10 Lessons I Learned the Hard Way


One year ago this week, I gave up. I quit.

Admitting failure is the worst – it still physically hurts me a little bit to even type those words. Sometimes, though, it takes more courage to admit defeat than it does to persist. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Early in 2014, I left my stable job in a chain gym to start my own personal training business. I was not unhappy in my job, you understand – but I felt too comfortable. Stagnant.  I felt like I was ready to take the next step, to spread my wings and really put something new and better out into the world, something I could build up and pass to my children if they wanted a career in health and fitness. I had written a detailed business plan – I wanted to do things right – and all I had to do was execute it. It was going to be awesome.

Everyone I talked to told me how brave I was, that you have to risk big to win big, that being an entrepreneur was the dream life, follow your passion, blah blah blah.

That’s a load of shit.

Which is why, one year ago today, I found myself in my old boss’s office asking if I could come back to my job. And seriously, that was the hardest thing I have ever had to do: my defeat was complete and…and PUBLIC.

It didn’t take courage to leave that job. It took courage to go back. And at a time when I didn’t have much mental fortitude to fall back on (my confidence was thoroughly destroyed by then), it took every ounce of willpower to walk in and have that conversation. Lucky for me, the gym welcomed me back with open arms and today I’m 100% confident that it was the right decision. At the same time, I don’t regret trying – if I hadn’t tried I wouldn’t have learned the following lessons. I would still be dreaming of a life that I don’t really want. And I would be driving myself crazy over small and inconsequential details. So without further ado, here are the ten most important lessons that I learned as a self-employed trainer:

  1. Accountability

Running a business is a lot of work, whether you’re doing it for yourself, or as part of a company. (And make no mistake: YOU are your business and your clients are your bosses, no matter where you are.) Some parts of running a business take some discipline and some mental muscle to get done; you aren’t going to just float through it all…and budgeting the time to get that shizz done is easier if you’re accountable to someone. Having a boss to report to helps in that respect. Conversely if you ARE your boss, your boss might decide that it’s more fun to play video games in your free time and that important stuff can get done later.

  1. Competition makes you better

It’s tough out there! Competition for the health and wellness dollar gets stiffer every day, and as a small business owner competing with the big chains, life can look bleak and overwhelming in a hurry. That’s not the kind of competition I’m talking about here; that’s just depressing.

What I’m talking about is the friendly competition that happens inside the doors of the chain gyms. Trainers in big box gyms get a bad rap sometimes, but I’m here to tell you that there are a lot of great trainers that I work with who really know their stuff and are passionate about what they do. We trade ideas, we watch each other at work, and we push each other to be better every damn day. That kind of competition keeps me sharp and keeps the fire stoked – this is an industry where there’s always more to learn and opportunities to improve are everywhere. I’ve been a trainer for over ten years now and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of all there is to know.

3. Coworkers

What I missed more than anything else when I cut myself loose, was my colleagues – many of whom had become good friends and valued confidants. I thought I’d be fine without having co-workers around to chat with and bounce ideas off, but I wasn’t. I missed my bunch of crazies so much it hurt. Being part of a team is like having a built-in support system, a ready made social network of people that share a common passion. It’s also worth noting that in an industry where we are expending considerable amounts of energy caring for people, having relationships at work where the care goes both ways just makes everything better.

  1. Work is your second home – not your first

Don’t watch TV in bed. Don’t eat sitting on your couch. Don’t work out in your living room. And don’t work at your kitchen table.

Okay, maybe this is an exaggeration – I know lots of people are successful working from home. And hey, I still do lots of stuff from home; heck, right now I am sitting on my couch typing on my laptop. But hear me out.

Having a workplace to go to is great. It keeps work and the rest of life compartmentalized, which is a really good thing if you are like me and the demands of household management, kids’ activities, and seriously you want supper again? We just had supper yesterday! tends to get overwhelming. My experience with trying to work from home is that the shizz from #1 (the shizz that I don’t really enjoy but needs to get done) tends to get pushed to the bottom of the priority list, and the list itself is buried under a heap of laundry. It’s much easier to just close the door on the laundry, take the mom-hat right OFF, and go work at work.

