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RHR: What Makes an Effective Health Coach, with Dr. John Berardi


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In this episode of Revolution Health Radio, I’m joined by Dr. John Berardi, co-founder of Precision Nutrition and an expert on health coaching. We discuss Dr. Berardi’s client-centered approach to health coaching and talk about how to ask the right questions, use positive psychology in coaching, build a well-rounded base for your practice, and much more.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

In this episode, we discuss:

  • What really leads to change
  • Why health coaches need to take a client-centered approach
  • The art of asking the right questions
  • Using positive psychology in health coaching
  • The problem with overspecialization
  • Why prioritization matters for health coaches and business owners

Show notes:

Hey, everybody. Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m really excited to welcome Dr. John Berardi as a guest. John is a Canadian-American entrepreneur best known as the co-founder of Precision Nutrition, the world’s largest nutrition coaching, education, and software company. He’s also the founder of Change Maker Academy devoted to helping would-be change makers turn their passion for health and fitness into a powerful purpose and a wildly successful career.

Over the last 15 years, he’s advised Apple, Equinox, Nike, and Titleist, as well as the San Antonio Spurs, Carolina Panthers, US Open champ Sloane Stephens, and two-division UFC champ Georges St-Pierre. He’s also been named one of the 20 smartest coaches in the world and 100 Most Influential People in Health and Fitness. He currently lives in Ontario, Canada with his wife and four children, although they tend to escape the cold Canadian winters by spending January to April in warmer places.

I’ve known John for a couple of years now, I think, and had the pleasure of speaking with him on many occasions. I think he is a really brilliant, compassionate, heartfelt person, and one of the smartest people in the room when it comes to these topics that we’ll be discussing today. So I was honored to have him as a guest on the podcast. I hope you enjoy the discussion. Let’s dive in.

Chris Kresser:  John Berardi, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show. I’ve been really looking forward to this. Welcome.

John Berardi:  Thank you, Chris. I really appreciate that. I always enjoy our non-recorded conversations very much. So, I’ve been looking forward to today as just changing things up a little bit and, hopefully, some of the great stuff we talk about in private can be translated to the listeners.

What Really Leads to Change

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely. So, change. You mentioned change, and that’s obviously the subject of your book Change Maker. And I’m really excited to dive into this because there are so many parallels between what you’re writing about in the book and what I’m passionate about and what we’re doing at Kresser Institute with training health coaches and nutritionists and what you’ve done at Precision Nutrition so amazingly, for so many years.

And I’d love to start by diving into something that you mentioned pretty early on in the book, which I think is a really key point that sort of frames the book and our discussion together, which is a lot of people have a big passion for health and wellness. Maybe they have their own story of recovering from an illness, or maybe they were an athlete, and they got really into fitness. And then they want to go out and share that work with others, which is totally understandable. That’s how I came to this work. But there’s sometimes an assumption that just being a good athlete or being really into fitness or knowing a lot of information about health is enough to be an effective coach.

John Berardi:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, what’s the problem with that assumption?

John Berardi:  Well, it’s, and I’m sure you learned it the hard way as I did, but there’s this notion that at least I had coming up, and maybe I was the only one, but I doubt I was the only one. That my passion for eating well, exercising, sleep, stress management, all the things we know go into “healthy living,” I just want, like it was, it was bubbling up in me, I wanted to share it with others. And my presumption was that if I just shared it, either it would catch on in the other person or nothing would happen. Not that there could be a negative outcome.

And I’ve come to learn since, not only through real experience, but through studying change psychology and looking at cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing and many of the sort of evidence-based tools that we have at our disposal nowadays, that, oh wow, actually this sort of dumping your passion on other people can actually make them less likely to change. And that, for me, was like the head exploding “aha” moment early in my career. You just never presume that if you’re full of care, you’re full of excitement, and you’re full of knowledge, that you can actually take someone lower on the readiness for change scale, by talking to them about it, by trying to help them. You’re like, my intentions are pure, my knowledge is sound, my enthusiasm is high.

How can that make someone actually less likely, actually pushing them further away from making an important change in their lives? Well, it’s a fairly well-known thing that, especially for people who are ambivalent or on the fence, they’re not quite sure yet, when someone comes in guns blazing full of fire, they tend to position themselves almost as like a devil’s advocate situation. And I always joke, I always tell this story about, and this happens in my house all the time with my wife, Amanda. Where, like, let’s say, I get my hair cut every six or eight weeks or whatever it is, right? And so, as I’m coming up on that next phase, and I’m deciding, like, when I should book my next haircut, if Amanda were to come in and be, like, “Oh, JB, your hair’s looking terrible. You’d better get that cut right away.” Is my first inclination to be like, “Oh, she’s right, I’m gonna book that this minute?” No, it’s actually, like, I’m gonna wait an extra week. You know what I mean?

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

John Berardi:  Just because that’s our natural human tendency to try and sort of temper down the other person’s energy, especially when we haven’t decided yet. When we’re ambivalent. And that’s when we’re reaching out to help people, especially if it’s unsolicited, friends, family, whatever, that’s exactly what’s happening. So, this idea that passion alone, or care or helpfulness, is going to be a really useful tool in your arsenal is faulty. In fact, it could actually take people, if you did a zero to 10 scale, and someone was on a six out of 10 ready to change, you could actually push them back to a four. And I was, like, wow, that’s remarkable. That’s amazing. At first, it was uncomfortable because I knew I’d done it a bunch of times to people. Okay, now, how do I go forward with that?

