Millions have admired Elizabeth Gilbert for her story of breaking free from a comfortable New York life to travel the world—and how she found love and found herself along the way. She wrote about it in the New York Times best-selling autobiography, Eat Pray Love, and was played by Julia Roberts in the blockbuster adaptation grossing more than $200 million. Her journey has inspired countless people around the world to start their own missions to self-discovery, but that still wasn’t enough for Gilbert.
Where most people would take all the success, money, and fame, and rest on their laurels, Gilbert has persisted in reinventing herself over and over again, even when it didn’t lead to immediate success. She understands what we at Selfmade understand—that those on our journey never really “make it”, and stay hungry no matter how much success we find.
Along the way, Gilbert’s reinvention has led to unexpected developments in her professional life, and her personal life. So this is far more than the story of how a girl who grew up on a farm and became a worldwide celebrity worth $25 million—it’s a lesson in how much we stand to gain when we’re brave enough to reinvent ourselves at any moment. Now here’s her story.
A Writer Who Wouldn’t Study English
Elizabeth Gilbert knew she wanted to write since she was a little girl in Connecticut. Her parents owned a Christmas tree farm, and the time she didn’t spend working outside or babysitting was spent reading books and writing stories. She submitted her first piece of writing to The New Yorker when she was just a teenager, but every pitch she sent in was rejected.
When she went to New York University, Gilbert avoided majoring in English literature. After just one writing class, she realized that there wasn’t a lot these professors could teach her that she didn’t already know from a lifetime of reading. Instead, she believed it was better to follow in Ernest Hemingway’s footsteps, and experience life to the fullest by traveling, working odd jobs, and having fun. But this could be part of the reason why after graduating she couldn’t find a literary job in New York City. Instead, she ended up working as a waitress in Philadelphia.
For 6 years, I had nothing but rejection letters...But I loved writing more than I hated failing. I loved writing more than my own ego.”-Elizabeth Gilbert
Finally, in 1993 Gilbert achieved her first paid gig as a writer when Esquire Magazine published her short story “Pilgrims”. She took this as a sign that it was time for her to begin a new life in New York City, but even though she was now getting paid to write on occasion, she still needed a full time job to pay the bills. She found it as a bartender and dancer at a bar called Coyote Ugly. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Gilbert wrote a lesser-known story based on her life working there called "The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon", which was adapted into the very widely known movie Coyote Ugly in 2000.
In Coyote Ugly, they changed Elizabeth’s name, and anyone who was based on a real-life person. The producers made the main character an aspiring singer-songwriter instead of a freelance writer, but a decade before Eat, Pray, Love would hit the big screen, Gilbert’s influence was already being felt on it.
In the movie, the main character falls in love with a man she met at the bar. They kiss, and it fades to black at the end, but in real life, it was the story of how Elizabeth Gilbert met her first husband Michael Cooper, who she married in 1994. Although few people know that Gilbert was responsible for the story behind Coyote ugly, the disintegration of the relationship that it depicted would be the foundation for all her success that was to come.
Losing Happiness, and Finding It
Elizabeth Gilbert finally had what most people would consider a “happily ever after”. Her stories were published on a regular basis for high-paying magazines like GQ, Travel + Leisure, and the New York Times Magazine. She was living the dream of being a high-paid writer in New York City, and was married to a handsome and charming husband. They bought a house, and she was socializing with the literary scene in New York.
From the outside, it seemed perfect. But on the inside, Gilbert was struggling. Elizabeth fought with Michael often. She tried, but couldn’t get pregnant. She went to therapy took antidepressants, but no matter what she did, she felt there was no way to revive the joy in her life. In 2002, she left Michael and filed for divorce. She began dating a man named David, hoping for a new start, but their relationship ended too. She was left alone, with a broken heart, and all the success in the world couldn’t change that. She needed a plan—but what she had, was just a dream.
