Life’s Work Risk Analysis

If you have a steady job, keeping it is the safest thing you can do. Going after something you’re passionate about is risky. There are a number of aspects of your life put at risk: finance, emotion, and reputation to name a few. If you are going to leave behind the standard career path, these are the risks you assume. That is the dominant narrative anyway.

Before becoming a full-time fitness coach, I worked as a university administrator. I had a good job title at a respectable institution, a team of employees reporting to me, and a decent salary with a robust benefits package. I had been promoted a number of times and my boss had talked to me about taking the next step in the universe of higher education administration. I was safe. 

I wanted none of it. I remember consciously telling myself to respond diplomatically to the possibility of advancing further in the system. My inner voice was screaming “No!” While the next step up would clearly distinguish me as someone with a bright career, my insides recoiled at the notion of taking one more step down that path. That said, I didn’t know what to do. I had carved out a nice piece of territory for myself in the system and couldn’t rightly just give it up. That would be too risky. 

While I had looked at postings on, I knew that moving to another university system would not help me. My skills and qualifications would lead me to the same type of role in a different setting. Maybe a bump in pay or more prestigious institution, but the nature of my work and my daily life’s dynamics would not change.

For quite some time I had held onto the clandestine notion that I could change lives and become a fitness coach. Years prior, I had gotten certified to coach and did so on the weekends as a part-time passion project. It gave me a way to further cultivate my love of fitness and nourish my desire to connect with and help people. There were a number of full-time fitness coaches at the gym where I coached. While I could fantasize about joining their ranks, I didn’t know if I could make the same sort of living working in fitness. Additionally, I worried about whether my passion for fitness would endure if it became my full-time job, not just a hobby. Lastly, what if I couldn’t measure up to the standard of a full-time fitness coach? I knew enough to know that the job demanded a lot of personality in addition to skill and knowledge. What if I tried and failed? My reputation would be forever stained as someone on a successful track who gave it up to fail. Also, again, it’s worth repeating, what about the money?

None of those risks were present in my university job. I had financial security, personal validation as a successful professional, and respect of people around me. If I left my administrative job, I would either make a living coaching or fail fantastically have no way to support myself. There was a lot of risk in leaving. The risk analysis that kept me in my administrative job looked a little like this:

Stay in JobLeave and FailLeave and “Works”
FinanceLow Risk (Felt satisfied)High Risk (Worst case)Medium Risk (could I make enough money?)
EmotionMedium Risk (Felt unsatisfied)High Risk (Would be ashamed)Medium Risk (would I still feel the same about fitness?)
ReputationLow Risk (Felt respected)High Risk (Would be viewed as failure by both administrative and fitness professionals)Medium Risk (Would people respect me as a fitness coach in the same way as a university administrator?)

 However, I was miserable in the day to day of my administrative job. The prospect of progressing deeper into that world filled me with dread. That dread was a key component to the reappraisal of my situation’s risk analysis. What if I stay in higher education administration for the next thirty years and felt that dread every single day? What if I lived my whole life with contempt for what I had to do to make a living? Conversely, what if I could earn a living doing something I loved? What if I enjoyed the place where I went to work? What I was risking by staying was a lifetime of unfulfilling work. 

I also began to reexamine the prospect of what it would look like to fail at being a full-time coach. If that was the case, what would I do? Well, I would probably go back to some form of administrative work. I would apply for jobs and have years of experience advancing within a certain field. I would have to explain a gap in my resume, but I would be able to say that the reason I had the gap was because I took a shot at what I was passionate about. Would people really hold that against me? I certainly wouldn’t look down on anyone who took a shot at something special or different. 

Lastly, I looked at the financial risk with a bit more of a realistic lens. Working in higher education is not the most lucrative field. While I was content with my salary, I was in no way wealthy. Additionally, as I stated, at the gym where I coached part-time, there were a number of full-time coaches. While they didn’t seem wealthy, they were also clearly making a living and had been sustaining themselves in that profession for years.

My newly thought out risk analysis looked more like this:

Stay in JobLeave and FailLeave and Works
FinanceLow RiskMedium Risk (Would take a hit, but could resume career track)Low Risk (I knew fitness coaches making a living)
EmotionVery High Risk (A lifetime of dissatisfaction)Low Risk (Would be unfortunate to fail, but I would have an answer)Low Risk (Even if passion waned, it would be more enjoyable than a cubicle)
ReputationLow RiskLow Risk (Few people judge someone for taking a shot at something special)Low Risk (I would be a person serving others in a field I enjoyed) 

It became clear that despite what one may initially think, the riskiest prospect was staying in my current line of work. I would be risking an entire lifetime of fulfilling and enjoyable work. Though there was the possibility of failure of making it as a full-time fitness coach, I could still resume my conventional career. That’s the thing about the conventional path, it’s pretty widely available. If I were to leave and it worked out, I had the highest possible benefits: having a career I loved and a workplace I was happy to go to every day.

