A copy of Crucial Conversations. A 1-litre plastic Rubbermaid bottle. A half kilo of raw, mixed nuts. A container of fresh blueberries. A satchel of protein and greens. Ooh — a ballpoint pen! And a shiny red apple.
This is the swag bag that awaits me at Precision Nutrition’s annual team meeting in Toronto.
I’d been warned in a way. A few days prior, Dr. John Berardi (JB) sent out a crisply efficient message. We were to be locked in a room with nearly twenty other muscular people. For several hours.
But not to worry: we’d get four macronutrient-balanced meals prepped by professional chef — and Lean Eating client — David Greensmith of Essential Meal Delivery. Each of the men’s meals would contain 750 calories. And each of the women’s, 500 calories.
An agenda? Action items? Objective-ables?
JB tells us not to get too far ahead of ourselves. Besides, we all want to talk about the real business — who’s getting dairy (not me), who’s gonna whine like a diva if a speck of gluten touches her container (me), and who’s getting the vegan option (Ryan, of course).
They say an army marches on its stomach. Our food ration bags, neatly arranged and labeled with our names like grownup versions of kindergarten lunch boxes, fill one corner of the room. Apparently we’re not having a company meeting. We’re shipping out on some kind of Napoleonic conquest.
Good thing we all have the core strength to haul off our respective food suitcases. No namby-pamby rolly satchels. Put your back into it, my good sirs and madams. At PN, eating right is job number one.
Finding my people
You can always spot fit people by their necks. I’m told the sternocleidomastoid muscles are a hotbed of androgen receptors. Whenever I need to find a gathering of fit folks, I look for muscular necks perched atop collars.
Amidst the sea of soft wattles and indistinct chins that characterize the sedentary general population, fit people’s necks stick out like sinewy periscopes. If I’m stuck, I can also look for tech guru Alaina Hardie’s pink hair.
We find one another in the cavernous Royal York Hotel lobby and cluster somewhat shyly. Because we work remotely, scattered across North America (and elsewhere, depending on who wants to hit the beach with a laptop), it’s the first time that many of us have met in person.
I marvel at the farm-boyish colossus that is Scrawny to Brawny Coach Chuck Dertinger. I cannot imagine he could ever have been a 6’1″, 145 lb scrawny. (He’s now tipping the scales at nearly 250 lean and muscular pounds).
Some folks are jet-lagged. Writer Nate Green popped in on his way home to Montana from the UK. He’s yawning good-naturedly as he grins at S2B Coach Paul Valiulis. Lean Eating Coach Kate Kline, from Arizona, is blinking sleepily but trying to keep her game face on. Like Nate, she’s one of the new kids and wants to make a good impression.
Morning people or no, we’re committed. Everyone dropped everything to fly in on a few weeks’ notice. We’re up early on a chilly Toronto morning to come together as a team, to celebrate our success, and to figure out how to make our programs and services (such as our Lean Eating and Scrawny to Brawny coaching programs) even more awesome.
JB and PN CEO Phil Caravaggio have a mild flair for the dramatic. Phil in particular is decked out in Italian-tailored sartorial splendour for the occasion. (Years ago, the first version of the PN System described our individualized nutrition plans as a bespoke suit. It’s easy to see where the notion came from.)
We aren’t allowed in to the meeting room until the camera crew of cinematographer Alex Cimino and photographer Jason Grenci are ready to capture our entrance. Like a wedding organizer, JB wants our special day to be perfect.
We get our cue. Krista Schaus, the seasoned physique stage pro, swans in like she’s on the red carpet. Whiz kid tech guru Stew Houston, research scientist Dr. Helen Kollias, and customer service rep Lindsay Yeo are more used to working behind the scenes and the screens, so they try their best to pretend not to notice the paparazzi.
LE Coach — and mother of three small children — Erin Weiss-Trainor whispers to me, “I work at home in my jammies! This is, like, the only nice thing I have to wear!”
Meanwhile, I have forgotten about the camera because I’m hunting for my feed bag.
The eating begins
The wave of eating rolls over the room like a gentle yet insistent tide. The S2B guys rip open their first meal immediately, attacking the plastic containers like well-behaved yet determined hyenas. An hour later, the male Lean Eating coaches casually tuck in. Finally, another hour later, the women delicately start to fluff up their salads. By this time, of course, the S2B guys are gnawing on their next round.
