On the hottest day of July 1999, Valorie Burton paused at a bookstore outside of a journalism convention in Seattle. In her mid-twenties, Valorie owned and operated her own PR firm, where her vitality and insight had brought her success, if not the fulfillment of her creative passion. She had quit her job as the marketing director of an accounting firm two years before to start her first business. Now that she had, she wondered if something was still missing.
Valorie describes what happened in that bookstore almost two decades ago as an epiphany. She had prayed for insight, but she hadn’t expected it to come all at once. Standing in a bookstore thousands of miles from her home, she realized what her career lacked, and what her life needed: Her purpose was to inspire others, particularly women, to live more fulfilling lives through writing and speaking.
“I ran back to the hotel and wrote it down,” she explains. “Three weeks later, I started writing my first book.”
After writing out the entire manuscript on legal pads, Valorie typed it up and published it herself. Two months later, on the day before Thanksgiving, she held a copy of her first book in her hands.
Today, she has written a total of 10 books, spoken at hundreds of conferences and TV shows, and coached people in more than 40 states and 10 countries. A certified life coach, Valorie meets with individuals to talk them through obstacles. She writes books with titles like Successful Women Think Differently and Where Will You Go from Here? She has contributed to Essence and O, The Oprah Magazine, and her books have been translated into seven different languages. In 2009, she founded the Coaching and Positive Psychology (CAPP) Institute in order to train personal and executive coaches.
If you visit her office, you’ll find photos of her on the Today Show, Dr. Oz, and CNN. Scattered between two bulletin boards are a couple dozen photos of Valorie with well-known figures like leadership expert John Maxwell and CNN journalist Roland Martin. Her favorite photo on the wall pictures her smiling with Christine Farris — Martin Luther King Jr.’s older sister — at a prayer breakfast. She displays these photos as a personal and professional gesture. She explains, “I like to have stuff in the office that reminds me of what I do and why I do it.” Other photos in the office serve as a different kind of reminder: she has pictures with her husband, her kids, and her mom.
Valorie’s office looks like one of her book covers come to life: brightly colored and full of inspirational quotes. One phrase on the wall is from her book Happy Women Live Better: “Making a dream come true begins with a simple thought: It’s possible.”
Positivity, from the peach-colored walls of the office to the quickness in her smile, has been a lifelong choice for Valorie, but it’s also something that she learned from her grandparents growing up.
She spent her childhood summers at her paternal grandparents’ split-level homestead in Anderson, South Carolina, catching fireflies (“June bugs”), shucking corn under the backyard apple trees, and showering her grandma with questions while they hung the laundry out to dry. Although she was raised in Colorado, Valorie considers herself Southern at heart.
Valorie mentions that according to research, happiness is 50 percent genetic and 10 percent circumstantial, but 40 percent attitude. Her grandparents showed her how to cultivate that attitude. Her grandfather had no higher than a 5th grade education, and he grew up in the segregated South of the 1920s. Her grandmother worked as a cook at an elementary school. Her maternal grandmother, known as “Mama Pearl” even to those who were older than her, lived a mile away. By providing a loving home for Valorie and her cousins, her grandparents demonstrated resilience and showed her what it looked like to make the most of her opportunities.
Asking her grandmother questions about family lore, learning more than even her dad knew, prepared Valorie for a career in journalism. After majoring in international affairs at Florida State, she wanted to pursue a career in something creative. When she saw a commercial for the journalism program at Florida A&M at 2 a.m. one night, Valorie decided on a master’s in journalism.
Her experience in journalism, followed by her jobs in marketing and PR, prepared her to self-publish that first book in 1999. After her initial venture into the publishing world, Valorie was surprised by the reaction she got: she expected to inspire people, but she was shocked by the volume of letters and emails saying readers had actually begun to change decisions because of her. They even reflected her own language back to her: “Almost every piece of correspondence that I got from readers would use the word ‘inspire.’ And that’s what I heard that day in July of ’99.”
Self-publishing was the first step, but in order to inspire more people, Valorie hoped to get her book purchased by a mainstream publishing house. She found herself lugging a dolly stacked with boxes of 150 copies of her first book, Rich Minds, Rich Rewards, up an escalator in a Chicago convention center. She was one of five self-published authors invited to meet bookstore owners. One particularly inquisitive visitor turned out not to be a bookstore owner, but an editor for Random House. She picked up a copy and called Valorie the next Monday to offer her a book deal.
Valorie’s second book deal was just as random. She says she does the work but God opens the doors of opportunity.
Her editor at Harvest House, LaRae Weikert, praises Valorie’s energy, enthusiasm and wisdom.
“I heard her speak at a national women’s ministry conference in Nashville, and I was so moved and inspired by hearing her,” LaRae says. “She’s a very confident speaker, very clear, very motivational.”
“I think she is able to connect on the level of really getting women past the point where they’re stuck, and they start having breakthroughs,” LaRae says. “She’s just very warm and personable in her writing. And it really draws you in.”
Valorie’s faith is very fundamental to both her personal philosophy and the philosophy of positivity that she teaches. Because of that, people often ask her whether she finds conflict between her religious beliefs and the secular corporate settings in which she often speaks.
“What I say is very practical,” she explains, meaning that it applies to both religious and corporate settings. She doesn’t talk about faith in a corporate setting, but she may mention research in faith-based environments since the two sources of information complement each other. Fundamentally, she doesn’t see herself as delivering two separate messages, a science-based one and a faith-based one.
“To me, it’s not both; it’s one in the same,” she explains. “Truth is truth.”
