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Power to Adapt and Overcome



Adapt Overcome



As I sit here icing my lower back (recovering disc herniation! – more on that later), I feel compelled to relate my personal story to the power of adapting and overcoming challenges in life. In my experience, these challenges may lead to significant “opportunity”, although they often do not seem like opportunities at all when first presented. We all face challenges, some more serious than others, but I believe that it is critical to be fearless and never stop living. That is, adapt, overcome and improvise your life for what is certainly to be an uncertain future.


I am a very competitive person. Growing up I was always involved with sports, games and anything really that was driven by competitive advantage. I even remember winning numerous prizes from local radio stations for being the correct number caller to dial in when prompted live on the radio… I had it down to a science with those rotary phones, and, man, the Poison concert tickets I won from Z95 radio in Chicago in the 80s were amazing! (Ha, I just dated myself!)


Everyone always called me “lucky” growing up. I seemed to win everything from cash prizes to concert tickets to even a very expensive ATV from a random bar raffle!


ATV Raffle

Free Stuff!! Had to pay taxes though:(


I was also quite good at video games. Of course there is an element of luck with competition and life in general, however, I believe that the harder you work (practice), the “luckier” you get. You certainly can make your own luck. Hard work and preparation allow you to leverage opportunity when presented in life. In other words, try to put yourself in the place of greatest potential. This discipline was instilled in me at a young age from my parents and also led to later successes in life including sports (Captain of college soccer team), education (Ph.D.), work (climbed Corporate Ladder), beautiful family, and, most recently, creating a thriving health and fitness business from home to spend more time with family. I am by no means bragging about my accomplishments, but would like to highlight that much good can come out of what appears to be very bad. Let me try to explain by way of a series of unfortunate events in my life followed by adaptation to overcome that brought me to where I am sitting here today (still icing my back:)


  • GOOD: I picked up soccer at a young age and with consistent hard work and dedication I developed into a fairly good player. Although I had some interest from larger, leading Universities in soccer at the time, I opted to play soccer at a competitive Division III school under scholarship while pursuing my B.S. degree in Chemistry and minor in Physics.


Mike High School Soccer

Varsity High School Soccer action shot (many) years ago!


  • BAD: I almost left college in the first semester after the following happened to me in a matter of months… chicken pox, wisdom teeth pulled, food poisoning and mono all while adjusting to college life away from home, a brutal lineup of college coursework (chemistry, physics and calculus anyone?) as well as significant practice/travel time as a member of the college soccer team. No joke.


  • GOOD: I survived my first semester of college and had a very strong year as forward/midfielder playing soccer as a top contributor on the Team. Our soccer team was even ranked as one of the top teams in the region for the first time in school history. I was very excited about the direction of my college soccer career and definitely enjoying the new freedom of college life. I was mostly disciplined and working very hard (also playing hard).


  • BAD: In preparation for my Sophomore year of college, I worked at a local chemical company in the Summer downtime to develop my skills in Chemistry while also playing in a competitive soccer league to challenge myself on the soccer field. During one particular soccer game, I had a horrific knee injury heard across the field by spectators when my ACL popped and completely tore in my left knee. Seriously the most pain I have ever experienced. With that popping sound went my chance at playing collegiate soccer my Sophmore year. I was most DEVASTATED. One of the only things I actually loved doing was playing soccer and the thought of not playing crushed me. My competitive spirit NEEDED soccer to stay motivated and fulfilled. After knee surgery to repair the torn ligament I rapidly lost all muscle mass in my injured leg and gained weight since my activity level was reduced to virtually nothing.


Post ACL Reconstruction Surgery

Post ACL Reconstruction Surgery (notice swelling in knee, big scar and muscle loss in left thigh)


  • GOOD: My ACL reconstructive surgery (patella tendon graft) was a success. I focused my competitive needs toward a quick recovery from the surgery and was progressively active in 3-6 months. I helped out in any way I could with the soccer team (including team driver, woohoo) while beginning to work even harder to excel in my academics. I even tried out and made the college golf Team, but, to be honest, I was never all that good and my first tournament was my last as I was clearly out of my league. (That was embarrasing!) It was a fun experiment though and kept my mind off missing the soccer season. I came back strong playing soccer my Junior and Senior years. I was voted Captain, which provided valuable leadership lessons I would leverage later in life, and I also achieved All-Academic Conference Honors. I also continued working at the same chemical company during the Summer months throughout college and completed my Senior Chemistry project with awards and recognition. I graduated with a B.S. in Chemistry and Minor in Physics.


