An old legend says that having a ladybug land on you brings good luck. As luck would have it, a ladybug landed in my imagination a few years ago.
I have always liked ladybugs, and so I had drawn a couple of them in caricature style and decided to print them on t-shirts to raise money for my nonprofit, Science from Scientists. A little later, when I became Miss Massachusetts, I designed a pageant t-shirt with the same type of ladybug drawings. One ladybug wore a little crown, and I called this image “The Pageant Bug.” It was chosen as the official t-shirt design for my team during the Miss America pageant. Because it was well received, I pondered what else I could do with the illustration.
The Writing Bug
One day, while chatting with an artist friend over coffee, we decided to create some additional artwork for the ladybug character and write her into a story for kids—an environmental tale to get children excited about saving the earth. We talked about what an amazing experience it would be to go on book tours and inspire kids, and eventually we said, “Let’s do it!”
We went through the process of trying to find a publisher who would work with us—and it turns out that’s really hard. We struggled to figure out how to get our book on the market, but finally decided to self-publish. We developed a story, my friend painted all the illustrations in the book, and then we sent it to print. In our story, ladybug Ella Bella Coccinella (coccinella means ladybug in Italian) and Simon, the robot mascot for Science from Scientists, team up to save the environment.
The Reality of Children’s Fiction
Holding the final version of this book that we had created was thrilling! We were even invited to bookstores to do readings. Usually, an average of three kids would show up, but we thought that was a good start. The possibilities seemed endless: additional books with science themes, bookmarks filled with seeds for kids to plant in their backyards, and maybe even an Ella Bella cartoon for television.
But after a while, the not-so-thrilling part of being a self-published author set in. The pallets of shiny books made us think of storage fees instead of book tours. Lacking an agent and a publisher, we had to personally go into stores and sell copies of the book. We had to keep searching for an agent, schedule appearances, invest time in marketing, license the images, and more. We hadn’t fully realized how much time it would take. In fact, it was a full-time job. Walking into local bookstores to do readings, we realized that there were walls full of competing children's books and only a handful of children eagerly waiting to hear the ladybug story. I can confidently say that we sold more than ten copies.
We quickly learned that it’s hard to differentiate yourself from other authors—unless you get very lucky. And even with a ladybug at my side, I was never one to depend on luck. I was used to doing the work to get the results. The problem was, the days weren’t getting longer to accommodate the work.
You Can’t Do Everything
At some point, probably while pondering my to-do list, I realized that my life was complicated enough without trying to become the next Eric Carle. It was hard for me to admit this. For a long time, I was able to juggle many projects and ambitions and expect to see great results. But at a certain point, I needed to narrow my focus and decide what actually mattered and what would be worthy of my time. Even though the book itself was finished, I just didn’t have time to see the whole project branch out like we had envisioned.
I consider this a well-earned lesson. I think every CEO who’s involved in several things and has lots of interests has to ask herself two important questions about any new endeavor: “Is this a project or is this a business?” and “With the time I have, can I make this great?”
I draw on this experience when I tell my staff, “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” In order to do anything really well, you need enough dedicated time. Be honest with yourself about how you’re spending your time. What do you have time to do well? Is it a worthy purpose? Is it taking time away from larger priorities? What can you let go? And always allow more time for the barriers you can’t possibly know about at the beginning.
The Value of Experience
The good news is that we have been able to share Ella Bella’s story through Science from Scientists. We could, at some point, pick it up again and help Ella Bella fly into millions of homes. We could. But now we have a better idea of what that would require. When plans don’t work out as I imagined, I try not to let it bug me too much. Instead, I think of what I take away from having tried. There will never be more time in a day, but now I have more experience and awareness to put into each moment.
BOOK ILLUSTRATION CREDIT: ANNE HOLT DESIGNS
Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 2012 from Boston University School of Medicine. She holds a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Erika is the Executive Director and Founder of Science from Scientists, an award-winning, National non-profit which sends real, charismatic scientists into classrooms to improve the attitudes and aptitudes of 3rd-8th-grade students in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM). She is also the CEO and co-founder of Ixcela, a biotechnology company aimed at developing tests and interventions to improve gut microbiome efficacy and health.