As it worked out, I left the  administrative job and started coaching. The life of a fitness professional has not been without challenges in the emotional, reputational, or financial realms, but I have not regretted that decision for one second. It baffles me that I was kept in a line of work I found unsatisfying so long out of fear of losing something. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. There is a false sense of fear that you will be risking too much by pursuing a passion. However, if you are in a job you dislike, you are already in the worst case scenario. We spend too much of our time at work for it to not be something that we feel a calling for. An accurate risk assessment proves not that you should value stability over fulfillment, but that you should seek out meaning and settle for stability in a worst case scenario. We are taught that stability and safety are of the highest value, but this is inaccurate. Meaning, passion, and purpose are the highest ideals. Stability should only be sought in a worst case scenario.    

Desire to Train: Physicality and Life’s Work

The desire for a perfect compass that always points to true north is shared by many travelers, but often times the path we travel is instead led by contours of rock and soil that make passage not just possible, but enjoyable.

Strength and conditioning, as with seemingly all other aspects of modern life, has advanced technically and analytically with time. There are constant innovations in equipment for both completing exercises and measuring the output of athletes. Strength and conditioning coaches can look at their athlete’s heart rate monitors, test an individual’s maximum oxygen intake, and even measure the speed with which an athlete moves a weight in a given lift. More and more professionals are tracking sleep, dietary choices, and recovery to maximize results.  Individuals who study the science and practice of strength and conditioning are constantly looking for new ways to deliver, measure and assess the best programs for their athletes.

Despite these advances, many grey areas still exist in the world of strength and conditioning. The data is still far from exact. Therefore, many rely on experience in the practice. One such method is “Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE).” In this method,  an athlete is given an exercise with a prescribed number of sets and repetitions; they are also given an RPE score on a scale of 1 to 10. For example, if an athlete is told to do a set of squats with an RPE of 8, the athlete should feel like at the end of their set they could have done a couple more repetitions. If the prescription was for a set of 5 repetitions with an RPE of 10, then the athlete should feel like there were no more possible repetitions left when completed. This method allows an athlete to autoregulate their day’s training based on how they feel that day. Some days an athlete feels well rested and is able to hit a heavy weight with an RPE of 6; on days where the athlete feels sluggish, they will use the same weight for an RPE of 8.

A related “soft” measure that strength and conditioning coaches may collect from an athlete is a “Desire to Train” score. At the beginning of each day, an athlete will simply log their desire to be in the weight room or at the track on a scale of 1to 5. This may be a subjective score that is prone to individual variation (some people just like training more than others), but it provides a valuable insight into how hard an athlete should push or lay off. A low desire to train may indicate the end of a long hard training cycle where a period of rest is needed. It may indicate that an athlete has not slept or eaten enough to fuel their training. It could mean that life outside of sport has been stressful and their energy has been spent on mental rather than physical exertion. These are all good things for a strength and conditioning coach to know. Collecting a Desire to Train score can tell a coach and athlete when it is time to back off, rest, or reformulate a training plan. 

While most of us do not have anything riding on our physical performance, I would like to highlight the importance of this lesson to our everyday lives. 

What is your Desire to Complete Life’s Work score when you get up each morning to take on a new day?

Just as physical training takes energy and effort, so does life’s work. There will be days when you feel like you’re ready to attack the world and take on all comers, do it. There may be days where just showing up and going through the motions is what you have in the tank, that’s fine too. But examine the data. What was present when you felt like taking on the world? What were the circumstances that led you to just go through the motions? It may be due to factors such as a good night’s sleep or something out of your control such as a death in the family, those are still factors worth noting. Advanced strength and conditioning programs undulate and vary. There are high days and low days. Life works in the same fashion.

The highs and lows of daily variation aside, there is another important lesson to glean from the Desire to Train metric: burnout and change in focus. If an athlete is consistently reporting a very low Desire to Train, a strength and conditioning coach needs to look at whether the individual has overtrained and a significant rest or deload period is required in order to restore the athlete’s central nervous system. Likewise in life, a consistent period of days where your desire to meet the demands of Life’s Work may mean that it is time for a vacation or a few days off. 

What is more, a consistent low Desire to Train may mean a larger question needs to be asked of an athlete: do you want to keep doing this? Athletic careers don’t last forever and when the spiritual fire is out, why continue on? This is a hard conversation to have. Many athletes identify themselves with their sport and their training. If they stop, who will they be? What will they do? Again, the parallels to Life’s Work are strong. If you wake up consistently not wanting to go to your job, should that be the place you spend the majority of your time? If the idea of continuing on in your current line of work seems daunting, do you want to keep doing this work? 

Not all paths are endless. Sometimes you reach a trail’s end. This requires asking some deep questions. What is it you truly want to do? Who are you really if you are not your job or career? What will wake you up with a desire to commence Life’s Work each day? Your previous data can be a guide. When was the last day you were fired up to do life’s work? What was present? When did you start just going through the motions? What was lost?  

Many athletes continue on in training because it is what they have done, but not always what they continue to want to do. Similarly, many people continue on their paths because it is the one they have been walking. Just as an athlete can take up something else with their physical activity, you can take up a new challenge for your Life’s Work. Either way, you should have a high “Desire to Train” score to do the work.