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Why I left my Fortune 500 executive dream job to pursue my passion and purpose

Hi, I am Eric Gray. A couple of months ago I was Head of Content, Social, and Engagement at Universal Parks. Sounds like fun, well it was! We had a hilarious Twitter account, an entertaining YouTube Channel, a new travel podcast, and an awesome storytelling blog. I had an amazing team of wonderful people, a supportive leader, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was right outside my office window.

“So why are you leaving?” was the question many asked me. To answer that question we have to go way back.

It was 2002 and I was at the University of North Texas, studying Radio, TV, and Film in pursuit of a career in sports broadcasting. I had dreams of being a sports play-by-play announcer or hosting my own sports talk show. I still remember filling out a form requesting to start a sports talk show with three of my buds on the college radio station, 88.1 KNTU. That show became known as The Green Guys. Little did I know that this opportunity would lead me to some of my closest friends, many of them still working in radio to this day. We had a blast starting the show, hosting call-in segments, and even challenging our UNT Women's Basketball Team to a 3-on-3 battle (which, unfortunately, we lost quite badly). But every Sunday night, with maybe 4 or 5 listeners, “Eric, John, Drew, and Sean” would come together and create what felt like radio gold.

Fast forward a bit to 2005. I had finally made it—I was the afternoon drive sports producer in the 25th largest radio market, San Antonio, making $23,000 a year. I was rich. Money aside, this was a dream come true. Growing up, sports had been my passion, and in college, I became a real fan of sports radio. I used to listen to 1310 Ticket in Dallas, where at times I could not turn it off and I'd be late to work, just so I could finish listening to a hilarious segment. And now, in San Antonio, I got to do the same thing every day. I reveled in coming up with new ideas to entertain our audience, from sports news and interviews to comedic shenanigans.

Bringing joy to others through entertaining content, is where I felt alive.

A few years down the line, I made a shift from radio and found myself working at none other than EA SPORTS. Yes, the famous "It's in the Game," EA SPORTS. It was quite a transition. Initially, I was part of a small group of radio pros brought in for a game called EA SPORTS Gameshow, which unfortunately didn't last long. So, they moved us into this new initiative called digital communications and social media back.

I had no idea what marketing was, but it was fun! We were hosting gamer live streams before that was a thing, creating how-to-tips videos for YouTube, and launching dozens of new social channels and community groups to try and engage the passionate EA SPORTS fans. We had an absolute blast. We experimented, and failed, but most importantly, we learned a ton and this group ended up laying the foundation for EA SPORTS' social media and YouTube strategy.

Fast forward to 2012, I was very happy at EA SPORTS but decided to do my recruiter friend a favor and I put my name in the hat for a social media manager position at Universal. Honestly, I didn't really want the job. At that point, I still considered myself a radio person who happened to be in marketing. However, there was something about this new media world that really intrigued me.

I found it so interesting that if a brand was creative, entertaining, and active across digital, they could actually reach customers and develop real relationships in a way that advertising never could.

It was a light bulb moment for me. Igniting a major turning point in my career. I believed marketing wasn't much different than what I did in radio–if you can entertain and connect you can build a loyal fanbase.

At the time I had no idea how valuable or big that idea was in the world of marketing and business, but after much contemplation, prayer, and seeking guidance, I took the leap to find out.

On November 22, 2012, I said goodbye to EA SPORTS and joined Universal Parks as a Social Media Manager. It was a small team of just two people, and on my first day, I remember thinking to myself, "Well, I guess I'm a marketer now.”

Over the next five years, I was obsessed with building the Universal Social Media team. I wanted our brand to be known as the absolute best in the world, right up there with the big shots like Wendy's, Red Bull, and Marriott. I read books, went to conferences, and did anything I could to better understand marketing and social media.

Admittedly, I felt a little out of place at first, but as I became more comfortable and we got some wins under our belt, I actually thought the way we saw marketing within the social media team was bold, different, and exactly what this brand needed. In those early days, we did things differently, we broke some rules, we pushed boundaries, and sometimes got our hands slapped for a “funny” tweet. Ultimately, we stood up for what social media needed to be–entertaining and valuable, not advertising or spam. We put together an incredible team of strategists, creators, and producers who came up with groundbreaking ideas. We put Universal on the map in social media. To this day people still tell me how much they love our Twitter account.

Around the summer of 2017, something struck me. I realized our social media success shouldn't be limited to just social. We had a bigger opportunity to make a strategic impact on the whole brand. How could we take the guest-first, value-first approach we mastered in social media and apply it to the entire brand to build genuine, long-lasting brand affinity?

Social media isn't just a channel, or a place we post stuff—it's where brands are being built. This is a new strategy and a mindset to use engagement to build a brand. I knew this was a big idea. One that would ultimately take me to what I am building today.

Later that year and with the help of a colleague, we went all in. We wrote up the "The Connection Strategy." It was a Jerry Maguire-type moment where we laid out a vision for the role content and engagement could play in building this brand, and we pitched it to our leadership. I still go back to that document from time to time, and you know what? It still holds up.

