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Rolando Garcia III on Intrinsic Excellence and the Necessity of “Dirty Work”

Rolando Garcia III
Dragon Door: What inspired the title of your book?

Rolando Garcia III: The title, Intrinsic Excellence came from further reflection on what the book is really about. I was reminded of a paragraph from one of management guru, Jim Collins’ books:

"…It is impossible to have a meaningful life without meaningful work. Perhaps, then, you might gain that rare tranquility that comes from knowing that you’ve had a hand in creating something of intrinsic excellence that makes a contribution. Indeed, you might even gain that deepest of all satisfactions: knowing that your short time here on this earth has been well spent, and that it mattered."

That's what we all crave as personal trainers. We want our clients to achieve their goal of losing 5-10 pounds, of doing a good Turkish get-up or the perfect kettlebell swing. Then, for better or worse, we don’t tend to look at the money or look out for ourselves. Ultimately what drives personal trainers is the sense of intrinsic excellence, which is why I chose that phrase as the title of the book.

Dragon Door: In a previous conversation we discussed how personal trainers are sometimes reluctant to take care of themselves financially. Unfortunately, this causes some of them to leave the fitness industry so they can pay their bills! What is your advice for personal trainers who struggle with the idea of looking out for their financial wellbeing while continuing to help many people with their fitness?

Rolando Garcia III: At the end of the day, we can't go into the business of success without first understanding how success applies to us. We are success agents—we implement particular training programs, nutritional programs, and may even go as far as adding life coaching to our skillset. Wouldn’t it be to our detriment if we didn’t apply the lessons we’ve learned to ourselves first? This is where the element of selflessness needs to be curbed.

As a personal trainer, before we can claim that our advice is valid for developing success, we have to experience that success as something workable and valid for us. This is where we—as personal trainers—have to turn that critical eye on ourselves first. Are we doing right in our own lives? It’s beyond just the money, are we taking care of ourselves, our nutrition, training—our total health and fitness? This also includes financial health.

One of the problems we run into in personal training—and when an imbalance is created—is the idea that personal training primarily occurs on the gym floor. When I'm working on the gym floor and training someone, then I'm being a personal trainer. When I’m helping someone do push-ups, pull-ups, and cueing them on good squat form, I’m being a personal trainer. Personal trainers seem to have lot of pride and self-satisfaction in the fact that they're not earning their living at a desk job. Because that's "dirty work", right? Unfortunately, there's a missed growth opportunity in personal success when we characterize activities associated with a desk job as "dirty work". In fact, this kind of work can greatly benefit us.

Dragon Door: What about that kind of work could greatly benefit a personal trainer? What types of tasks do you mean?

Rolando Garcia III: I'm going to characterize it in two ways—how the trainer characterizes it, and how I characterize it in my book. A personal trainer characterizes dirty work as a list of tasks, such as sending emails, using Microsoft Word, using a spreadsheet, or answering phones. Many personal trainers think that since they’re not doing task-oriented work, that they’re successful as a personal trainer since they’re avoiding undesirable desk work.

But, other important things occur at a desk, like the development of vision (a leadership skill), and the development of organizational and planning skills (part of a management skillset). Both the leadership and management skillsets are very important on a foundational level for running a personal training business. But because these things happen at a desk, they’re categorized as dirty work.

Peter Drucker—considered to be the father of modern management—says that a good manager has to spend a lot of time sitting and thinking at a desk. This thinking consists of running scenarios, doing cost/benefit analyses—things that cannot happen when a trainer is training a client on the gym floor. These are the things that happen at your desk, when everything is quiet and you can look at lag measures, understand what your reports are telling you, and create a type of predictive or prescriptive analysis for where you will be taking the business going forward.

That kind of "dirty work" requires leadership and management skillsets. It provides a good business opportunity for personal trainers and its something that will allow all of us to feel a greater sense of personal success because we are now growing beyond our initial skillset of technical expertise.

Dragon Door: Many personal trainers have technical expertise and experience working with clients on the floor, but many have no business background. How should they start developing their management and leadership skillsets?

