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“Don't let your inner critic tell you what you can't do before you even try to do it.”

Transformation expert brings her message home to CSUB


Tara-Nicholle Nelson speaks at CSUB

Tara-Nicholle Nelson, a 2017 CSUB Alumni Hall of Fame inductee, returned to campus this week to share with university staff her secrets for tuning out self-doubt and fully expressing inspired ideas.

Alumni Engagement Specialist

Tara-Nicholle Nelson sees herself as a counter-programmer, countering media that tell people they should look different, do a certain thing a certain way, fix themselves.

To her we’re all wired with wonderful, unique gifts and her job is to help us recognize and summon the courage to share them – for everyone’s benefit.

“All of us are uplifted when we bring 100 percent of ourselves to our work,” says Nelson, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from CSUB during the mid- to late-1990s.

The result is, a “transformation company” on a mission to, as she puts it, help people care for their souls and bring their best selves to the world. Nelson carries out her mission through speaking engagements around the country – including her alma mater this week – and her online School of Spiritual Strategy.

SoulTour became Nelson’s main focus after a hugely successful digital marketing career during which she created content for marquee companies including  HGTV, ING Direct (now Capital One), Eventbrite and Trulia (now Zillow). She was VP of marketing for MyFitnessPal, where she helped grow the number of app customers from 45 million to nearly 100 million before it was sold to Under Armour for $475 million in 2015.

Nelson, 43, developed the concept of marketing to the transformational consumer, people who see life as a series of projects to make their lives wealthier, healthier and wiser and seek out products that aid their journey. In 2017 she shared her secrets in her third book, The Transformational Consumer.

As Nelson was consulting and speaking to promote the book, executives kept saying they appreciated the marketing concepts but were struggling to make the case inside their organization for doing the work. They lacked transformational leadership skills.

So Nelson taught those leaders the rituals and techniques she deploys to help transform others.

“At some point I had a summer a couple years ago where several executives in a row were like, “Why don’t you just do this for a living? It’s so important.”

And so she is.

Those rituals and techniques are best explained – and learned – through the courses Nelson teaches (for free) online. Enrollment opens again in September.

One of her lessons – and the subject of her talk at CSUB – is in dialing down one’s inner critic and listening to inner wisdom. Inner critics, which often manifest themselves as fear and self-doubt, keep people from fully expressing the great ideas they most assuredly have inside themselves.

People often fear things that don’t actually endanger them, like public speaking, Nelson says. She asks her audiences to identify what their critic is saying, ask why it is saying it, and give it a “thanks, but no thanks.”

The result?

“It feels good following through on good ideas rather than shutting them down,” Nelson says.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson publicity shot

Nelson earned two degrees from CSUB and then a law degree from UC Berkeley. She practiced law for a couple years before going into real estate, where she took a consultative approach and honed her skills for helping clients solve their problems. A marketing career followed.

In the following Q and A, Nelson talked about her work, challenges she overcame and the institution that provided critical early support: CSUB. The conversation is lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.

Today you talked about muting our inner critic. What are some of the other things you find people needing help with?

Daily ritual is huge, just having some kind of way to regularly recalibrate your nervous system and give yourself a little bit of space to carry your own thoughts. The daily ritual I teach tends to be meditation and journaling and some affirmations or declarations and a little bit of physical movement.

Other things that come up a lot for people are perfectionism, procrastination, anxiety. Ritual helps with all of them.

Scarcity and unworthiness are probably way up there. People thinking there’s not enough, they are not enough. They have to burn themselves out to have anything nice. They have to be perfect or catastrophes will happen.

Where does all this knowledge of yours come from?

Years and years and years and years of study and practice.

My education here was in psychology, which probably helped. When I was 14 I read my first self-help book, Deepak Chopra's book “Ageless Body, Timeless Mind.” I think it's hilarious because I was 14. Why was I worried about that?

I'm just a student. I grew up in church, and in church schools where we actually studied sacred texts, not just of our own faith but of other faiths.

And I think I have a deep calling to help. I can see the brilliance in other people that they can’t see. I can see it all the time. I’m like, “You are great at this,” and they’re not letting themselves know it.

There’s something about having a little bit of a role in people’s path like that that’s so resonant for me that forever all my jobs had that same theme of being a trusted advisor. My training was in psychology, I was a lawyer, I was a personal trainer in law school. When I was a Realtor I had a very consultative approach.

Nelson also mentions the 500 writing prompts she’s developed for her online students, all of which contain little lessons and are based on research or sacred texts: “So I know when a topic is very resonant for people because I have this ongoing feedback loop.”

School is about to start. Do you have any advice for students?

Start to build a little, tiny muscle of doing a little, tiny daily ritual for your own inner wellbeing. That can be five minutes of sitting quietly in the morning when you first get up. If you like the idea of journaling, just brain dump, it doesn’t have to be spelled right or grammatical. You'll never show it to anyone. Do that for a few minutes every morning.

Pay yourself first, invest in your own calm and clarity and get in a good state of mind before you ever come to school. And it changes everything, especially writing.  The dots connect when you write out all your grudges and grievances and worries and whatever and you're just clear when you start the day.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson speaks at CSUB in 2017

Nelson speaks to students alongside Tanya Boone-Holladay, now interim dean of the School of Social Sciences and Education, in 2017.

The Alumni Association has a mentor program and mentees often need help figuring out what to do after school. How did you figure it out and what advice do you have for them?

I am a fan of listening to your inner wisdom and taking the natural next step. Don't think that you're going to engineer your whole 40-year career path when you're 22.

