The Man Who Left a Six-Figure Sales Career To Teach Special Ed

Sorry about the headline. I had a really time hard coming up with one that didn’t sound like clickbait.

But this article isn’t clickbait and there’s no hype in this story. As part of our ongoing Fierce Gentleman Profiles series, today we meet Mark T, father, weight lifter, and all-around “average” guy.

Except there’s nothing “average” about the choices Mark has consistently made in his life. One example: most people reading this site would probably want to go from a public teacher’s salary to a six-figure income. Mark did the reverse, very deliberately. He quit his six-figure corporate sales job to teach special ed ….oh, and he dropped 70 pounds along the way.

Today, Mark deadlifts 500. And he didn’t quit training when the doctors told him he had cancer.

In this far-ranging, inspiring conversation, Mark and I cover:

  • What it takes to turn your back on a six-figure salary
  • What it’s like to go from being overweight at 250 lbs to being a trim 225 at 5’11 and deadlifting 500
  • Why “the kids aren’t alright”
  • How and why he kept training right through testicular cancer and radiation.
  • The #1 reason that every guy reading this article should be doing a regular testicular self-exam (and ladies: you should encourage your man to do the same (if you’ve got a man).)

There’s a selected transcript below, but you should really listen to the whole thing. If you currently want to lose weight, improve your lifts, or quit your job, there’s something valuable and/or inspiring in here for you.

FG: How did you get into sales and what was it like to be earning six figures in corporate America?

I was BFA major, had gotten accepted to my MFA for graduate school…and realized that I didn’t want to take on 60 grand in debt and not work for two years. I was never intent on becoming a professional artist…so I reached out to a friend of mine and got an interview at a local tech company, got an inside sales job, starting doing that, and hated it. It was dialing for dollars, cold calling…I’d never done that in my life and I just went for it, and hated it.

It was one of those things where your job is your job and you go in and you grind it out.

So I did that for about a year, and then got hired at a different sales job with a lot more account management responsibilities. I worked with guys 20 to 30 years my senior….they took me under their wing, and I basically managed their accounts: so I was managing, at the time, 35 million dollars in revenue in established accounts. And I just sort of learned the trade, and I was at that company for 6 years…at the time I was making 50 grand a year and they were all making big 6 figures, and I was scraping and scraping and scraping…then they made me an account executive and then I realized I would make about 80 grand, and [realized that] I was underpaid for what I was doing.

My skillset had grown to now being able to manage multimillion dollar accounts and winning new business – that had a lot more value to other companies. So I took some other positions and worked my way up at those companies.Mark T -3

I loved sales, the relationship building part of sales, but I’m not a used car salesman: most of the transactions I was dealing with were million-dollar sales with 1-2 year sales cycle. So when I went into software sales it was much quicker sales cycle and the transaction amounts were lower but my goal was a $200k sale, versus their typical transactions were $25-50,000.

And as I had gone through this process, I became more and more disillusioned with the corporate world. It started to wear on me. I didn’t feel like people were making decisions which were in the best long-term interest of their customers, or employees, or even in the long-term interest of the business…it was all about quickly recognizing revenue. I got disillusioned with some ethics I saw internally in companies. I saw people make more money than they knew what to do with, and literally seemed as though they had no other purpose than that….it was a real soul-searching time for me, and this was right before the big economy crash in 2008.

And my wife had left a good income to become a middle-school teacher.

I said to my wife, “I’m thinking about becoming a teacher.”

And she looked at me and said, “Well, I think you’re kinda nuts. Realize it’s a thankless job, and the pay sucks, and the same issues you have in the corporate world, you’re gonna have in the teaching world.”

And I said, “Can we live on that paycut?”

And she was like, “Yeah.”

And I’d never really extended myself financially very far. Didn’t have a lot of debt, car payments or anything like that.

And it was doable and we down-sized, and I decided to take a little inside sales job making 30 grand a year just so I could work on my certification, and right about that time, the economy crashed.

I finished my teaching certification May of 2009, and I just put my sales skills to work. I had prospect sheets and prospects at every local school, I worked 4 to 6 hours every day looking for jobs and calling people and create calendar entries to follow up…and luckily got a job when every district in the area was laying people off.

Me being in this office is not making the world better in any way. Not only that, I’m contributing to petty insanity.Mark T.

And I’ve just finished my 5th year of teaching special ed. I work with high school kids who suffer from emotional disturbances, basically behavior regulation issues. They’re pretty far along …at extreme drop-out risk and statistically, they’re headed for jail. And I love it.

FG: What was that moment like when you made that choice? — Like, “I’m making six figures, and I’m gonna go be a teacher.”

