Close Up

John Romaniello talks success, depression, and living in the Golden Age of TV

I just couldn’t work my ass off to settle for mediocrity. The entire concept was abhorrent to me. I thought it better to starve striving for greatness than be moderately well fed and unhappy.

You may have never heard of John Romaniello, but you’ve probably done one of his workouts. Romaniello, a certified strength and conditioning coach, has trained dozens of athletes and actors over the past decade. His workouts and fitness tips regularly appear in magazines like Men’s Fitness and Shape. And his 2013 book, Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha, was a New York Times bestseller.

But Romaniello is much more than the brains behind A-list brawn. He runs a successful online personal training business, Romaniello Fitness Systems, that employs a dozen people and sells a handful of premium fitness products directly to consumers.

His company slogan says it all: “Where mediocrity goes to die.”

It’s this mindset that has helped him attract thousands of loyal fans and customers from around the world and be an angel investor and consultant for various fitness companies.

Recently, we caught up with John to distill some of the lessons he learned along the way, and to see what he’s cooking up next.

What gets you really excited these days?

Right now, I’m really excited about pretty much everything Elon Musk is doing. And that there’s going to be a sequel to The Goonies. And that Ben Affleck is getting his own Batman movie, and Brand New is releasing a new record in 2017.

And that I’m making some serious headway on my new book, which feels great.

So, life’s pretty good all around.

What conventional advice did you flagrantly ignore and still manage to succeed?

I grew up pretty poor. I’m not just talking “couldn’t afford the same shoes as the cool kids poor.” I’m talking poor poor. Food stamps and welfare poor. That obviously shapes you as a person, in terms of both your worldview and your work ethic.

As I got older and started working, it became apparent to me that I had potential to do some pretty incredible things. However, all of the noise around me from family was less than encouraging. The voices whispered things like stability and routine and make the safe choice.

Having grown up with nothing, it seemed very appealing to have anything. When your baseline for experiencing life is destitution, mediocrity seems like a big step up. Settling for a boring job that I didn’t want or like seemed like the necessary thing to do, because then at least I’d be secure and able to support myself and help my family. And everyone around me pushed me towards that.

But something clicked inside of me when I was about 21. I just couldn’t work my ass off to settle for mediocrity. The entire concept was abhorrent to me. I thought it better to starve striving for greatness than be moderately well fed and unhappy.

The story has what now seems a predictable and inevitable ending. It reads like a movie we’ve seen before: poor kid from a single parent family on the wrong side of the perils of his abusive upbringing and poverty stricken childhood to start his own business and become bestselling millionaire author.

Seen it before.

But when I was going through it, it was anything but predictable, and success certainly didn’t seem inevitable; especially at the beginning.

It was scary. I was eschewing the advice from everyone I loved, and it felt like letting people down. With very little support from family—and, to be honest, a lot of nay-saying and condemnation—I started my own personal training business, and dedicated myself to crushing life.

And now, well… here we are.

What was the biggest disaster you faced?

This one is harder to answer. I’ve struggled most of my life with depression. Truly horrible, often debilitating depression. Not all the time; it comes and goes.

But in the winter of 2014, I had a truly horrible depressive period. Trying to function was a struggle every day. And instead of seeking help, I hid it from my friends and family, said I was fine. Things got worse and worse.

Eventually, my resolve crumbled. Everything hit at once. And this culminated in a suicide attempt. Not a cry for help type of suicide attempt; this was what mental health professionals term a “sincere attempt.”

The disaster was not that I failed in my attempt, obviously. It was that I essentially engineered the situation by not getting help. And that’s something I feel very passionately about helping other people to do.

How did you recover?

“Recover” is an interesting word, because I’m not sure I have. Depression never goes away, not completely. It’s not a curable condition. But I can say I’m much better at managing it and talking about it. Which has been helpful in ways I can’t describe.

What’s your favorite project that you’ve ever worked on?

It’s hard to narrow down a favorite. I have fond memories from so many of the various things I’ve done.

For me, it all comes down to the people and the project. Writing Engineering the Alpha is a favorite, not because the book was successful, but because I’m proud of the work, and because I had such a great time writing the book with my co-author, Adam Bornstein.

What do you wish you could teach your 20-year-old self?

Twenty-year-old me was somewhat… intemperate. He overreacted to things. Got in a lot of fights. Slept with people for the wrong reasons.

So I think I’d just sit him down and tell him to get his shit together, get to therapy a bit sooner, and maybe not frost his hair. Like legit frosted tips. God that was terrible.

What does a Rich Life mean to you?

For me, a Rich Life is about access. Obviously, money has a bit to do with that. Never having to worry about money is great, and having enough money to get traditional access to things you want to do is huge.

But for me, it’s having built a platform that creates enough value that my network gives me access to just about everything. Being able to get on the sideline of a big game, or hang out in the DJ booth at a show—stuff like that.

In an ideal world, I’d be able to pick up the phone and get a meeting with anyone in the world. Or be able to get access to anything I want to do. That goes beyond money.

What will be the next big thing in your industry?

In the fitness industry? It’ll probably be some lame bullshit like virtual reality training or something equally useless. There’s not a lot of need for innovation in fitness. Unless someone comes up with a way to get people to love being hungry, things will more or less continue to grow slowly in all directions for a while.

If you could have lunch with anyone living or dead, who would you pick and what would you ask them?

I’d love to have lunch with Thomas Jefferson, and I’d get his perspective on the state of the country and the world at large. I think I’d love to ask him about the intentions of the founding fathers versus how things have played out.

And, also, since in this magical scenario Thomas Jefferson is spending some time in the present, I’d ask what he thinks of pizza.


John Romaniello interview - bonus answers

John Romaniello

John Romaniello, one of the most highly regarded experts in the fitness industry, has written for several publications, from Men’s Health to Fast Company, and has been featured on programs such as Good Morning America. An advisor to nearly a dozen fitness and tech companies, John lives in New York’s West Village and loves the NY Jets, unicorns, sarcasm, and writing about himself in the third person.

Download the complete list of 30 successful business ideas