Take a step that feels like it might be fulfilling and see what happens. Don't get overly attached to a certain long-term path.

We’re all the hero in our own life story. Do you know what life stories have? Plot twists. Like I didn't think I was going to take a job ever again and then MyFitnessPal came in. It was the best job a person could have.

That’s more how I operate now. When it doesn’t feel right, I'm a no. And when it feels good, sure, let's try to go with that. And don't feel that you have to figure it all out on day one.

What about someone 15 to 20 years into a career who says, ”I can’t do this anymore”?

That person actually has a leg up on clarity because if you've been doing something for 15 to 20 years and you know it’s not working for you … you’ve narrowed the field of what will and won’t work, right?

I still am very open to opportunities. You just don't know what's out there. My whole career basically has been professions that didn't exist 15 years ago. Like the way I ran marketing at an app company. There were no apps when I was in school.

So this world is so changing. So many new things are happening all the time that like who even knows what it will need that doesn't exist? So just following thing to thing to thing could perfectly equip you to do a job that doesn't exist right now. That’s kind of what happened with me.

The real world doesn’t always allow us to trust our gut and speak up. Do you have any advice for managers/supervisors to create more of a space for open discourse without derailing the direction they might be trying to lead a team?

I'm a big fan of laying the groundwork for fruitful exchanges with Nonviolent Communication, which provides a sort of template for clear, mature conversations, and asking the entire team to commit from the start to using The Four Agreements the whole way through: Be impeccable with your word. Make no assumptions. Take nothing personally. Always do your best. 

Getting team feedback on a continuous basis, transparently modeling strategic and effective thinking throughout the process (versus just handing over finished plans) and continuously cultivating a fear-free workplace where people feel safe speaking up all the time also helps leaders get to the essence of team input in a way that is steadily additive and enriching to the work, not derailing at key moments. 

The other skill leaders can practice to great effect in this sort of context is the skill of asking breakthrough questions to get to the valuable kernel and the essence of team input that might seem derailing on the face. 



Tara-Nicholle Nelson and the rest of the 2017 CSUB Alumni Hall of Fame class

Nelson, third from left, was inducted into the CSUB Alumni Hall of Fame in 2017. Also pictured (l to r): Then-CSUB Alumni Association President Irma Cervantes-Lancaster, inductee David Reese, then-CSUB President Horace Mitchell and inductees Michael Neal and Doug Greener.

Many of our students face enormous challenges to getting their education. You faced challenges. Can you talk about how you overcame them?

I started college at Cal State Bakersfield when I was 16 years old and six months pregnant. That is insane. If I was faced with that today, I'd be like, “That's crazy. You should not do that.” But back then I was like, “I'm just gonna have a baby. People in other countries have a baby and keep doing their work in the field.”

My kid and his brother, who I also raised, both have special needs. These boys were at the Cal State Bakersfield childcare center when we first suspected my oldest might be on the autism spectrum. I was literally in an abnormal psychology class and saw a video of some autistic kids and was like, “Oh my god, I think that’s what’s happening.” And I’m 17. I’m broke. I have nothing.

She mentions a scholarship she received from a law firm and a mentor, late CSUB Professor Beth Rienzi, in whose name she created a scholarship.

Beth literally met me before school started and was like, “Let’s start getting you ready for grad school.” I was 16 years old and six months pregnant. Nobody should vote for me in this moment. But she’s like, “I’m voting for you, here’s what we’re about to do.”

She mentions other professors.

These professors in this department constantly gave me opportunities to do research projects, go on trips, present my work, things that people at other big schools do not get to do. I’m 17-, 18-years-old with a baby going to Hawaii to present papers, and I had nothing. I had a bunch of really pivotal people who just were showing up over and over and over and over again in my life, speaking life into me, helping me understand my possibilities were bigger.

So is the takeaway to seek out those mentors?

The takeaway is they're out there. People are out there helping other people along their paths, helping other people fulfill their potential. Look for them. There’s a lot of them on this campus. This campus is full up of them.

… And don't let your inner critic tell you what you can't do before you even try to do it. Like I could have said, “Wow, I'm a 16-year-old black girl in Bakersfield and I'm like really knocked up right now. Who thinks that girl should go to college?” But I was like, “Why not?”

So I showed up. And people met me every place I’ve shown up in my life.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson speaks to CSUB staff during University Week.

Nelson, who lives in Oakland but grew up in Bakersfield and still has family here, called CSUB more of her home than anywhere else in Bakersfield.

One way you’re paying it back is by joining the CSUB Foundation Board of Directors. What are you hoping to bring to the board?

Nelson mentions a trip she and CSUB leaders took to Sacramento last year to lobby lawmakers for CSU funding.

We went desk-to-desk to the local legislators and were just like, “Let me tell you a story of what happens when CSUB students' educations are funded.”

It’s effortless and enjoyable for me to be an advocate at that level because I can tell my own story and people get it, people get the transformation. And it literally happened here.

It’s not magic. It just was a bunch of wonderful people who were funded enough to create these educational opportunities. So I love that kind of work.

I'm also excited about our new president. I loved (former CSUB President) Dr. Mitchell. I loved the platform that he's created. I love the excitement and energy and clarity of vision that I've already seen with President Zelezny. So I’m excited for what the new era is going to look like.


Open Quote
I could have said, “Wow, I'm a 16-year-old black girl in Bakersfield and I'm like really knocked up right now. Who thinks that girl should go to college?” But I was like, “Why not?” Close Quote
Tara-Nicholle Nelson