"Experts often possess more data than judgment." – Colin Powell
My educational background is in the liberal arts. During college I read the 'Great Books,' studied mathematics in all its various forms, learned to read Latin and German, and got a good dose of physics and chemistry. As the years went on I was able to zone in on more specific topics of my choice, but always with that broader foundation. The liberal arts education is designed to produce students who can converse about a wide range of topics intelligently and thoughtfully. It's not always successful, but that's the aim.
Although I will always be grateful for this education, it was a rude awakening getting started in the real world as a freelance writer. Right off the bat, everyone who was at all successful in the field said the same thing: "Find a niche. Become an expert in your specialty." Niche? Expert? Specialty? Specialization is for insects.
Fortunately, when it came to fitness, my niche stumbled upon me and I didn't have to search it out. For me, that niche is prenatal wellness, specifically regarding exercise before, during, and after pregnancy. My own pregnancies taught me the importance of strength, endurance, and discipline. Before I knew it, I was reading a lot of books about my 'specialty' – not necessarily because I wanted to specialize, but just because I was interested. Then I wanted to help other women to reap the same benefits, so I started to seek out ways to educate myself further while also getting some credentials. Before I knew it, I was officially certified as a "Pre- and Post-Natal Fitness Specialist."
A funny thing can happen when you specialize in something, though. When you zoom in on one particular facet of something – anything, really – you start to see how it's connected to other things. Working in fitness is especially this way and I know others who have had similar experiences. For example, I know a guy who started off as a CrossFit coach and is now studying to become a physical therapist. In my case, starting off as a personal trainer for pregnant women has opened new doors to becoming a birth doula.
That being said, specialization can also be a dead end. Here are five pieces of advice I would offer any aspiring 'expert':
1. Don't get out of shape – mentally or physically.
It's easy to get certifications in specific fitness fields. Once you get those certifications, you might sit back, breathe a sigh of relief, and stop training and learning. DON'T DO IT. I don't want you to be like my high school gym teacher who sat and ate Twinkies while we played badminton. Please, for the sake of your clients and your own dignity, keep learning. Find new books to read, new research to pore over, new activities and training approaches, and, if possible, some intelligent and like-minded people to keep you motivated and inspired.
2. Don't assume your approach is right for everyone.
Just because you are passionate about your specialty doesn't mean everyone will be. If I got offended every time I came across someone who isn't too excited about the whole 'prenatal fitness' thing I would be a sad person. Share your knowledge with enthusiasm, but recognize that not everyone will want to talk for hours on end about your area of expertise or follow your particular training style.
3. Don't get tunnel vision.
The initial phases of obtaining your certification will require you to focus on it very intently. That's fine – in fact, it's great! You want to be knowledgeable about your field and seek out as much information as possible. But take some time every now and then to step outside your tunnel. Chances are you will come back to your field with a new appreciation and a fresh perspective.
4. Don't get stuck in the fitness box.
Remember that fitness is only one part of a much broader spectrum. If you specialize in a smaller field like I do, you might find that people tend to say the same things over and over again. There might be one guru who everyone in your field parrots. This is where it helps to think outside the fitness box. Discover what other wellness professionals – physical therapists, biomechanists, chiropractors, dietitians, kinesiologists – might have to say about your field. If you specialize in a particular sport or discipline, see how other training methods can improve performance in that area.
5. Don't specialize – fall in love.
This is what I will always appreciate about my liberal arts education. The emphasis was on finding what was interesting and important in the various disciplines, and not simply picking one to focus on for practical purposes. Don't just choose a fitness niche that's going to make you a lot of money (although I'm not going to deny that's definitely a perk). If you love what you do, pursue it diligently, give it time, and that side of things will sort itself out.
When you have that passion, you will want to zoom in on your object of expertise. You'll start to look closely and might even observe connections and opportunities you hadn't seen before. If you have that passion and that open-ended focus, your specialization will be more than a detached object of study. It will become your own and you will find, as the American playwright Arthur Miller once said, "You specialize in something until one day you realize it is specializing in you."
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