How did I get where I am today?

I was recently asked a question about where I started and how I got to where I am today. It’s such an unusual thing to talk about because I would never normally post content like this, but since it came in such a specific question format, I thought, well, that’s actually interesting.

I was listening to a sermon by the great Michael Todd from Transformation Church, who is just wicked cool. He said something that I really resonated with. He said, “God puts you in a place way before you ever know your purpose.”

And we fight the place so many times in our life, right? It’s at the job that we don’t think is working out, or we’re not making enough money, or we’re in a family we think we don’t belong in, or it’s at a college we don’t fit into that brings us to wonder, what am I doing here? Why am I here? Why am I doing this?

I’ll tell you how this connects.

Thinking on all of this reminded me of a couple of things that happened in my life, in the very beginning, that really was God putting me in a place. It wasn’t coincidence. It was planned and on purpose.

I believe that was really the beginning of where I am today.

There was this time when I was recently out of college. I graduated in December of 2005 from the University of Tennessee. I was a double-major with a minor. I had graduated with a double major and a minor in three and a half years.

I went to school year-round and I just couldn’t help but want to escape the place that I was in. I wanted to start making money. I wanted to be on my own. I wanted to be independent.

I just wanted to be an independent woman.

So I graduated early. I took the very first job that I got an offer for, which was treacherous. It was terrible. I got written up for wearing Capri pants that showed my ankles.

Y’all now, this wasn’t 1965. This was 2006. I got written up at work for wearing pants that showed my ankles in 2006.

Four weeks later, I approached my female manager at my very first job and complained about a sexual harassment issue. I was too naïve and too ignorant to understand that what had happened in a car, over the course of six hours in a day, when I was traveling with a trainer… Would be considered so inappropriate in today’s world that it would be in the courts.

I shared with my manager what happened, and she told me I was overreacting.

I was in shock. Three weeks ago, this woman wrote me up for wearing pants that showed my ankles. And now she was asking me if it’s inappropriate that a man showed me a book of naked vaginas that he photographs and asked if I would be interested in being photographed for his work.

That was what happened, and she told me I was overreacting.

I was in this place where I felt like, I can’t do this.

So I quit.

Then I took a job at this little retail shop in Nashville, Tennessee called Posh. It was short-lived.

Next, one of my childhood best friends had reached out to me and told me that he was starting a new company. And to my shock, he asked me to start it with him. Why?

There is no reason other than God was putting me in a place for a reason.

I didn’t have any of the skills this opportunity would require: presentation skills, sales skills, advising and training others on how to sell — I didn’t have any of that!

I had no credentials. I was not worthy of this job. Yet I was being called to this place that I unknowingly, but willingly said yes.

That’s what I needed right then.

I packed up my bags and I moved to San Jose, California for what I thought would be a short stint away from Nashville. This turned into five years and 14 cities later, before I ever returned to Nashville.

This took relocating and fully devoting myself to being in this place, which was cold-calling out of the phone book, making 50–100 sales calls a day, going out unpaid commission-only and selling people on tickets to a seminar.

I probably never would have said yes.

But by the grace of God, my friend was smart enough not to share the details. And I was naive enough not to ask.

Looking back now, it was God putting me in a place where he needed to stretch me, build me, grow me, teach me. He needed to form me in a way that I could’ve never done on my own free will.

Because I would have never said yes to that.

I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.

And yet from there, I started finding my niche. Probably out of some creative avoidance, I was doing what I was supposed to be doing, which was cold calling.

I told myself, I’ll learn. I’ll learn all the stats, I’ll make master lists, I’ll learn Excel, I’ll make those spreadsheets, I’ll track incentives. I’ll do this. I didn’t know how, but I’d do it.

I was training myself to be a manager and potentially a leader. And even though I was working after hours and learning to do things I wouldn’t normally do. Yet, I am thankful again for being put in the place that would create the position for me to grow and learn and improve as a human being and then a leader and then a consultant and a coach and a speaker.

I just said, I’ll figure it out.

And that’s what they were looking for. I was on the founding team, there were four of us. We started that business and I just kept saying yes.

I just kept saying yes.

