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Career Mastery, Part 1: Going Beyond Cliches To Clearly Define Your Purpose In Health And Fitness

By John Berardi, PhD

Career Planning

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The health and fitness industry is full of passionate professionals, driven by a soul-stirring mission: To help others live healthier, longer, and stronger lives. But passion isn’t enough, for you or your clients. Which is why this 3-part series outlines a step-by-step process for turning passion into purpose and purpose into a successful career. In part 1, how to go beyond cliches to define your purpose.

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But Can You Answer These Questions?

Many health and fitness pros, at least some days, end up feeling like expert witnesses cross-examined in a courtroom drama.

The barrage of questions seems never ending: “How much protein should I eat?” “Why does it hurt when I do this?” “Is it okay if I only get 5 hours of sleep a night?” “Why all the stupid burpees!?!”

However, as good as we are at answering our clients’ questions, we’re often confounded when trying to answer the following for ourselves:

  • What’s my purpose?
  • Why do I do what I do?
  • What are my unique abilities (and inabilities)?
  • What are my values?
  • How do my values govern my life?

Not knowing the answers to these questions isn’t just frustrating or annoying. It can stall your career, drain your enthusiasm, and leave you considering selling insurance instead of helping people eat, move, and live better.

Now, don’t get the wrong idea. One of the health and fitness industry’s strengths is that it’s full of passionate professionals driven by a soul-stirring mission to help others live healthier, longer, and stronger lives. And, in most cases, this passion comes from an enlivening origin story.

At the same time, I worry that you’ll confuse your origin story—no matter how affecting it was—with your purpose.

An origin story provides only the initial spark to ignite your career. But the fuel for powering a long, successful, rewarding vocation is something else altogether and includes gaining a much deeper understanding of your:

  • explicit purpose (going beyond clichés like “I want to help people”);
  • unique abilities (putting your one-of-a-kind skills in service of your purpose); and
  • individual values (creating professional guardrails to ensure a meaningful life).

In this article series I outline a three-step process that will help you clarify each of them. By following this process you’ll have a much stronger chance of finding value, meaning, happiness, satisfaction, and—ultimately—success in your career and in your life.

Lets begin.

Discovering Your Origin Story

In American comics, an origin story describes the circumstances under which superheroes gain their powers. In this article, I’m using the term in the very same way, to describe the circumstances under which health and fitness professionals gain their superpower—their passion for this work.

In my experience, here are the five most common origin stories.

I grew up with physical activity and sport.
I’ve always done health and fitness-related things. I played sports. I connected with friends and family through physical activity or healthy eating. As movement and vitality has been at my core since the beginning, it made sense to continue on with it as a career.

I got mentorship at a pivotal time in my life.
One day, unexpectedly, a health and fitness mentor swooped in and changed, maybe even saved, my life. It was so transformative that I dedicated myself to paying that coaching and mentorship forward to help others who are struggling.

I excelled at a particular goal.
For years I worked hard to achieve particular health and fitness goal, like getting off my medications, losing a lot of weight, or even competing in an athletic event. And I did it! Becoming an exemplar here, I started coaching others to help them achieve the same goal.

I watched someone suffer.
Someone close to me struggled with a preventable disease. I hated seeing this so I learned how the body works and how exercise, food, sleep, and stress management can help. Then I committed to helping people avoid the same fate I saw unfold in the life of my loved one.

I fixed my own problems.
I hurt myself, got out of shape, struggled with eating and body issues, or otherwise found myself in the weeds of illness, injury, and suffering. The process of healing myself inspired me to help others. Now I invest my time and energy into helping to heal them too.

Which one best describes you?

Of course, if none describe you, that’s okay. All paths to health and fitness are ultimately good paths because you’re here! So feel free to write out your own. The benefit of knowing where you’ve come from is that it can help you decide where to go next.

But Let Me Be Blunt: “Helping People” Isn’t A Purpose

While a strong origin story is awesome, it can sometimes lull health and fitness professionals into false confidence, thinking that they’ve got the whole purpose thing nailed down.

Yeah, yeah, I know all about my purpose. I’m here to help people. What could be more stirring than that?!? So let’s move past purpose and onto the tangible career tips.

Not so fast.

