Changing Lanes on the Highway of Life

June 21, 2012

Changing lanesHave you ever come at crossroads in life where a choice had to be made? Have you ever come face to face with your passion versus your fear? That s what Joanna Penn went through, and she came out of the other end with a certainty about herself. She is a living example of how to embrace your dreams and chase them. What did she do? Let s find out.

Ishita: You ve always wanted to become a writer, but you waited quite a while. Tell us how you broke through the barrier.

Joanna: I’m 36 now and I wanted to write books since I was about 9 years old, so yes, it has taken a really long time for me to get to this dream! I put a lot of that down to fear, because when I was growing up in England, there was quite a classist attitude towards literature, and still is. If you were going to write a book, you should be writing a piece no less than a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. That crippled me for many years because I thought, “I have to write a masterpiece”, and every time I wrote something it was not a masterpiece. When you’re first starting out, you don’t understand the role of an editor, or how writing is really re-writing, which all the great writers will tell you. I didn’t really understand that, so I was crippled with that fear. Another block in the road was my idea of getting a proper job after University. Suddenly, I found myself 10 years out of University looking at my life as an IT consultant and wondering what the hell I was doing.

Ishita: Did you enjoy the IT work?

Joanna: No, not really. It was something that I just went into. I went to Oxford and actually did a degree in theology, which has nothing to do with IT, but ended up in consulting. A few years after, I looked at my life and said, “There are a lot of miserable IT consultants out there”, so I started writing my first book, How to Enjoy Your Job. The main idea of the book was to share two things: Either enjoy what you re doing now or change your career to do what you really want to do. One of the big things most of us have to work out is to do what we want to do, and it’s surprising how many of us don’t know what it is that we want. At the time four years ago, I didn’t either. So I really examined what I wanted to do with my life and the answer came that I wanted to write books and help people.

Ishita: When you say “examine” what do you mean?

Joanna: By examining, I mean reading. I did a lot of reading during that time, and still do. I read Jack Canfield s The Success Principles and Tim Ferriss The 4 Hour Workweek. I've always written journals, so I was looking at those. As I read these books in self-improvement, I realised I had a passion for them.

I started writing while I was doing all this examination. At that time, I was working a full-time job. What seriously changed my life was switching to working for 5 days to 4 days. I went to my boss and said, Look, I want to work 4 days a week. I will finish all my hours in those days and deliver same amount of work. I took a pay cut of 20%.

I spent that extra day reading books about finding what you really want in life, and getting to grips with that information.

Joanna Penn in Australia

Ishita: You started this examination process of digging into what you wanted to do, which is a very scary process. I think that’s probably 90% of what fear is, and the reason people probably stay where they’re at is because it’s hard to do this examination. Was there anxiety that came up for you? Was there fear of failure or not knowing how to start?

Joanna: Well, clearly when you spent 13 years growing a career, and are a pretty highly paid IT consultant in global companies, fear comes up. One of them is on the money front, and this is something I still face, almost weekly the fear of giving up stable income to be freelancing and writing books. To try to make money in this way is very scary. I have done a lot of soul-searching on that. But at the time, my biggest fear was being miserable. I thought If I don’t sort this out now in my 30′s, what will happen with the rest of my life? If I don’t do it now then when am I going to do it ? I was very frightened by the fact that I could see in the organization the people I was going to end up like, and I didn’t want to go there. I really didn’t want to go there.

Ishita: What did you do on that first Friday? How did you know where to begin?

Joanna: I decided to write the book and actually went to a library. I joined a local library, a University library, and took books out and studied and I read a lot on things that would help me enjoy my job. But the subtext of my book, How to Enjoy Your Job is more about change than anything else.

One of the key points I discovered when I was researching for the book is that if you want to change your career, firstly decide what you want to do, and second, start doing it for free in your spare time. That was the moment I thought, Okay, I’m going to write this book in my spare time, and I’ll understand how to get into publishing and see where that leads. So essentially you have to do this for free before you can build up your expertise in something to be good enough to actually make an impact.

Ishita: That’s really brave. You could have had paralysis of analysis and not been able to do anything. If there’s a big task awaiting that needs some learning beforehand, you meet inertia. What tools did you use?

Joanna: For me setting deadlines is really important. I come from an IT background where deadlines are important; you have to get things out the door even if they’re not perfect. I set a goal for my birthday and I’ve kept that goal which is by March every year, I want to have a book done. So there has to be something out there in the world every year by my birthday that is a significant chunk of work, and hopefully I’ll speed that up as time goes. I had started around June and my birthday was in March, so I had that kind of time. What I hadn’t taken into account was editing and all those things that happen in publishing. I did miss the deadline by a month; I made it in April when Amazon had it up.

I want to quote Seth Godin here because he helped me by saying: The book you write will change your life. And that’s exactly what happened. It released me and from there I’ve gone on to write fiction, which is a whole other scary thing, but setting deadlines is probably the biggest thing for anybody.

I started a blog,, where I learnt a lot through falling into all sorts of traps. I got ripped off, I didn’t sell any books, I even got on national TV and didn’t sell any books. I did everything but I wanted to share it with people to save them time so I started blogging. After that, I created products to help people and then two years ago I started to write a novel, which was something else entirely. About two months ago I gave up the day job to be an author/entrepreneur full-time.Joanna Penn in Varanasi, India

Ishita: Congratulations. How do you feel?

