Mary Lou Quinlan: From Madison Avenue Maven to Broadway Bound

Mary Lou Quinlan headshot_MLQ CoLooking back at her younger self, Mary Lou Quinlan recognizes she was a Type A girl from the get-go – an all-around over-achiever and people-pleaser: “My parents always encouraged me and told me I could do everything I put my mind to. I guess I took them a little too literally.” Her industrious nature has led Quinlan to achieve a great deal of professional success, but she has also been lucky enough to understand the important things in life, “At this point in my career, looking back to where I started and where my biggest transition has been, it has been as a daughter. It has given voice to this whole new life for me.”

Many of Quinlan’s careers moves were firsts … the first woman, the only woman, the youngest woman. She started her career at Avon where she worked her way up to (the youngest) Director of Advertising after seven years on the job. With an additional three years under her belt at Avon, she moved to the advertising agency world working for NW Ayer & Partners, where she eventually achieved another first becoming the big account ad agency’s first female CEO.

But after 20 years of performing full on, the cracks were starting to show. “I kept thinking, ‘Yes, you are successful but how happy are you?’ I was working a gazzilion hours. The type A over-achiever was in overdrive. It got to the point where I used to wish I would step off a curb and get hit by a bus just so I could be laid up for a while and no one would bother me.”

In a radical (by-corporate-America-CEO-standards) move, Quinlan took five weeks off. The first day of her leave was her 45th birthday. “Five weeks is a lifetime when you are CEO. I just hung out in my neighborhood, met my friends and de-caffed myself. It was a wonderful pause button in my life and a life-changing time because in daring to go cold turkey from the office and live in my life, I started to gain a sense of self-awareness and identify what was important to me and how I wanted to move forward.”

Some years later, Quinlan would write a book about her experience. While touring the country to promote Time Off for Good Behavior: How Hardworking Women Can Take a Break and Change Their Lives, she met woman after woman experiencing this same hunger and realization that time is going by, usually around moments of truth such as “big” birthdays, deaths in the family, divorce, and the like. “Not everybody is able to make a change. Many are afraid and others are just resistant, especially to the idea of taking time off. We use money as an excuse and for those literally living from paycheck-to-paycheck this is true, but for many of us it is possible. Women are so proud of responding to ‘How are you?’ with ‘Oh, I’m so busy.’ It’s almost like we have to brag about being tired. It’s this weird form of self-flagellation with our careers.”

When she returned to agency life, she knew as soon as she walked through the door she was not going to stay. The newly rested Quinlan had been working on ways to figure out what she might do next. “It was not brain surgery, I made simple lists about what I wanted, what I love and what I didn’t like so much. It was easy to say I wanted the same agency job with, for example, a more flexible schedule, but when I allowed myself to go deep in terms of what I love to do, a completely different list emerged: writing, public speaking, and focusing solely on women.”

Within a couple months, Quinlan quit her job and launched a small entrepreneurial venture Just Ask A Woman, a marketing and branding consultancy focused on female consumers and how they think. She spent the next decade and a half traveling the country, connecting with real women, listening to them, and interpreting their needs for corporate clients. Along the way, she authored two books on the insights she gained: What She’s Not Telling You: Why Women Hide the Whole Truth and What Marketers Can Do About It and Just Ask a Woman: Cracking the Code of What Women Want and How They Buy. “It was a great time. I lived the life I had dreamed of, a life that had breath in it. I began to write … I was a correspondent on CBS morning show on women’s issues for about a year. I was even on a Simon Cowell-produced reality show called American Inventor. Fun times!”

But then in 2006, the 53-year old lost her mother and best friend, Mary Finlayson. A compassionate woman, Finlayson had been unending in her ability to listen to people, they were drawn to her and she always bent an ear to their worries. The night before the funeral, the devastated Quinlan and her brother found her mother’s God Box, ten boxes to be precise, containing her notes dating back to 1986. Quinlan explains: “For 20 years, mom wrote down every wish, worry, mountain, and mole hill from family and friend alike and let them go in the box … scraps of paper, folded like origami, Post-Its and ‘while you were out’ slips, receipts and even a torn piece of paper towel with petitions like ‘Please God, let the Pergo floor be the right choice’. Finding the boxes was a beautiful revelation of every little thing a mother worries about, a love letter in a thousand pieces.”

Quinlan stumbled through that year running Just Ask A Woman and, although she wrote a 3rd book, she felt lost and bereft. That is until she decided to write an article in Real Simple magazine about her mother’s God Box: “I used to talk about it and realized people wanted to know more about her ability to listen, care, and let go. It touched them in some way and I found it cathartic to write about her.” Telling that story and seeing the reaction of women searching for a tool or means to release themselves from their worries unleashed what Quinlan wanted to say and do for her third act. The article led to a book, The God Box: Sharing My Mother’s Gift of Faith, Love and Letting Go, which hit the New York Times bestseller list after just three weeks.

But because Quinlan’s mother’s story was so much more than what could be contained on a page, she decided to take the story to the stage. Starting with the basics, she took acting classes with Martha Wollner at the LAByrinth Theater in New York City.

Wollner and Quinlan collaborated on the creation of a one-woman performance piece entitled the The God Box, A Daughter’s Story. The newly minted actress Quinlan has performed the one-woman, one-act show 40 times around the country and donates all the proceeds to cancer and hospice centers.

In a surprise even to Quinlan herself, The God Box, A Daughter’s Story was accepted at the renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival for August 2014. “How does that happen? I feel new and driven because of this. It’s remarkable that by telling the story of losing my parents (Quinlan’s father died four years after his wife), I feel I’m helping people express their grief and learn to let go. They laugh and cry during the performance but it’s raw and honest and that’s what the audience responds to. In life and death, my mom is helping others.”

Does Quinlan ever wish she’d started acting sooner? “No. I never regret the early years despite the stress because I am bringing my life experiences to my performance. I don’t have to imagine because I have had such a full life. If I have any regret, it’s that I didn’t pay more attention to my personal life, everything always seemed so urgent at work but, in the big scheme of things, it wasn’t. I was loving it but I wish I had breathed some more. Taken the time to step away.”

Not one to sit back and soak up the success of The God Box Project, Quinlan is taking more classes to develop another solo show. “I have so many stories to tell, all the turning points women go through, all the life lessons. I don’t know what’s next but I am open, right now I’m just enjoying performing.” This time around, the seasoned Quinlan is taking her own advice and looking more simply. “I’m lucky. I’ve already done ‘grand’ and had the corner office. Now I’m seeking meaningful and happy. Telling my mother’s story has been a gift to me.”

Mary Lou Quinlan’s Tips for Success

  • Take an annual check up! Even if it’s one weekend a year, stop and just let yourself think and feel how you are doing. After all, life is a really long trip, make sure you take a pit stop.
  • I’m such a believer in taking a pause to think about what you want to do with your life. Write it down and make it happen. I didn’t become a writer by falling out of bed. It’s hard work but you can do it.
  • Be willing to be curious. As you move along in your career, be open to learning new things. We love the feeling of mastering something and can take an ego hit if we have to start over but take it…it feels so good to learn new things

Mary Lou wants to know!

  • Have you ever considered returning to a hobby you had when you were younger such as theater or dance?
  • What is the real barrier that keeps you from making change in your life? Time to think? Money? Ego?
  • What has been or might be your turning point?

Send us your answers/questions/comments and we’ll be sure to pass them on to Mary-Lou.

If you want to learn more about the remarkable Mary Lou Quinlan, visit her websites and or watch this video that traces the story from start to stage.

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