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, that’s such a great point. And it’s so, if we just take a moment and think about it from our own personal experience, most human beings don’t like to be told what to do.

John Berardi:  That’s right.

Chris Kresser:  And we resist that. But there is another way, which we’re going to get to. And I’m glad you pointed out things like motivational interviewing, which you discuss in your book, and positive psychology, and there are so many evidence-based strategies now that we know work. We know it from the scientific literature. And also, of course, from the anecdotal experience of thousands of practitioners who are doing this.

There’s a related piece here, which is, on the one hand, our passion and care for others isn’t necessarily enough to help them make the changes that they may want to make, which is a key insight. But there’s another assumption that we often make when we’re new to this work, which is, if they could just be more like me, or eat the way I eat, or do the things that I do and follow my kind of routine, because it’s been so successful for me, then it must be successful for them. Right?

John Berardi:  Yeah, totally.

Chris Kresser:  Not right.

John Berardi:  That’s right. Yeah. It’s problematic. And it’s so understandable. Like, if we’re going to ask the professionals or want-to-be professionals and coaches listening in to have some compassion and empathy for their clients, then we better have some for the coaches themselves and their own journey. Right? And that means accepting that we all kind of go through this phase early in our career, right? It’s in some ways, the answer to this is [the] development of wisdom, right? Like, a way to survey all the possibilities out there and say, “Okay, what things matter? What things don’t? Are particular things that may work in one situation always, forever in every one going to be applicable?” Right? And those are the three conditions that we have to look at.

So, whenever someone’s supercharged about keto, or exclusively plant-based, or whatever, we have to ask, “Okay, wait, but you’re suggesting that is the best approach to eating.” And we can look at exercise and sleep and stress management the same way. So, I’ll just focus on eating here. Is that the best way for everyone? So, are there any physiological differences that could lead us to think that maybe there’d be a different approach for this person? Also, for always, because we know as life changes in a particular individual, you get older, you develop an autoimmune disease, whatever, right? So, the individual could change. So, there are between-people differences, there are within-self differences, you know what I mean?

So, we have to really take all those things into account. And a lot of young coaches don’t, and I understand that. And hopefully, they’re listening to us, and you know, they’re reading our materials and getting training from us, so that they can see how to step one, step outside of their experience, and say, all right, wait, this feels true to me. Can I test the truth of that? And this is the overarching skill, like, get past nutrition for a second and say this is the fundamental skill of life, whether you want to run a business, or you want to have a political opinion, or you want to know what the best diet is. It’s to say my experience feels true. And that’s probably problematic.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

John Berardi:  Because if I accept truth only through the lens of my own experience, I’m going to be missing out on other experiences. The ones right next to me, and then the ones even further afield. Right? People often say travel is such a mind opener for people, especially if they immerse themselves in other cultures. And that’s the very reason why. Because you’re taking yourself out of your own field of vision, your own point of view, and looking actively for others. And when you see it, you go, “Wow, I never considered things this way.” So, you know again, for people who are trying to develop as coaches, it’s such an important tool to say, “Okay, great. I’ve had these anecdotal experiences personally or with a few clients. That’s meaningful; I need to learn something from that. But I don’t want to develop any superstitions from it. I want to go look at other experiences outside of my own and really test them.” And this is one of the things I talk about in the book, my “Google the opposite” strategy, right?

So, there’s this really tactical way of getting at this. It’s not when you’re looking to disprove a thing you don’t want to believe. But when, and this is so important, when you believe something pretty strongly, right? So, let’s say I get exposed to a new idea. Recently, it was a parenting idea. There’s this book, Hold On to Your Kids, that’s probably the best, most insightful parenting resource that I read that really changed my mind about things. And as I was reading it, I was finding myself so enamored with the ideas. Like, this just feels true. It’s got to be right. And then I’m like, “Oh, wait, I’m not a developmental psychologist. I’m new to this,” right? So, the first thing I do in situations like that is I go on Google and I type in the opposite.

So, the guy who wrote the book is Gordon Neufeld. So, I type in phrases like “Gordon Neufeld attachment theory, debunked.” “Gordon Neufeld, attachment theory, bullshit.” Things like, words people might put together when they’re trying to disprove a thing. And I’ll spend an equal amount of time looking at the other side of the coin, versus the one that I’m really strongly attracted to. Whereas what I think a lot of us are inclined to do is do that particular exercise when we believe in something already, you know what I mean? So, we’re trying to debunk the thing we already don’t believe.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

John Berardi:  I’m trying to debunk the thing I already believe.

Health coaches help people change—but that’s not a simple process. Check out this episode of RHR for practical advice on how to focus on the client and become an effective health coach. #healthylifestyle #changeagent #kresserinstitute

Why Health Coaches Need to Take a Client-Centered Approach

Chris Kresser:  Yes. And that’s, that takes, it requires discipline and a certain kind of dispassionate observer approach. Because humans are very subject to confirmation bias, right? Just seeking out the information that confirms what we already believe or suspect or want to believe and ignoring any information or inputs that contradict or might challenge what we believe or what we hold to be most true.

