6 Questions With Fitness Queen Jillian Michaels

We spoke to personal trainer, wellness entrepreneur and ‘Biggest Loser’ star Jillian Michaels about what it really means to discover your motivation.

Jillian Michaels may be most famous for her ability to whip people into shape, but there are certain truths about sticking to a fitness routine that are entirely relevant to achieving fluency in a new language.

For one, motivation is not something that comes from outside of you. Secondly, you may never stick to any of your goals if you’re unclear about why they’re important to you.

Michaels has had a long, illustrious career in health and fitness, beginning with her introduction to martial arts at the age of 12 or 13. More than 100 million followers later (in addition to a hit television series, various fitness DVDs, an exercise streaming platform, 8 New York Times bestselling books, a podcast, a fitness app and various partnerships and investments), Michaels is deeply familiar with the mechanism of motivation, how internal drive actually works, and what it takes to follow through on what you say you’re going to do.

1. Can you tell me briefly about your journey with fitness and how you got to where you are today?

MICHAELS: Yeah, sure. Briefly is tough. Let’s see. I was an overweight kid. I got into martial arts at about 12 or 13. It was a long process of getting more fit and more empowered, but over the course of my experience in martial arts, I not only lost the weight, but the accomplishments that I had physically in that environment built my self-worth and my self-esteem as well. So, at a young age, I began to appreciate the transformative power of fitness, not just physically but emotionally and psychologically, and I realized that when you’re strong physically, it transcends into the other facets of your life.

So, I was training for my black belt at about 17, early 18. I graduated high school early, not because I was a genius or anything, just because my birthday fell on a strange cut-off date. People were coming up to me in the gym asking me how much I would charge to train them, and it was a hell of a lot better than the five dollars I was making an hour delivering pizzas. My mom helped me get my first little certification, and it kind of all started there.

2. Your personal training style is often described as “tough,” “no holds barred,” “no nonsense.” Is that an approach that’s always come naturally to you, or did you grow into that personality over time?

MICHAELS: It really is a combination of my experience with martial arts, and my mom is a psychoanalyst, so I’ve been heavily therapized since I was 5 years old. So, I have an empathy but not a sympathy. I think sympathy is a very dangerous thing. Sympathy to me is almost like validating somebody’s deepest darkest concerns about their abilities. Because if you’re sympathetic, it’s like, “Aww. You poor, weak thing. Just take the stairs.” Sympathy — it’s validating a false message of lethargy, whereas empathy is like, “Look, I get it. It’s hard, but you’re capable of doing it and it’s worth doing so let’s suck it up and let’s get moving.” And so, for me, my experience in doing my own work and therapy has allowed me to get it.

I understand that it’s not easy to do and it allows me to be empathetic, but my time in martial arts has also helped me understand that people are capable of far more than they realize. And when you treat them the way they should be treated, with an expectation of what you know they are capable of doing, they will rise to that occasion. But if you treat them like they’re weak or they’re fragile or they’re broken, you’re reinforcing a dangerous pattern.

3. Would you say it’s true that different people require different motivational approaches? Do you tweak your approach depending on who you are dealing with — how much trial and error did you have to experience before you figured out a system that works?

MICHAELS: Absolutely. It does depend on the individual, for sure. I mean, the science of weight loss is the science of weight loss, or fitness for that matter. You can tailor that science to create an approach that’s more manageable, or tolerable, for each individual. On a psychological level, though, people are definitely going to respond to different things without a doubt. And you can usually size somebody up pretty quickly.

If they’re a type A, you need a very focused, more drill sergeant approach. If they’re a little more sensitive, you need to build them up with far more praise. So, it just depends on the individual, but the thing with Biggest Loser that was very different, that I would not apply in everyday circumstances, is that you have this life or death intervention, but it’s on a ticking clock. So, the rate at which you need people to hit certain benchmarks of accomplishments is dramatically accelerated.

For there to be any hope of somebody making healthy changes and maintaining them, you need several things to happen.

You need them to have this rock-bottom moment where they realize the way they’ve been living is more painful than the fear and the work associated with where they need to get to.