I was in the CEO’s office having a conversation about revenue streams and the sales staff and the channel and I remember, he wanted me to throw people under the bus. He didn’t like my answer for why things were happening the way they were, and he just wanted me to blame someone. And I wouldn’t do it.

At that moment something clicked for me and it was the realization that I’m not doing anything in this world: “Me being in this office is not making the world better in any way. Not only that, I’m contributing to petty insanity.” And I can’t do it anymore.

I either needed to leave that company and go somewhere else, or change careers….it had gotten to the point where it was a broken record, and I needed to do something drastic.

FG: What was the transition like in terms of money?

…When my checking account used to get to about $1500 that was the “Oh, I need to watch things” moment…and now, when my checking account gets to $15, and I’ve got two weeks until payday, I’m thinking “Okay, I gotta figure this out.”

But from a fulfillment standpoint, I’m much happier. Much happier.

Not saying I don’t miss money. It sucks not having money, and it’s a joke to me what teachers are paid in this country. It’s laughable. And I say that as someone who could quit tomorrow, and go make six figures, no problem.

FG: From your perspective….what do you think is the ROOT CAUSE (or causes) of kids having trouble today?

That’s dangerous territory for me to wade into politically, but I will say this: there’s a commonality in all the kids I deal with. Every single one of them. I’m gonna sound like a right-wing Republican talking head and I don’t wanna sound like that….but honest to God I can usually meet a kid, after doing this for 5 years, and pick things out.

There’s always a theme. It starts with a broken home — either a single mom or divorced family and dad is typically not in the picture. There is almost always some form of abuse in the background, from early childhood, and some sort of trauma. And there is occasionally — I would say 70-80% — some form of drug and alcohol abuse in the family environment as well.

And the last one is lower income. It is very rare that I have a kid from the middle class in my class…I’d say 90% of my kids are on free and reduced lunch. And those are the things that I see.

FG: What percentage of the emotional disturbances would go away if you took away these background factors?

99% .

FG: So the kids aren’t alright because society’s not alright.

There’s a nature and nurture component in any sort of mental illness…but it’s theorized that there’s an environmental trigger to make these things more pronounced.

FG: Okay, let’s talk about weightlifting. When did you start working out, what was that journey like for you? 

I am not a physical specimen of exceptionality. I am 5’11 I weigh 225 never played organized sports, I surfed, BMXd, skateboarded, that was pretty much it. If I did a standing vertical jump I’m lucky if I can get myself 18 inches off the ground.

I’m very mediocre.Mark T.

I graduate from college, I start working 13 hour days, I start traveling over my big territory….next thing I know I’m mid-30s and I’m fat and I’m just a slob.

And I don’t mean that in a judgmental way, that’s just the reality.

And I justified my lack of physical presence and my lack of physical movement on my life. “Well, I work so many hours, there’s no time, there’s no this, there’s no that.” I’d run, I wouldn’t lose weight, I was convinced I had some sort of slow metabolism disorder.

The first time I went to the gym I almost puked for about 2 hours afterwards. I just kept going because I was tired of the excuses.Mark T.

Fast forward: I finished my first year of teaching. It’s August, I’ve gotta go back to work in 2 weeks, and I’m sitting on the couch and I think to myself, “Man, you’ve been off work for 8 weeks, you haven’t done a damn thing. All those excuses you said to yourself for 10 years about if you just had the time, well you had the time and you didn’t do anything, so what’s the deal?”

The deal is, you’re full of shit. You make excuses. What’s your excuse now?Mark T.

Well, my excuse now is “I don’t know what to do.”

That was the reality. There’s so much information out there about diet and exercise.

So I reached out to a good buddy a friend of mine, a friend named Sonny. At the time I was about 257 or 258.

And I said, “Dude, I need to get back in shape, what do I do.”

And he said, “Well first you’ve gotta get your diet in order. Look into low carb dieting. Because you’re not getting enough protein and you’re eating too many processed foods. And you’re fat, so you’re not processing carbs the way you should be.”

So I gave it a try for 12 weeks, and it was a wake-up call! I had to cut out “easy” and had to cut out “processed” and had to get my appetite and diet in order.

And I’ve always hated cardio…I used to run all the time just because I thought that was what you are “supposed” to do. He told me “No, don’t do that, start lifting weights.”

So I started some simple exercises. And I fucked around for a long time doing stupid stuff — and by that I mean not doing what I should have been doing which is squats, deadlifts, press, and some chin-ups. So I was getting my diet in order, I started lifting weights 3 times a week.

The first time I went to the gym I almost puked for almost 2 hours afterwards. I just kept going because I was tired of the excuses.

