Be Like the Best, the John Berardi Interview

Excerpt: Be Like the Best

Chapter One, John Berardi

*Note: Check out John Berardi’s new book, Change Maker**

You’ve reached such a high level of success in so many areas, as an athlete, professor and entrepreneur. The Precision Nutrition certification has helped more than 100,000 health and fitness professionals. Your mission is to help people continue on that journey. But how you do you define success?

I come at this from a different angle—defining words can get esoteric and less concrete. If I were to describe someone I thought was successful, what criterion would I use to determine that? For me, it’s a triangulating of different areas. Certainly, there are external validations associated with the amount of money people make or the kind of company they’ve grown; one part is going to be financial.

But stopping there is a fairly large mistake.

I’d look at the work. Is it work that has both personal meaning and makes some kind of contribution? It doesn’t have to—as Steve Jobs said—make a dent in the universe, but is it meaningful to them personally and to the people they serve?

It goes another step further because someone who has a lot of money and is doing personally meaningful work is not always a successful person. That’s when other things come in—things like having a great life perspective or having a great social and family balance.

Another element is self-care. Do they take care of themselves? And that’s not just the proactive steps of exercising, but also includes recovery and recharging.

I triangulate the idea of success as “having your shit together.” That’s a phrase everyone understands. That’s how I’d describe a successful person: someone who has reached a certain amount of financial wealth, has done meaningful work, and has great perspective and wisdom.

Successful people make time for social and family life and take care of themselves, although you don’t need all of those to be a personal success. And people get to define this on their own terms, but that’s something I hope to achieve personally and that I’m impressed by in others.

Some people say you can’t create a work–life balance, but trying to have your shit together in that respect is certainly a meaningful goal. When did you feel you were starting to get your shit together?

I learned a valuable lesson about this when, early in my life, I looked to external validations for success. One of my famous stories is when I worked hard through academia early in my career. I did an undergrad, then a master’s, then a PhD, and at the end of the PhD road, you should feel academically successful. You’ve achieved something that only a small percentage of the world has accomplished.

The dissertation defense is the last stage of the PhD accomplishment. You’re in a room with four or five professors to grill you and not only determine whether you’re worthy of the degree, but also humble you in important ways—you’re smart, but not at their level.

I remember walking out of the room after they’d given me a handshake and said, “You’ve passed your PhD requirements.” I remember looking around and the hallway was empty. I went home and fixed dinner like I would have any other night of the week. There was no parade in my honor; there were no people calling me up exclaiming, “It’s so awesome!” It was a strange, anticlimactic moment when I’d achieved an external validation of success, but didn’t feel any different. In fact, there was a major letdown because I believed there were certain accompaniments to “success” that weren’t there.

Another example is when I wanted to publish my first book. My brother and I went home for Christmas and visited a bookstore and I said, “Within two years, I’m going to have a book in this bookstore.” That goal meant way more than having a book in the bookstore, but I didn’t know it at the time. Two years later, it was true. We went home for Christmas, went to the same bookstore and I said, “Remember what I told you two years ago? There’s my book.”

It was objectively true, I had accomplished that goal, but what I didn’t realize was that I’d expected that to mean I’d be rich and famous and have a big house on the hill and everyone in the store would want my autograph. What ended up happening? Nothing. The conditions were the same as two years earlier, except I had a book on the shelf.

Early in my career, I set out to be a millionaire by the age of 35 and I accomplished that. It was almost the same feeling as the PhD story. I had a million dollars of net worth by age 35, and there was no parade or party in my honor.

You start to realize after accumulating a few of these experiences that if you define success by external validations, you’re going to be consistently let down. Almost every successful person talks about this.

The idea of becoming a success started to center around meaningful work, self-care, wisdom, social and family balance…having your shit together. When you look at it in those terms, you realize no one wakes up that way. You don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I’m not lazy. I’m a great communicator. I have wisdom. I’m going to spend every minute with my family. I’m also going to do meaningful work.”

You don’t wake up like that. You wake up unlike that—and it’s a practice every day because you wake up sucking at things and then work on accomplishing them. You don’t just become a great communicator or a great parent or become great at taking care of yourself. You actually wake up bad at it every single day.