The first line from the connection strategy from almost 6 years ago…

“To create valuable, sustainable customer relationships, great brands don’t sell customers — they seduce them by connecting. Impactful, memorable, emotional connections lead to true brand loyalty.”

This became my mission–to help Universal use engagement to create serious brand love. It was as if a new spark ignited inside me, bringing a fresh vision along with it. Now let me tell you, it wasn't easy. We had our fair share of trials and errors, but that spark ignited a whole movement within our team and organization. I remain indebted to the leaders who believed in the vision and the team who helped make it a reality. They are the best!

Social media was going strong, but we decided to take it up a notch. We poured our time and energy into long-form storytelling on YouTube, turning our blog into a full-blown content hub called Discover Universal. We churned out a ton of original video content like Ride Guys, Checked In, and a Guest Docuseries. We even launched a podcast for vacation planning, the first of its kind. We built a killer Content and Engagement Team that I was very proud of. It's what every leader dreams of—setting a vision, hiring the right people, and letting them go all out. And boy, did they go all out.

Over time our team built something incredible, but I found myself feeling like I was ready for a new challenge. At the peak of my Universal career, I couldn't shake this feeling of wanting something different. I had accomplished so much of what I set out to do, but something was still missing.

Now, let me remind you— at this time I was 41 years old, right smack in the middle of what they call a "quarter-life opportunity" (some might call it a mid-life crisis). I was looking at my life, my faith, my family and my work, trying to figure out what it was all about.

I should tell you if you don’t know, as you grow in corporate, your job becomes less about creativity, ideas and producing, and more about deck building, executive pitches, and meetings, meetings, meetings. I was made to build things, move fast, and make an impact, not deal with process meetings, and politics that come with a normal day in corporate America. Was this what I really wanted from my life? I mean, I went to school to be in radio, I fell in love with entertainment and here I was, an executive in a Fortune 500 company, and I felt like I was wasting away. I would tell myself, "Dude, people would kill for this job," and I knew it was true to an extent. But that feeling I had just wouldn't go away. I found myself feeling uninspired at work and I couldn't help but dwell on why I felt this way. I turned to prayer, leaders, podcasts, and anything I could, hoping to find the answer. I am typically a passionate, enthusiastic person, who had become stressed, full of anxiety, and unfulfilled. I knew I couldn’t and shouldn’t live like this.

In October 2020, I decided to give counseling a shot. I shared my story with my counselor, searching for any answers and his response was quick and clear. “You are not wired to be in a corporate environment. The reason why you felt alive in those early years is because you were doing what you are meant to do, be a maverick, not climb the slow ladder of corporate. You're built to break boundaries, shake things up and forge your own path. And this corporate life you're in, it's starting to feel restricting and uncomfortable." You know what? He was right. I felt like a fish out of water in the corporate environment to the point I didn't even recognize whom I had become. To be clear, it wasn't Universal's fault. They were amazing, and I'll always speak highly of my time there and the opportunities they gave me.

But I grew to where it wasn’t the right fit for me anymore. I had freedom and support from some incredible leaders, but that day, sitting on my counselor's couch, I knew deep down corporate life wasn't going to let me experience passion, and definitely not my purpose. So, what now?

The following week, I went back to my counselor and he gave me a simple but powerful task. He said, "Take a day off from work, from family, and find a quiet spot. Grab a notebook and answer these two questions: 1) What are your passions and 2) What are your skills?" I still have that notebook to this day and in it made a list of non-negotiables for my next job. Every job opportunity that came my way had to measure up to those criteria.

My list of non-negotiables:

  • Time for family and the people who matter most.

  • The chance to achieve financial freedom.

  • Building something that truly matters.

  • Having fun and exploring new things.

  • Helping others and giving back.

These became my guiding principles and I used them as my compass when considering my next move.

A week later, I had the answer. I was so excited, I marched right into my counselor’s office and said, “I want to leave Universal and become a real estate investor.” He quickly laughed and said, “Considering your gifts, talents, and experience, have you ever thought about helping others do marketing for their business?” My response was, “What, like an agency? No way, agencies are the worst - Bad culture, long days, and I am already burned out on marketing in a corporate environment.” I drove home upset feeling like the session was a waste of time. But somewhere along that drive, something clicked. It hit me that just a year ago, I had started a podcast called Content Cast, and I was even giving keynote speeches on building brand attachment. Memories of my light bulb moment at EA and that "Connection Strategy" I wrote in 2017 flooded my mind. I started to realize that my counselor might be onto something, and I began to consider the idea of helping other brands tell stories.

Now, even though I was open to the idea, I was still scared out of my mind and I had no clue where to start. So, I stuck around at Universal, and for the next few years, I worked on this agency idea at night. But honestly, it always felt like my backup plan to my backup plan. I was constantly scrolling on LinkedIn at job openings, while also trying to rekindle the passion I once had at Universal. But none of it worked.