  • BAD: As I was finishing up college I thought long and hard about next steps in my life. I researched jobs available with a B.S. in Chemistry and was not excited about the starting salaries at the time plus I just plain enjoyed school. I did not feel I was ready to join the traditional workforce yet and my parents always encouraged me to get the highest degree possible and never look back. So, I started applying and testing for graduate school. Although I studied hard and took the test multiple times, my GRE test scores were good, but not GREAT (I am one of those that dislikes standard tests!) I was not accepted at my top school choice and was debating next steps again. I was frustrated with an uncertain future.

Adapt Overcome Improvise Triangle


  • GOOD: I continued working hard during the Summer at the chemical company and was fortunate to have been working very closely over the previous couple years with a mentor that decided to leave industry and become a professor at the University of Minnesota. My hard work paid off as he asked me to submit my application to the graduate school and become his first Ph.D. student. I was SO excited at this opportunity, even though I am a Chicago Bears fan and didn’t think much of the Vikings! I was admitted to the Graduate School and offered a stipend and research position while taking my coursework. I began work on my Thesis project and was excited to be a part of Gopher Nation!


  • BAD: During my limited free time in Grad School I enjoyed fishing, working out and playing recreational soccer at the University of Minnesota. I was having a blast. Then, it happened again. In a series of about 6 months I had some issues with my left knee requiring surgery to clear out cartilage/meniscus tears. Then, I was playing a competitive soccer game and made a sharp cut on my right side… POP! The ACL in my right knee popped (very loudly) and tore, very similar to my left knee in college. I was at a new low as I realized that I would likely not be playing soccer anymore. Every time I stepped on the field it seemed I was getting hurt and having surgery. I made a decision that I would no longer be playing soccer after playing all my life, 20+ years of soccer in total.


  • GOOD: After my surgeries I suddenly found that I had more free time since I was no longer playing soccer. I hopped on my crutches one day and went to attend a department happy hour for grad school and… I ended up meeting my future wife! It would not have happened without the challenges I faced with my knees that kept me from being on the soccer field that day. I would not have the amazing family I have today without going through what I thought at that time was one of the hardest challenges I faced, having to quit a sport I loved. I ended up graduating with my Ph.D. and a great job offer from a local company that I worked with on my dissertation. I had several promotions and awards over the coming years as I excelled at my new career, climbing the corporate ladder. My wife and I got married. Life was good!!


  • BAD: I was starting to get rundown by life. My job success led to increasing roles of progressive responsibility in the company including direct reports. I was traveling a lot, stressed out and wished I was spending more time at home. I gained a lot of weight and was unhealthy with all of the late evening dinner and drinks with customers while on the road. I was not sleeping well. I was not exercising and even lost any drive to get healthy. I was a shell of what I used to be from that regard. Having a great career is nice, but what good is it if your body wears down and you can’t enjoy it? I had to do something.


  • GOOD: On a trip to Arizona for a friend’s wedding, my wife was training for a marathon at high elevation while I watched T.V., like I always did at that time. I felt sorry for myself. I came across the P90X infomercial and the rest is history after much research (looked like hard work so I figured it was the real deal). I ordered the program and lost 20 pounds, 16% body fat and 7 inches off my waist while strengthening and stabilizing my knees. I was happy and healthy. I was no longer playing soccer, but I had found my new outlet for staying competitive staying in shape and helping others. I loved it. I found out there was a coach business opportunity associated with the company that created the P90X system. I was already inspiring others with my transformation so it was a natural fit. I immediately felt fulfilled and rewarded for helping others get in shape and live better lives as well as continuing my own journey. My side business (much more than a hobby) was taking off and I was making good money. Our son was born and we were expecting a daughter.