Joanna: Good! It’s scary every day, because I know I can go back. This is the danger we all have. I know tomorrow I could go and get a highly paid contract just like that, but I’d be miserable.

Ishita: Some of my consultant friends who have left their full-time jobs have been asked by their companies to come back offering a higher salary. They call them Golden Handcuffs, because the money s there, but you’re not happy. None of them have gone back.

Joanna: What’s really interesting about consulting is that you’re not building something for the long-term. I get so frustrated you feel like years have gone past and you say, what have you done? I mean you’ve done all these important things, but what have you actually done? I love the physical, tangible feel of products I say physical but I’m actually writing e-books. But you have something to show and you’re building your own asset online that will only grow. All that will happen.

Ishita: So where is your focus these days?

Joanna: Not all of my focus is on fiction. What I love about my business is that I’m helping other people create their books. I helped a nine year old girl, well it took 9 nine months, but I’ve got a 9-year-old girl publishing, an 81-year-old publishing. I love seeing books born into the world out of people’s passion. So that’s one half. I want to continue to inspire people in that way and I will definitely write more non-fiction. But at the same time, I want to be Dan Brown.

Ishita: I find that very gutsy because it’s hard to think of a fiction audience. Do you feel like you have a fiction audience now that you’ve built up this a really great audience in non-fiction and book marketing?

Joanna: It’s very different, and that’s kind of what I’m exploring on the blog right now. For non-fiction, the whole author platform thing is quite obvious, but for fiction it’s quite different. I have had to build up an entirely separate group of people who like my fiction. There is some cross-over, very little. So yes, you do have to start again and in that way it’s also scary. It’s much easier for me to be a speaker or a writer in non-fiction, but I also feel that’s a bit fake because I want to be continually pushing myself as a writer so that I can share what I learn with my audience. I only ever want to share what I’ve done personally or what other people have done I don’t want any crap. I want it to be true and authentic and what we really learn.

Ishita: How did you follow discipline and find time for everything especially when you first started?

Joanna: When my husband was studying for a master’s degree, he was out of the way and I had that time. Essentially it was every evening. Basically, for the last 4 years I have curtailed my social life considerably in order to get to where I want to be. We have to make some sacrifices in order to do that. As I said, I have quit TV as well. The day job became a day job. The day job was no longer a career. Prior to that it had been a career.

I started waking up at 5 am and writing for an hour before leaving for work. So that way I had 5-6 hours during the week and Fridays and Saturdays. That was enough time to get my first book out the door and essentially grow my online business over the last 3.5 years.

Ishita: What are your challenges in business?

Joanna: I’m going to have to say money! It’s funny because up until recently I didn’t think I was someone who focused on money but it’s interesting how when your salary disappears, it becomes quite important to your self-esteem. How much you get paid is important to your self-esteem. Just being honest with you, I am looking to become author and business person, and success is partly driven by income. I have some goals for 2012, and actually I’m making more money from fiction, so for me my challenge is balancing writing fiction good fiction and putting it out fast enough so that I can keep up with a sales curve. Also that with servicing my audience at The Creative Penn and telling people what I learned along the way by creating courses for them.

One thing I'd suggest all fiction writers and aspirants is to participate in NanoWriMo. it's fun and it challenges you greatly. I really think NanoWriMo changed my life because it got rid of all of that angst around perfect writing. You just write a load of crap every day and then you find the gems in it later.

Sometimes it stays as a load of crap, sometimes you can chisel into something else something beautiful.

Joanna PennAbout: Joanna Penn is an author, blogger and speaker based in London, England although she has also lived in Australia and New Zealand for 11 years. Joanna always dreamed of writing her own books, and spent many years thinking about it before she actually took the plunge. She also runs a website for writers, The Creative Penn: Adventures in Writing, Publishing and Book Marketing where she helps others on the journey to becoming an author. Reach Joanna here.

Photo by ?milos milosevic.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Seeley James June 21, 2012 at 10:53 am

Inspirational! In his address to Stanford grads, Steve Jobs said, “when you get up in the morning, you have to ask yourself, am I doing what I love today?” Sounds like you changed that to a positive.


Michele July 21, 2012 at 12:23 pm

I’m 37 and I’m also wondering, “if I don’t do this now, when?” My job is so great, except it incredibly boring and repetitive, and has no room for growth. If I stay at my job for the next 17 years I can retire at 55 and be well off financially for the rest of my life. But I will have wasted time which I could have devoted to my talents. I hope one day to be telling my own tale of how I overcame my fear of taking off my golden handcuffs.


Pooja July 22, 2012 at 11:13 pm


Good on you for asking that question to yourself. We are really curious – what’s the answer?



Carol August 2, 2012 at 3:28 pm

Congrats Joanna! I’m doing the same thing now…in my forties. I am making the transition from teaching to fashion writing. You are so right…the “not knowing” during the transition is scary but pursuing and doing what I was born to do feels like a gift! And…. I have never been happier!


Pooja August 2, 2012 at 9:09 pm

Good on you Carol! We’d love to hear your story!

Editor at Fear.less


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