Rolando Garcia III: First, what we are really talking about is thinking. It’s less about having a business background and more about appropriate critical thinking and analytical skills. This is where personal trainers miss the boat—personal trainers already have a lot of analytical and critical thinking skills. We use these skills all the time when programming for our clients. Trainers just need to apply the same critical and analytical skills to their business models. This is why I believe a trainer doesn't necessarily need a business background. Personal trainers already manage projections, hard data, soft data, lag measures, and assessments.

Personal trainers just need to recognize that they already have critical and analytical skills. Next, we have to identify how to further hone these skills, and realize that this so called "dirty work" isn’t dirty and is good for personal growth and development. It's actually going to help a trainer grow their business, reach more people, and make a difference in more people’s lives.

After trainers learn to apply and hone these skills, they can start to really apply them for personal growth. They’ll soon become a leader and manager for their own personal success and that of their clients.

Dragon Door: How do you help trainers transition from applying their skills on the gym floor to using them in their business?

Rolando Garcia III: The first thing is to sit down. As much as personal trainers like to say they’re glad they don't work at a desk job, this kind of critical thinking requires a high level of cognitive load. It's going to be pretty exhausting if you do it a way that’s impactful for your business. It’s going to feel like you’ve been hit by a Mack truck if you do it correctly. Once you start taking a look at how you can manage the future of your business, that's where things get really tricky.

When you are managing the future, there's an interesting quality to the future—no one knows HOW it's going to turn out! That level of thinking becomes very difficult. Now you are looking at something trainers don't really want to do. They might not even be wired to do it from a neurological standpoint—they have to become creative and innovative!

Dragon Door: This sounds a lot like people who love to lift in the gym, but hate to slow down for recovery—to let their muscles repair and grow during rest. It seems similar to the situation of personal trainers who just want to work with clients on the floor without taking time for business planning or management/leadership skill building.

Rolando Garcia III: It's a very exact metaphor. Arnold Schwarzenegger was famous for saying, "I hate leg day, so I learned to love leg day." It’s the truth, and the guy who loves to workout but hates recovery day should learn to love it for his growth.

We know that we are supposed to stretch, and we should do it even if we hate it. We should apply the same attitude to our business and our personal development in the professional world. "I don't like leadership, so I have to learn to like leadership."

I am doing a presentation on managing the improbable for the East Coast regional managers in the company I work for. One of the main ideas I am presenting is the idea of becoming comfortable with not knowing the future. This goes against the grain of most personal trainers who usually have to know exactly what and why they are doing an exercise or movement and why they are doing it in a certain way. When a trainer has to deal with the unknown, they have to explore skillsets that they’re usually not encouraged to explore—creativity and innovation. But, those are the exact skillsets we have to manage in order to go forward.

For example, and we’ve all seen this, a client purchased 30-40 sessions because he wanted to lose 10lbs in 3 months. He is doing great and following all the recommendations for nutrition, cardio, and he is training with us three times a week. He follows the programs, everything is predictable, within the parameters, and he gets results. Then something absolutely weird happens, just when everything is going very well, all of a sudden the client says, "I think I am done training, I think I’d like to take a break. I lost 10lbs and want to do something different. My new girlfriend is into hang-gliding, so I figured I’d just go hang-gliding now." We are thinking, "Didn’t we get the results you wanted? Didn’t we work well together?"

If a personal trainer is reading this and thinking, "This has never happened to me," then that means they’ve not been in this game long enough—or are lying! But when this does happen, the trainer often has a crisis of identity and wonders why the client is leaving even if they did everything correctly, fully delivered, and the client was achieving his or her desired results. The trainer will usually conclude that it doesn’t make sense.

From the personal trainer's usual, very narrow perspective—technical expertise—it won’t make logical sense for the client to leave. But someone with leadership and management skillsets will say that it doesn’t matter what the results were, you must constantly look forward, be creative, and innovative. Someone who is able to constantly look forward will be prepared from a business and psychological perspective. And that is the "dirty work" most trainers avoid. They want to avoid the leadership and management growth possibilities because they want to win by controlling all the training variables instead. But the truth is, even within those technical parameters, we can still lose.

What the client is really doing is communicating that they want to grow—they want to do something different for their personal growth. If we are training our clients correctly, they will be looking for an opportunity for personal growth, not necessarily quantitative results. Growth and success are two very different things! Many times when clients leave very suddenly, they are exploring their own growth potential. If we are inadvertently encouraging our clients to explore their own growth potential then we should also start to do that for ourselves. Every now and then, we should do something that forces us to consider the unknown, look at something without definable parameters which requires us to create and innovate on the spot for our own growth.

