My junior year in high school, a friend suggested I join the newspaper. I loved to write, I was kind of a weirdo, and our school’s journalism class embraced both of those things. You couldn’t just decide to be a high school journalist, though. You had to apply. So I wrote the teacher and editor-in-chief a letter, sent them some writing clips, and I got the job. If I wanted it, I could be a reporter for The Badge.
There was just one problem: I already had too many electives, so one of them had to go. I decided to ditch the one I found most boring. Ironically, that was drama.
Drama wasn’t for me. I hated performing, I wasn’t great at it, and I only continued to do it because, up until then, I didn’t know what else to do. I was nervous to ask our drama teacher, who was notoriously already kind of an ass, to sign my drop form. I knew he would razz me about it, but the lack of punches he pulled was pretty astounding.
He signed the paper, heaved it at me without making eye contact and said:
“I always knew you were a quitter.”
It felt strange to be given this label. “Quitter” was not a trait I’d ever considered for myself. I was on the soccer team, where I was forced to keep running when my legs felt like jelly. I made good grades because I forced myself to stay up and study, even though I was tired. I had an after-school job because my parents told me if I wanted to drive their car, I’d have to pay for my own insurance and gas. With all of that going on, I would now have to squeeze in writing for the newspaper.
But no. I was a quitter.
I took the drop form and walked away, wondering if I should just stay in drama and tell the journalism crew I couldn’t accept the position. Thankfully, a good friend and fellow high school journalist gave me some sage advice. “Don’t listen to that *$%*ing guy,” he said.
I took the advice and spent my junior year chasing stories, interviewing subjects, designing pages, writing essays. Journalism was the best thing I ever did in high school, the first time I felt fulfilled and the first time I felt a sense of belonging. Still, the drama classroom was right next to the journalism classroom and every time I passed by, I was reminded of that shameful title. Quitter was a strange badge to wear, but it was worth it to find my passion.
No one wants to be a quitter because we equate it with failure. But ironically, a fear of quitting can get in the way of success. If the only reason you’re doing something is that you’re afraid to quit, it’s probably time to stop doing that thing.
It was a cruel thing for my drama teacher to say to a 16-year-old, not just because it was petty and mean, but because that shit stuck with me for far too long and seriously got in the way of my success.
At 25, I was a technical writer. I knew I wanted to switch careers and pursue a more creative kind of writing. So I moved to Los Angeles to be a screenwriter because that seemed fun and it seemed like something I would enjoy. For a while, I did it, and I made money at it. Within a year, I started writing for an entertainment news show, and while the pay wasn’t great, it was really cool to see my name scroll through the writing credits on TV. I wrote a web series for Fox Digital, and the pay was better. A year later, I got a gig scripting and producing an online series for MSN and the pay was stellar. Meanwhile, I wrote and performed (for free) at Upright Citizens Brigade and ioWest because that’s what you were supposed to do if you wanted to make it in the entertainment industry. I was grateful to make some headway, so I felt like an asshole complaining about the work incessantly to my family.
The truth was, I did not enjoy dissecting comedy with a team of writers. I hated performing and I hated the sketches I wrote, even when they got laughs. When I had to sit down and write a script, I dreaded it. Other writers, comedians, and performers around me really enjoyed the industry, they rocked it, and I could tell they belonged here and would do big things someday. By comparison, I should have known this was not for me. I didn’t have the same enthusiasm or drive they did. I really didn’t care if I got better at this or if I sucked at it. It was just a job, which is exactly how I felt as a technical writer.
On the side, I started writing essays and articles for websites and blogs and began making headway with that. And again, I felt fulfilled. When I had to sit down and write an article or essay, I savored it. My 16-year-old dilemma returned. I wanted to pursue this new thing I felt passionate about, but this time, I did not heed the advice. I did not immediately give up my old elective for a new one. “I always knew you were a quitter” echoed in my head and I worried about what my successful screenwriter friends would think if I gave up. I worried what my family and friends back home would think, too. Nevermind that I actually enjoyed writing articles for media outlets, I couldn’t let go of the fear of someone thinking, “Kristin gave up trying to be a screenwriter and now she writes for the Internet? How sad.”
My fear of being stuck with that old “quitter” label was just too much, so for years, I tried to do both. I said HELL YES when Lifehacker asked me to launch a blog for them, but I also pitched web series ideas to companies. I was excited when NBC News hired me to write stories for them, but I also took on a scriptwriting gig with another big media company. I felt unsure of myself, distracted, and confused.
In 2015, I got tired of not feeling like myself. For a handful of reasons, I constantly felt like I had no sense of identity, but mostly, the problem was that I prioritized other people’s thoughts, opinions, and feelings over my own. So I made a plan. I stopped saying yes to things out of obligation and started saying “no” to things I didn’t have to do and didn’t want to do. I dropped the screenwriting class I forced myself to take. I said no when another client approached me to write online scripts for them.
Then, I had a realization: I would rather be happy as a success in my own eyes than be miserable as a success in someone else’s. In other words, I stopped caring what everyone around me might think. And I quit.
The thing about passion is, it’s not something you’re born with. And it’s not some fixed concept that doesn’t change. Like most things in life, passion is more fluid, more nuanced than that. Passion is something you discover as you explore new hobbies and say yes to new experiences and opportunities.
Sure, you can try to do all the things, even the ones you’re not that passionate about, but that can also just distract you from discovering what it is you truly love and enjoy. Remember Season 1 of True Detective? It was great, and there was an incredible line that hit me in the gut:
“Life’s barely long enough to get good at one thing. So be careful what you get good at.”
Now that’s good screenwriting. It’s the kind of writing that comes from being passionate about what you do. That line has stuck with me as a mantra. It reminds me that, sometimes you have to make tough decisions. Sometimes you have to make room for the things you truly enjoy and give up what other people might think about that. Sometimes you have to quit.