from Muscle & Fitness.
Remember all the hard work I put in writing for free? One person recognized and praised that. He helped connect me. He trusted me.
So I quit on 4 November 2013, after sixteen God-awful months at that gym.
What was I going to do now? Where would I work? Where would I apply? I had no fucking answer. Maybe find another job being a personal trainer and write more? “Well, I like writing,” I thought, “and I did a lot of it before. Let’s see where this goes.” So I emailed people. I called people. I asked. I listened. I took notes. And I took more notes. A week after I quit my gym, I flew out to New York to meet editors and connectors. Then I flew to Toronto to, well, that one was for fun, honestly [wink].
The more I wrote, the more I loved it. Hell, I even wrote a few articles while staying on my friend’s couch in his basement apartment in Toronto. And even though I was some thin Asian kid with only three years of experience, the message was the same:
I could write.
[Fun fact: I was a horrible writer in high school and college. One of my high school English teachers sent me to detention and, yes, I cheated a lot. (My finest moment in high school was being sent to the counselor’s office and being put on academic probation.) I hated all the books they assigned. My vocab tests were awful. I didn’t know — and still don’t quite know — what a fucking “predicate” is.]
Meanwhile, my clients from the commercial gym didn’t come with me. They already paid for training at the gym, they said. Or they just didn’t want to leave. So I kept writing and I kept emailing. One cold, windy December morning, I emailed a major editor/publisher and he responded within minutes. “Actually,” he wrote, “I can hop on the phone with you right now, if you have time.”
That led to a huge gig.
As I wrote for larger places, I realized that a lot of fitness writers I emailed all those years ago really weren’t as good as they claimed; they just made themselves look that way. Then, I got a blogging gig, which I leveraged into an advanced, full-time copywriting position. Remember all those online courses I bought? They blew my managers away. And remember that golf coach who wasn’t sure if he had a role? Well, they brought me in… as their Fitness Instructor.
Things were falling into place. All after I quit?!
Yep. Eliminating that time-wasting and emotionally draining fuckfest I called a “job” allowed the swirl of activity happening in the background to finally come forward and shine. Soon, I got more gigs and more pay; that led to even more gigs. “You’re not a beginner anymore,” one senior editor told me. “You can ask for way more.”
So I did. And I received.
Life is different now.
I don’t train clients in-person as much anymore. I still like learning about fitness (the Postural Restoration Institute, for example, is something I’m diving into), I write more, and I take days off. I’m working on a huge project in the background and looking to take my career to the next level. I don’t wake up with a groan anymore. I take my time and enjoy my breakfast. But when I work, I work.
I smile a lot more, too.
But can I tell you one thing from the heart?
If you ever think about quitting a job or trying something new, just do it. Don’t fucking delay — that’s more wasted time and pain. “What if I don’t have a backup plan?” you might ask. Well, that’s an irrelevant question because you’re trying to solve a problem with the same mindset that got you that shitty job in the first place. Enjoy the power of serendipity. Be confident in your resourcefulness. Learn and grow from your failures. And, if all else fails, sometimes it helps to know that your true friends will love you, no matter what.
Look, I’m not an “internationally renown writer” or whatever: I don’t run a million-dollar company, I don’t have a yacht, and I don’t have thousands of happy customers. (Yet!) But I have made mistakes and that counts, too.
It’s your life, baby.
Oh yeah, one more thing: remember the EPL coach I told you about? I called him back in 2013, minutes before the Ravens and 49ers faced off in a great Super Bowl, and I never forgot that gesture and how much he helped. I wanted to pay him back, so I did — almost exactly one year later (LINK).