And you don’t fix the problem and then you’re set for life. This is mindfulness and other intangibles. You wake up and you’re bad at them.

That’s how I feel about the idea of being a success and striving toward that.

There isn’t a day when you just accomplish it and you’re done, when you can stop worrying about being a success because you’ve accomplished it and now it’s a success cloak you can wear for the rest of your life. No! It’s like bathing. You get dirty every day and have to wash the dirt off.

It’s the same with mindfulness, meditation, success and self-care. You get worse over time and you need a bath or the equivalent to recharge yourself. That’s how I think about success and my own relationship with it. I wake up every day and work at it.

You’ve devoted your career to making health and fitness achievable and attainable for everyone in all walks of life. Is that what gets you out of bed and motivates you from a business or a fitness perspective?

There are two major things that drive me professionally. I grew up in an immigrant family. My parents came from a really poor part of Italy, post-World War II, where there weren’t many resources. When they came to the States, they had no education and they didn’t speak English, but they were hardworking people. This was embedded in my DNA and in how I was raised. I realized early on that I was going to work hard at whatever I did. It didn’t matter what it was, I don’t have it in me not to put out the effort. All the examples I had were that—working tirelessly, working hard and not complaining about it.

I decided that if I’m going to work hard no matter what I’m working on, it would be cool if when I was ready to retire or was on my deathbed, I’d have chosen something that was meaningful. If I worked hard and didn’t complain about something that was meaningless, that’s fine. But it would be cool if I was working hard on something I knew was worth the effort.

Because of circumstances, I was on the wrong track during my teenage years, but someone got me on the right track through exercise. It made me want to do my hard work in this field.

That person and the fitness and health profession in general saved my life in some metaphorical but also concrete ways. This is why I want to be in this field. I have a clear definition when I die or retire: I would like to know that my work helped the people working in health and fitness see their clients differently.

When I came up in health and fitness, we saw clients as fundamentally lazy people who were broken, who were missing this fitness thing we had. We thought we had to change them, to turn them into fitness people like us.

I’m hoping through my work and through the work of others who come after me that we’ll have made a dent in that, to help people working in our field see their clients fundamentally different—as independent, autonomous people with superpowers they use in other areas of their lives, turning those superpowers toward the things they can use to propel their health and fitness. I want people who work in our profession to see their work differently—rather than, “I’m a personal trainer,” or “I’m a nurse,” or “I’m a physical therapist,” but more that, “I’m a concierge for transformative change.”

That’s what gets me motivated—seeing the health and fitness profession change, the people working in this field seeing their clients and their role in the world differently. We’ve accomplished some of that, but we still have lots of work to do.

Precision Nutrition has become a great company that’s making a big difference. I have a meta-goal there too, which is that we want to become the first billion-dollar company that works remotely using a totally different management system. PN is about a $200 million company now. We work remotely; we don’t have a head office. We help people set up home offices wherever they want to live.

Some people live in different places throughout the year, and we use a distributed authority system. The term of the method we use is called “wholeocracy.” Knowledge workers don’t thrive in an environment where they have to check in, work for a certain number of hours every week and have bosses. They generally work well when they’re given a lot of independence to be creative, but with a certain degree of structure—what we call an “independent authority.” That’s the meta-goal.

I’d love to lead Precision Nutrition to become that size company and be the first to do it remotely using a distributed authority system with knowledge workers because it hasn’t been done before. I believe it’ll be a transformative thing for the business world to see that the old structures don’t have to be used anymore. Those are my professional motivators.

One of the things I’ve always loved about your message is when we thought we were going to hear you talk about nutrition…and ended up learning about the behavior of change. You made us think—you’re always so ahead of the curve. Talk to us about that process. Do you have a morning routine?

We have four children, so a lot of my schedule is determined by the other things in my life. When I get up, I roll out to the kitchen. and cook breakfast for the family.

