Of all the things that don’t go particularly far on a résumé, running fast and catching footballs are skills that qualify you for one specific job. For Trent Shelton, fizzling out of the NFL in 2009 after three years of limited opportunities was some combination of humiliating and terrifying. “By the time I was 25, my dream was over,” he says.
It’s hard to quantify how painful it is to come close to that specific dream and still fail. Around the same time, Shelton’s college roommate Anthony Arline, another football star, took his own life.
So, if you’re Shelton, what do you do? Not just how do you overcome the pain—literally, what do you do with your life?
What you can accomplish on the football field might not help you get a lot of office jobs, but elite athletes are more familiar than most with a universal part of life: adversity. Shelton got out the other side of the depression and self-destructive behavior that followed his NFL career and began uploading videos to social media that were part philosophical musing, part pep talk. In doing so, he was entering a personal development space that he didn’t even know existed.
“My personal development was Lil Wayne,” Shelton remembers. “It was hip-hop. Master P. That’s what I grew up on. My mentors were people like Tupac.”
Rappers and other musicians sometimes tell stories of personal development, but more often they make music in service of motivation, and so athletes are naturally drawn to it. Sports exist in a realm where results are an immediate product of effort and execution. Winning is everything, and yet every athlete has lost. The life skill that an elite athlete like Shelton has is the ability to lose without being defeated.
His videos are optimistic and motivational. Whatever setback you’re going through, he understands the feeling. He’s lost games and literally come back stronger and faster, and he believes that mindset can propel people through life. He overcame his fear of public speaking by realizing that being on a stage doesn’t require playing a character. He could just be himself.
It wasn’t always easy. Shelton didn’t look like the typical guy on stage telling people how to improve their lives. “I’m a black guy with dreads and tattoos,” Shelton said. “I don’t talk proper.” The other men in the industry wore suits. Shelton wore hoodies and a snapback hat and was criticized for it. “One lady told me I don’t look professional enough. I said, ‘Well, I’m purposeful enough.’ ”
In 2013, he got some emotional proof that his messages were resonating with people when a woman approached him at an event with tears in her eyes. She claimed that a couple months back, Shelton had saved her life. She was on the verge of suicide and opened up Facebook to post a goodbye message to her friends and family. Shelton happened to be recording a Facebook live video at that exact moment. “Your video literally stopped me,” she told him before her sons gave him a hug. “You can’t measure impact,” Shelton says.
Now, he reaches over 60 million people weekly though his videos and has written a book titled The Greatest You. His signature signoff “RehabTime” draws from his experience as a football player. We often refer to athletes as “physically gifted” but most of them have experienced injuries. That’s because our bodies weren’t specifically designed for football the way it’s played at the highest levels. Likewise, our worlds aren’t designed to perfectly set us up for the lives we’re chasing. Things will go wrong. And rehabbing from our setbacks is a conscious decision.
For Shelton, that means time in nature. Plenty of his videos take place during an impromptu break from a run out on a trail. “I love nature,” he says. “I don’t like snakes and that stuff. But nature, that heals.”
Shelton might not have been able to keep the job he had strived for, but he found the career he was perfect for. “I’m in the service industry,” he explained. “Just like you’d go to Home Depot to fix or improve your house and go get tools. I’m someone who can give you tools to improve your life.”
Trent Shelton’s Three A’s of Personal Development
“Appreciation is the first step to elevation. If you can find appreciation in your sunshine and your storm, then you got it. Appreciation will carry you through.”
“I’ve been an athlete over half my life, and accountability is big. Eventually what you don’t do will show. You will be exposed. You can preach good health, but if you don’t practice it, it will show.”
“I wish my audience paid more attention to themselves. We’re always on the phone. It’s like we’re in the stands watching other people play the game of life. Focus on yourself a bit.”
Meet the other New Thought Leaders:
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Illustration by Hanane Kai
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