So, I love that you take that approach. It’s something that I try to do as much as I can, as well. And it, to me, then this leads to the next, I think, critical perspective in your book, which is, and this is something we’re constantly, it’s probably the very first thing that we teach our coaches in our program, which is, I mean, to summarize it, it’s not about you. So, we’re coaching, we’re talking about our passion not necessarily being enough. Needing to close the gap between us and them. But then really understanding what people need.

So, you talk about, you know, 80 percent of the time should be spent listening in the session, which is really, I think, different than what a lot of people imagine health coaching might be. They think health coaching is like teaching. Right?

John Berardi:  Right.

Chris Kresser:  You are arguing, I agree, that it’s really more about listening and learning.

John Berardi:  Yeah. And I really like to unpack the idea of listening even, to some extent.

Chris Kresser:  Please.

John Berardi:  Because the, I think about it a lot like mindfulness practice, which, thankfully, is kind of becoming part of a broader social discourse right now. Right? And that’s wonderful. But a lot of times, it feels nothing more than, like, finger wagging to me. You’ve got to be mindful. Mindfulness is the key, right? And you just imagine someone shaking a finger at you as they say this. And it just occurs to me that is just, well, it’s devoid of any utility unless you teach people how to be mindful. Mindfulness isn’t, mindfulness is an idea. It’s like a concept, but it’s not necessarily a practice. There are practices you can do to develop mindfulness, but I just really dislike, you know, when coaches will say, listen more. Be mindful.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

John Berardi:  You know what I mean? It’s like telling someone who’s, like, five-foot four playing basketball, who can’t dunk, to jump higher. You know what I mean? Like, oh, I see. I see you over there trying to dunk the ball. You know what you need to do to be successful in basketball? Jump higher, man.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, or grow taller.

John Berardi:  Wait a second here. So, for me, you know what is listening? Well, it’s not closing your eyes and saying nothing. It’s often asking compassionate, proactive questions. So, there is an element of you talking even in listening, right? It’s actually asking pointed questions designed to get the other person to open up, speak, share insights, dream about a hopeful future. Things like that. All things we want when we want to either understand the history of someone’s journey, understand what their needs are most today, or understand where they want to go so we can help plot the course with them for that.

So again, we call this client-centered coaching at Precision Nutrition historically, and we contrast that against coach-centered coaching. And, you know, a really pointed example would be let’s say, you’re very fit and you’re in an exercise facility, a gym or something, and someone were to come up to you and say, “Hey, listen, I noticed you’re here all the time. You’re very fit, you’re strong, or whatever. You have high performance. I’ve been wondering, like, what should I eat after working out to get the best results?” So now a coach-centered coach would use this as an opportunity to describe what happens during exercise to glycogen levels and protein synthesis, and, therefore, then rush into a recommendation. And they wouldn’t be incorrect. If the type of exercise did deplete glycogen, you may want to replenish glycogen.

But that’s a very coach-centered approach. It’s about you and your knowledge, right? A client-centered approach would start with, “Well, what do you eat after exercise right now?” So, I’m trying to more deeply understand the context of their current life. “Oh, okay, that’s what you’re eating now. Cool. What are your goals? Like, or do you have performance goals or aesthetic goals, or is it health?” So now you can see we’re sort of zeroing in on better advice for that person. And then, eventually, you may make a recommendation that bridges the gap between this ideal you have around protein synthesis and carbohydrate replenishment, preparing for the next exercise session with where they’re at today, and where they want to go.

And again, you don’t get there if you rush in to teach, as you said. So, for us, there’s this shift that coaches all have to go through from coach-centered, so what I believe in my knowledge to client-centered, which is, frankly, how can I say the least amount of words to help you choose the next right action for yourself?

The Art of Asking the Right Questions

Chris Kresser:  Right, and also, how to ask the right questions. So, you talk a lot about this in the book; it’s, there’s a skill of listening, for sure. And there’s also a skill of asking questions. Not all questions are created equal, we might say. So, tell us a little bit about that piece of this.

John Berardi:  Yeah, and, you know, for, I give a whole host of different kinds of questions and ways to ask things in the book. And, at the higher level, it really starts with understanding who that person is that’s in front of you. [For] some people, asking too many questions will annoy them eventually. You know what I mean? If you’re asking them lots of open-ended questions, or if you’re asking them to make particular choices, and they’re like, wait, I hired you to direct to me, you know what I mean? So, you have to know who’s in front of you. Some of your clients, if you direct them, will become less likely to change, and others if you direct them will take that direction well. So, Part A is figuring out what kind of person is in front of you to guide the types of questions that you ask.