I help the kids with breakfast and usually leave mine in the oven to stay warm until I ship them out. Amanda takes them to school and at that point, I put in a solid 8:30AM until 2:30PM workday. I work straight through and then I pick up the kids from school, bring them home and we all hang out until bedtime. That’s when I grab my workout—when everyone’s in bed.

I think a lot about the goal of my life. What’s the goal of my work? What’s the goal of my week? My month? My year? This particular day? I do a prioritization filter. I know my goal for work—it’s already been pre-established through collective planning. I know the objectives and strategy for the year. I know what we’re trying to do each month.

We can do 100 things, but not in a day and not in a week. I have an importance filter I run each day. Sometimes there are 20 things I could do. There are probably 30 things people asked me to do the day before, but I can only do three. How do I prioritize so the three I do actually matter? There could be someone working 14 hours in the next building, but if they’re doing 10 things that don’t matter and I do three that do, I win every time.

Everyone who has a job and thinks their work is meaningful and wants to make a difference knows it’s anxiety-producing to have 30 things on your to-do list. How do you eliminate the anxiety?

I’ve already established my goal. Not this morning, but in a moment of clear thinking when I wasn’t in the midst of problems and challenges. I took time away and in a clear-thinking moment or day or strategy session, I decided the goal. I’m just holding myself to that decision. I do the hard work of saying that of these 30 things, I can do only three today. These are the most important things.

There was a phase in my career when I had five or 10 things on my to-do list and at the end of almost every day, they wouldn’t be done. Even if I finished four out of five, I’d still feel tremendous anxiety when I was in family time because I hadn’t finished my work list. It would take me a couple of hours to relax and some nights I’d never get out of that headspace. I’d be bummed because I hadn’t finished my list for the day.

That’s when I realized this magical thing happens when you only put three things on your list, things you know you can accomplish. If I put three things on my list and accomplish them, I feel great for the rest of the day.

I’m going to commit each day to less than I know I’m capable of so I can finish and feel satisfied. If there’s time for one more, that’s a bonus because in the other scenario, I ticked more items off the checklist, but I still felt bad. It’s not just what you accomplish, but how you set things up so you can feel good about what you’ve done.

John, you’re mentioning goals, but is there a formal process where you set goals? Give us a look into that process.

When I was younger, it was important to me. The mentor who saved my life brought me into the fitness profession. He was big on personal development, so he introduced me to Zig Ziglar, Stephen Covey, Tony Robbins and that group of what used to be called “motivational speakers.” From them, I picked up the goal-setting practice. When I was young, I used to do a lot of it.

I now do very little goal setting. It’s a tiny fraction of my life because I have the framework of how we teach curriculum development. This is how we teach fitness—that goals have almost no traction because just you saying what you want.

That’s important, but for a tiny microsecond. Skills are required. You don’t achieve goals you’ve never accomplished without building new skills, and you don’t build new skills without practicing things.

Classic examples are learning a language or to play an instrument. Part of that is boring because just like in the gym, you have to build new neural connections and muscle connections. When you’re practicing scales on a piano, you’re building new neural networks. It’s generally boring work, but you have to do it daily so you can build the skills that lead to the goal of being able to play Beethoven. Most of my time is spent figuring out what skills I need next and what daily practices I need to accomplish those skills to get a goal.

Goal setting is still valuable, but it’s a tiny percent of my life. Most of what I’m doing day to day is after that singular thing has been defined.

A professional goal example might be having the first billion-dollar company to work remotely with distributed authority. How do you do that? You start working backward. I can’t think my way to a billion-dollar company; I have to actually sell stuff. How many coaching clients will I have to get? How many certifications would I have to sell? How many software users would we have to have? Here are the numbers, and then you wonder, what industries would we get those from?

We’re getting a certain number from fitness, but fitness isn’t big enough to support those numbers. Would we go to physicians? Would we go to yoga practitioners? You start breaking things down; for example, we’d need to get so many new yoga practitioners using our programs, so many new physicians, new nurses, new fitness people.

But as a company, we don’t have the skills to do that yet. I don’t know how to speak to integrative medicine practitioners. I don’t know what conferences they attend. How do we build the skills and what practices will we need to get good at—either myself personally or the staff members we bring on the team? That’s how I think about goal setting. We have a downloadable worksheet on our website showing this because it’s how I approach everything.