For example, if you are a trainer who only likes to work the gym floor, what would happen if you just sat in an office for 10 minutes and thought about where you will be in the next year. Many business executives do this, they think, create some sort of vision board, or think tank—then their chairman or CEO will challenge them. A Chairman will challenge an executive team asking where they will be in the next one, three and five years, and the team will have to think and brave the challenges of a competitive, fluctuating market in a rapidly changing industry. They’ll need to come up with something that will allow them to thrive.

A personal trainer should not be above this "dirty work." I suggest sitting in a quiet office for 10 minutes—don't worry about programming or your hydration for a second. Ask yourself a very simple question: what does the future look like for you in one year? Then ask yourself if five years ago you envisioned the life you’re living now. Did you actually plan this? Ten years ago, you could not possibly have envisioned the life you’re living now. Your mind will expand and grow if you do this type of thinking—just taking 5-10 minutes to look into the future. It will force you to go outside your own fixed parameters and expertise. You’ll start creating and innovating from somewhere you might have never started from before—your heart. Start to look at what you desire—without judgment and with maybe a bit of fear. Ask yourself to be courageous in the face of the unknown.
Vision is part of the leadership skillset. Most people should be scared out of their minds when considering something in the future—because it can go in so many directions. Because of this fear, many people prefer to look to the past, lag measures, and analyze the past to death. The past only goes in one direction and is linear as far as our vision is concerned. The future is scary because there’s no way to measure it, and it can go in any direction. When we look at the future and use it to help develop part of our leadership skillset, the first thing we realize is the need to be absolutely courageous. Courage is important because we can explain anything we've done in the past—why our grades were good or bad, why our income was what it was, why we drank as much the night before—because it all happened in the past.

The future is difficult because we have no explanation for our visions—no matter how clearly we see them. Why? Because no one else can see your exact vision—you’re the only one. Innovators and leaders have the guts to look into the future, and act on it without any quantifiable way of validating the vision.

It’s more common for people to take on a system of thought, training program, philosophy, or religion that guarantees either success or failure rather than entertain the possibility of success and failure. If a particular program says I will win if I follow the directions, or lose if I do not—then that sounds like an attractive protocol because it is very black and white—there’s a causality I can rely on.

What we are also attracted to is the idea that success and failure are separate. If failure is bad, and I identify the behaviors that will lead me to failure, and don't do them, then I shouldn't fail. Similarly, if a system’s behaviors claim to lead me to success, if I follow those behaviors I will become successful. But, the true nature of life is that there is very little causality with most things, and success and failure tend to go hand in hand.

Sometimes you can do all the right things and fail—other times you can do all the wrong things and still succeed. That’s just how life works. How many people have done the absolute wrong things and still turned out on top? How many people have done all the right things and somehow failed? We can count those groups equally. Then we are presented with an uncomfortable truth—does it really matter?

That’s where a non-linear approach comes in at a detriment to personal trainers. The problem with personal trainers is that while they are success agents, they are also success junkies, when instead they should be growth junkies. A growth junkie does not care if they succeed or fail—both outcomes are seen as important stepping stones towards personal growth. So whether an approach is linear or non-linear and leads to success or failure, a person invested in their own growth is still learning and growing. A personal trainer who is too invested in his or her personal success will often experience the detrimental effects of linear thinking.

For some weird reason we hate failure, but it is such a big part of our learning process. You have to fail and fall flat on your face. Failure is such an important part of personal growth—the true measure of our success—that when I manage my own teams I will give them assignments knowing that they will most likely fail. I want to see them struggle a little bit with it, then understand the relative value of what they deem as success or failure.

Even if you’ve failed, you’ve developed a skillset on the way there. As an example, someone may be absolutely disastrous at public speaking, but need to hone that skill because of a potential executive role years down the road. I'd rather them fail with public speaking now, instead of being turned down for the role later because they are deficient in that one particular skill. I would keep throwing them into public speaking until they became comfortable with it. Then they could start taking the important courageous steps towards proficiency.

Sometimes we have to take a job that doesn't pay well to end up developing an important, unique skill-set which would benefit us 2-3 years in the future. So, take that job, no matter how much "dirty work" it may involve.

