“Giving Up Is Not an Option”: An Interview with Penelope James

Penelope JamesWhen Penelope James lost her job as a high profile vice president of an international advertising agency, she eventually found herself among the working poor of the United States. Believe it or not, a humble phone survey job would be a turning point in her life and career. There she found the inspiration for a new beginning.

Learn more about what happened in the article below and in her soon-to-be published book, “Don’t Hang Up.” As a lifelong writer, this memoir is particularly special to Penelope because through it, she seeks to spread the message that anyone can start over again just like she did.

In this video clip, Penelope speaks encouraging words to those who are faced with making a new start:

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A Cosmopolitan Lifestyle

Penelope’s life and career have crossed continents and oceans. “England gave me my educational and cultural base,” she begins. “It’s where I got my English and love for literature, writing and history.” It was a shock to move from the seaside village of her birth “to enormous and smelly Mexico City.” Penelope found it hard to adapt to her new home and left Mexico as soon as she could after high school. Over a span of almost ten years, she would study in Milwaukee, start in advertising in New York and then go back to England where she continued her career in advertising in London, eventually becoming an account executive at 24 in what was then a male-dominated field. Ironically, Penelope returned to Mexico and spent the next 30 years there, a place she came to consider “home” and where she climbed the ranks to become an executive vice president of an international advertising agency. That is, until life came crashing down when she was “persuaded to take ‘early retirement.'”

But it wasn’t the end of the road and Penelope is on a mission to spread the message that you can pick yourself back up and start life anew. It was a growing experience as she took on various jobs: “owner and manager of a deli-restaurant, translator, writer, columnist, business English teacher, house sitter and pet sitter, cook and caterer.” Over time, Penelope learned to value and promote her experience and know-how, eventually settling with freelancing. “As a freelancer, I have a whole array of abilities to sell,” she explains. “I can write. I can translate. I know about research. I know about advertising. I know about marketing. I can sell all of that at a reduced rate and I can get a lot of work if I want to.” Nevertheless, it was a journey to get to this level of understanding.

Pennie James

”The America of the Underdog”

The turning point of Penelope’s post-advertising career came from a lowly job as a phone survey interviewer. She was making $10 an hour and lived in a hotel room; it was a long shot from the “cocoon society of the upper classes,” the world she inhabited in Mexico. Her coworkers were low-wage earners from a variety of backgrounds from students and housewives to the homeless and paroled felons. There were even academics and former professionals who had come down in life like Penelope. “I immediately thought, ‘God, I’ll never fit in here,’” she remembers. “Just working there was so humiliating and so horrible. It was a nightmare the first three months.” Little did she know how valuable this work experience would be for her. “I soon made friends there and found a fascinating bunch of people,” she explains. “But beyond that, I started to have these wonderful conversations and I really came to enjoy the work. I suddenly found meaning in the job because I was meeting and working with ‘the America of the underdog’ for the first time in my life.”

In the phone room and over the telephone, Penelope ended up making friends with people all over America from a fire walker to her supervisor who had read 3,000 books during seven years in jail. She inadvertently found herself counseling others, such as a lady who had just lost her husband and community members who were being cheated by a monopolistic gas company. “It gave me an insight into how low-wage earners lived, how the underdog survives,” Penelope explains. “I was really shocked to discover the working poor of America.”

Penelope looks back nostalgically at her time in the phone room:

“My two years there turned out to be some of the happiest in my adult life. Nevertheless, I had to find something where I could use my experience and my brains, that had more of a future and that paid more. When I actually resigned after two years, I did something I never thought I’d do because it was all so awful in the beginning. I went out, walked a few blocks, sat down and cried my eyes out. I never in my life thought that would happen.”

Don't Hang Up Book

What to Do When You’re “Groveling at the Edge of a Cliff”

Penelope has seen and lived through disappointment, failure and loss. For people faced with a new beginning, dealing with utter hopelessness and humiliation, she starts with this piece of advice: “You have to give yourself time to mourn the loss of everything, but don’t wallow in your depression.” Soon you’ll be ready to tackle the world again. All you need is persistence, dedication and the ability to handle rejection. “If you have to take a dead-end job at a very low salary, do it because you never know where it will lead you,” Penelope advises. “Getting a job, whatever it is, sustains you and motivates you.” As she has learned, it’s important to reframe your mindset:

“Call on your past. If you made it then, you can make it again. Okay, there are big odds now, but let’s face it, if you want to get to the top in any profession, you always face big odds, obstacles and challenges. So, what’s new? You were a success before and you can always be successful again.”

