I missed my college’s 5 year reunion. Living in a foreign country, being a bit of an introvert, and your gmail inbox filtering your college’s emails out of your primary inbox will do that to you.
Shortly after, I was contacted by a good college friend. We exchanged a few words, she expressed regret that I couldn’t make it, and then she told me that she’s impressed by what I’ve done with myself in the five years since graduation. I turned a hobby into a career, learned an entirely new skillset from scratch, and built myself an online business that allows me to work from home while I travel.
I told her that it’s strange to be congratulated for it, because I was never given any other choice.
I graduated high school with a solid B+/A- average. At the time, my struggles with depression and anxiety, plus a general laziness towards any intellectual achievement, held me back from really applying myself to anything. I was always told I was smart, but I didn’t really know what that meant, or what I should do about it. That started to change when I took up exercise, fought depression, and became interested in self-improvement.
Four years later, I graduated college with a dual major in English literature and philosophy. I didn’t really have any clue what I wanted to do with this major - I had the vague sense that I had gone to college to learn things, and so I had focused on the classes that interested me personally. I had no real career aspirations - I just wanted a job that paid well, offered me stability, and the free time to focus on writing of my own. I wanted, and still do want, to be a novelist someday.
Graduating with no career prospects, I tried in vain to find any kind of work available to me. I didn’t enjoy job hunting. I had worked a summer job as a golf caddy since I was 12, and this one job had been more than enough at the time, but I needed something less seasonal and better paying.
I decided to get a personal trainer certification and become a personal trainer. I figured that I loved exercising, wanted to take my own knowledge of exercise to the next level, and wanted to help other people do the same.
It wasn’t a natural fit. I’ve never been the most outgoing person, and I struggled to find clients or make sales. I spent that first year basically reading everything I could about fitness, compulsively, in order to be a better trainer. I purchased every digital product, read every blog, purchased myself textbooks on Amazon. I did my best, but I still struggled. It took time to get used to the profession, settle in, be able to make a living for myself.
The fitness industry in the United States is primarily a freelance profession. Many gyms will hire you only as a freelancer, and you’re only paid for actual client hours, or maybe client hours plus hours for some limited other work. The gym makes a cut on your paid hours, in exchange for allowing you to use their space, and you have an established place to train your clients. Win-win. But the problem is, that you’re not paid for many more hours - hours spent hanging out at the gym, meeting people, helping where you can, all so that you can (hopefully) find new clients. It takes time, it’s a long process, it's not exactly a stable job in many places.
I remained at my first gym job for over two years. I wasn’t making a comfortable living, but I was doing alright for myself. I had 10k in the bank, burning a hole in my pocket because I didn’t know what to to with it.
So, I took a chance, quit my job, interned at a well-known gym in a different state, came back, looked for a new job, and quickly burned through all my money. Needing a better job, I quickly took a promising overseas job offer that turned out to be a huge dud. I flew back to the US and found another job in Chicago within a week, but this turned out to be a dud too. I moved to Seattle in order to be closer to my long-distance girlfriend. I went through a couple more dud jobs there before finding one that I stuck with for a year. My girlfriend got a job offer in Denmark, so we moved again. Here I am now.
Because of the nature of the fitness industry, it’s hard to find jobs that are immediately well-paying - and you can’t really know ahead of time if you’re a good fit for a gym, because the culture of the other trainers and the members isn’t something that’s visible from the outside. I followed opportunities as I found them, but I was never able to make much more than a basic, livable wage.
Developing an online business was, for most of that time, the furthest thing from my mind. I started a blog in 2012 without any real clue what I was doing, just vaguely knowing that other trainers were doing the same. I thought, “maybe I could have some good ideas that people want to read!” but of course, no one did. Almost no one read that blog at first. It had a terrible name, too - I won’t tell you what it is, because I’m legitimately embarrassed by it.
I tried online coaching thanks to the influence of another trainer in the industry who convinced me it was a good idea. I had a handful of clients, made a couple hundred extra dollars a month, but didn’t find it worth it, so I abandoned it. Years later, when I was leaving my first overseas dud job, I started doing it again primarily as a way to keep in touch with some of my former one-on-one clients. I had two online clients, charged $75/month, and just considered it a good way to insulate myself against all the constant moves and other changes I was being put through. Every single dollar mattered.
My oldest client is one of those two first clients, as well as a close friend. I’m still working with him today. I picked up a few other online clients over the years, usually not because I was trying. I always considered it a side hustle, and one that just helped maintain continuity if I left another bad job. None of my jobs ever really offered a fair wage, job stability, health insurance, or any other benefits. I needed every penny I could get to help pay my bills, and I've never had a lot of them.
At one point I got a 60hr/week labor job that left me both physically and mentally exhausted at the end of every day - I’d wake up at 6:30a to get to work by 7:30a, get home at 7:30p or later completely exhausted, cook myself dinner, do client work, watch a little bit of tv and pass out to start it all over. I only had about 5 clients at the time, but even this small workload sometimes kept me up until 1am or later, drearily trying to hammer out programs and answer emails at the last minute. On the weekends, I just slept. I eventually quit this job simply because I was unable to keep up with that level of exhaustion and stress.
My last and most stable job, in 2015-16, left me with gym desk hours during which there was a significant chunk of downtime. This enabled me to focus more on my blogging, and for the first time I started putting serious effort into it. I learned related skills: copywriting, SEO, social media, advertising, and more. You don’t have to be a master of all of these things to hack it as a blogger, but you definitely can’t be an idiot at all of them.
For the first time, I really started to see this as a serious source of income, and really put effort into getting better. My blog went from “nobody’s reading it” to “a serious business that makes money”. I doubled my clients in a year.
When it came time to move to Denmark, I made the jump. I focused on my online business full time, hired a business coach, doubled my client base again. My blog readership continues to grow, as does my subscriber list. I’ve featured articles in many other publications.
The problem is, I didn’t initially do this because I had any choice. Sure, I made lots of smaller decisions that added up to where I am now, but ultimately I was just following paths laid out for me. Without job experience, an internship, an explicit passion for a particular career, or a more directly useful degree, I have never been able to find a good job doing anything else. I've just been lucky to be able to get any attention and money where I can get it.
I’ve applied for jobs, I promise you. I’ve applied for jobs upon jobs, in everything I could even find myself remotely qualified for. I’ve applied for jobs in warehouses, manual labor, social media, copy writing, writing, editing, customer service, community management, and more. For a few weeks, I worked for an app startup in the process of going belly up. They were so broke that they could only pay me in company shares. Naturally, I never saw a penny for that work.
The reason that I’ve ended up where I have is because I was given no other option. I’ve never been able to find a fair wage or good benefits elsewhere, no matter how hard I searched. Sometimes, so exhausted from looking for other jobs, I’ve turned back to working more on my site, just because it at least seems to be something that I’m good at, and that people are willing to pay me for. I’ve just been following the path of least resistance, in many ways, even though it’s hard work in its own right.
This isn't to say that I don't love what I do. This website has grown significantly in the last couple of years, and I've grown significantly both as a writer and a person with it. I've coached hundreds of clients in about fifteen different countries, and I've been able to make good money doing so. I'm able to work from home, I'm my own boss, and I've been able to pay off my student loans at a greatly accelerated rate while putting away a lot of money for my future. All of this is awesome.
It doesn't really change the fact that it feels a bit weird to be congratulated on it, as if I'd done something "hard" or "exceptional". If given the choice, I'd probably have picked something else. I built a small business because it was the only option that was ever really open to me.
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