Then Part B is when you actually lean into the questioning. It’s getting at the kinds of things that, I think, we call it sort of provoking gentle self-discovery. So, in ancient times, Socrates was known as this person who would ask these questions, and he was called sort of the gadfly of society, which is like a pest. Right? It’s kind of this pestering. He would ask challenging questions designed to provoke self-discovery of politicians and leaders and businesspeople and the average citizen. And he was perceived as annoying. So, the question becomes, how can you craft a way of asking questions where you’re not annoying, right? That the audience is taken into account, but that also provokes a gentle kind of self-discovery. One where, if you’re asking me the questions, my answers help me learn about myself, and then help me choose the next actions. I often think about parenting in this context because I think coaching and parenting are so similar if you are using the best practices, right?

And I always remember (we have four children now) when our oldest, who’s now nine, was two, and we were taking her to half-day Montessori school. And she just went through a phase of not wanting to put on her coat. Like, it’s cold outside; we live in Canada. She doesn’t want to put on her coat. And we could be directive, like, “Hey, put on your coat, honey.” We can be instructional. “Do you know what happens when you go outside and it’s minus 20, and you’re not warm?” Or we can empower her to choose. Right? “Honey, it’s time to go to school. There’s a couple of coat options for you here. There’s the pink one and the yellow one. Which one do you think will feel best or look best with your outfit today, or whatever?” So, you’re empowering her to choose, you know, rather than directing her.

So, a lot of these things go from, like, open-ended questions, “What is your goal,” to very specific questions like, “If we were to imagine you reaching your goal, what would your average day look like for you? What would it feel like inside your body? What kinds of things would you be able to do?” So, we’re helping folks get really specific. Telling me that their goal is to lose 20 pounds is actually quite meaningless. Right? I know now they have an aesthetic goal, but I don’t know why they want that. I don’t know what they want their future to look like or feel like once they’ve achieved that. Which makes me feel like maybe they don’t know either.

Chris Kresser:  Exactly.

John Berardi:  And then we can work on that together. And we may discover that 20 pounds isn’t the goal at all. That was just the thing that they thought would make them feel a certain way that they’ll feel when we could probably get them feeling that way without any weight loss.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

John Berardi:  So, again, there’s some real subtlety and nuance to it that I think, when we’re beginning in our career, we need to practice. Like, when I first started learning motivational interviewing and CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy], and tools like this, I read the books. I remember, I read Motivational Interviewing seven times.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

John Berardi:  And then I was, like, okay, this is all I’m going to get out of this book by now. I need to go to some workshops and practice this.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

John Berardi:  With other motivated students, and then that’s not even enough. Now I have to start practicing it with real clients when there are real stakes.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I mean, these are, the way we talk about it in our program is like, you can read a lot of books about learning to play the piano or playing tennis. And you can even speak intelligently about it at a cocktail party and fool someone into believing that you’re an accomplished pianist or tennis player merely by reading books and watching it on TV and things like that. But there’s no possible way that you’ll become an accomplished pianist or tennis player without actually doing it. Practicing it and doing it. I think that’s such an important point.

John Berardi:  Yeah, and it translates in both directions. Right? I think it translates to becoming a better coach. And I think this is the interesting thing, like, for the coaches listening in, you know, it’s, we know this already when it comes to clients, right? We probably even have inside jokes about this, right? Like, yeah, you can read as much as you want on the internet about fitness, but you actually have to go to the gym. Yet that knowledge sometimes gets completely lost when it comes to the same exact process required for our own development. Right? So, we’re like, haha, look at them. I’m going to go read a book on coaching.

Chris Kresser:  Right. I’m going to do some internet research. Yeah.

John Berardi:  That’s right.

Using Positive Psychology in Health Coaching

Chris Kresser:  Yeah. So, one of the biggest shifts in psychology and also in behavior change over the past several decades has been the development of positive psychology. So, the, like, historically, psychology has been about fixing what’s broken. And then, due to the work of Martin Seligman and many others, there’s been a paradigm shift toward the idea that maybe it’s actually better to build on what’s already working than to try to fix what’s broken. So, you talk about this, I think. I forget the exact phrase, but it’s something like focusing on the awesomeness.

John Berardi:  Yeah, yeah.

Chris Kresser:  So, how does that, why is that important?

John Berardi:  Yeah, we call it awesomeness-based coaching. So, the two main central tenets that really gird the coaching philosophy I believe in is move from coach-centered to client-centered, right? So, asking compassionate, proactive listening questions, and then governing your responses to that. All designed to help people move up the scale of readiness to change, if you want to call it that, or willingness, provoking gentle self-discovery and then collaborating on the next actions rather than you just telling them what they ought to do next. The ideal would be at the end of a coaching session, the client tells you what they want to do next, and it’s what you would have suggested anyway.

Chris Kresser:  Yes.

John Berardi:  So that’s the move from coach-centered to client-centered. And then the second major underpinning that girds this kind of philosophy is awesomeness-based coaching. So, the idea of being, especially in the exercise world, where we’re so full of assessments designed to figure out, like, what’s wrong with knee flexion, and ankle mobility, and all this kind of stuff. And I see it in the Functional Medicine world, too, right?

It’s 1,000 tests, all designed to figure out what’s wrong with you. Right? And so, I’m not saying that assessments aren’t an important part of the process. But what that way of thinking does to us is [that it] makes us problem finders rather than strength finders. Just rep after rep of your knee, your lower back, your liver enzyme pathways. Some things are looking for what’s wrong over and over and over again. It makes us forget that there, this organism, this human that’s in front of you, probably is doing a few things well, and very specifically, I noticed this in the personal training world, which is where I started.

