10 May 10 Life Lessons from Working at a Gym for 10 Years

In 2007 and 2008, I was living in Utah and working as the director of player development for the University of Utah men’s basketball team. When Rachel and I arrived in 2007, it was a new beginning and we were excited about what our future had in store for us. I had moved Rachel across the country to pursue my dream. The head coach and his wife were friends of ours. Basketball was everything to me professionally.

Fast forward six months…I was no longer excited about or focused on winning. Instead, my focus and desire was about moving on. Something inside me was screaming out that it just wasn’t the right situation anymore. I finally realized that basketball wasn’t my dream after all. My dream was changing. If I truly wanted to be happy with my life, I needed to make a move. I just knew I had to initiate a change.

10 Life Lessons from Working at a Gym for 10 Years

After searching for various positions in the greater Milwaukee area in the spring of 2008, I quickly landed an interview at the Wisconsin Athletic Club (WAC) for a general manager position. The rest is history. This month is my 10-year anniversary and I am eager to share what I’ve learned over the last decade.

#1. Commit to personal growth. During my WAC job interview, our COO, Chez Misko, asked me, “Derek, what is your plan for personal development?” Being caught slightly off guard by the question, I decided to wing it, thinking I could figure it out as I went along. I remember how I rambled on and on for a good three to four minutes, talking in circles about how hard I worked. At no point in my rambling was there anything relevant that had anything to do with personal development at all. Ever since that brief defining moment in time, the idea of implementing a plan for personal growth and development has been foremost in my mind. What is your plan for personal growth?

#2. Keep things simple. I’ll never forget the time when our President, Keith Nygren, handed me the Wall Street Journal and said, “Derek check out the front page.” The article was titled, Ryanair’s New Strategy. Ryanair is Europe’s largest budget airline. I was pumped to read and learn something new. Their strategy… be nice to customers. Since 1976, WAC’s first year, Keith has driven home the concept of keeping it simple. For 10 years I’ve heard the following words or phrases thousands of times: Be friendly. Greet everyone with a smile, his or her name, and kind eyes. Say please and thank you. Put people before policy. Focus on the basics. Use common sense and best judgement. Do the right thing. Life is already hard. How can you deliver easy by keeping things simple?

#3. Connect with others. Our CEO, Ray O’Connor, brought to my attention the fact that the name of our company has changed a number of times over the past 40 years; however, the word “club” has been a constant. Every gym has equipment, such as treadmills, bikes, and weights. At WAC, it’s about people, not things. To make a difference in someone’s life, you have to first connect with him or her. One of the best connectors at WAC is one of our group fitness instructors, Andre “Titan” Stewart. Recently, I asked Titan how his class was going. He said, “Great, but it’s not a class. It’s a family. If it’s only a class, I’m not connecting with them and they won’t come back. If it’s a family, they are comfortable around me and can’t wait for the next workout.” Andre gets it, so much so that his “family” designed special shirts in honor of him. His connecting clearly makes a difference. Think about someone you’ve walked by hundreds of times but have never met. How can you reach out and connect with him or her?

#4. Have fun. In the fitness industry, we are asking people to pay for something that most people hate… exercise. For that reason, we have to make sweating fun! In order to have fun you must be fun. According to Dale Carnegie, “People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing.” My colleague, Judi Offenbacher, is an incredible example of fun. She dresses up and runs around the gym like a turkey on Thanksgiving, Abe Lincoln on President’s Day, a bunny on Easter, and a cheesehead on Packer Sunday’s. The average adult works over 2,100 hours per year. How can you have more fun?

#5. Go the extra mile. One day during a big snowstorm, a dedicated member decided she would still attend her normal early morning cycle class, despite the terrible weather conditions. Within minutes of arriving, she noticed that her wedding ring was missing. She could not find it, but went to cycle class without it. Immediately, a front desk team member made finding her wedding ring his top priority. For the next hour, he combed the slushy parking lot with a flashlight. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to find it while our member was still in the club, but he refused to give up… only to find it after she left! Now he could have just called the member to notify her of the good news, but this team member decided to go the extra mile. Instead, he drove to a jewelry store, and had the ring professionally cleaned. Still not done, he then drove to the member’s school where she taught, and gave it back to her in front of her class. Wow. Her joy was all he needed to see. How can you tweak an average experience and make it great?