I often talk about how — early in my career — a mentor changed, maybe even saved, my life. (I write about this extensively in my new book, Change Maker). From this, I wanted to pay his mentorship forward and help others.

But what does “help other people” really mean?

“Helping people” could mean working as a paramedic, or a teacher, or a barista, or a volunteer in a shelter. From that perspective, just saying that I want to help people seems vague and particularly not purposeful.

Real purpose, the kind that Simon Sinek talks about in his book Start With Why, is about finding the cause, belief, or mission that motivates you, and using it as a filter to choose the careers, organizations, communities, and relationships that are most likely to inspire you.

I believe that can only be achieved by going deeper, getting specific, and being explicit.

For example, in my career, I always wanted “helping people” at the core of my work. But to discover my real purpose, I had to go beyond that cliché and ask specific questions like:

  • Who do I want to help?
  • Why do I want to help them?
  • What kind of help do I want to provide?
  • How will I know if I’ve really helped them?

While I started my career as a one-on-one trainer and lifestyle coach, I eventually realized—through questions like this—that I wasn’t particularly passionate about helping this group in this way. I saw others who showed up to one-on-one work motivated, inspired, and excited, but I didn’t feel the same. For whatever reason, it just wasn’t my purpose.

When Purpose Comes To Life

After years of showing up for early morning and late night coaching sessions, repeating mantras and affirmations designed to make me feel more positive and inspired, and trying everything I could to become the kind of person who enjoys one-on-one work, I knew I had to make a change.

Interestingly, that change came when I finally shared my struggles with other coaches and trainers. By opening up and making myself vulnerable—sharing that I wasn’t living the perfect life; that despite having an extremely successful coaching practice, I was, in fact, struggling—they opened up to me too. And when I saw their struggles with coaching, their careers, and their businesses, I realized I wanted to do something about that. Helping them became all I could think about.

Plus, I realized that I wanted to help the whole industry grow and mature. I saw that it was missing insight, clarity, curriculum, and many of the tools available to other industries. I knew I could bring some of those things here.

These realizations eventually coalesced into a clear purpose statement that I’ve had for more than a decade now:

“When I die, or retire, I’d like to know that my work made a tangible difference in:

  1. Helping health and fitness change makers see their clients differently.
  2. Helping health and fitness change makers see themselves differently.
  3. Helping health and fitness change makers see their work differently.

In the end, I don’t need explicit credit for any of the work I do in this area. It’ll be enough to know that I was part of the maturation of the industry.”

Having this purpose top-of-mind—it’s posted in my office so I can see it while I’m working—keeps me focused and inspired through the daily grind of meetings, through differences of opinion with teammates, through routine to-dos, and through small annoyances.

Even re-reading it now I feel a little shot of adrenaline and a strong desire to do something more, today, to help achieve the goal.

Of course, that’s just my purpose; everyone’s is different. Take my colleague Jon. A while back, he visited a martial arts studio that advertised it would invest in anyone who was willing to put in the work, attend training, and learn their techniques. But he quickly noticed this wasn’t true; LGBTQ members were treated with outright hostility. Jon’s purpose came to life.

A tireless advocate for inclusiveness, Jon built a fitness, nutrition, and lifestyle coaching business that focused on creating a safe and welcoming environment especially for queer and trans clients. His purpose—much more specific than “help people get healthy”—is clear and gives him roots, not just as a professional, but also as a person.

Another colleague, A’Tondra, was running a coaching business when 2017’s Hurricane Harvey hit her community. As she watched the devastation, she commented: “Nutrition is the last thing you want to talk when you’re standing on the roof of your house.”

When she saw her community rally, she also saw an opportunity to help people build strength for themselves and those around them. So she pivoted her practice and started working with very small and personal groups in hurricane-affected areas. Those who could pay, did. Those who couldn’t pay received support anyway, partially funded by those who could.

Helping remained at the center of A’Tondra’s purpose. But, as she drilled deeper, she got clear on who she really wanted to help, why she wanted to help, and how she wanted to help them. What’s more, in her first year of coaching this way, she tripled her income.

Who knows why we’re really attracted to one person over another, one hobby over another, one career over another? Digging down deep enough, the answer may be “just because.” And that’s fine. Because when we land there, we’ve dug deep enough.