I’m gonna squat 405 next week, and I remember looking at the bar with 135 being scared to death. I remember being proud when I deadlifted 225, and I think I’ll deadlift 515 next week.

But the feeling stays the same: it’s challenge, every week. That’s what it turned into for me: it was a mental challenge to go in and do the work and not make excuses.

And that’s what it came down to for me.

Am I going to make an excuse, or am I going to follow through on what I said I’m gonna do?Mark T.

FG: What would you say to a guy who has 90 lbs on the squat rack and is scared to go above that because he’s afraid he’s gonna blow his knees out?

Mark T -4Well, learn how to squat properly and you’re not gonna blow your knees out. Do the research. I climbed Mt. Whitney with my dad last summer….I have never hurt my knee except carrying a 35-lb pack down that mountain.

Learn proper form. Don’t start with 90 lbs. Start with your body. Then add the bar. Then add 5 pounds. Then add 5 more. Then add 5 more, every time you do it. At a certain point, you might get up to 90 lbs and look at it and go “Holy shit” but you already know the form and you know how to do it, so you get under the bar and you do it, and you push through it.

For guys especially, but even for women — it’s faith in that challenge, 3 times a week, and getting it done. And every so often you look at bar and you think, “I’m tired, I don’t wanna do this,” or “I really struggled last time I’m not gonna be able to do it this time,” and you take a breath and you get under the bar and you do it.

And 99 times out of 100, you get it. And that 1 time you fail, you learn — I fail, who cares? I’ll do it next time.

To me that’s what strength training is all about — I’m not a powerlifter. I don’t compete. I’m a 40-year-old guy who’s married with a kid who goes to a gym, puts in his headphones, put his phone on airplane mode for an hour and a half and puts in the work. You add 5 pounds every time until you can’t add 5 pounds anymore and by then, you’re strong and you figure out what you need to do from a programming perspective to keep adding 5 pounds.

My goal was 500 pound deadlift and 400 pound squat. Now I’m thinking, You know, I did this, I bet I could do 700 eventually. It’s gonna take me 2.5 years, if I’m lucky, but why not?

We’re a lazy, soft society…we really are. Men especially.Mark T.

We either want abs, or — I guess calves are the new thing. I’ve seen all these highschool kids doing calf raises. Or we want to be skinny with abs. And we want quick solutions and we’re afraid of hard work.

To us, hard work is you go to the office 10 hours, and you make your calls, and do your emails, and you do your marathon meetings, and then we drive our kids off to soccer practice, come home, and make dinner — and that is not hard. That is not labor-intensive. That is barely existing.

We are physical beings and we need something — like you said in your piece about the over-night excursion, 24 hours without sleep, carrying logs and crap — we need that on a more frequent basis and we need something to push us.

And remember, I was a soft guy! — I was 250 pounds, 5’11, fat, lazy — and I think people now need to remember that we are physical beings and we need to push our bodies and we  need to strive for something.

FG: Just to put context around it, how long did you take it to go from 250 pounds and soft to where you’re at now? 

I’ve been lifting for almost 4 years. It took me about a year and three quarters to drop 70 pounds. I got down to 178 and my wife called my “scrawny”. And I was like “You know what, you’re right.” So at 178 pounds I was able to put on 30 or 45 lbs over 1.5 years.

So in 3.5 years I have a 500 pound deadlift, 400 pound squat, and I probably need to trim about 15 pounds, and I’d be pretty lean.

FG: A complete body transformation in 3 years is not that long.

It’s really not long, and the irony is at a certain point I stopped caring about the body. I was in shape, I was healthy. I went to the doctors and they were stoked. At a certain point for me it became, “I want to be strong. I don’t want to just be thin, I want to be strong.” It goes back to society and culture and the values we place on things.

Abs are all the rage, and I just don’t care about that. I mentioned to you in an email about Mark Rippetoe essentially, “What good is a six pack if you don’t have an ice chest to put it in?” And I agree with that.

Again, we want to look good…but what is useful about looking good? I wanna be functional. When my neighbor needs help moving a fridge….I want to be able to go out and help them. When my wife needs a tire change, I don’t want to have to call AAA. I want to be useful. I mow my own lawn.

FG: Yeah, right…the basics.

Exactly! I’m not saying you need a 500-lb deadlift to do that, but I think every guy should be able to deadlift 350 pounds.

FG: I’m gonna put that in the pull quote. Alright guys, here’s your challenge: get up to 350 on your dead lift. Go.

Yeah, seriously. My lifts are not exceptional….really, I’m not that impressive by any means. There are a lot of guys who think I’m just average. There are lot of guys who think that every guy should be able to squat 400 pounds, and that I’m just average.