Here’s another example. My daughter takes gymnastics; instead of sitting on the side with all the parents while she’s exercising, I asked the owner if I could get a private lesson. Now I work out while my daughter’s working out and I can build some new skills. I brought my funny little chart to my new coach and told her it was partly just about being active, but that I’d also love to learn to do a back flip and a front flip and other stuff. Could she help me fill out the chart? If my goal was back flipping, what skills would I need to do a back flip? What things should I practice first and which should I practice next?

At first, people are a bit weirded out; they think it’s too “systems thinking.” But this is the way humans develop goals. It’s something I use in every aspect of my life. It takes two seconds to determine a goal—although, longer if you’re not sure or when there are competing goals. But once the goal is settled, there’s a lot of work to do on skills and practices.

That’s brilliant. It really brings new meaning to reverse engineering a goal by bringing in the skills and practices. You have a huge company and you have a lot going on. How do you stay organized?

I have different types of days in a week, specific days for specific things. Generally, Mondays and Tuesdays are meeting-free days. Those are for creative work, writing or just thinking. If I’m in the “What goals should I go after?” stage, those days are just for thinking and drafting ideas.

Wednesdays and Thursdays are meetings and on Fridays, I generally work half a day. The first half of that is for media and podcasts. The second half, I’ll either do quiet reading or sometimes even take the day off to take the kids out of school and do something fun.

How do you recharge?

The key for me is getting enough sleep. I’m a natural-born introvert and I believe I need more quiet time than many other people. With four children and a business, I get much less quiet time than I want. But I still get more than most people because either they don’t find it important or don’t prioritize it. Quiet time is an important recharging time—that may be reading a book, sitting quietly or just ideating on something.

Hiking and getting outdoors is important to me. I try to do that at least once a week. That’s one of my most restorative activities—just getting out on a trail in the woods. We live by some amazing hiking in the “waterfall capital of the world.” There are a few hundred waterfalls close by and I get out there often.

The other side of this is proactive: I don’t let myself get uncharged, which is like prioritizing my work week and focusing on the big things and only tackling three things a day. I’ll never run myself to the point where I badly need time off because we don’t get many weeks off during the year. We take vacations as a family, but anyone with four kids knows you’re not chilling on a beach relaxing when you go on a family vacation. It’s actually much more work than our regular daily lives.

I don’t get a lot of “go on vacation to recharge” time. That’s a blessing because it’s forced me not to wait until vacation to recharge, but to build it in to my life. I could complain and say, “I never get to recharge because even vacations are stressful,” or I could say, “I need to recharge, so how do I do that in small ways in the context of my life?”

It’s made me better at this and probably works better than if I waited for my annual vacation weeks.

Do you have any rules other than working Monday through Friday? What are those rules that keep those barriers up?

I generally try not to work at all in the evenings and on the weekends. Saturdays we do fun things and often on Sundays we do the same. For example, our five-year-old is into BMX racing and we go as a family or I’ll take him for open track. Before they actually have races, there are two hours where you get to ride the tracks. I get a bike and ride too.

At pickup from school and on the weekends, I try not to do any work, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes things will heat up at Precision Nutrition and we’ll be working on something ambitious, something’s coming to fruition and I need to be more present. In that case, I ask my family if that’s okay: “For the next month, we’re working on something pretty big at work, which may mean some evenings I need to go in my office for an hour or two, or maybe on a Sunday, I might need to spend half the day working. Is that okay, and how can I make it up to you during the time we do get to spend together?”

I try to respect that they’re active participants in my life and try to find ways to make it okay when I need to spend time away from them at work.

We see so many parents sitting on the sidelines. I love that idea of you doing what your kids are doing.

It’s a blast. What’s the alternative? I can tell you what it is because nearly every other parent is doing it: sitting on the sidelines on their phones if they’re by themselves, sitting there chatting it up with other parents, sitting in the car reading or running errands. I don’t judge anyone else’s choice because I don’t know what’s going on in their lives, but I have the opportunity to be there and be present and what’s more present than being participatory?