My friend James is a great example of this. By day he’s a PhD researcher at a prestigious university. On evenings and weekends he swaps out his lab coat for a leopard print singlet, attaches one of those old-timey handlebar mustaches to his upper lip, and gets on stage to bend iron bars, rip telephone books in half, and lift adult women overhead, one in each hand, in strongman exhibitions.

Why is this what he spends his free time on? He’s shared a few interesting answers with me. But I suspect the real answer is: “Because it’s awesome. I don’t know why I think it’s awesome. I just do.”

Discovering your “awesome,” in a judgement-free and totally accepting way, is another way of identifying your purpose.

Now It’s Time To Explicitly Define Your Purpose

How can you find your purpose? Hear your call? Hone in on both by answering the following questions.

1. Why do you want to work in health and fitness in the first place?

Is it your passion? Has it changed your life? Is helping others primary for you? Are you the go-to health and fitness person for your friends and family? What’s your origin story?

2. Do you want to work with clients/patients?

Both yes and no are acceptable answers. You can work in health and fitness and never see a client or patient one-on-one. (More on this later).

If yes, what type of clients do you want to work with?

Men? Women? Athletes? Children? Elderly? Only the motivated? Only people who’ve failed before? Everyone? No one? (Do you even like working with clients at all?)

If no, what do you gravitate toward instead?

Maybe you’d prefer to organize things or work behind the scenes in a health and fitness business? Maybe you’d like to write, or speak, or podcast, or teach? Run the front desk of a facility? Do the finances? Manage mission-critical projects?

3. Do you really want to help other people?

Does serving, teaching, or taking care of others inspire you? Do you truly want to help people? Or are you driven by something else? Is it external validation and status? (If so, that’s OK. You might just want to consider not coaching.)

4. Do you want to own or run a business?

If so, do you want to have a small studio or practice? A big facility? Or would you rather work for someone else, such as a well-established health, fitness, or wellness center where you can focus on what you do best and trust your team to do the rest?

5. What relationship do you want with your income? 

Are you comfortable with shorter-term contracts? Do you prefer the greater risk and (potential) reward of entrepreneurship? Or do you prefer a consistent, steady wage? Are you shooting for an affluent lifestyle? Or just “enough to live well”? Is money even a factor?

6. What relationship do you want with your work? 

Are you looking for flexibility or structure? Full-time or part-time? Do you have children or other responsibilities that you juggle? Do you prefer other people to organize your work, or do you like to direct your own tasks? How much does your work define you as a person?

7. What other skills, talents, and aptitudes do you have?

You probably have lots of non-fitness-related things you can do, or things you enjoy. Maybe you’re good with numbers. Or you have a knack for design and creating beautiful, welcoming spaces. Or you love working with animals. Take a complete inventory, even if your skills, talents, and aptitudes don’t necessarily seem relevant right now.

Yep, that’s a lot to chew on. And not every question here will feel relevant at first. However, spend time with each of them anyway. You never know which question will lead to a new insight.

In the end, while ideas like “find your WHY” and “follow your passion” and “discover your purpose” dominate career conversations nowadays, can be meaningless unless you go beyond the buzzwords and consider deeper questions like those above.

And this one:

When you die or retire, how will you know whether you’ve followed your purpose?

For my part, I believe you’ll know you’ve followed your purpose if your work has been meaningful (to you), if it’s made a difference (measured by your own metrics of meaning), if it’s utilized your strengths, and if it’s brought you enjoyment and satisfaction.

And, in parts 2 and 3 of this series, we’ll talk more about all four.

In The Meantime, Want To Learn More? Go Deeper?

Then download this FREE sample of my latest book, Change Maker.

Change Maker shares the tips, strategies, and lessons I learned growing Precision Nutrition from a two-person passion project to a 200 million dollar company that’s coached over 200,000 clients, certified over 100,000 professionals, and revolutionized the field of nutrition coaching.

Whether you work as a health coach, strength coach, nutritionist, functional medicine doc, or rehab specialist, Change Maker will help you discover the right direction to take, the fastest way to make progress, and the practical steps required to build the career of your dreams in health and fitness.

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