Is Your Education Getting in the Way of Your Learning?


For the past two years, I’ve been writing a column on education for Personal Fitness Professional magazine. It’s given me a good opportunity to reflect on my own education, what it really means, and how it helps (or doesn’t help) my career.

In the book Why We Run, zoologist and ultramarathon runner Bernd Heinrich writes, “In the same way that a painter must know the technical effects of color combinations, techniques of paint application, shading, and highlights, a runner must acknowledge physiology, the medium through which excellence is exerted.”

As a fitness professional with a PhD, I often find myself at the center of the debate of whether personal trainers need a university education. My 13 years in college didn’t truly prepare me for my career. Universities do a good job of giving you knowledge, but they do a poor job of giving you career skills. As one of my personal trainer friends says, “Skills pay the bills.”

Whether you want to be a personal trainer, fitness instructor, fitness director, or club owner, most of what you learn in school won’t help you. You won’t even remember most of it. You think I remember the intricacies of RNA transcription, or exactly how the enzyme ATP synthase synthesizes ATP? Hardly.

Wait a minute! Did Dr. Karp just say I don’t need a degree to be a fitness professional? No, I didn’t say that. Most professions require degrees in their respective fields to get jobs. So why should the fitness industry be different? However, a disconnect exists between what you do in school and what you do in your career. So what do you do? For starters, stay in school, or go to school if you haven’t. Because your biochemistry class is really not about learning how ATP synthase works. Your biochemistry class and all your other classes are about understanding the medium through which excellence is exerted and developing skills to turn that knowledge into expertise. Knowledge is knowing that water is composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen—H2O. Expertise is understanding the nature of water so well that you can make it rain.

In graduate school, I once asked my advisor, one of the world’s top biomechanics scholars, where his ability came from to develop his ideas of muscle contraction. He responded, “Years of research.” It wasn’t until years later, after I had experienced years of research myself, that I reached the empowering point where I could develop my own ideas.

Perhaps universities could be better at providing students with skills to pay the bills, but some of it is your responsibility. Think outside the textbook. Pick the brains of the leaders in your industry. If you’re at a university, volunteer for laboratory research. Find a mentor who’s doing what you want to do. And remember what Mark Twain said: “Never let your schooling interfere with your education.”

Don’t forget about the Run-Fit SpecialistTM certification, coming to a city near you!

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