There’s a feature on the Peloton bike where riders can choose more music or more instructor. Alex Toussaint is worth turning up.
“The good ones work out, the great ones out work.”
“No need to outsource your greatness. Just activate it.”
“This ain’t daycare.”
Beyond being highly quotable, Toussaint’s own hardscrabble background features prominently in his oration. A typical 30-minute ride rewinds the tape on his life from his supportive mom to stern dad, life in military school to mopping floors. It’s equal parts perspiration and inspiration: Look at me now.
This month, Toussaint releases a book that goes deeper into his past and his remarkable journey. Activate Your Greatness boasts key leadership lessons for so many of us struggling to balance the personal and professional, the constant code-switching among family and work and everyone in between, and to somehow establish boundaries within. In a recent interview, I spoke with Toussaint about his troubled upbringing, his unlikely rise, and how an exercise class became the perfect backdrop for his philosophy.
An unlikely journey
Toussaint’s Haitian roots are everything to him. But they once made him feel unworthy. “As immigrants, your parents come to this country, not for you to just live in it, but to thrive in it,” he says. “You being good is not good enough.”
One of three boys growing up between Queens and Long Island, Toussaint kept getting into trouble in school after school. His parents enrolled him in military school—and he got kicked out there, too. After dropping out of college, Toussaint was thrown out of the family home and worked a series of odd jobs until he found one as a janitor at a cycling studio in the Hamptons. He studied the instructors all around him thriving as the spin industry took off, and approached the owner saying he thought he could teach a class. A few years later, a startup called Peloton came calling. He would become its first Black instructor.
In a recent interview, I asked Toussaint what he’s learned about being a leader and a public persona while managing virtual and IRL classes, working from his living room and live-in studio during the pandemic, and holding an identity that sets him apart at his workplace—but also one that is invoked constantly to make himself relatable to Peloton customers.
“My life is always on,” he says. “How I am off the bike is how I am on the bike, how I am on the bike is how I am at my house. Whether I’m on camera doing a Zoom call or whether I’m in the studio teaching a class when there’s nobody in there or there’s 40 people in there, I don’t know any other way but to show up all the way. That’s just been my mindset.”
Finding grace with each other
Indeed, his infectious energy can make it feel like the exercise is besides the point. More important: feeling good, looking good, doing better.
Those three tenets are the pillars of 31-year-old Toussaint’s breezy 245-page book. I asked him why write when he has a bigger pulpit multiple times a day teaching classes. Toussaint offers a couple reasons: To dig deeper, with more details and reflection than he can on the bike, and more importantly, to seek grace for himself and others.
“I fucked up along the way, but I’ve made it right and I’m just trying to validate the sacrifices of those who paved the way before me,” he says.
Despite the pain he characterizes in his childhood and coming of age, he’s unflinchingly positive on the opportunities of the present day, which is the attitude greeting Peloton users every day. Underneath is an awareness that the road (and ride) is a very bumpy one.
Look for the little things
Leadership needs to start with managing one person: yourself. So often our workplace improvement manuals focus on others around us, but here, Toussaint’s focus is more singular.
That means staying open to opportunity even when it doesn’t seem like opportunity is within reach. Successful people don’t always tell you the bad parts. Here, recounting military school rituals and arguing with his parents and being homeless and couch-surfing from one friend to another, Toussaint is at his best and most vulnerable. He encourages people to look for and listen to the “little things”—chances to imbue small moments with big meaning, whether it’s choosing to take a job mopping floors or striking up conversation with customers. Where they led is what allowed Toussaint to turn around his life.
“When we start to do better in life, we start to create a community, with our thoughts, words, and deeds. Everything is self-reinforcing,” he writes. “We help motivate others when they need it. They help motivate us when we need it. When we win, everyone around us wins.”
Activate Your Greatness is one in among several books I have been reading lately by the children of immigrants, all of which grapple with outsized expectations placed on us by our parents. Toussaint differs, though, by not setting up boundaries (many protagonists in immigrant memoirs end up estranged from their families) nor waiting for adulation (other protagonists end up in a heartwarming embrace). This book has neither outcome. Rather, after Toussaint becomes a sought-after instructor teaching dozens of classes a week, he describes the moment his father finally expresses pride—and realizing he didn’t need such approval.
“That provided me a certain level of validation, but in the same space a certain level of realization that I never actually needed that validation,” he says. “My father saying, ‘I’m proud of you’ allowed me to go from existing in my life and trying to prove him wrong, to now I’m able to live my life to prove myself right. I think as immigrants we have to deal with that pressure at an all-time high, because the expectations are set so high.”
Being the only
As Peloton’s first Black instructor, Toussaint writes honestly about not wanting to let anyone down, but also his own personal evolution and that of the company. Today, Peloton is known for encouraging instructors to invoke their identities during rides, on social media, and as a part of their general influencer status. A breakout Peloton moment came in February 2020 when Toussaint and fellow instructor Tunde Oyeneyin teamed up for a special Black History Month ride. The camaraderie and respect between the two was evident (Toussaint: “You ain’t playin’ today”).
Months later, in a world protesting the death of George Floyd, Toussaint used his platform again: “I understand for some of y’all, I’m the one person from the African-American community in your household,” Toussaint told riders. “My responsibility is to let you know there’s other individuals like me, who talk like me, who walk like me, who provide light to this world, man.”
“What part did I play in this?” Oyeneyin asked riders to ask themselves. “As a company, as a brand, we have put our stake in the ground. I ask that we move together.”
For companies, Toussaint and his colleagues’ words and actions underscore what those who break glass ceilings want to ensure: that the first is not the last.
Doing better is a lifelong process
Despite Toussaint’s introspection, he has one big regret. “I know that like my mom is extremely, extremely proud of me, but as a PhD, and a Haitian immigrant, she would love for me to finish college,” he says. “So sometime in this life, I do want to make it a goal of mine to go back to college.”
Doing better, it turns out, never ends.