JB and Phil dispense the good news to the sound of crunching: LE and S2B have been smashing successes. We’ve changed thousands of lives and bodies.
Amazingly, JB reveals, adherence to our body transformation programs is drastically higher than adherence to prescription medication.
In other words, if we at PN tell you to go to the gym and eat right, you’re more likely to do that than if your doctor said, “Take this pill for your heart condition every day.” Yes — we can more effectively inspire you to strain and sweat for an hour a day than pharmaceutical companies can inspire you to spend ten seconds a day popping a pill that could save your life.
Living up to his Daddy Warbucks bespoke suit, Phil busts out champagne. We rejoice. In moderation.
What’s our secret?
It’s a truism in social work and counselling that you don’t change people’s behavior by telling them what to do. You change behavior by building relationships.
Most of the actual information that Precision Nutrition offers can be found anywhere for free. However, if information alone changed lives, the internet should have turned us all into godlike millionaires by now.
No, what we offer is more simple yet more profound: meaningful, caring, compassionate human connection in the service of personal change.
The figurative translation of “sensei”, or teacher, is “one who has walked the path before”. We have all walked the change paths. We all live the Way of PN.
Yet we also work remotely, each sensei-coach perched behind his or her respective computer screen, somehow inspiring hundreds of men and women to love themselves so much they’re willing to pump iron, pass on pizza, and put the donuts down.
How can we build relationships with clients we may never meet in person? And how is it that we click as a team with coworkers who are technically total strangers?
At the meeting, we brainstorm. How can we build better relationships? How can we help more clients change their lives?
Along with regular email and forum contact, we like to phone clients from time to time, just to put voices to names. JB, with his passion for organization and productivity, thinks he can make these calls more efficient — and increase their impact — while still keeping our unique and caring human touch.
After all, he reasons, the lovely Lindsay and Amanda Graydon in customer service spend all day un-ruffling feathers, guiding lost ducklings through the signup process, and sharing a smile or two with satisfied clients who are raving about their new copies of Gourmet Nutrition or new hot bods. Somehow these two always-cheery ladies can stuff sunshine down the phone lines in five minutes flat.
JB suggests we shoot for ten thoughtful, well-structured minutes on the phone for each coaching call. The key, he tells us, is that these calls must be purposeful. Spending hours talking about “what’s new” doesn’t help anyone. Spending a few minutes focused on real coaching can change the world.
The male coaches nod, and write this suggestion down. The female coaches snort, and then laugh openly. We know that “How are you doing, Suzy?” is an invitation to pry open a Costco-sized can of juicy woman-angst worms, and we love it.
Whether it’s body-image issues, relationship troubles, hating one’s job, how to find energy for workouts after spending all night tending a barfing four-year-old, or the best way to roast a chicken, female LE coaches in particular are the one-stop-shop for delicious, soul-baring, empowering conversations.
It’s like calling up your big sister, if your big sister were a high-school football coach. After a chat with one of the LE women, you want to clean out your closet, high-five and hug yourself, then rip a barbell off the floor, while humming I Am Woman Hear Me Roar.
JB concedes that there may be some… slight gender differences in communications parameters. We agree not to ramble too much and leave it at that.
Afternoon #1. We are leaving the hotel to hit Bang Fitness, the informal Toronto HQ for PN. Owner Geoff Girvitz, with cackling sadism, has promised the team a workout.
On the way to the gym, Ryan pauses for a moment. “I noticed some folks outside. I didn’t eat my lunch,” he says. He stoops his lanky frame down so that his gentle blue eyes meet those of a homeless person who is seated, shivering, on a milk crate outside the hotel. “Would you like this?” Ryan offers his beautiful, precious little meal. The homeless man’s eyes crinkle into a smile. It’s probably the first healthy thing he’s eaten in weeks.
When we get to the gym, Geoff (who also designed the workouts for Lean Eating) runs us through our paces with two metabolic conditioning circuits. The S2B guys are winded as heck. Phil is turning greenish. Krista is beating the stuffing out of all of us. Ryan and Jason are patiently enduring the onslaught. Chuck rides the bike with his broken hand (he’s vague as to the cause) and sighs.
Afterwards, the S2B guys lie on the floor. Paul and Krista compare biceps. Pro grappler Alaina and I get on the mats and wrestle for another half-hour. We’ve still got about 2 hours until dinner.