…Many times to my own detriment. And I don’t know if I would give the same advice today, but at the same time, I have a hard time not giving the advice, because if you asked me, how did I get to where I am today? I have to tell you this story.

It’s because I accepted naively the place of humility. I wasn’t making any money. And I was out there selling to people who were making six, seven figures. I think my first year on the sales job, I made $24,000.

And then the next year I made $40,000. I was not rolling in it. I did not have enough money to pay my own bills. I think my dad was still paying my car insurance for the first few years.

I was trying to make this work.

It was a place of humility and it was not where I thought I would be after college. And after hustling to graduate early and two majors and a minor, and studying abroad and doing all this.

Then I stopped to think about it. I could probably be making as much money serving at a restaurant as I was right then. But I was in this place where I just kept saying yes, and every new opportunity, I’ll do that too.

It was a hustle.

It was for a decade. It was insane. But from that, I really found my niche and what I love to talk about. And I really became an amazing salesperson, which are some of the greatest skillsets that I have today.

Those are some of the qualities and experiences that I hold most dear, because I believe that if you want to build any business in any personal brand, you have to know how to sell.

It starts by selling yourself.

And that comes with confidence and belief in a systematic way of knowing what you’re talking about.

My husband Rory says that I live by rule that he likes to call “AJ’s law”, which is that you don’t have to be an expert in terms of everything, all you need to be as an expert is to know more than the people that you’re teaching right now.

I may not be an expert, but I can have expertise.

I may not be an expert compared to whoever you had in mind, but I am an expert to the audience that I am teaching, who does not know what I know. I may not be the personal development expert compared to Tony Robbins, but I can be the personal development expert to the audience that I serve, who are just been turning into that world of personal development.

I can help introduce people to their personal development.

They don’t know yet what a vision is. They don’t really know how to set goals. They don’t know what positive self-talk is. They don’t know those things.

I don’t have to be an expert in the realm of whoever you compare yourself to. All I have to be is an expert to those who are learning from me.

That could be entry-level, mid-level, high-level, whatever.

I started to really own that and really come into my own confidence of, I am worthy of this.

I was made for this.

I was meant to be in this place. I was meant to be humbled. I was meant to have to learn and work my tail off, to figure out what it takes to get what I want and to be who I want to be. And there has been no doubt, there’ve been more stumbling blocks than not along the way.

But here’s the thing, I am persistent.

I have this way I look at life that’s sometimes polarizing, but it’s very black and white. There’s not a lot of gray area for me. I see what is right and wrong for me. Not for you, but for me.

I see what works and what doesn’t, what can be better, what needs to change? What can stay the same, what needs to go away?

I see that very black and white, and I believe the reason I’ve see it so clearly is because I have been doing the work. I wouldn’t be able to say those things if I hadn’t been there and in the world of sales, where if someone says, should I do it like this? I can say, “You could, I wouldn’t, because I’ve done it that way.”

Having this black and white vision, which comes from my own belief in myself and my own self-confidence, has really served me — but I promise you was not always there.

But I do believe that if I don’t know the answer, I can still find the right resources and make the right decisions to help guide me.

And I think that is part of how I got to where I am today, I believe that I am worth it at the end of it. It’s somewhat simple.

I believe that in every step of the way God has put me in a place to help me find my purpose.

It wasn’t that I went out seeking my purpose. I found purpose by sitting in the place that God had me and that included with no paycheck and with big paychecks, that included no clients, lots of clients, the beginning, the end, the middle and everything in between.

I accepted the place that I was in and said, what can I learn?

What will I not do next time? What can I hold onto? What do I need to change about myself? Who do I need to be differently? And it was this era of self-reflection of just sitting in that, believing that there is a higher plan for me and that I am worth it. And that it is already provided for me.

When you start to believe that you are worth it and you deserve it, it is amazing what starts to happen around you.

People perceive me as confident and that I must know what I’m talking about. They will tell you “fake it ’til you make it”, but I don’t believe in that. It’s not fake it ’til you make it, it is believe in yourself until you get it in the end.

That’s how I’ve gotten to where I have today.

