Robert Yan: How I built impactful leadership skills with FitFam.

FitFam team and I (in red) at a Spartan race.

FitFam team and I (in red) at a Spartan race.

This story was originally written in Chinese by Robert Yan. The English version was edited by Ed Bellin.

By signing up for one of our workouts, everyone can leave their troubles behind for one hour and focus only on motivating each other to give their best and finish their last burpees together. During those 60 minutes of hard work at the break of dawn or when dusk falls, we are all equal. But when it’s time to put the office attire on or set the dinner table, we all have our own set of responsibilities to attend to.

Compared to other members of our community who hold higher-level positions and have already reached multiple milestones in their professional career, I have only just recently graduated from university and begun working full-time. Having the opportunity to meet so many interesting individuals from different cultural and professional backgrounds I can look up to and seek advice from, all within one friendly community, is fantastic.

That, for me, is one of many reasons why I appreciate FitFam.

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From South to North.

Like many other Chinese citizens, I decided to pick a different English name to make it easier for others to remember it. Although most of you know me as Robert, my actual name is Jiabao. 

I was born in a small seaside city in the southern province of Guangdong, but spent my school years in the Muslim autonomous region Ningxia Hui in northwestern China, bounded by Inner Mongolia to the north and Shaanxi to the east. I was raised with high expectations all throughout my childhood because my parents and grandparents were the first born children of their family and, consequently, were raised in similar conditions. To give you an idea of what it was like, they would often tell me “You can always do better next time”, even if my scores were among the highest in the class. I was taught to fight for everything I want in life from a young age.


Life lessons learned abroad.  

In the summer of 2009, I was invited to spend 3 weeks in Shanghai with my uncle. As a 15-year-old high school student growing up in rural China, seeing such a massive metropolitan city live and breathe was an unforgettable experience. I was utterly stunned by its beauty and prosperity and had then decided to work as hard as I could to attend university there. For the following three years of high school, I never lost sight of my goal and was eventually accepted to the Economics undergraduate program at Jiao Tong University. I graduated in 2016 and started working as an Auditor for one of the Big Four accounting firms.

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I didn’t make much effort to immerse myself into the city lifestyle while at university as all my roommates came from other parts of the region like Yunnan, Shanxi, and Taiwan and we shared a lot of common interests. Other than being a much bigger city than what I had been used to, Shanghai never really felt like a culture shock to me. It is still in China after all.

What truly opened my eyes was the time I went studying in the U.K. and Denmark in 2014 and 2015. There’s an old Chinese proverb that I live by: “Walk ten thousand miles. Read ten thousand books.” Discovering new places and understanding how people in other countries across the world live despite the cliches and stereotypes we are accustomed to seeing on TV was very interesting to me. It was in Denmark when I realized that there was more to life than saving money to buy a house and get married. Fighting for your own cause and setting goals you believe in that others might disparage makes life all the more exciting.  


Leadership skills empowered by FitFam.

My first taste of FitFam was an evening workout on the night of September 29th, 2016 and… well… it didn’t go so smoothly. After seeing photos on my WeChat Moments posted by my friends Sam and Sy showing people from different countries together as one barely a week after I had moved into my new apartment, I felt intrigued to learn more about it. I decided to try it out despite not being in any of their WeChat groups yet. As soon as I arrived, it was complete chaos. The field at Jiao Tong was packed with crowds, and I had no idea where the workout was taking place. It was getting dark and I walked around for 15 minutes asking people for directions until I found a group of strangers crawling up and down the field: “Ah, that must be them” I thought.

I learned a lot of new words that night: burpees, front switches, ape crawl, etc. That was also the night I met Igor who, as it turned out, would become one of my biggest mentors at FitFam.

Post-workout group photo with Igor (in blue).

Post-workout group photo with Igor (in blue).

I approached Igor at the end of the workout and point blank asked: “How did you get those 6-pack abs and such a nice figure???” In typical Igor fashion, he answered: “I’ve been training with FitFam for over a year. Just commit and work hard. You can have this too.” I was hooked and quickly became a Jiao Tong regular.

Little did I know that in the following year and a half, I would experience things I could have never foreseen, including braving a typhoon (Oct 23, 2016), working out in below-zero temperature (Jan 15, 2017), attending 13 separate workouts in 2 weeks, dropping 240 burpees in one session (June 9, 2017) and participating in Spartan Sprint and Spartan Super. The list goes on.

FitFam team and I (in red) at a Spartan race.

FitFam team and I (in red) at a Spartan race.

For reasons I can’t recall, there was no official workout scheduled for Thursday, April 27 last year, yet a group of regulars at Jiao Tong - myself included - really wanted to have one. We made some noise in the WeChat group to try and get the attention of the JT leaders and after several hours of conversation, Shuree @myname and says “You can lead the workout tomorrow”. That was the day I first started leading.

I never expected to become a leader so quickly. As a non-native English speaker who had never experienced HIIT workouts before joining FitFam, I figured it would take me a year before I could lead one. After my first leading experience, I routinely texted Igor every Sunday to ask if I could lead any day of the following week. On May 16, the day before my 4th lead at Jiao Tong, Vy messaged me to let me know I could share my workout plans with her, John or Ed if I ever wanted to. After the workout on May 17, she pulled me into the South Planning group and I became the first Chinese leader at Jiao Tong.

After the 10-workout challenge in the summer of 2017, I began using both English and Chinese when leading workouts to make sure everyone could understand our instructions, especially as some of our locations may attract more locals. I continuously learn about new movements and proper forms from other leaders, and I was particularly pleased when Katie proactively organized a Q&A workshop for us a few months ago.

That’s the beauty of FitFam: we never stop learning from one another.


What’s next?

After almost two years since graduating with my undergraduate degree, I plan to enroll for a  Masters in a country I haven’t already visited and pursue several career opportunities before my thirtieth birthday so I can find one specific field I will see myself working in for the foreseeable future. People often have a dream to keep themselves motivated and aspire to make the world a better place. I believe that turning your passion into a fulfilling career is the best way to do that, and although I haven’t found mine yet, you can bet that I will keep on looking for it.