“Quitting” Ain’t a Dirty Word

Winners quit all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time.By day, I work with college students. Often, those are students who are in academic trouble. And every day, I ask questions like, “Why didn’t you drop the class when you failed the midterm?” or “Why are you so determined to stick to a major that’s making you flunk out of school?” The answer, inevitably, is, “I don’t want to be a quitter.”

I get it. You don’t want to run at the first sign of trouble. That’s not what we’ve been taught to value. We’ve been taught that when you’ve worked hard for something, or hell, even if you’ve started something, the disciplined among us will stick with it ’til the bitter end.

So what happens to those people who are miserable and decide it’s time to throw in the towel? What’s the cost when people realize that despite trying, they’re not succeeding? Through interviewing dozens of people over the past few years about their career paths, I’ve discovered the dark truth about walking away:

Quitters prosper.

It’s true. I’ve found that interviewees who’ve had the experience of quitting something unfulfilling are the happiest I talk to. Having taken that risk to hit the eject button and start fresh along a new path, they feel more in control of their lives rather than feeling stuck along a path they mistakenly wandered down. And moving forward, they tend to be less anxious about the decisions they make because they understand that there is no perfect move, there’s just giving a variety of things a real, all-in try until we find something that clicks. They are kinder to themselves, more forgiving of mistakes, because they know they are never trapped. And these people are still motivated, determined, and hard working. When they find something they love, they dive in.

I once quit a job after two days. I had gone through three months of interviewing. I’d been put through tests, writing samples, and role-playing interviews (my nightmare). This was supposed to be my first real job out of my masters program. I bought my first smartphone for it. I bought a suit jacket.

But in those first two days, I became baffled. They weren’t training me for the position I’d been hired into. They were training me for one much lower. (It was also the weirdest training I’ve ever experienced. At one point, I was asked if they could videotape me. But that’s a story for another day.)

When I confronted the owner about why I sensed I was being demoted before I’d even started, he tried to dodge the question. I pressed and insisted I wasn’t leaving until he gave me a straight answer. Eventually, his temper snapped. “Do you expect me to let you around clients with your pedigree?”

I was stunned. I knew he meant where I’d chosen to go to college (he’d brought it up a suspicious amount of times over the past few days), though I also don’t think I’d impressed him by still having a flip phone when I interviewed (I’d bought my first smart phone for the job. This was 2013. I am not quick on the technology.).

So, I quit. I’d like to say I gave a sassy one-liner and strutted out the door à la Bridget Jones instead of anxiously calling my mom on the way home, then pulling over to send in my resignation via email on my new smart phone.

But I did quit. And every time I think about how I might have been trapped in that awful, degrading place, I’m so, so thankful I walked away. The memory makes me feel empowered and free. I found a new job that was still crappy but allowed me to do the work I’d been hired for. And I worked hard. I’ve always worked hard. Quitting didn’t change that.

We ought to be kinder about quitting. When people in our lives end up in a situation that makes them unhappy, we should think twice before saying, “Don’t quit now! You’ve worked so hard for this!” Sometimes people do need encouragement, but there can be bravery in realizing that just because a lot of time and effort has been sunk into a goal, doesn’t mean more time and more effort should be lost toward something that no longer makes sense.

People should share their quitting stories with people proudly. And I don’t just mean the “And I told my boss to shove it!” stories. I mean the times a major wasn’t working out. The times we gave up on relationships. The times we realized our dreams had shifted and needed to let go of an old idea. It might be the encouragement someone needs to leave a bad situation. Sometimes it takes quitting something that’s wrong to start something that’s right.

If you want to hear people sharing their experiences with walking away from something big, check out my interviews with these inspiring and brave quitters:

Kelsey Gorter: Wine Enologist (Quit biotech and teaching)

Rebecca Gayle: PharmD (Quit her residency)

Nicholas Lee: Bakehouse Owner (Quit his major, quit sales and tech)

Kristen Care: Attorney (Quit her dream major, then quit her first career goal)

What about you? Do you have a time when quitting something made your life that much better?

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like, Collecting and Connecting – Two Years of Interviews or Where do ideas come from?

Turning Interviews into Kids’ Books with Erica Swallow

15241180_1144296242344899_7164375719047770981_nThis month in the Inspiration and Perspiration series, I tracked down Erica Swallow, co-creator of a non-fiction picture book stemming from Erica’s real-life interview with kid entrepreneurs. I met Erica at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, where, in our first chat, she asked, “Is there anything I can do to help you with your project?” I was later shocked to find her on a panel discussing social media for writers. I had no idea she was a panelist instead of just an attendee! With a giving, humble spirit like that, I was thrilled to discover she’s also a powerhouse of creativity and innovation.