I know of a particular executive at the Discovery channel who said when they present annual awards, teams that ran a project or initiative are awarded even if the project absolutely failed. The award is in recognition of the investment, courage, and most importantly innovation involved in the project. If the innovations did or didn't come to fruition, they have still developed a very people-centered organization. Individual growth is encouraged before the growth of the company.

To me, this is what makes Dragon Door and the RKC very unique. The company is a little more inclined to develop the individual—and that's very special.

Dragon Door: How would you recommend a personal trainer cope with the heavy cognitive load associated with this type of thinking? Especially since it might be something they haven’t done since school.

Rolando Garcia III: They should stop obsessing over success. Instead, consider something that seems absolutely risky. If you take on this job, task, or endeavor, think about how it could benefit your personal growth. How will it develop you as a leader, manager, planner, or negotiator? Now that you aren't afraid to fail—should you fail, will you fall flat on your face? If the answer is yes, then that's the one to try.

We are usually attracted to things with a comfortable amount of risk. What I’m suggesting to people interested in growth—with the big picture of becoming a better leader or planner—is to consider an activity that can benefit you and if you fail, will cause you to fall flat on your face. We should be willing to do this for our own professional and personal development.

Dragon Door: What else should someone concerned with growth consider?

Rolando Garcia III: I want to add that the mission statement of a forward-thinking company is usually very much about transformation, growth, and innovation. If an individual is thinking about the future, and wants to stay in this business for a long time, they need to meditate on the following words: innovation, creativity, and transformation. That is what the future is about—being able to accommodate whatever happens, while being rejuvenated and reinvigorated by it.

If an individual or organization only considers its past performance—then that individual or organization is no longer interested in growth, and that will be detrimental to their own growth and success. It's important to think forward, have the courage to innovate, and to be willing to transform—if only to be on the cusp of what the future has to offer us as professionals and the industry as a whole.

Dragon Door: Human beings in general seem uncomfortable with the unknown, what’s your advice to help someone make peace with or cope with the unknown as a personal trainer?

Rolando Garcia III: Something observed among athletes and investors, more openness to innovation, and a manageable level of fear of the future come down to one thing—how invested are they in their past successes? If they are less invested in the past, then the unknown future is much more manageable.

If I technically have nothing to lose, I am going to give it everything I have—which might not happen if I have a successful reputation to uphold. People who are invested in the past are often "risk averse" when protecting a record or reputation. What I advise is to every now and then forget your own internal dialog about the past successes which you think make you successful for 5-10 minutes a day. Spend time with who you are versus what you think you are. When you take this time, you’ll technically be nothing and nobody—then you’re willing to entertain anything. That’s the time to look towards the future with a slightly more courageous approach. With nothing to lose, what does the future have to offer? You will begin to welcome risk.

Dragon Door: Restrictions no longer apply, there's just opportunity in any direction.

Rolando Garcia III: If I go out there and fail, it's still better than being nowhere—and if I make some sort of incremental gain, I can build on it and succeed. The burden of protecting an educational background, professional success, or personal success is when that success can become its own prison.

Success is really just somebody else's record of who they think you are. When you spend time with yourself for 5-10 minutes, who you really are is something difficult to even intellectually assemble. Who you really are is evident just in that moment when you listen to your heartbeat and breathing, before letting your imagination start to explore who you are, and what you could possibly become. That's the beginning of innovation and transformation.

My hope for any fitness professional reading this is to understand that we’re really all concerned with the same things as the entire world: we want to know how to manage a dynamic and unforeseeable future, in light of the fact that the present is very competitive and unpredictable.

How do we manage such a thing? We need to be less invested in the past—regardless of how successful (or unsuccessful) it was. It’s important to sit down and take 5-10 minutes to listen to your heart and breathing, and get rid of all the thoughts that made you successful or unsuccessful. Get rid of all those thoughts, then ask yourself a simple question: "Where will I be a year from now?" This simple process requires courage, some forethought, and will start some important and impactful transformations and innovations that will eventually help you grow professionally and personally.

RolandoGarciaIII thumbnailRolando Garcia, III works in Manhattan, NYC, managing one of the most exclusive fitness facilities in the USA. He can be reached at