  • (VERY) BAD: I was enjoying life with our new family, and certainly kept busy in the process with all of my other responsibilities. Then, an unfortunate, pivotal point of my life happened when I received a call that my Sister was in serious condition after an unexpected cardiac arrest. I am not a very emotional guy (just ask my Wife), but when I got off that call I was a wreck (I didn’t let anyone see my breakdown, I kept it to myself). I will never forget that day. We packed up the car and headed down to be with family as my Sister passed days later at a young age. I wished I had spent more time with her over the years, but it was too late. I had a lot of time to reflect at her bedside about what is truly important to me and I made the decision to change. My priority needed to be my family and not my career. All of the achievement awards and recognition were meaningless.


  • (VERY) GOOD: With a new focus and motivation to change, we worked very hard as a family to create a time management schedule that would allow additional time in the day to build my coaching business so that I could leave my corporate job and run my health and fitness business from home. My wife particularly made a lot of sacrifices, but it worked! We welcomed our daughter to the World to join our son. With success in my home-based business ramping significantly, I was able to retire my Ph.D. from Corporate America on my 10-year Anniversary at the Company. I was now home helping to my raise my kids and enjoying helping others with their health, fitness and financial goals. My business was going well with recognition as one of the top coaches at Beachbody!


Mike Premiere Stage Recognition

Stage Recognition as One of the Top Teams in the Company!


I even picked up a new hobby to further satisfy my competitive drive… mud races! I had top finishes in multiple races and loved competing in the Tough Mudder with my other Sister!


Tough Mudder Log Carry

Tough Mudder Competition with my Sister!!


  • BAD: Well the mud race thing was short-lived. Strike another hobby off the list that I was becoming passionate about. I was not happy when I suffered a severe setback. Significant lower back disc herniation, bulging discs and degeneration were identified after my lower back gave out one day (I literally could not stand up, sit or lay down without killer sciatic pain). I also found around the same time that I have a small inguinal hernia, although the recommendation was for no surgery at this time.


MRI Lumbar

MRI Lower Back Showing Disc Herniation Issues


Given my disc herniation, not only could I not compete in the scheduled mud race the next month, but I could not work out at all for over 6 months. This was even more of a mental challenge for me than physical. I learned real quick how much I was dependent on exercise and that I (and many people) take for granted the opportunity to live an active lifestyle. The worst offenders are those that realize it and do not have limitations in place, but still do nothing about it and decide NOT to change (that has happened to me and I know you can overcome this too!). Trust me, I briefly felt sorry for myself before I found ways to focus on my health while I was recovering (e.g., super clean eating to reset my body).


  • GOOD: I will end with a positive. It has now been well over a year since my lower back disc herniation surfaced and I am doing very well. I have been back at my regular workouts with no major setbacks for a long time. I know my body very well now and I also know when I need to modify, adjust or rest. My back is not perfect, but progress is perfection in this case. I still ice most days and perform therapy/adjustments weekly for maintenance, but I have settled into a lifestyle that excites me and my competitive spirit. I have also found that working in Corporate America as well as building your own business bring similar challenges and setbacks that would test anyone, however, consistent, focused effort and persistence over time can lead to massive success chasing your dreams!


Nowak Family

Family Picture After Retiring my Ph.D.!



Bottom line, my life like most has been a series of events that have required me to adapt, overcome and improvise. You can’t be sorry for yourself when bad things happen. They will happen, it is inevitable. Some more serious than others, but all will unlock additional opportunities for you to DECIDE what you will do next. It is up to you. In many cases these new opportunities prove to be positive, life-changing experiences that would not even be available for you to decide without significant setbacks, challenges or tragedies first. Find things that make you mentally and physically strong. For me, knee injuries led to finding my wife as well as passion for health and fitness, staying competitive and helping others do the same as I continue to build my very own business from home, spending time with family and leveraging skills I learned through life lessons and formal education. I am looking forward to what the next years bring, I hope you do as well!!


Adapt. Overcome. LIVE FEARLESS.



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Premiere 5 Star Diamond Independent Beachbody Coach, CEO and Founder of TEAM RAGE, Mike Nowak Fitness, and How Do I Get Ripped, LLC. You are about to learn how I went from out-of-shape busy dad with significant travel, 2 kids and a wife to losing 20 pounds, 16% body fat and 7" off my waist while getting paid more income from home than my Ph.D. in Science & Engineering. Retired my Ph.D. career to focus on FAMILY & FITNESS!


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