I talked to Erica about what inspired her project.

Tell us about your current project and how you got the idea for it?

I just finished my first picture book series. It’s called Entrepreneur Kid, and it’s a four-book series about real kids with real businesses, written by myself and illustrated by my good friend, Li Zeng, a very talented graphic designer and design professor I’ve known since moving back to my home state, Arkansas. We’re self-publishing the series on Kickstarter and just launched today. It was been an absolute whirlwind adventure learning how to be a publisher!

The whole premise behind the series is the idea that kids can do anything they set their minds through. The books feature the stories of four kid entrepreneurs from across the U.S., from sock designer Sebastian Martinez (CEO of Are You Kidding?) and barrette inventor Gabby Goodwin (CEO of GaBBY Bows) to lacrosse equipment maker Rachel Zietz (CEO of Gladiator Lacrosse) and electronics reseller and recycler Jason Li (CEO of iReTron). These kids have done amazing things… sold their goods all over the world, figured out manufacturing, partnered with non-profits, and achieved so much while so young.

I’ve been seeing more and more young Gabbyentrepreneurs popping up around the country, and I started researching what kids are achieving today. I couldn’t help but be inspired.

While I’ve been a journalist for a while now, I thought this was the appropriate set of stories to launch my career as a debut children’s author.

The illustrator Li and I have been collaborating on projects since early last year, mostly educational programs focused on inspiring the next generation of thinkers and innovators. She and I got serious about Entrepreneur Kid in September, and we’ve been rolling ever since.

What is it about entrepreneurship that you find inspiring? Is there a connection with your own life to that world?

Yes, 100% – there’s a huge connection. I’m a small business owner, and I’ve worked with countless entrepreneurs throughout my career in journalism and marketing. I started my career as a marketing consultant at The New York Times in 2009, right out of college. That’s where I developed a love for storytelling, as well as a love for entrepreneurship. After all, you can’t lead social media at the world’s paper of record without falling in love with brilliant storytelling.

Part of my job was to collaborate with startups like Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare, and I really loved how they believed in moving fast and breaking things. It was so exhilarating working on campaigns with people like Tristan Walker, this spunky business development all-star who led Foursquare partnerships at the time, while still pursuing his MBA at Stanford. He’s now the founder and CEO of Walker & Company Brands, which makes health and beauty products for people of color. It’s entrepreneurs like Tristan who make me excited to keep growing and learning. I want to work with people like him who are trying to build things that make the world a better place.

That’s what entrepreneurship is to me – it’s making the world a better place, through your creativity and ingenuity.

What’s been the hardest part for you as you’ve developed this series?

15000800_1113898918717965_3619267930297421633_oWriting for kids! It sounds odd, but I’ve been writing for adults for the past… forever!

My bookshelf is now full of picture books, because I had to learn how to structure the story. It wasn’t until this past December, though, that I realized writing picture books isn’t so different from writing a news article. I was at the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Winter Conference, and legendary picture book author Andrea Davis Pinkney – who has a background in journalism as well – said of how she uses her journalism experience in book writing: “Use a compelling lede.”

I was stunned, because for some reason, I had never considered my writing experience of relevance to children’s books. I went back to my manuscripts and did some tweaking. I’m definitely going to think journalistically for my next book, and the lede is going to be out of this world!

What’s been the biggest triumph so far?

Besides finishing the series and launching the Kickstarter, we’ve already received great feedback from the industry. We were a finalist in the Children’s Book category of the San Francisco Writers Conference writing contest, for “Sebastian Creates a Sock Company,” the first book we wrote in the series. Just prior to that, I was honored with a Highlights Foundation James Cross Giblin Scholarship to continue my writing in nonfiction children’s literature.

The kid’s lit community has certainly been welcoming. I don’t think I’ve ever pursued a project that’s been welcomed so overwhelmingly so early on. We’re really grateful for that.

What advice would you give to a budding entrepreneur or writer?

Do your thang. That’s all. Just keep going. 15241429_1145555655552291_2580009388373791058_nWriting is tough. Starting a business is tough. You just have to persist. Get it done. Keep going. End of story.

Tell us about your Kickstarter and where to find it!

Yes, yes, yes. We launched the Kickstarter this morning to fund the first print run of the Entrepreneur Kid book series. You can find the project easily from our website or directly on Kickstarter. You can back the project and choose from one of 11 rewards, which include getting a simple thank you on our website, a single book, the full book series (in print, digital, or both forms), multiple sets of the series, or an author or illustrator visit (U.S. or international). There’s something for everyone. Well, if you like stories about kid entrepreneurs!