And I can’t share enough on this message without sharing that you have to do this with the right people gathered around you; we were meant to be in community.

We were meant to be in this together.

If I try to think about where I would be if I was doing this all alone, I would have not made it through the first six months of Bathurst, my first endeavor with our former company and being in sales.

I must admit, I had an easy out.

I come from a very entrepreneurial family. I could’ve, I could’ve called it quits and gotten out. Going back to the family business, I’ll take a salary from my dad. I’ll work with my brothers and I’ll figure out this construction business. There’s good money there. I’ll do real estate. I’ll do the thing I didn’t want to do.

But I didn’t want that.

I just wanted something that was on my own.

And maybe that came from some deep-rooted entrepreneurial spirit or some newly emerging phase of feminism.

I don’t know. But I just knew that that wasn’t for me, I didn’t want that.

I wanted something else, which meant I had to suck it up and there was going to be a lot of stuff that I didn’t like along the way, but that doesn’t mean that I quit.

It means I figured out a better way and I don’t repeat the same mistakes twice.

That means that I learned, and I grow, and I do it with other people. And if I had been doing all of that from the very beginning, I would have thought, I cannot do this by myself. This sucks. I’m going home.

But because I had people doing it with me, I gained perspective and could ask myself, what sucks for them too?

If they keep going, well, I can do it too.

And then that little bit of confidence grew a little bit and then grew a little bit more. I began to realize, “Oh, I’m good at this. I’m actually better than they are.”

And that just kept growing and growing to this point where I realized there’s not limitations on what I can do.

There’re only limitations on what I want to do.

Those are just decided choices that you have to make for you and your business and your personal brand. If it’s what do you want to do, who cares? What the competition is doing, who cares? Who cares what the market says? What the economy says, who cares? What your friends say, what do you want to do? Then figure out how to do it.

At Brand Builders Group, it’s mission over money.

Let me tell you why we believe in that so strongly and why this is such a part of who I am.

It’s because for a decade of my professional career, it was money over mission with us. I have to be honest about that. There was a lot of ego and a lot of pride and a lot of achievement and accomplishment and more and more and more, that was just dug into my soul from a decade of thinking if you’re not performing, you are not worthy.

If you’re not performing for me lately, you’re not worthy.

I kept climbing on my professional side and I just kept felt like I was losing on my personal side.

I started missing birthday parties, weddings, baby showers, so that I could accept new client meetings, new projects, laying down new deals.

There was this imbalance in my life for a decade and today, and the reason I speak so strongly about this is because I realize I just did it backwards.

At the end of the day, I look up and I’m like, for what? Money and my banking account, but no friends, no close relationships.

I’m having to start over in my mid-thirties.

That’s tough. That’s a tough pill to swallow. God had me in a place and he needed to teach me and break me to remake me, grow me, mold me.

You just have to let that process happen sometimes.

Also realize you’re never that far away from the people around you.

One of my favorite quotes by Steve Jobs is that real breakthroughs happen when you realize that you’re as smart as everyone else around you.

How much risk are you willing to take with ideas and sharing and stepping out on a limb?

You’re as smart as those around you. You just have to believe it and yourself.

So, how did I get to where I am today?

I don’t really think I’m anywhere close to “arrived at where I’m going”, whatever arrived means.

But I am where I am today because I got beat up a lot and I just kept moving.

I said, yes a lot, and not because I was going to make money, but because I was going to learn. And because I believe that I was in a place for a reason, and I just didn’t believe it was in coincidence.

I settled into that and said, what’s next?

I allowed myself to be broken and I allowed myself to be remade.

This concept of change and reinvention has become a life mantra of going from single to married and married to mother and from college to entrepreneur, to not entrepreneur anymore and losing, and then restarting.

All these things that have happened to bring us to where we are today, at my best version of me.

My biggest takeaway message for you is that you’ve got to believe that it’s worth it.

That you’re worth it, that you’re in a place for reason, and you may not like it, but what can you learn from it? And then what are you going to do with it?

AJ Vaden is the Co-founder of Brand Builders Group, international speaker, million-dollar consultant and host of the Influential Personal Brand Podcast.