You need them to have an accomplishment in the gym that creates a crack in the structure that they sort of … How do I explain this? We all have a belief of what our capabilities are, right? And if you have an accomplishment that shatters that idea or the notion of what you think you can’t do, it allows you to open up an infinity of possibility and get somebody to engage and take further action. You can’t believe in a reality you haven’t experienced. So you have to give them a success in the gym that they didn’t think was possible and that allows them to gradually redefine their worth and their belief in their abilities. You need more of those, but you need at least one to get the person on the road.

And then the third thing is that you need them to take responsibility, because even though there are various times in our lives where we are, in fact, victims, or life is out of our control and it is unfair. How we respond to those things is what’s going to make all the difference, and if they can’t take responsibility, then they are fundamentally disempowered to change.

4. What are some of the ways you hold yourself accountable on a daily basis aside from diet and exercise?

MICHAELS: I hold myself accountable as a parent. I hold myself accountable as a businesswoman. I do my best. I’m not perfect, but I do my best to try harder to take responsibility for the things I’ve screwed up, you know, to have the ego strength to own my mistakes and to try to re-approach more intelligently. I do that in all facets of my life. It’s not always easy, but I also know that I have a pretty healthy sense of self-esteem, and so I’m better equipped to own my screw-ups, and I know that if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough. We’re all human, we’re all going to make mistakes and fuck up. The key is to be strong enough to take responsibility for it.

I heard a great quote the other day. It’s everything we all already know, but, “The fear of failure is the enemy of success.” Because the only way to be successful and to get better is to fail and use it as an entry-point for learning.

5. What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions that people have about motivation and healthy habits?

MICHAELS: I think they believe that it can come from outside of them. I can’t tell you how many people have come to me saying, “I’m looking for motivation.” And motivation is something that can only come from inside of you. Inspiration can come from outside of you. I kind of look at it as jump-starting your car battery. You’re inspired, you have a dead battery, someone giving you a jump start, okay. But at the end of the day, to keep that car on the road, you’re going to have to recharge that battery. So, you might have something that sort of gets you in motion, but to stay in motion, you have to find that internal drive, because anything that’s worth having — and in fact, the greater that thing is, whether it’s healthier relationships or more professional success or a healthier body — the more work and the more sacrifice it’s going to require.

There’s another great quote: “If you have a ‘why’ to live for, you can tolerate the ‘how.'” And the “how” is the work and the sacrifice associated with the goal. Then, for me, I always say work with a purpose becomes passion, but work without purpose is punishing. It’s got to be, like, okay, not just health, wealth and love, what does that relationship look like in your life? What kind of career do you want to have? Do you want to work part-time and be a stay-at-home mom? Do you want to be in a corporate environment with a corner office? Do you want to be an entrepreneur? Do you want to be an executive to get the paycheck and take the weight of being an entrepreneur off your shoulders?

You need to know what it is you want in detail, you need to form an emotional connection to it, and you need to make sure it’s realistic. Like, I’m never going to play basketball like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James but, at that point, I’d have to look at what is it that I love about basketball, and where can I recreate those things in other aspects of my life. Is it coaching, or is it X, Y or Z? So, realism is also an important component, but that is the biggest thing. They think it comes from outside of themselves, when in truth, it requires soul searching. The exact opposite. Searching, looking in, not searching outward.

“Motivate me.” It’s like, I can’t motivate you. I can tell you what to do to get results, but I can’t motivate you. I can’t make you want to do the work. You have to figure out why the work is worth it, and that can only come from inside of you.

6. Given your background in fitness and health, what is the main piece of advice you’d give to someone who’s trying to learn a new language and stick with their studies?

MICHAELS: I would go back to the “why,” right? Like, why do you want to do it? Because I imagine it’s a lot of work. And what’s in it for you to do the work? How will it improve the quality of your life? I think that’s the most important thing, is really looking at, is it going to improve an area that you want to work in? Is it going to open up opportunities professionally? Are you dating somebody whose native tongue is a different language and it allows you to improve the intimacy in your relationship? Do you love traveling? I think you really have to drill down on the “why” again, because like everything, it’s work.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click here to read the full transcript.

Photo credit: Don Flood

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