#6. Make people feel special. Every fall, we have a Giving Thanks to Seniors Luncheon, which is my favorite event of the year. After eating, we honor a king and queen, who are the eldest respective male and female members. Here is the best part. When you make others feel special, they make you feel special, too. One year, the king said to me, “We’re thankful for the one thing that your team does for us every day… improve the quality of our lives.” Who can you make feel important?

#7. Live your passion. In the middle of one of the coldest and most miserable Wisconsin winters that I can recall, my friend and colleague, Deb Shook, was driving to the club at 2:30 a.m. to open the facility. Suddenly, her tire blew out on an icy road, two miles from the club. The temperature was near 30° below zero with the wind chill. What did Deb do? She didn’t call or text anyone. Instead, she decided to walk the rest of the way to the club to ensure that it opened at 4:00 a.m. Deb truly went the distance for her calling. Are you living your passion?

#8. Give hope. One busy fall afternoon, I overheard a club member who was spending time directly outside my office. I learned that his name was Joe Torcivia. After talking with him, he told me that on February 18, 2012, he had suffered a grand mal seizure. Soon after, he had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. A few months later, Joe and I sat down together for a cup of “Joe.” I revealed to him what I had been considering for some time, and said, “Joe, I want to hire you. Would you be interested?” Joe quickly responded, “Unfortunately, I cannot. My doctor said that working would be too stressful for my condition.” Disappointed, I refused to give up. About a week later, I ran into Joe at the club. This time, I said to him, “Joe, here’s our mission card. You see, our mission is that ‘we make a difference in people’s lives,’ and we get to have a lot of fun doing it. We’re a team. Do you think your doctor would change his perspective if you showed him what we really do here?” After hoping and praying that we could help Joe while he helped us, I received the great news. Two weeks later, Joe started working with us. Who needs you to believe in him or her?

#9. Catch people doing things right. If you intentionally look for the good, you’ll find it. When you find it, recognize it. One of my favorite “WAC Moments” was created by my friend and colleague, Sue Elderbrook. A few years ago, our club’s washing machine died at our busiest location. She didn’t settle for an “out of order” sign. Instead, Sue drove to the bank, picked up a few rolls of quarters, rallied together some team members, grabbed a box of garbage bags, and drove back and forth from the club and to the laundromat… all to ensure that our members had clean towels. Sue, I cannot thank you enough for your creativity, your caliber of service, and your work ethic. Who should you praise and recognize today?

#10. Make wellness a priority. One of the best things you can give to others is your energy. After spending over 10,000 hours in my life enjoying tasty treats, 10,000 hours in the gym, and 10,000 hours as an athletic club leader, I’ve developed the following acronym and formula to help improve energy levels, FEWS: Food + Exercise + Water + Sleep = Energy. Stop complicating wellness and start simplifying it. Always plan the FEWS and you’ll be on fire every day… pack your food, schedule your exercise, bring your water bottle, and give yourself a bedtime. What is one wellness habit that you should start right now?

“What One Word Best Describes You?”

I’ve been very fortunate to participate in the energizing culture that is the WAC. I’ve been inspired by my colleagues and mentors and I’m grateful that they have allowed me to let my personality shine through… to let me learn and grow and become the person who I was meant to be.

Think about the place where you currently work, volunteer, or spend much of your time. Does the organization encourage and support your personal mission and values? Can you be yourself?

At the end of my interview in 2008, the last question came from someone who was to become my dear friend and mentor, Deb Orr. She asked me, “What one word best describes you?” I answered, “Care!” while I pounded my fist on the table. Deb went on to say, “At WAC, you get to live your ‘one word’ and be yourself.”

ACTION: What lesson will you put into action today?

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