Evening #1. We are at Benihana, all 17 of us clustered around a steaming, sizzling grill. The S2B guys have ordered the biggest, sweatiest steaks on the menu plus extra lobster. Vegan Ryan doesn’t flinch. With single-minded dedication to animal welfare, he gets rice and veggies, and politely sends the first iteration back, because it’s been made with butter. He sits in the corner seat between Roland, Paul, and Chuck, triangulating the line of manly, muscular, meat-masticating mandibles.
The chef’s cleavers slice and dice. One cook piles up onion slivers like a little pyramid, then pours water into the centre so it steams like a tiny onion volcano. I watch Helen’s face across the grill. She is figuring out the physics of this event.
Coach Roland is the silverback, the veteran who’s seen and done it all. Earlier, he tells me that he’s feeling a little down because he can’t do as much in the gym lately. Injuries. I ask what happened, expecting the usual mundane concerns like tennis elbow or solitaire thumb. He shrugs.
“Fighting. Bull riding. I’ve broken pretty much everything.”
We talk about the perfection of imperfection. How owning your “flawed” self, your body, your life struggles, and history makes you a better coach. As coaches, we are wabi-sabi, the beauty and profundity of transience and imperfection.
Evening #2. As the local hostess and foodie, it’s my responsibility to ensure we hit all the good restaurants in Toronto. We’ve done Fressen — the best vegan food in town — for Ryan. Now I promise to expand the coaches’ culinary horizons. I book Addis Ababa, an Ethiopian restaurant.
Most of the guys are late. On the way to the restaurant, the S2B guys got hungry, and stopped to get Subway. On the way to the restaurant.
Ethiopian food is new to most in attendance. The S2B guys like the primal-ness of eating with one’s hands. Jason, who spent a year in culinary school, is fascinated.
Chuck orders a double portion of the spicy meat platter. The waitress raises a sculpted eyebrow. Yes, double. When it arrives, Chuck discovers it’s really spicy. No matter. He is committed. As he likes to quip, getting big is a battle and his weapons are a knife and fork… or in this case, his mighty paws. He hunkers down and gets to work.
“This isn’t half bad,” says Jason, in his laconic East Coast drawl.
PN: The bumblebee
The bumblebee confounds aeronautical engineers. With its fuzzy blobby body and relatively tiny wings, the bumblebee should not be able to fly. Yet it does.
Like the bumblebee’s flight, I am told by many well-meaning and clever MBAs that PN should not exist.
We’re a remotely-working company with no “office” (unless you count places like espresso bars, the expansive couch in Phil’s condo, or JB’s rural retreat where people occasionally gather for wholesome winter sledding). And we’ve got a motley crew of diverse people from all walks of life.
Stew is a professional video game champion. Jason is a former teacher. Krista used to be a cop. Phil flipped the bird to IBM. Helen, JB, and I are PhDs, academic escapees. Lindsay is an advocate for epilepsy research. Alaina beats people up in her spare time.
We’re like Charlie’s Angels: brilliant, committed, and asskicking. How, the well-meaning MBAs will opine, could you possibly get along?
Not only that, our deep enthusiasm for this work should be impossible. “Reality” should have ground us down into cynical bastards by now. A two-day meeting should have devolved into an ordeal of stale sandwiches and existential loathing.
Yet there we are, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, munching spinach, crackling with energy for our work. We’ve drunk the (sugar-free) Kool-Aid and now offer it as a sacrament to PN.
The secret? There isn’t one, beyond finding bright, committed, caring people, setting them on a mission about which they are passionate, and then unsnapping the leash to let them do their thing. It’s like a keener zoo where the keepers are constantly throwing out biscuits and fresh fish.
Phil says that when he hires people, he couldn’t care less about their resumés. In fact, he doesn’t even look at them. Instead, he gets them to solve problems. “There are two kinds of people in the world,” he says. “Those who do the work, and those who don’t.”
After the second day, Ryan and I meet up with former Lean Eater and yoga instructor Tiffany Clay, who has promised us a yoga class. Under Tiffany’s tutelage, we relax, unwind our spines, and let our bodies process the good stuff — the impossibility of our existence.
Bonus: Behind the scenes footage
Wanna see what really happens when the PN team gets together for meeting, eating, and working out? If so, check out this video footage (2 minutes, 30 seconds in duration).