I mean, I was this kind of jerk in the beginning of my career, too, where I would have, I would have clients who are very, very successful businesspeople who would, like, fly in on a private jet to work with me. And then I would condescend to them about being undisciplined and lazy, because they didn’t eat the right amount of protein or whatever, right? I’m like, in my mind, I really set them up as, like, kind of a weak, undisciplined, like, loser kind of individual. When all the markers of their life suggested their life was going better than mine. It’s just this one little area where I had the “upper hand,” and then I somehow let that bleed into my perception of who they were as a person. And that’s part of this problem here, right?

So, the idea becomes how do you align [with] the awesomeness? How do you say what are your unique abilities, strengths, skills, superpowers, outside of the gym or outside of the kitchen or your eating decisions, or outside of your ability to get adequate rest? Okay, cool. You are great at scheduling. Or maybe you have an assistant who helps you do that, which ends up becoming a superpower, right? Because now you have someone doing this great work for you. How do we get them in the service of this new goal? Busy executive, how do I loop their assistant in? Right? I’ve taught this to quite a few individuals.

And I, and my favorite thing that usually happens is coaches who are partners to busy executives will message me and be like, wow, I never really considered this; I’m always getting annoyed at my husband or wife, when I’m trying to, like, book something or schedule something on the home front. And it never occurred to me that they don’t, they’ve outsourced that skill entirely to their assistant, that I should just book this with their assistant.

Chris Kresser:  Yep.

John Berardi:  So that’s what I coach in that scenario. But the idea being find how they’re performing at high levels; what are the advantages they have to perform at those levels? And then put this project, this health and fitness life project, into that machine. Use their awesomeness to help leverage success in this area, rather than focusing on where they’re weak, and try and boost it up. Because that’s probably not going to work, especially for somebody who has a lot of habits and patterns already. That you, their personal trainer or nutrition coach, isn’t going to have enough leverage to overcome.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, that’s, it’s such a key insight, and I’ve found in my work with patients over the years that it’s really a big pitfall both for patients and practitioners to get stuck only in looking at what’s wrong. And because, as you said, in any moment, there are inevitably things that are going right. And if we, there’s a saying [from] one of my teachers and mentors, and I’ve said it a few times on the podcast, but “The focus of our attention determines the quality of our experience.” So, if we’’e always, if our attention is always focused on what’s wrong, then that’s going to really color and characterize our experience of life. So, it’s such a powerful shift.

John Berardi:  Totally, and think about the context, too, because we’re such conceptual or, sorry, contextual beings, right? So, let’s say in my home life, I have a really wonderful relationship with my partner, [and] a great relationship with our children. That aspect of my life is going extraordinarily well, right? And then, I try this fitness project. And every time I show up in the fitness context, I’m finding out what’s wrong with me. Finding out that I don’t have tools and skills to be successful. My coach continues to point out where I was weak or flawed in my approach. Not only doesn’t that leverage the advantages that are in the other context of my life, you make me not want to come back. It’s, like, way better over there when I’m with my family, or if the context is, I’m crushing it at work. Over here, I just feel bad all the time.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah. Yeah. And that’s not going to motivate you to pursue it at all.

John Berardi:  Exactly. So now we have two things working against us, right? I feel bad when I’m here, and we haven’t figured out how to leverage the skills I have over there over here. So, it’s particularly hard. And maybe I have years of physical and physiological neglect or abuse to overcome. So, these don’t seem like the conditions for a high-probability outcome, you know?

The Problem with Overspecialization

Chris Kresser:  Yes, yes. So, I want to, I want to cover one more thing that stood out to me in terms of just, I guess you might call the art and practice of coaching. And then, I want to shift gears and talk a little bit about the business side of things, because that’s something you’ve had tremendous success in with building Precision Nutrition and your own practice before that. And I love the way you approach it.

So, there’s a, I think, a growing trend over the past few years toward specialization, not just in coaching, but in pretty much everything, right? Now we get this kind of hyper-specialization. So, someone doesn’t just have a niche, they’re in a niche within a niche within a niche. But you have a different take on that. So, what’s your argument for being cautious or wary of too much specialization?

John Berardi:  Yeah, I just think in this particular field, it’s not valuable if you take a client-centered approach, really. If your specialty is exercise, and amid the exercise domain, it’s high-intensity workouts. And amid that, it’s Tabata-style workouts, then I guess all the, your potential market that you can serve is very, very small, first of all. And the people who do come to see you have to be really well-fitted to that. They need to be the people who need specifically that kind of modality.

And we know, I mean, with any experience, you learn that the people who are coming to you are coming to you with a host of things that need adjustment, attention, etc. So, the idea of being only a personal trainer, only a nutritionist feels very limiting for both your business and career and for the people you hope to serve. In the book, I did this exercise where I try and do this constantly, how do I see the other side? How do I have compassion and empathy for it? So, imagine we all just stayed in our lanes, right? And so, a client comes and has maybe high cholesterol, is 40 pounds overweight, and has back pain. Which, I mean, this isn’t a super unique and rare type of client, right?