This is a good sign, having a broken heart. It means we have tried for something.”-Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth dreamed of traveling the world and writing a story about a journey to happiness. So, she summoned the courage to abandon everything she knew, and pitched the idea to a publishing company. They accepted it and paid her an advance that would fund a year-long trip of self discovery. At the age of 33, Elizabeth Gilbert was starting over.
She packed all of her belongings in a storage unit, and left New York to live the story that would become Eat, Pray, Love. First, she went to Italy; then, to live at an ashram in India; and finally, to Bali, Indonesia to work with a spiritual teacher named Ketut Liyter. There, she met a man named José Nunes, whom she fell in love with. They got married, and gave the completing the story she had set out to find, without knowing how it would end.
Because José was an entrepreneur, he could work from anywhere in the world. So the two moved to Frenchtown, New Jersey together and opened up a warehouse and antique shop for him to run an import-export business. It seemed that Gilbert had found a second “happily ever after”. But for Gilbert this was just another beginning.
Standing Up to Fame and Fandom
When you have a huge success, it tends to dictate the story of the rest of your life. If Elizabeth Gilbert had been anyone else, that might have been Eat, Pray, Love. The book sold more than 15 million copies and spent four years on the New York Times bestseller list. The book was translated into 30 languages, and in 2010 the story was adapted into a movie starring Julia Roberts. Elizabeth Gilbert was both rich and famous, and people were calling her lifelong journey to become a writer as an “overnight success”.
But becoming famous is a lot of pressure to live up to. People looked up to her as inspiration to travel and find their own happiness. She was credited for starting a “revolution”, and giving women permission to go on their own hero’s journey. And for the first time in years, Elizabeth felt like the young bartender working in Coyote Ugly, who was unsure of herself.
The next book she wanted to write was not what her fans expected, and she knew there was a good chance they would be disappointed. It wasn’t going to be as profound as Eat, Pray, Love and sure enough her follow-up, Committed: A Love Story didn’t sell as well. But Gilbert didn’t let this change her vision, or push her into doing the expected. She reinvented herself again, and published her first fiction novel: The Signature of All Things. No matter what people expected, she never gave up writing what she believed in.
How Gilbert Found Her Voice
After all the experience with success, and the journey that became life after Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert had a lot to say. So she began telling her story ina new way, and gave two TED talks about creativity and following your life’s purpose. It turned out that her skill on the page translated to speaking in person. She was so compelling that Oprah Winfrey wanted her to tour with her new women’s motivational speaking series called Super Soul Sunday. Suddenly, a whole new career as a motivational speaker was opened up to her, and she pivoted again.
The significance of these speaking engagements didn’t end when she left the stage. Meeting her fans, Gilbert heard frequently from people who wished they could do what she did, but had too many responsibilities holding them back. This inspired her to pivot and write yet another kind of book about creativity, called Big Magic, which she also turned into a podcast that spoke directly to women about their dreams.
In all of these areas, Elizabeth encourages people to pursue their creative aspirations, whether they do it professionally or not. She encourages people to spend time doing whatever brings them joy, even if they can only squeeze it in after coming home from work or putting the kids to bed. These passion projects don’t have to be perfect in order to be great. Reinventions don’t have to be complete life changes, to be significant.
But for Gilbert of course, they often are. In 2016 at the age of 47, after years of being married to José Nunes, Elizabeth found out that her best friend, Rayya Elias, was dying of cancer. And in that revelation, she discovered that Rayya was more than a friend to her—that she actually loved her. Gilbert called it a “life shattering truth”. So, Elizabeth did what she had the courage to do her whole life: was willing to walk away from everything to follow what was right with her. She went through a divorce with Nunes and started a romance with Rayya right in the public eye. It would be in the public eye from beginning to end—they had just a short time together before Rayya passed away in 2018.
Pain has never stopped Gilbert—no matter how many reinventions Gilbert has gone through, or how many more she will go through still, her commitment to her ideals is absolute. It’s a spirit we admire, and share at Selfmade. So no matter what comes this year, let this story be your your guide. Have the courage to take stock of your journey, and be completely honest about where you stand. Then to take a page from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, and commit fully to your reinvention without looking back.