We are so grateful for all of the people who helped make the project itself possible. From the entrepreneurs who we featured to our early readers, there have been so many helpful people along the way. Adding to the equation are our backers. Thank you to everyone who supports us over the next 30 days. The project closes on April 27th, at which point, we’ll put our order in for 2,000 books if the campaign is a success. Fingers crossed! 

If you had to describe what inspires you in one word, what would it be?



Erica Swallow is a status quo wrecker, entrepreneur, journalist, and debut children’s book author. Her thoughts have been published in ForbesFortune, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. A first-generation college student, she was raised in Paragould, Arkansas and believes education is the key to opportunity. Erica holds degrees from New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is the founder of Southern Swallow digital strategy consultancy.

Find behind-the-scenes photos and more at www.facebook.com/entrepreneurkid.

Check out and consider supporting this project by clicking here: Entrepreneur Kid Kickstarter.

Want more interviews that pick the brains of creative people? Check out Art Modeling and Creating Art with Krystal Becker or Travel Photography and Journalism with Megan Snedden. And keep an eye out for the next entry in the Inspiration and Perspiration series by following the blog! Just find the “Follow” feature at the top right of the page!

Collecting and Connecting – Two Years of Interviews

Alumni Spotlight Panel: Click the pic to watch!

I not only tell stories, I collect them. I interview people about their complicated career paths and publish the articles once a month. After two years, I’ve found there’s a key factor that separates the interviews I find interesting and the ones I get fully sucked into, head first.

But before I talk about other people’s stories, I need to rewind to one of my own.

When I graduated college a year early, a proud and eager honors student, I shot out resumes into the job market like I’d gotten a hold of a t-shirt cannon.

Imagine those t-shirts fluttering to the ground of an empty stadium while a sad hotdog wrapper tumbles by. That’s a pretty dead-on metaphor to how my job search went.

So there was a lot at stake six months in when I finally got a call for an interview. In the brand new business dress my mom had bought me, I nervously walked through an active construction site to my “marketing” interview. Only, as I asked deeper questions about the odd terms the interviewer was using, it struck me–it was a pyramid scheme. The interviewer saw the dawning on my face and cut things short. It wasn’t going to work out.

I walked off, dazed. My only interview had been a scam. That I got rejected from. Obviously, I had gone terribly wrong somewhere. I’d missed something critically important that kept other people from launching themselves into the world and thwacking into a mud puddle.

I sat in the parking garage, numbly hugging the purse I’d borrowed to carry my resumes, utterly alone.

I would continue to struggle for a few years in a lot of ways I’m sure to talk about later. But flash forward to 2014, with a stable career in advising, I pitched a feature where I’d interview alumni who graduated into or after the economic crash exploring how they got into their careers. It would be educational. It would be human interest for the college. 

Secretly, it was a postmortem. I needed to know what crucial piece I’d missed all those years ago.

I’d missed, it turns out, the stories themselves.

Maybe it was because I approached potential interviewees with my own awkward account first, maybe it was the mission of helping young people, but I started getting the real stories, not the polished social-media ones. Not all of the interviewees shared with me times when they felt like they’d crashed or made a wrong turn or taken a step only to find the ground drop away beneath them, but a lot of them did.

 A National Geographic photojournalist shared the moment a doctor handed her a handicap placard and told her she’d never lead a normal life. A speech therapist laughed with me about applying for a nighttime bike assembler position at Target and getting turned down. One person called me after reading the draft of her feature, stunned that I’d made her sound cool. I was surprised she didn’t see herself that way already. 

The thing about those stories that get vulnerable, when they get to the triumphant parts, they make me clap and grin (yes, sometimes literally). With those people who are brave enough to share their weaker moments, I feel as though I’ve known them for years instead of, as is often the case, being in the middle of our very first conversation.

The power in our stories doesn’t come from the proudest, glossiest, Instagram moments. The power comes from the vulnerable parts. The parts we’re afraid of showing each other.

We all want to feel connection in those places where we feel most alone.

I can’t speak for the people I’ve interviewed, but for me, talking to others who say, “While you were in that parking garage, I was out there too somewhere, feeling the same way,” moves me in ways that the white-toothed smile, LinkedIn-ready stories simply don’t. 

So to writers of fictional stories or people just looking for more connection to the people in their lives…my suggestion? Take the risk. Get vulnerable. Show off your humanity. And stick close to the people who give you those things in return. 

You can read my interviews with these amazing folks at UCSB’s College of Letters and Science page

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