Chris Kresser:  Lots of people.

John Berardi:  This is probably the constellation of symptoms that the average middle-aged person has, right? So, if we all stayed in our lanes, then that person would essentially have to start up a small business in the service of their improvement, right? So, they would need a physician, whether it’s an MD or a DO or a naturopath or whatever, working on their cholesterol. They would need an orthopedic surgeon or a chiropractor working on their back. They would need, say, a personal trainer/fitness coach working on their fitness and their weight loss.

So, now they have to hire three contract employees, which incidentally are located all over town, right? So now, when they have to get service for this business of their health now, they have that investment that’s required. So, there’s the financial investment, the time investment, [and] the fact that these three professionals are not working in unison.

Chris Kresser:  Yep.

John Berardi:  There’s no collaboration. No wonder people can’t get the help that they need.

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely.

John Berardi:  You know what I mean? That feels like a, now imagine also, I’m a middle-aged man with these symptoms, and [I want] to fix this. I also have a business of my own or a job. I have a family; I have aging parents. No wonder the fitness project [has] failed for so many people. We don’t really think about it this way. Because we’re in our space of coaching and we’re like, I know what to do to help this person. But if you put yourself squarely in their shoes, again, client-centered, we find that, man, this, this seems like a very difficult thing. I basically have to hire three employees, rent three facilities.

If I go to the gym, I’m basically renting a facility to spend that money and that time with no guarantee of an outcome. I don’t know, it feels like a hill too tall to climb. And so, for me, it’s, I really think the professional of the future (and I don’t know what the term will be for them; I don’t know what domain they’ll live in) will be more, like, kind of like a case manager for this kind of thing. Or a concierge, if you will. You know, my approach was always I have my deep area of expertise. I have a PhD in exercise and nutritional biochemistry. But I want to be fluent enough in the other aspects that I’ve talked about. I want to be fluent enough in stress management. I want to be fluent enough in sleep, such that unless there’s a real clinical pathology, I can help. I can give people practices that they can do to move them in the right direction in each of these pillars of exercise, nutrition, sleep, and stress management.

And then, if there is a pathology when I’ve gotten training in those areas, when I’ve done enough to be able to converse intelligently and help construct a non-clinical plan, now I know who the experts are in those areas, and I can reach out to them if there’s a clinical problem that arises. So, for me, this idea of sort of broadening your base instead of being very, very specific, very, very focused on a particular area. Sure, have that area. And I talk about this in the book, building your T-shaped curriculum. If for listeners trying to envision us, imagine a T, and the horizontal bar of the T would represent all the things that you’ll need to have—like a successful practice or business or whatever—to be “future you,” basically. What will I need to learn to be the me of the future that I dream of being and as a professional or as just a person?

And then the vertical bar of the T is what area is your deep expertise? So, everyone who’s really going to have a high potential for success, and I won’t say guaranteed success, because there’s no guarantee. But if you want a high probability of success, you will have this T being developed at all times. For me, for example, I have this science background and exercise and nutritional biochem. That’s my vertical line of the T. But I’ve also run a successful business, I’ve become an effective coach, and, hopefully, a decent communicator. So those are the things I built along the sort of horizontal axis, right? Coaching skills, business skills, marketing skills, communication skills, all the things to round me out.

So that’s what I think of in this sort of context of coaching, right? How can you start building this T-shaped curriculum, if you will. And it’s kind of, the T is the reminder that you do have to go deep probably in a certain area, and you need a broad base, as well. And so, that’s really the argument. This is, the future is [that] someone who’s sick or unwell or wants to improve is going to need someone to quarterback this process for them.

Chris Kresser:  Yes.

John Berardi:  And so, for me, it’s how can we shape an industry into recognizing this rather than territorializing things? And you know, Precision Nutrition is a great example. When we first started writing our certification program, which has had about 120,000 students now, every personal training organization was told not to learn about nutrition coaching. That was the thing.

And it didn’t worry me at the time because just about eight years prior, a good friend of mine named Greg Cook, who comes from the physical therapy world, was teaching things like dynamic mobility exercises, prehab, like movements you can do if your shoulder hurts prior to an exercise session to help gird the shoulder against problems arising from that session. So, basically, not teaching physical therapy, but teaching some type of movement and physical therapy techniques to personal trainers. And so, he had started this, like, eight years before we started doing the nutrition thing, and I got the chance to talk to him about it because he’s a friend. And he’s like, “Oh, yeah, when we started, we were getting cease and desist letters and threatened lawsuits. And every physical therapy association told us we had to stop teaching this stuff. And every personal training association told us we had to stop teaching this stuff.”

But we knew this is movement, right? This is the domain of movement; this is what the people working in the field are going to need and they want right now. So, when we started teaching nutrition in this context, I had Greg to look at and also my own intuition that this is going to be here. It’s right around the corner. And so, I think this is going to work. And I think it was a huge advantage for our business that it did work out that way. We were the only one doing it. But also, I think it teaches a broader lesson, which is when there’s a gap in an industry and a real felt need, solutions are going to fill it eventually. That’s just how capitalism works, right?