Ever been in a spot where you wanted to stop doing something or start something new, but you didn't have the discipline or the courage? That was me.

God made it abundantly clear that my time at Universal was over but I was scared. I was scared to trust Him fully and take the leap without much of a safety net. I mean, who does that, right? You hear stories about people leaving high-paying jobs to start non-profits or build something of their own, but that ain't me, or so I thought. I was plagued with self-doubt and fear.

In case you haven’t caught on, I am a Christian. From this point on, I'm gonna talk about how my faith and work intersect with my pursuit of passion and purpose. I hope you'll stick around because I won't be forcing Jesus on you, but I can't share my story without talking about what He's done in my life. OK, here we go, back to being scared…

I spent a ton of time in prayer, and talking to mentors, and Proverbs 3:5 became my lifeline during those challenging days and sleepless nights. Somewhere along the way, I felt God saying, "Eric, I've got big plans for you, but they can't take off until you trust in me. Open up those clenched fists that are holding onto Universal, and watch me fill them up again." Like so many others, I'm driven, ambitious, and giving up control was no walk in the park.

This journey wasn't just about transforming my work, it was a profound transformation of my heart. God challenged me to let go of myself and the things I prioritized over Him for years. He asked me to put Him first and trust that He has a greater plan in store for me.

This process didn't happen overnight; it took three years of perseverance. As Ryan Holiday says, "The obstacle is the way," and I found it to be true. When this transformation occurred, it had a profound impact on my heart and my life. I discovered a new sense of purpose and passion, not only spiritually but also professionally. God reignited a passion within me, calling me to leave behind my corporate job and embark on the journey of building something of my own.

This purpose has been with me since my college years–I've always loved creating things that bring joy to people's lives. It's what I believe I was made to do. The fear and anxiety that once held me back were replaced with action and I began to feel truly alive. I physically felt the light return to my life. In just a few days, I completed a business plan, built a website, and created a logo and pitch deck. When I would talk to some of my trusted advisors they all said the same thing, you look like you are alive again. However, there was one obstacle remaining–I was still working a 9-5 job in the corporate world. I was a passionate entrepreneur at heart, but I hadn't yet taken the leap to fully pursue my dreams.

After 10 years at Universal, I finally made the call to leave. Telling my leader and friend, “I think it’s time for me to go,” was emotional. I told him, “I need you to let me go from this assignment, I have some new plans.”

April 28, 2023, was my final day at Universal Parks. I put 10 1/2 years into that place, that brand, and a lot of wonderful people. I was sad to say goodbye, but so excited for what God was calling me to do. The moment I walked out of the building, I felt a sense of freedom like I had not felt in 20 years. Sure it was scary and the future was unknown, but I had an undeniable peace. I walked away and said a little prayer, “God, I hope you got me,” but I knew in my heart He did.

These past few weeks have been a whirlwind as I've been in the shadows, building my new venture and getting ready for this very moment. It's been a mix of stress and thrill. One day I think I'm on the right track, and the next day I'm hit with the reminder that I'm figuring things out as I go. But you know what? Despite the challenges, I feel more alive than ever. Every single day, I'm filled with passion, enthusiasm, and a sense of purpose knowing that I'm being used by God for His kingdom.

Today, I am proud to publicly announce the launch of Maverick Content Studio!

Maverick Content Studio was born out of my deep belief that engagement holds incredible power—more than we often realize. My time in sports radio shaped my philosophy on building a brand: create captivating and valuable content, invite people to participate, and watch your audience grow.

In today's world, many brands focus solely on the top and bottom of the marketing funnel. They want to grab your attention and make an immediate sale. But here at Maverick, we believe that to truly win over today's customers and build a remarkable brand, we need to redefine the old transactional marketing funnel and prioritize connection first.

So today, Maverick launches with one simple goal: to inspire brands to connect first and build raving fans!

Maverick is more than just a traditional agency. We believe there's a new way to build brands, and it goes beyond being a content studio. Our purpose is bigger than that. Every single day, we strive to use our time, talents, and gifts to shine a light in this world, alongside our incredible team, partners, and community (Matthew 5:14-16).

So back to the original question “ Why are you leaving Universal?” - I am leaving Universal to pursue my passion to help brands tell stories and connect, and my purpose of building something that will positively impact The Kingdom.

If any part of this story resonated with you, or if you're currently struggling, please don't hesitate to reach out. I've learned so much throughout this journey, and there's nothing I'd love more than for this story to inspire and help others who might be feeling stuck in the corporate world or simply not fully alive. There's greatness within you, and I'm happy to ignite that spark and help you find your path to passion and purpose.

Thank you to many, but mostly to my trusting, loving, and encouraging wife Patricia Gray. We are gonna do big things! I am so excited about the future.

Here we go. Dream Big, Have Fun, and Make an Impact! We'll see ya.


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