Meet Val Nelson, Our Career and Business Expert

Dear readers,

Welcome! I’m a self-employed career and business coach who helps introverts clarify and thrive in their true livelihood so they can have the meaning and balance they crave. I love my work, and I can’t wait to start getting your questions for this career and business advice column for introverts.

Let’s start off this relationship with me confiding in you.

My shy girl past

I was painfully shy all through my school years. I loved to escape by reading and climbing trees. Up in a tree, I could relax and watch people, but they couldn’t see me.

When I was little, people could barely hear me speak—if I could get any words out at all. The more people demanded I speak up, the worse I felt about myself, and the more I wanted to hide and stay silent.

I grew up in a loud and extroverted family, and I didn’t understand why I felt so out of sync. I craved quiet. I almost craved invisibility as well. One time, I crawled into a refrigerator box on the patio and happily read there for hours. I was delighted that no one could find me!

And yet, I also hated invisibility. I wanted to be noticed, to be heard! I had questions to ask. I had plenty of ideas and opinions. I just had trouble saying them out loud.

I was also highly sensitive—easily rattled by noise, light, speed, heights, and, well, people. (It wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered what “high sensitivity” was and how to work with it instead of against it.) Turns out, it often correlates with introversion.

As a result of my sensitivity and external stressors, I suffered from a lot of anxiety. I didn’t know this then; to me, swirling thoughts, stomachaches, and fear of speaking (at all) was my normal state of being.

Throughout school, I was obsessed with getting good grades, probably as a way to not rock the boat and remain invisible. But when my 11th grade English teacher assigned an oral report, I panicked! I approached the teacher after class to see if she would just give me an F so I wouldn’t have to do it. An F for me was a horrifying thought, but speaking in front of the class was worse.

She refused, and I lived with a stomachache and panicky thoughts for two weeks. At last, I eked out a passable report. I think the pounding of my heart must have been louder than my trembling quiet voice. It felt like a miracle that I survived the experience.

(My heart goes out to kids in the same situation today. Luckily, teachers are getting more information about how to help.)

Speaking got easier in college. I didn’t “grow out of shyness” as people often assume will happen; rather, I finally tuned into my passions. The more interested I was, the less I noticed my fear.

Still, I dreaded giving oral reports, and I was one of the quieter students in class. I was driven by passions, but I still wasn’t confident.

My winding career journey

After college, I wanted to save the world, and I thought teaching was the perfect outlet. Despite my fears, I took a job as a health educator.

With the help of on-the-job training and a pre-set curriculum, my speaking anxiety gradually went away! My confidence was growing. Looking back, I now understand that passion (along with support) can trump fear. That lesson has shaped my work.

Even though I had more ease and confidence with public speaking, I still found it exhausting. After far too many days ended with my head on my desk and me in tears, I quit my job without another one lined up. I quickly went through my small savings and had to get help.

I went to a career coach, who helped me understand why my last job wasn’t a good fit. What a relief it was to learn I wasn’t a freak! There was nothing wrong with me, nothing to fix—I was simply an introvert and needed to focus on my strengths.

After that turning point, I tried various roles over the years, including human resources management and web marketing. I chose work that allowed more alone time to think, and I still found ways to have a say in groups. I found my own leadership style, and my confidence grew.

Still, I had a sense that work could be more fulfilling. With much soul searching and professional career guidance, I discovered that I was happiest when using my coaching skills, and I decided that coaching was the best fit for me.

My long-term dream of self-employment started to come into focus as I imagined being a coach. I was ready to spread my wings even wider.

But are introverts good at being self-employed?

At first, I was nervous about whether I could handle things like promoting and growing a business, which are typically associated with extroversion. I simply couldn’t bring myself to promote my business in the standard extroverted way.

To my surprise, the more I did things my own way, that was aligned with me, the better things went! People were drawn to my events and services, probably because of my authenticity and non-salesy approach. My business grew.

Turns out introverts can be great at the so-called extrovert territories of leadership, self-employment, and self-promotion—if they do it their own way.

I discovered I could just show up at a networking event, without perfect words, and simply engage in meaningful conversations. No sales pitch in hand. I was just myself. No extrovert mask. No race to collect stacks of business cards.

The more I took steps that aligned with my heart and my nature, the more excited and fulfilled I felt. My work energized me. People commented that I was glowing. And that glow helped attract more clients. Being true to myself paid off. It felt like a gift from heaven.

Who I am today

People who know me today are surprised to hear that I used to be extremely shy. In fact, sometimes they don’t understand that I’m still introverted, but I am. I’m confident, and I enjoy socializing, but it has to be on my terms. I still value my alone time, when I can slow down, breathe, and listen to what my heart tells me.

Introduction to this advice column

I’m not about doling out directions such as “you should do X because I said so.” I want to help you find and do what is true for you. I can detect where things are getting off track and help nudge you back into your true path.

Above all, I want you to understand that you can earn a living and be true to yourself. I’m challenging that outdated cultural norm that says we have to become extroverted to succeed. That’s what the Quiet Revolution is about, and I’m on board.

Now it’s your turn to talk.

Career or business worries? Want to know how to say something at work? Want to figure out how marketing or networking can work best for you? Send your questions to [email protected]!