[This is Part 2 of a 3-part series, where ConFITdent sits down with James Fell, columnist for the Chicago Tribune and fitness expert at AskMen, to learn and share his journey. Read on to learn how his career as a writer exploded and the one thing that separated him from all the other fitness experts.
Click here for Part 1.]
When you were published in the LA Times, was that the moment you felt, “Alright, I’m here now.”
We were at a party on the coast at my parents’ place and my stepdad referred to me as a writer. I had just been published like a week earlier in the LA Times for the first time.
I caught that, but didn’t make a big deal out of it. My wife said, “Did you hear what your stepdad said?” That was something that stuck with me — this is actually my job now. I was still working part-time in that executive director role at that point and I did that for another eight months until I was really making enough money from multiple sources.
I joked I’m one of the most overworked writers there is. I’m constantly being offered opportunities to be paid to write that I have to turn down because I just don’t have the bandwidth. I’m cranking out thousands of words everyday and getting paid to do it because there just seems to be a very high demand for my work.
What pushed you to slog through the tough times? What was your approach just to keep pitching and just hope for the best?
It may sound arrogant, but I knew I was good. Even though it wasn’t reaching very many people, people were saying, “We really dig this.” Any career takes time to launch: becoming a freelance writer is an entrepreneurial venture and most companies don’t make money out of the gate.
You have to build a base and have to build a reputation. Like I said, people are telling me, “You come up really fast.” I am one of the most read fitness columnists in North America now. My Chicago Tribune column runs in about 40 papers around North America and I’ve got a couple of other columns and then Six Pack Abs in six months has gone from zero traffic to lots of traffic.
So there are millions of people that are reading my stuff every month but still, it seemed like to me that it was going quite slowly whereas everybody else says, “Man! You like just blew up overnight.”
But I still remember that first year and how it felt like. “I should just be having success immediately,” but then my more rational self said, “Dude, just keep working hard and eventually it’s going to happen. You need to be patient.” It was like with working out: just keep working hard and be patient and it’s all going to come together.
But you get so much rejection. I could go and pitch some big magazine right now and I guarantee you, they would reject me because there’s more rejection than there is acceptance in the world of writing. You have to develop a thick skin and you have to be in pretty much constant sales mode.
My column with the LA Times came from a cold call. I told her I was this entertaining fitness writer and she was willing to give me a shot. But I would say half of the reason I had been successful has been because of my business acumen, having an MBA, working in sales and marketing for a dozen years and knowing that it’s shameless self-promotion and a willingness to call up editors and cold call them and pitch them right there. The same thing happened with getting an agent, getting a book deal with Random House.
It was developing no fear of rejection. Sometimes you get really ****** emails from editors, saying that this isn’t funny. “Who do you think you are?” “We have absolutely no interest in this.” “This is a terrible idea.”
You have to have absolute faith in yourself to persevere in the face of constant rejection because every writer is going to get way more rejection that they’re getting acceptance. It’s just part of the game.
How do you feel the MBA has helped your fitness career?
It’s been absolutely critical. On the sales and marketing side, I would say I am not the greatest marketer from an e-marketing perspective. I was more sort of the big boss that would say, “Yeah, we need a good comprehensive social media strategy. Let’s hire somebody to do it for us.”
When it comes to do going it myself, not so good. But the thing that has been valuable to me is just knowing that you have to sell and I can get on the phone with an editor or some type of business and convince them that I’m worth listening to and convince them that they should give me work.
I know that work doesn’t fall out of the sky: you have to go out there and get it. It was a sort of salesy work ethic that I had that was valuable. But beyond that, it actually had a significant effect on my approach to fitness. I call it trying to separate fly **** from pepper, which is you go to all of these fitness bodybuilding message boards and stuff and all these guys are debating these stupid micro issues that make up almost none of it.
I wrote a really popular article for AskMen called “Focusing on the 90 Percent,” which is all about how all these guys on message boards are debating that final 10 percent that separates podium from also-ran and champions from fourth place.
I’m thinking, “For the vast majority of the population, this stuff just doesn’t apply.” The stuff that applies is, “Did you not eat fast food? Did you choose fruits and vegetables and lean meats today? Did you go out and run really hard and lift really heavy and just kicked your own ***?”
If you kick your *** on a regular basis and if you eat healthy and you don’t overeat, that’s 90 percent of it. Let’s focus on that. The MBA teaches you to focus on the big picture. I wasn’t getting mired down in tactical details.
I have a consulting business as well where I consult people about getting in shape. But I don’t do nitty-gritty tactical details.
All of my writing is very big picture, because I think that that’s the missing aspect. The majority of writers out there, fitness writers, I think are getting bogged down in the details and these details matter to about one percent of the population.
I’m going to go for everyone else because 70 percent of the population is overweight and most of them don’t want to be overweight. I’m going to write about things like motivation and time management and goal setting and learning to love exercise and choosing the right exercise and figuring out how to do more, be competitive, and embrace your ***-kicking spirit. I’m going to focus on the big picture and I’m going to reach a much broader audience.
That’s why I tell people I have an MBA. My fitness knowledge and my MBA are completely integrated because most people don’t give a **** about approach and timing or even periodization is not that important to most people who aren’t competitors.
My approach is to create some big picture rules for myself that have been great for long-term sustainability because I’m not developing an obsessive compulsive mentality over it.
There’s actually a lot of research that shows that people who develop an obsessive mindset over fitness have a high burnout rate. Those who create what is called “harmonious passion” — where they feel their way through and now the basic rules that they could stick to — have a lot more long term success and that’s why I’ve been doing this with a smile on my face for the last 20 years. Part of it is the power of winging it. You’ve got some good basic rules where you know that this is how this works. The basic rules are go hard but not too hard. Work out long, but not too long and don’t ignore injuries. Don’t hurt yourself. Don’t go until you puke or anything like that. Eat good food, mostly plants, not too much.
If you’re doing that, then you’re going to be great. That’s one of the things that I preach and my clients and readers have had success with it.