In both her speeches and her books, Valorie’s core message is about resilience and happiness. Applied positive psychology, in which she got a master’s from University of Pennsylvania, focuses on how happy people live. Resilience teaches bouncing back from obstacles and implementing new strategies to move forward. The two concepts are essential to one another.
“You can’t be happy without being resilient. It’s not possible because life will derail you,” Valorie says. “Things are going to happen that you don’t want to happen. If you can’t bounce back from that, happiness will be very short lived, and you’ll be bitter. You’ll get stuck. So often I’m helping people get unstuck.”
Valorie encourages women to learn to coach themselves by giving them questions to ask themselves. When she quit her marketing job to start her own business, she learned to answer her what-ifs.
“I didn’t know that I was coaching myself then by saying, ‘Well, what if?’ I think it’s important to go to your worst case scenario,” she explains. “That is what, for me, has given me the most strength. With fear, we do something called catastrophizing. We basically have a thought and we go from zero to the world’s-coming-to-an-end in about ten seconds. It can be very paralyzing.”
So she answered her what-if questions. What if she was too young? She’d get more experience. What if she failed? She’d get another job and try again later.
“If you’re not scared,” she says, “then you’re not really stepping outside of your comfort zone at all.”
One test of her resilience came two years after Valorie published her first book. She was talking on the phone with her mom when her mom complained of the worst headache she’d ever had. They got off the phone quickly, but soon Valorie’s younger brother called back: her mom needed to go to the hospital. When Valorie arrived, she found out that her mother had had an aneurism and would need brain surgery.
Today, her mom has recovered most of her physical abilities, retired from her previous career, and works with Valorie in her business. But at the time, neither one of them had any idea how fully she would recover, if she did at all. Her mother’s tenacity still inspires Valorie. She always approached her recovery with gratitude. She faced incredible challenges, but she was still alive. She couldn’t walk, but she could learn to do so again.
Another test came in 2009, just a year after Valorie got her master’s in positive psychology, when she went through a divorce. Starting her life over at age 36 was one of many experiences that tested her own resilience and made her practice what she had been studying. She says it has given her more conviction in her message, made her more compassionate. She may be proud of her books and the companies she’s started, but she takes the most pride in what she’s achieved personally: “I wouldn’t be able to write authentically if I wasn’t trying to really live what I say in the books.” For a while, however, she wasn’t sure whether she could keep writing after the divorce.
“I actually thought, I guess I can’t write books anymore. My life doesn’t look perfect. I guess I have no right to speak anymore,” she recalls. “I was so wrong—my greatest successes have come since 2009.”
Valorie held on to her most important dream—to be married and have children. After the divorce, she moved from D.C. to Atlanta to be near relatives. She continued to write books, but she still had the desire to be a wife and a mother.
In 2012, a high school acquaintance was at the Atlanta airport.
“He’s a pilot,” Valorie laughs. “He’s always at the airport.”
Jeff Burford saw one of Valorie’s books at a store and posted a selfie with it on her Facebook author page, joking, “Should I get this book?” Valorie responded (she didn’t say whether she recommended the book or not), and the two caught up over lunch. She learned that Jeff, whom she had barely known in high school, had had a locker a few over from hers. He had thought about asking her out, but he never had.
After reading the book he’d found at the airport—Successful Women Think Differently—Jeff realized he was going to have to make something happen if he wanted this to go anywhere. So on December 7, they met at Panera. Valorie was smitten at the first: “Immediately I felt something.”
Although their first reunion wasn’t a date, their next one was. To this day they celebrate their Panera-versary.
A year later, the two were married. Valorie welcomed two children immediately: her step-daughters, Sophie and Addie, whom she calls her “bonus daughters.”
“They call me B-Mom,” she smiles. “Bonus Mom.”
Sophie is 12, Addie is 10, and Jeff and Valorie’s son, Alex, is now 3.
Jeff’s profession requires him to be very detail-oriented while Valorie, he says, looks at the big picture.
“We really kind of balance each other out in a lot of ways,” he says. As a mother, Jeff says, “she’s very “caring,” he says, “not simply emotionally but in a way that concerns what’s best for the kids. She’s very consistent. She’s also, on top of all that, very comforting.”
Valorie is also very future-minded, when it comes to her family, Jeff says.
“What she’s really always thinking about is what does this look like at [age] 14 [for example],” he says. “She cares for the overall future of the children.”
Many women struggle with guilt when it comes to working and taking care of a family. This is why Valorie chose the flexibility of being an author, but she also has advice for all mothers: follow your calling.
“I know the work I do is a calling,” she says. “We can have more than one calling. I feel called to be a wife. I feel called to be a mom. I also feel called to inspire and write and speak.”
Valorie says she has long had a very clear vision of what her life should look like, and her life today reflects that vision, in the fundamentals if not in the details.
“She’s taught me to set a dream and start walking toward that dream,” her husband says.
“She’s taught me a lot of stuff about how to achieve goals,” he expands. “We have vision meetings.”
Because of one of those meetings, he joined the safety committee for his airline because he had set a vision for it.
“She’s a wise, very smart woman,” he says, “and a great role model.”
A mantra Valorie has adopted toward her past is, “I will not be bitter. I will be better.” There is no bitterness in her, from her gentle voice to her petite frame (she’s five foot one…and a half, she adds pointedly). And self-betterment drives everything she does, from taking up running even though she hated it to setting goals for herself, giving her something to look forward to. One wall print in her office, in prettily inscribed cursive and with characteristic verve, sums this up well:
“The best is yet to come.”