I also get to have a workout. I get to go out on the gymnastics floor with our three-year-old and participate in this class every Saturday, which is one of my favorite days of the week. It’s a blast. It keeps me active, and it prevents me from doing things I don’t want to be doing, like scrolling on my phone.

It’s fun for the kids and provides a deeper connection with them. John, it’s not always the best of times, so how do you push through those tough times?

For me, there are three things. One option is counseling—I’m a huge believer in counseling. I run a coaching business, so for me to sell coaching and not actually get coaching is hypocritical. Counseling has been an important part of my life as a proactive step. When I was considering getting married to Amanda, we got a marriage counselor before we were married because we didn’t want to need one later. I wanted to get one early so I could build strategies and do the equivalent of self-care in advance for our relationship.

When we started thinking about having children, we did the same. Let’s get a family counselor and figure out in advance how to do this before there are problems. When you have a relationship pre-established and things aren’t going well, you have a trusted person you can talk to.

At PN, we have a counseling budget for our team members—especially our coaches. It’s a funny conversation to have when they join the team, “Welcome to PN. Here’s your budget for getting therapy.” Everyone who works in the counseling field knows you need a therapist to help offload things you’re experiencing when you’re working as a therapist. Every coach should have this.

That’s important for me. I did an informal experiment a few years ago, looking at all the people I felt really had their shit together and I asked, one by one, “Have you ever been through therapy or counseling?” A surprisingly high number of the people I most respected had, which sealed the deal for me. If success leaves clues, this is a great clue, and it’s one most people don’t openly talk about because they’re worried about being judged.

I talk about it as much as I can. Counseling is something the people we admire the most invest in heavily. Let’s not keep that a secret anymore. There’s real value to it. Even if you’re not hurting right now, it’s a proactive measure to build the skills you’ll need for another stage of your life.

Then, when the hard times are acute, I get out my bike and ride hard. There have been many times when we’re doing a launch of a product and the technology goes down or everyone’s freaking out. The number one thing I do in the midst of a storm is get out my bike and ride as hard as I can until I’m exhausted. When I come back, my head is clear. I can get back to work on solving the problem. There’s something magical about physical exertion in times like that.

The third thing is not forgetting to do the things that helped during the good times. People fail to do this all the time. When times get tough, they stop working out; they stop eating well. They used to do yoga once a week and now they don’t. They used to practice gratitude; they used to spend time with family and friends. When times get hard, they give up all the things that made their life meaningful during good times, and it becomes this crazy downward spiral.

You want to consistently remind yourself to not forget to do the things that kept you healthy and happy during the good times because these are the things that will help you during the hard times.

You just said success leaves clues. Who are three people from any field we should follow?

The idea of following people has always been uncomfortable to me. The idea of following people places an undue focus on celebrity. It means finding someone in the public sector who’s well known to follow.

I’ll give you a couple people who are good, but what I really like to do is encourage students to meet people in their communities. That could be your proximal community—the people where you live—or it could be at events and seminars in your field in so you can empty your cup. It doesn’t matter if the people are famous or successful.

There’s an old parable in which a teacher starts pouring tea into a cup and it gets full and she keeps pouring. The students ask, “Why do you keep pouring once the cup’s already full?” The teacher answers, “This is like you. You have so many ideas in your head and you think you know so many things. If I try to teach you, it’ll just spill out because your cup’s already full.”

The idea is to go into scenarios where you meet people—even if they’re not people you think you can learn from—empty your cup…have no opinions, impressions or ideas, and figure out what you can learn. Very specifically, by asking pointed questions, figure out each person’s passion. Discover what people are good at, figure out what’s unique about them and then just ask questions. This has been one of the greatest gifts in my life.

Growing up an introvert, I never did this when I was younger. I was afraid of being awkward talking to people and eventually I realized I had to have a system for talking to people or I’d never do it. It started with asking questions, but I discovered that asking people mundane questions just made for a boring conversation. I hated it. That gave me no motivation to talk to people—I had to ask better questions. I started doing that and if I asked really good questions, not only would we have a good conversation, I could learn things instead of trying to teach something.

