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5 ways coming out helped me build my dream career

As your career evolves, it often becomes less about what you know and more about how to navigate conversations in a way that surfaces the truth, makes peers feel supported, and leads to measurable progress.

5 ways coming out helped me build my dream career
[Source photo: Tom Verdoot/Pexels]

My coming out story is sheepish at best. On a crisp autumn evening in 2005, I quietly toggled the “interested in” detail on my Facebook profile to say “men,” and that was that. (This was four years before the like button was invented, mind you; Facebook was refreshingly boring back then). I found it easier to start college fresh as an out gay man and then tie up all the loose ends later at home, but the eventual eye-to-eye admissions to my family were terrifying nonetheless.

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In the years that followed, however, having my out-and-proud merit badge really came in handy. I could take on hard things in my career. I could better define how I wanted to show up in my professional life because I’d already ripped the band-aid off in my personal life. From industry switches to eventually working for myself, coming out ended up being the career rocket fuel I never knew I had.

We, unfortunately, don’t have consistent data on LGBTQ careers and wealth, but we’re getting closer. The last several years have been a mixed bag. One day we have reports that gay men make 10% more money (refuting previous studies) and lesbians crush us all in the workplace, and then the next day UCLA’s Williams Institute is serving us excellent socioeconomic findings that show us further behind across the board. Queer careers can’t be defined in a single brushstroke. 

We all have something special though, and that is our coming out rocket fuel. So to commemorate National Coming Out Day, first established in 1988, I thought it’d be fun to reflect on how being out has shaped my career into the self-made consultant I am today. Here are five of my biggest takeaways.

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1. Confronting career changes head-on

I already risked it all when I told my mom I was into dudes, so why not juggle more flaming torches in the years to come? My career path to a self-employed consultant at 34 years old has been, well, bizarre. 

First, I shunned an engineering education and lapped up two degrees in classical French Horn instead. (I attribute this to watching Mr. Holland’s Opus on VHS one too many times.) I eventually realized a career in French Horn would mean 40 more years of playing dead people’s music and never talking at work, so I threw it all away and started from scratch in retail management instead. Slinging yoga pants felt so innovative after 14 years of scales and arpeggios.

It was scary to change industries completely, but coming out taught me I would make it through. I later shifted into working with small businesses, which is where I found my love of writing and digital marketing. Following the path that lets you be your authentic self can be a rollercoaster, but to never go for it and make the effort would mean giving up on myself altogether. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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2. Taking big risks

Curious to explore working for myself, I decided to make the jump into entrepreneur life. And y’all—I was terrible at it. Apparently, you need to optimize for this thing called sales to make a business fly. Oops! I promptly bled out my life savings and was forced to scamper back to manager life. 

But the itch had been scratched, and I couldn’t let it go. Once you taste the intoxicating flavor of being your true self, you want it all the time, in every part of your life, and it becomes impossible to ignore. (Exhibit A: The Great Resignation has almost everyone rethinking their careers.) 

Jumping the boat prematurely was an expensive mistake. But learning the ins and outs of small business consulting allowed me to moonlight on top of my day job, gain experience, and improve. Coming out means showing your true self and being willing to accept any outcome, and each time you do it, you develop more trust that you’ll be able to weather storms.

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3. Motivating yourself (but with caution)

As psychologist Alan Downs notes in his 2012 book The Velvet Rage, gay men encounter two primary hurdles on their journey to self-acceptance. The first step is the actual coming out process and is pretty clear-cut, albeit terrifying. 

The second, however, involves overcoming the compensation triggers we inherently adopt to make up for feeling wrong, bad, or inadequate. From pursuing a hypermasculine physique in the gym to commanding an impeccable reputation at work, overcompensation is a hollow success often fueled by self-flagellation and self-loathing.

Many gay men never get past this second hurdle because our identities become intertwined with how we do work. I’m still working on this disentanglement. Like many ambitious people, self-flagellation gave me everything I wanted early on in my career, so it’s tough to let go, but I’m getting there. 

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It takes a fair bit of personal inquiry to determine why you’re so ambitious and driven. Is it truly because you love what you do, or is there some quiet shame floating around that is secretly and stealthily running the show? Stay connected to your why.

4. Initiating uncomfortable conversations

Astrologically, this shouldn’t be true: Both my sun and moon signs are Pisces, and hell if Pisces can even make a decision about what to order off of Postmates without it turning into an existential crisis.

Luckily, the coming out rocket fuel is enough to counter my cosmic destiny of indecisiveness. The coming out conversation may or may not be hard, but the anticipation leading up to the coming out conversation is always hard: “Dad, I’m gay.” “Emily, I’m gay.” “Jessica, I’m gay.” I still clench my jaw as I type those words, and this was over 15 years ago.

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As your career evolves, it often becomes less about what you know and more about how to navigate conversations in a way that surfaces the truth, makes peers feel supported, and leads to measurable progress. There’s a reason the book Crucial Conversations became a smashing success: Important conversations shape both our careers and our lives. (Book nerd alert, the third edition of this book will be released later this month.)

5. Seeing yourself in others’ queer triumphs

I wept at Lil Nas X‘s “Montero” launch last month, and it’s not because of the billboards and two-steps-ahead trolling. This kind of overt sexual power and ownership is something that would never have flown 20 years ago in mainstream culture, and my lame white ass is over here jumping with joy and excitement.

It’s a far cry from the Lavender Scare of the 1950s, in which homosexuality was conflated with communism and over 10,000 queer government employees were forced to resign. Queer culture will continue to surge thanks to Generation Z; in the aforementioned UCLA research, over 30% of these youngins identify as “not heterosexual.” If you’re tasked with holding the attention of consumers for decades to come, an awareness of queer culture and empathy for the experience is an absolute minimum. (Read my lips: No more rainbow logos.)

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Not every coming out process needs to involve a viral video campaign or gender-reveal-level theatrics. But that doesn’t mean the process is any less scary. The good news is that the courage you muster in that moment continues on with you for the rest of your career and life. Embrace your “coming out rocket fuel,” and you’ll summon the leadership you need to make big strides forward for decades to come.


Nick Wolny is a former classically trained musician and a current online-marketing strategist for small business owners, experts, and entrepreneurs.


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