Life may not be smooth sailing, but the persistence you needed to start over is what will carry you through the tough moments. As late as last year, Penelope found herself struggling economically once again. “I wallowed in, ‘This is unfair at my age,'” Penelope admits. “And then I thought, ‘No one is going to get me out of this rut except for myself.’ If I can do it at my age, then I’m going to be able to set an example.” With the support of family and friends, Penelope’s back on track again, getting almost more work than she can handle. “I really got busy and I hustled,” she says. “My only problem is that sometimes I have to limit the amount of work I take because of health reasons. With the kinds of projects I currently have, I often work 12-16 hour days. I have to work through back pain. But I know I can do it and I deliver.”

There is just one more thing missing from Penelope’s life:

“My major dream has been my dream all my life since I was 12 when I wrote my first full-length book. It was 240 double-spaced, typed pages and I made three drafts of it because I knew that you had to rewrite. I wrote another when I was 13, another when I was 15 and so on. I’ve been writing books all my life. My dream is to be able to read, write and publish my books.”

What has been holding you back from making a fresh start? Tell us in the comments below!

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  1. Posted September 3, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Penelope James’ initial story is becoming more and more prevalent in the US. Her difference is where she took it. Kudos to her and for sharing her journey. May it help many others.

    • Posted September 5, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      Exactly so, Roy! She’s such an inspiration and I happen to know that she’s helped many already! =) The published book will really help to spread her message more! =)

  2. Posted September 3, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    A truly inspiring story. I am sure that Penelope will publish her book soon, as we need more stories like hers. As for me, I can’t wait for it!

    • Posted September 5, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      I totally agree, Muriel! =) I’m crossing my fingers that it’ll be out this year! =)

  3. Posted September 3, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Just amazing the trials and tribulations that life can throw at us. I’m glad Penelope never gives up. Giving up and doing nothing, just wallowing, is the only real failure in life.

    good luck with the book. I’m with you there!!!


    • Posted September 5, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      We can never really prepare, eh? =) Love how you put it, Stu! “Giving up is the only real failure.”

  4. Posted September 3, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    Hey Penelope,

    The Princess Di accent is oh-so-wonderful ;)

    The unemployment and being fired problem is common but you made lemonade out of lemons! I can’t wait for your book Penelope; you are just awesome! :)

  5. Posted September 3, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    I’ve followed Pennie for quite a while now, but seeing her here on this post and hearing her talk about her story is even more inspirational. This woman is an amazing display of the human spirit at its finest. I can’t wait til her book is finally published — I’ll be first in line to buy it!

    • Posted September 5, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      I know what you mean, Sherry! Hearing the full story of her life put together like this was even more amazing for me. =)

  6. Veronica Valades
    Posted September 4, 2011 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    Your story is so inspiring, makes me want to run out and try, try, try…. And gives me confidence to never give up! I want to read your book and find out about the lives of all those people inside the phone room, and stories of people on the phone.

    • Posted September 5, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      Veronica, it’s so great to meet you and thanks so much for your comment! That’s how inspiring Pennie was for me too. =) I strive for her drive and persistence. =) Hope you are out there trying new things!

  7. Posted September 4, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Pennie has been a source of inspiration and wisdom for me for a few months now. I’m so happy to be able to read more about her journey and I share in her dream. I do hope that soon, she’d be able to publish her book so that more may be inspired by her strength! Thank you Sam and Pennie! This is a wonderful gift to your readers :-)

    • Posted September 5, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      You’re so welcome, Joy! I’m so glad that this piece has been as inspiring for you as it has been for me to put it together! =)

  8. Posted September 4, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Samantha and Penelope, thank you for this post. Penelope, it is wonderful to see you and hear you “in the flesh” You’re story is inspiring and I’m waiting for the book. I’m sure it will be an inspiration to many.

    • Posted September 5, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      That’s exactly how I imagine it too, Mary! When Pennie’s book is published, she’ll be able to reach and inspire so many more people! =)

  9. Posted September 5, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Pennie, you are an inspiration for the lost to follow. I read your posts regularly and am amazed at what you have done for yourself. Congratulations. I will of course purchase your book (thank goodness I CAN) and tell others of it. Thank you for being such a wonderful example.

    • Posted September 5, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      Betty, thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts! It’s so great to meet you! I’m also a regular reader of Pennie’s blog and she continually amazes me too. =)

  10. Posted September 6, 2011 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Can’t wait for the book to be published. Hvae found your blog intriging and insighful for several months now..really exploring the way we view our own self worth against what we perceive to be the worthiness of others. Thank you for sharing more of your story.

    • Posted September 15, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

      I so agree, Lucy! It really did become an analysis of self-worth and Pennie’s story sure had me questioning the way I view myself too!

      Thanks so much for your comment!

  11. Posted September 13, 2011 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    Hi Penelope!

    Just found your story checking mine. Samantha you are too kind to us. Love the profiles you do. Super video Penelope. It could be on You Tube! People need to be inspired. Thx, G.

    • Posted September 15, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

      Aww, thanks so much for the feedback, Julie! =) I so appreciate you and Pennie’s time to share your stories! =)

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