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 (NAS:ZM) 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.’
Discovering what I want to do, and doing it
So, the excavation was really about going back to the basics. Who am I underneath all of this? Where did things start to go sideways? How do I find my way back to what is going to feel fulfilling? How do I stop doing things based on what other people want for me and from me, and start doing things based on what I want, even if it means disappointing people, even if it means some people won’t understand?
How did ‘Quitted’ come about?
“Quitted” came about because Holly Whitaker, my co-host, who I had been friends with on Instagram, reached out to me and said, ‘I am in the process of quitting-slash-being kicked out of the company that I founded in my own name. I’ve watched you take a smaller role in this brand that you founded that has your name and face all over it, and I know that you’ve been working on extricating yourself from it. I wonder if you would talk to me because I think you might understand what this feels like.’ We started talking about quitting and why we stay in things that we know aren’t serving us, [like] staying in a marriage you know isn’t right or questioning a religion but staying in it because it provides you community.
Familiarity is often overrated
What are some of the things you’ve learned from your podcast guests?
The thing that keeps coming up is the willingness to take a risk [and] how afraid most of us are of doing things differently. There’s a biological basis for this. Our brain wants patterns, and our brain chooses familiarity, even if we hate it. [Podcast guest] Martha Beck talks about it like, ‘I’m going to eat this [vile] sandwich, and I’m going to continue to eat it even though I hate it. Because what if what’s out there is worse? What if there’s a worse sandwich? At least I know what I’m getting with this one.’
In order to make a choice to leave something, to do something differently or change a way of thinking, you have to leave the safety of what’s familiar. What’s been really interesting is hearing the stories of how people have done that, and the relief [they’ve felt]. Like, the relief that comes when you are in alignment with who you are and what your soul needs, even though there’s so much fear of the unknown. There is so much uncertainty, there’s a loss of community, there’s the loss of the future you thought you’d have, a sort of grieving the identity. At the same time, there’s the relief component that comes from being in alignment with what your deepest heart knows is true for you.
Change doesn’t have to be drastic
What advice do you have for to those who would like to quit something but are afraid to?
Martha Beck talks about one degree turns in her book, “ The Way of Integrity ,” and that is a strategy to use when the turn that you want to make feels insurmountable. Take one very tiny step every day toward making a change in the direction that you want. It can be tiny, tiny, tiny baby steps. There are really effective ways to make a change that don’t have to be drastic. They don’t have to feel like jumping off a cliff.
We started off by talking about where you were a few years ago, but what about now? What is the latest with your company?
In mid-2021, my business partner decided that it was time for us to sell. I had about a year before the sale went through, [and] over the course of that time, I came around to the idea of selling. I also came to the understanding that my desire to hold on [to the company] was based more on fear than anything else. It was not based in what was best for the longevity of the brand. It was not based in my passion for the business.
When I took a step back and was like, ‘What do I want to be doing in five years?’ It wasn’t running a consumer brand. I love what we built, I love the brand, I love our team, but I had been working for a few years to reduce my role. So, this was an opportunity. I am now a part-time consultant [for Em & Friends], which I will be doing for another nine months, and then my role ends.
What’s next? Who knows?
What do you see as the next step in your career?
I have no idea, and that is so deeply uncomfortable. It also feels really important to not just slap a new identity on. I am very conscious of my ego, brain, whatever you call it, to be like, ‘I want to be this! I’m going to be this! I’m gonna be this!’ Because the not-knowing place is uncomfortable. I don’t have an answer to, ‘What do you do?’
I need an income; I can’t retire. I need to get another job. I genuinely don’t know what it’s going to be. I’m feeling like it’s time for me to just to sit with myself and contemplate and see what comes forward.
Sandra Ebejer lives in upstate New York with her husband, son, and two cats who haven’t figured out how to get along. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Real Simple, Writer’s Digest, Shondaland, and others. Read more at or find her on Twitter .
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