Chris Kresser:  Yep.

John Berardi:  And so, how are we positioning ourselves to fill it? And I know, part of your mission is to train this kind of 360-degree health coach. Someone who can do exactly this. So, whether the term is “health coach,” or “health concierge,” or “health case manager,” or whatever, I really do feel like this is the next invention or the next innovation in our field. So, bringing together a broad enough base, and again, obviously, if clinical issues come up in any of the domains we talked about, you refer out because that’s not your specialty. But there needs to be someone standing in the gap between specialists. That’s what our clients want and need.

Chris Kresser:  I agree 100 percent, and this is, in the medical field, like, that’s, I think, one of the key insights of Functional Medicine, is, in the conventional medical world, you’ve got a specialist for every different part of the body, literally. And as you said, they’re not talking to each other. And even if they are, they might not share the same perspective, and it’s really confusing and frustrating. And the primary care doctor is supposed to be in that quarterback role, but with 12-minute appointments, it’s just not even possible to do.

So, I love this idea in your book about a generalization and the T-shaped model where it doesn’t exclude the possibility or even the necessity of having some depth of knowledge or experience or skill in a particular area, but not stopping there. Because, otherwise, I mean, the other risk of that, of course, is when you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

John Berardi:  That’s right, yeah.

Chris Kresser:  And in the medical field, again, I see this with, like, for example, Lyme [disease] specialist doctors. And this is, of course, not true of all Lyme specialists. I know many, including my partner at CCFM, who are not like this. But if someone’s been a Lyme specialist for too long, there’s a real risk that everyone who comes into the clinic has Lyme.

John Berardi:  Right.

Why Prioritization Matters for Health Coaches and Business Owners

Chris Kresser:  Is diagnosed with Lyme disease. So, I’d love to shift gears now. We’re getting close to the end here. But you have a wealth of knowledge as a, launching and running for many years a very successful business in Precision Nutrition. And there’s, I love that section of the book, and [I] highly encourage anyone who’s starting a business in the health and wellness field to read this book and that section, too. I want to focus in on one piece of that in our remaining time here, which I think is so critical to someone who’s starting out, starting a new business, and that’s ruthless prioritization. Why did you prioritize that in your book in the business section? Why did you focus on that?

John Berardi:  Yeah. I mean, it was the most impactful lesson, first of all, for me, and really, the book is based on everything that I think I’ve learned in my years of doing what I’ve done. So that’s part A. It was, like, okay, cool, when it came to business early in my career, I felt a tremendous amount of anxiety for all the things that I wasn’t doing.

So, I knew successful people. I watched some other companies, and I kind of presumed what I thought they were doing, which, again, as I’ve grown and learned, I was like, that’s probably the worst way to judge your performance based on your perception of what other people are doing, not knowing what they’re really doing.

Chris Kresser:  Right, yeah.

John Berardi:  In the last few years, having learned more about private equity, and investment, and all this kind of stuff, I’ve gotten to see the books of a lot of companies. Some of which I thought everyone in the industry thinks are totally crushing it, and they’re a month away from bankruptcy. And some companies who are not on anyone’s radar, and they’re doing so extraordinarily well. So, I’m like, okay, so that’s problem A.

Looking at people’s highlight reel and presuming that’s the totality of their life. So, but to this idea of prioritization, I just spent so much time being, like, oh, we need to do X. And if we were a great company, we would do Y. And finally, thankfully, I was able to discover the idea that within the context of a human life or a company life, there are only so many things you can focus on. If you try to focus on more than them, something will break. Those things could include your own health and sanity. They could also include the quality of the work on the things that you’re working on in the business context.

And so, I’ve just, this is something that everyone I’ve ever met will probably nod their head to, the need for prioritization. But there are too few people who actually live it out to its logical conclusion.

Chris Kresser:  Because it’s challenging, right? It’s not easy to prioritize.

John Berardi:  Yes. And I’ve seen it at every level of business. In 2017, when Phil and I sold the majority of our ownership in PN, that year, our EBITDA [earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization], so it’s basically our profitability of the company, tripled. And we did it with only two priorities for the company for the entire year. So, we focused on specifically two things that we thought had a really high probability of growing the company and improving our reach, while still keeping the goal which is the impact we have on our clients and customers.

And everyone, like, whenever I would show that plan to “businesspeople” who would all agree that prioritization is critical, they would laugh and pat us on the head and say, “Come back when you have a real business plan.” The implication being two things is not enough. It’s not a serious company. So, really, I’m just bringing this up not to argue necessarily for prioritization, but just to say the gap that I see between people’s word and deed.

Chris Kresser:  Yes.

John Berardi:  People all say prioritization is important, yet even the ones who might champion it, write about it in business books, can’t do it well when it’s time to actually decide what the one thing is that you’re going to focus on right now and put all your energy and your resources and your talent and your enthusiasm toward. And I’ll tell you why.