But…to me it’s about being functional. You gotta be functional. Your body tells you if you’re strong.

Every guy should be able to deadlift 350 pounds.Mark T.

FG: And they’ve shown that strength training is one of the best cures for depression, ever. (source)

Absolutely, I agree with that.

FG: And you mentioned that you kept training all through a cancer experience. 

Yeah, it was right around 1.5 years I had been lifting weights. I was down to 185. We had saved up money and traveled to Europe, England and France for 3 weeks, end of summer – taking a shower — doing the thing the doctor always tells you to do, which is to do a self exam, which he’d been telling me to do since my early 20s, and I was like “Yeah yeah yeah, whatever” — and I felt something.

“Wait, you need to remove my testicle?”Mark T

So I went in, he thought it was just a cyst but we’ll have an ultrasound done. So they did the ultrasound, and I got a call at 4 o clock in the afternoon and he said “You need to make an appointment to see a urologist right now.”

And I said, “Wait a minute, what’s wrong?”

And he said, “I can’t tell you that, I’m not qualified to make that diagnosis, but you need to see a urologist. Here’s who you need to call, here’s his number, you need to get in there in the next 2 days. If you can’t get in there in the next 2 days let me know and I will get you an appointment.”

And that was a holy shit moment.

So I go in, I see a urologist, he looks at my ultrasound, and he says “Yeah, you got cancer.”

And I was like, “What?”

“Well, it’s a testicular growth, we need to remove it-”

“Wait, you need to remove my testicle?”

“Yes, and then we can biopsy it, and then we can tell you what kind and what stage. But just assume that you have cancer.”

And I was like, “Let’s go.”

Within 2 weeks I had the surgery. I think I have in my training log….in less than 14 days I was deadlifting 225. I had been cleared by my urologist.

So luckily enough, it was stage 1, I caught it really early, it was a less aggressive form, it had not spread to the lymph nodes, but they had decided they wanted to do radiation treatment for 5 weeks to ensure that anything that wasn’t revealed on the CAT scan was irradiated and hopefully killed. That was determined as the best course of action for survivability.

I did 5 weeks of radiation 5 days a week. And I trained through it all. My oncologist was kinda surprised I was still going to work and still lifting — and he pulled up my CAT scan, and — this is for all the guys out there who want abs, I guess — and he said, “These are your abdominal muscles. They are thicker than anything I have ever seen. What do you do?” And I told him, and he said, “It’s working.”

And it’s funny, every time I go see him, he says the same damn thing. So it all goes back to barbell training: deadlifts, squats, and press. And throw in some chins. Don’t go do a bunch of sit-ups.

FG: So here you are, you’re 40 years old: you’ve beaten cancer, you’ve done a body transformation that a lot of people dream of, and you’re doing what you want to be doing in life. So what’s next? 

To me, life is about living, it’s not about what’s next. It’s about today. It’s about waking up, every morning, and being thankful you can pull in a breath.

I don’t know where I’m gonna be 10 years from now. It’s funny, when I was first in sales, a guy takes me out to lunch and says, “Wherever you wanna be in 7 years, you need to have that plan now for where you want to be.” I found that to be true. Take a snapshot of where you’re at today: are you happy? Because if you’re not happy now, chances are you won’t be in 7 years. And if you’re not happy now you better make damn sure you do whatever it is today to get you to happy.

Think about what a luxury we have to live in a society where our biggest concerns are 1) making as much money as possible, and 2) looking good.

FG: One of things I want to constantly remind people who read my site is: the life you’re living now, if you’re reading my site, is somebody’s dream. Somebody prays for that every day. So be grateful.

I agree.

FG: Mark, this has been rad. Thanks so much for being willing to share your story.


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Also published on Medium.

2 Comments The Man Who Left a Six-Figure Sales Career To Teach Special Ed

  1. Jane

    This guy is incredible. Lots of people wake up one morning and feel that they’re not making the most out of their lives, but very few act upon this realisation. He must be pretty tough and strong-willed to not only leave behind a six-figure salary but also to get into such demanding teaching. And beating the cancer! I’m very impressed. I think that he should also get in touch with Tomasz and hang out with him for a bit, the two would get on!

    1. Drew

      Haha great catch Jane! Yes, I think these two Fierce Gentlemen would get a lot out of hanging out together. He also impressed me with his willpower and ability to make a change. It’s really difficult to lose weight and it’s really hard to get stronger. It takes consistent action, day after day. May we all have the same measure of ability to push ourselves forward! Thanks for the comment!


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