How can I learn from everyone everywhere—the person I sit next to on an airplane, the mom at school, the teacher, someone at music, someone at gymnastics? That’s my best advice. There are people who are doing great stuff; don’t just follow famous people. I’ve learned more from asking great questions of people and being open to learning. Almost everyone has something they’re good at and that means they have a system for being passionate and good at it. Even if it’s not something I’m into, I can learn from that and bring it into my world.

Independent of that advice, there are people I turn to time and time again. Ray Dalio is one person who’s getting a lot of press. He’s a billionaire hedge fund manager who’s a personal mentor to Phil and me at Precision Nutrition. He wrote a book called Principles, which is phenomenal. He’s a tremendous thinker. His principles are based on the idea of seeing the world for what it is, calling it out, and then operating in accord with reality. Ray’s an amazing person to learn from.

Maria Montessori is another person who would be unconventional to suggest because she’s not even alive anymore. Most people are familiar with her educational system; there are Montessori schools around the world. I got hooked on her teachings as a method for understanding learning. If you want to talk about someone who didn’t see barriers to her success, she’s the person. In the 1800s, she had ideas for educational materials and at the time, women couldn’t get patents. She made up an alter-ego as a man and filed hundreds of educational tools and patents under that name. She was a no-barriers person. Her philosophy about respect and dignity for children and the learning process translates to learning everything. I’m super enamored of her work.

The last person people don’t listen to enough is themselves. This is kind of clichéd, but the number of people who have no “plugged-in-ness” to their inner wishes and their own inner voice is staggering. Sometimes people ask how I’d know the right decision in a certain scenario. My response is that my inner voice knows. I call it my “soul yes” or my “soul no.” I can rationalize any decision, but there’s a part of me just screaming yes to everything it wants to do and no to everything it doesn’t want to do.

I ask people about their own “soul yes” and “soul no” and they don’t seem to hear it very often, maybe because they’re too busy following other people and not plugging into themselves.

That’s a long answer, but some people have some great ideas that are all meaningless until you know how to get ideas from everyone, including yourself.

Everybody should be following you because you’re an inspiration. You’re making such a huge impact on not just the fitness field, but also the world. Thank you for talking about your journey through life and your successes.

 

Be Like John

“You don’t get goals you’ve never accomplished without building new skills, and you don’t build new skills without practicing things. Classic examples are like learning a language or learning to play an instrument. Most of my time is spent figuring out what skills I need next and what particular daily practices I need to accomplish to get the goal.”

From Goal to Action

The first step is to pick a goal. It could be anything—write it down on the top of a sheet of paper.

Next, write down all of skills you will need to accomplish that goal. Who will you need to meet or learn from? What course can you take? What books can help? What videos can you watch?

Learning about those skills will not automatically achieve the goal.

One of the reasons John has been such a successful coach is he that gets people to put new skills into some kind of a practice, ideally daily.

Ask yourself, “What particular daily practices do I need to accomplish in those skills to get to the goal?”

In the Precision Nutrition coaching program, when assigning a new habit, they ask “On a scale of one to 10, one being “there’s no way” and 10 being “no problem, I can do it,” how likely are you able to fit this into a daily habit?”

If you can’t answer a nine or 10, you need to dial things down and start smaller.

If learning the guitar is a goal and learning scales and chords are the skills you need, how much practice do you need to become proficient?

Can you practice five hours a day? If the answer is no way, give yourself a one.

Can you practice one hour a day? Sometimes—so you would give yourself a six.

Can you do 20 minutes a day? Yes, absolutely. Give yourself a nine or a 10.

That’s how to start. Schedule 20 minutes a day to practice the skills you need to become the guitar player you want to be.

Try this with a single goal and see how it works.

You can download a worksheet from PrecisionNutrition.com to go deeper on this exercise.

This was an excerpt from Anthony Renna’s book, Be Like the Best.

Anthony Renna—Be Like the Best

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Be Like the Best is a collection of 50 of Anthony Renna's interviews with some of the top fitness professionals in the world.

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