Again, this is me trying to sit in the other role that I often do and have some compassion and empathy for the other side. And the other side is that, oftentimes, if you don’t have a lot of confidence in knowing what will work, you hedge your bet by trying 10 things. And so, this, to me, becomes like the internally consistent system, right? So, it’s like, all right. If you have a lot of confidence that thing A and thing B will work, you can put all your energy into them. But if you don’t, you’re like, oh, man, okay, I better bet on a couple things. In case thing A and thing B don’t work out. And then, either I look like a fool or we lose money, or whatever the case may be. So really, I have a lot of empathy for that scenario where people struggle to prioritize because it isn’t just about discipline. It’s also about confidence. It’s about increasing your confidence.

So that’s really where I, there are two things that I think have to happen for any business owner or even person trying to navigate the world. If you, let’s say, have a family and aging parents and a house and responsibilities and your work, you have to prioritize all the time. Right? So, the question becomes how will you do it? And I love the tournament method, where you just sort of lay out all the things you think you ought to do. And then you make them compete against each other, like in a tournament bracket. A versus B, C versus D, E versus F, and the winners of that first round compete for the second round. And then, finally, you end up with one thing that when you put things all head-to-head, this is the thing I should work on next.

But the question becomes, if you’re not confident that thing is going to work, if you don’t think it has a high probability of success, how will you be able to focus on it? And the answer is you won’t. You won’t. You’ll constantly be thinking, I better hedge my bet somehow. Which leads to the second part of prioritization, which is, how can I increase my confidence in the things that we think will work? And that’s where you need other people. I think Ray Dalio says it like, “The best ideas don’t live in your head.” In your head, you know? For me, I extend it to say the best ideas live in the interface between you and other smart people. So, it’s not in their head, either. It’s what happens when you play ideas games together.

And so, for me, that’s what half of my Fridays at PN always were. The first half of every Friday was, I just booked out the half day and I put thinking in my calendar, and it’s not just me sitting here with a notebook thinking or just in Lotus Pose. It’s trying to solve any challenges that are in my life at present, work or otherwise, trying to lean in and understand more about any opportunities that I see. And some of those days were spent just talking with highly believable people who could help enhance either my ability to decide or my confidence in a decision that I’m about to make. So, this is where I think a lot of people get stuck. They’re trying to reason out the next thing they ought to do inside their own head. And the best ideas don’t live there.

So, you can see how this is, like, an internally consistent system. You can play the tournament game, if you vetted each of those items on your list against believable people. And you feel like there’s a strong chance that any of those ideas could actually make a difference. If the ideas could make a difference, and they have to get off the tournament all together, and then you have to compete good ideas against good ideas. And then, that’s where the new challenge comes in. Right? How do you not do a great idea? Well, the answer is when there’s a greater idea that has a higher probability of success. You know what I mean?

Chris Kresser:  Yes. That requires a lot of discipline. But I agree it’s the best path forward. John, I could, I feel like we could go on for a long time. And we have. Unfortunately, I have another commitment, but I love the book Change Maker: Turn Your Passion for Health and Fitness into a Powerful Purpose and a Wildly Successful Career. Tell everyone where they can find out more about the book and more about your work and what else you have going on.

John Berardi:  Yeah, absolutely. I mean, when it comes to a lot of the nutrition and coaching stuff, obviously, we have done that at Precision Nutrition for a very long time. So, people can check out PrecisionNutrition.com. But when it comes to this new work about you, about the coach, about your career, about how to have something sustainable in this industry, that presumably you’re extremely passionate about, we launched a new business called the Change Maker Academy, [and] we launched a new book called Change Maker, [and] you can check out the book at your favorite place to buy books. Amazon right now is selling a lot of copies of them. And if you want to check out the work we’re doing around the book, you can pop over to ChangeMakerAcademy.com and check out what we’re doing.

We’ve got an article section in there with over 50 free articles on everything from learning more about your clients and customers, to learning more about coaching, to learning more about sales, marketing, and business, to learning more about career, and even to learning more about building your continuing education model. So many of the things we talked about today, loaded with free articles and free resources you can check out. So, and if you don’t check out any of those things, thanks so much for just listening to us today. Hopefully, some of the things we said will get your thinking moving in a new direction or stimulated or excited, and for that, I appreciate you listening.

Chris Kresser:  Thank you, John, for sharing all of this. I think it’s going to be enormously helpful to the listeners. We have quite a few people who are already health professionals and many who are considering becoming health professionals. And we need more people joining this movement, for sure. I mean, this epidemic of chronic disease just continues to rise. And I’m thankful to you for your work in this area and helping people, giving them the tools that they need to succeed, because that’s really going to make a big impact.

John Berardi:  Well, thanks, Chris. It feels good to share this mission with someone like you. I enjoy our friendship. I enjoy the heck out of your work. So, I appreciate you having me on the show and for all the kind words you’ve said about the book and about our, the things we’ve done in the field. So, appreciate you very much.

Chris Kresser:  Thanks, John. And everybody head over to Amazon or wherever you buy books. Change Maker, it’s an amazing book. I read a lot of books. I see a lot of books come across my desk, and this is, [it] definitely needs to be on your shelf if you’re a healthcare professional or have any intention of becoming one. And even if not, there’s a lot of really important lessons in here for just being a change agent no matter what field you’re in. So, thanks for listening, everybody. Continue to send in your questions to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion, and we’ll see you next time.

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