  1. The boring stuff

I love training. I love designing programs for people. I love the coaching, I love watching my clients succeed, I love watching the lightbulbs go on when my clients get over mental roadblocks and physical pain. It’s awesome.

You know what I don’t love? Filing GST returns. Shopping for benefits plans. Income tax. Employment insurance. Professional insurance. Vacation pay. Vacation pay? There won’t be vacations, at least not for the first five years!!

Fuck that stuff – when you work for a chain, there are people at head office who do that stuff better than you, whose job it is to do it for you. That way you can spend your time doing what you love.

  1. Gym culture

Every gym has it’s own special feeling; an underlying culture that stays basically the same as clients and members and staff come and go. The culture itself is neither good nor bad; it just IS…but it has to fit and feel good to the gym-goer, the training client, and the staff. If the underlying culture doesn’t fit, then relationships don’t gel and nothing feels quite right.

When I left the chain gym (whose culture basically aligned with my values and where I felt like I fit, most of the time) the goal was to eventually open my own studio and build my own culture. In the meantime, I trained out of a lot of different facilities, and visited some clients in their homes…but I never felt like I (or my clients, for that matter) really FIT, really BELONGED where we were. It always felt like a temporary arrangement and I never really felt comfortable. Comfortable was what I had left behind.

  1. Making the Weather

This one is really an extension of #5: what I wanted when I got my own studio open was MY OWN PLACE, where I could build an atmosphere of acceptance and friendship and learning and improvement. Where I was the host of the party.

That didn’t happen. Not until I went back to my job at the chain gym, and I realized that there, I have all the freedom in the world to take that space and make it my own – because although I wear a uniform with the company logo on it,  it is up to me to make the weather in my clients’ sessions.

  1. Niche marketing

Argh, marketing. Another thing that costs a million bucks, right? Wrong! It totally doesn’t have to. This was something I really struggled with when I was self-employed – how on earth do I find the people who are in pain and don’t know where to start as far as improving their health is concerned? How do I convince them that I know what I’m talking about and that it’s worth making the initial investment? That I can make it an enjoyable process, even?

Inside the gym it’s easy – again, being a part of a team of professionals who know who’s good at what and can make a recommendation with confidence is a good thing. Also, just being at work is it’s own advertising; we are all on stage in the gym. I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve picked up from strangers who have seen me work and thought “hey, I know someone who needs that brand of help!” I don’t ever have to go home from a day of driving from gym to home to rec center and sit down and think, “okay, I need another client in a month – where am I going to find that person?”

  1. The rules…that you don’t have to make!

Yes, there is definitely a lot to be said for making your own rules. On the other hand, NOT making your own rules is pretty nice sometimes – especially if – no, when – there are people who don’t like the rules. In those situations, being able to say hey, I don’t make the rules but we all have to follow them, is particularly convenient! Especially if you are like me and would prefer to avoid confrontation.

The other point worth noting here is that rules have to be written down and adhered to consistently, which means that as a business owner you need to have a solid set of policies and procedures documented…and you can file THAT boring-ass task under #4: shizz I don’t want to spend time doing.

  1. Small stuff is stupid

Stupid is inevitable. It worms its way into every part of life, and nowhere is this more true than at work – NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO. It’s how you choose to deal with it that counts. Whether it’s the lifeguard at the city rec centre pool who habitually wanders into the gym and loudly questions your exercise choices in front of your clients, or the niggly little piece of company policy that you disagree with, it is on you to decide whether that makes life intolerable or not. And most of the time, getting your skivvies snarled isn’t worth the effort.
So really, what it all boils down to is how you want to spend your time. I don’t doubt for a second that being a successful business owner is all kinds of rewarding. It’s also a tonne of work, and you have to be good at a myriad of jobs in order to be successful. (Having a really solid Type ‘A’ personality helps too.) I’m not going to be the one to recommend not trying it…but for me it was the wrong choice. I feel very lucky to be able to get up in the morning, trot off to work, and do what I love all day. And when I’m done doing the job I love, I go home and look after the people I love. Life works really well this way – it’s full, but not too full (most of the time) and I can go to sleep every night knowing that I’m exactly where I need to be.


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