By Sandra Ebejer
Five years ago, illustrator Emily McDowell seemed to have reached the pinnacle of success. Her line of Empathy Cards, which she’d launched through her own company, was a massive hit, and a book she’d co-authored was garnering significant press.
Today, however, McDowell is an advocate for quitting. Her podcast, “ Quitted ,” co-hosted with Holly Whitaker, focuses on quitting anything tied to one’s identity — a career, relationship, religion, long held belief or dream — that no longer serves a purpose.
The podcast, she said, is meant to address critical questions about life transitions: “What happens when you make the choice to walk away from something that has made you who you believe you are? How do you make that choice? How do you navigate your way through that? And then what happens afterwards?”
McDowell is intimately familiar with these questions. Almost immediately after introducing her Empathy Cards in 2015, her work went viral. She received heaps of praise and was included on Slate’s list of “ 11 Modest Designs That Made the World a Better Place in 2015 .”
Finding the courage to quit
But as her eponymous brand was taking off, McDowell was falling apart. “The workload was so insane,” she says. “I made myself physically ill by trying to do it all.” She was burnt out, and last year stepped away from the company she’d built from scratch.
Next Avenue recently spoke with McDowell over Zoom /zigman2/quotes/211319643/composite ZM -0.03% about her career, what she’s learned about quitting, and the pitfalls of being a human brand. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Next Avenue: You did an interview with Next Avenue in 2017, when you’d just co-authored a book. “There Is No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love.” At that time, you were getting a lot of positive press for your work. What was going on with you personally?
Emily McDowell: That book was what pushed me over the edge. From the outside, it looked like I had this enviable life where everything was going right [and] I was living the dream. And in some ways, I was. But I was also drowning. I was living on caffeine and CLIF bars, just running and running and running. I worked 80-plus hours a week, never took vacations, never took time off. Even if I traveled, I was plugged in. The amount of responsibility was not workable for me. I knew at the end of 2017 that I was going to have to do something different.
First step: Sell control of the company
I sold the majority of the company [Emily McDowell Studio] to our sister brand, Knock Knock, which had been around since 2004 and was founded by a friend of mine. [She was] its CEO and had successfully made the transition from being its sole writer and designer to building a creative department and slowly backing away from doing all of the creative herself. She said, ‘Do you want to join us? We’ve built this infrastructure that you’re struggling to build. We’ll run as two brands under the same roof with a shared back end.’
So, I made the transition to Creative Director of [the newly named] Em & Friends and Strategic Adviser on Knock Knock. The end of 2018 was when I was finally able to say, ‘No matter what, I am carving out time for myself. I cannot be a human brand anymore. I have to figure out how to take care of myself.’
I see people on social media talking about leaving their jobs and going out on their own. But once you go it alone, you’re expected to brand yourself, build a platform, generate a following — all of which can mess with your personal identity. Can you talk about how running a brand that was named after yourself figured into your displeasure with your career?
It is not easy to sustain over a long period of time. There is a spiritual death that happens when you commodify your humanity. I think it’s different if you’re somebody who provides services that only you can provide. [If] you’re a freelance writer or you’re a massage therapist, you’re a service-based provider, versus something where you are literally creating a customer-facing brand, where you have a team and you have employees.
I named the company Emily McDowell Studio not from a desire to be the face of the brand, but literally because I didn’t have a better idea. There was so little thought put into it. It was a blessing to have this name that now had some modicum of recognition, [but] that piece of it was the only blessing.
Me vs. my brand
The whole idea of branding is to be consistent, to have rules and parameters, for customers to know exactly what they’re going to get, and for it to not change. And as a human being — the whole point of being here is to change and grow, and to not be the same person that we were five or ten years ago.
What became really strange was that the brand fixed my personality at a specific point in time. As I grew and changed as a person in the ten years that I ran this thing, I found an increasing split between what the brand was and who I was inside. I felt like I was living a version of myself that didn’t exist anymore. Because my public identity was tied to something specific in look and feel and voice, and a lot of people’s jobs were predicated on those products continuing to sell, it felt really limiting in terms of me being able to evolve and change and experiment or do different things.
You launched the EmilyOnLife Instagram account in 2019, and in one of your very first posts , you stated you were going through an “excavation.” What did that process look like for you?
At the end of 2018, I started a series of practices that were designed to get me into my body, because I had spent my life basically living like a floating head on a stick. For most of my life, I believed that talk therapy was the way to make change, the way to grow, the way to understand yourself. I’d had 30 years of talk therapy, and I was still a mess. I was still in a place where I had driven myself to the absolute edge of unhealthy behavior, unhealthy mental patterns, unhealthy everything.
I still believe therapy is amazing, [but] I needed to start listening to my body. I didn’t know what the vagus nerve was and how to regulate your nervous system, but as soon as I started to read about it, I was like, ‘This is me. I am in dysregulation all the time. I don’t have the tools to stop myself from spiraling into anxiety.’