What’s the Worst Thing that Could Happen?

I was always the “new kid” in school. My family moved more than 10 times before I graduated from high school.  We weren’t a military family, running from the law or in the witness protection program. My Dad was moving up the corporate ladder, our family was growing and it just set up a series of moves.

Being the perpetual “new kid” forced me to take risks every time we moved, forming new friendships, adjusting to new schools, dealing with the inconsistencies in the curriculum from school to school, and learning

gail and wagon
Me, taking a stand in the new neighborhood.

new neighborhoods and the local culture.

In my early years, I was not the one who was initiating “change” or deciding to take a risk – my parents were. Nevertheless it made me the person I am.  As a child I was learning that it was OK to take chances and in fact, it was a good thing. But I also knew that we were not a “normal” family and at times I longed for a life that was less transient and more like the families I saw on TV.

I look back at my upbringing and Roller skaters jump over teammates, Tokyo, JapanI believe that the greatest gift my parents gave me was to teach me that it was OK to take chances.
And in fact when I was afraid to take a risk, I remember my Dad asking me “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” To be honest, I never really thought of anything that was all that bad.
So, is it any wonder that someone like me would opt to go around the world with my daughter, traveling to remote places on six continents, and live out of backpacks for 99 days while creating a movie?

Erin and Gail, Peru
Erin and Gail and children of village along Amazon River, Peru

I was actually going to do this by myself until I received an email from my daughter telling me that she wanted to quit her job and sublet her apartment and go with me.

At first, it surprised me when she said that she wanted to do this with me.  She had only been working for a year after graduating from college and was lucky to have a job. But she was willing leave her life as she knew it, apartment, take a trip around the world for four months and face looking for employment upon her return. Then I realized I shouldn’t be surprised at all, she too had grown up with the notion that “taking a risk” was normal.

These days, I see young people growing up in a society that has been so over litigated in an attempt to make our lives more risk free that it seems like we are teaching our children NOT to take chances. Losing or failing is looked at as a bad thing and that instead everyone has to be a winner.  It seems that fitting in and becoming part of the status quo is what we should strive for rather than being unique or original.  The problem is, if everyone thinks and acts that way, innovation will die.  No on will dare to be different.
In the last few years, I’ve probably had to face more rejections than I’ve had to over my entire career, or at least it’s seems that the way.  On the other hand, I have had the most incredible experiences and successes of my life.  To be honest, I’m scared to death just about every day but I grew up thinking that was normal and that came with growth. Thanks Mom and Dad for giving me the courage to spread my wings.



How to Sustain a Long Career in Photography

I came across this old “tear sheet” in the process of cleaning out the attic.  Tom and I have dozens of boxes containing over 35 years of printed collateral with our “work” in it.

Tom Kelly and Gail Mooney
Tom Kelly and Gail Mooney

This brochure cover was from a shoot for I Love NY.  Clearly it was a low budget job, based on the fact that we were also the “talent” in our own photograph.  When this photo was shot, we were just starting out in the business of photography. It’s hard to believe that it’s been over 35 years since we started Kelly/Mooney Photography, because it seems like yesterday.   As I sifted through decades of work, I started thinking  – “What is it that sustains a career?”

Some thoughts:

Don’t let age define you.  Let’s face it; we’re a youth obsessed culture. It’s not easy getting older, especially when you’re in a creative business like photography where “fresh” is equated with “young”. But there’s absolutely nothing you can do about your age.  You can’t change it.  It’s like your height – it is what it is.  But you can choose how you think about it. If you tell yourself that you’re old – you will be.

Take more risks – not less. Why not?  What is the worst that could happen?  Am I the only one who thinks this way?  I guess I was lucky that my mom and dad put those types of thoughts in my head a long time ago and they’ve served me well.  Why should I change my outlook now, when I have fewer years on the planet?

You’ll fail more than you succeed.  I sure have.  In the last couple of years I’ve been rejected more times than not, but only because I have been challenging myself more than at any other time in my career.  I have always “been on the move” in my life and my career and I am not one to stay too complacent or static.  There are just too many things left to explore.

Fear comes with the territory.  Fear is what motivated me to start writing.  For me fear would often visit in the wee small hours of the morning.  My mind would bounce from one unfounded worry to another and I couldn’t turn off the chaos in my head. So rather than toss and turn for hours, I got out of bed and started to write down my thoughts. It’s amazing how trivial some of the worries looked in the light of the day, written on a sheet of paper.

Listen to the ideas that don’t go away.  We all have ideas.  But how many of us act on them?  Less than 5%.  When I have an idea that just won’t “quit me”, I take action. The first thing I do is I commit to the idea.  Then I tell someone – someone I respect, because then I have to carry it out – just to save face.  I call it forced accountability.

Don’t take things for granted.  Nothing stays the same or lasts forever.  Be grateful for your loyal clients and show your gratitude.  Business is all about relationships and it is amazing how people seem to pop in and out of your life.  Doors are always closing and windows are eternally opening in a well-lived life.  Recognize those times when they happen.

Always wonder.  My spirit has not aged past 25 years old.  I still have dreams and they are vivid and real in my mind.  My dreams are propelled by my insatiable curiosity about everything. Many years ago I made the choice to become a professional photographer because I knew that my camera would give me access to a rich and rewarding life and to interesting people, places and cultures. My cameras (“my tools”) are still a means to a life of wonderment.

Rejection Therapy

©Mike Rode
©Mike Rohde

A few weeks ago, I attended the World Domination Summit in Portland, OR.  Any time I‘ve mentioned this conference to my friends, their eyes get wide and they all want to know more about it.  Essentially, WDS is a worldwide gathering of creative, unconventional people who want to live a remarkable life in a conventional world.

This was my second time attending WDS and I was inspired, enlightened, invigorated and awed by the speakers like Jonathan Fields, Nancy Duarte, Tess Vigeland, Chase Jarvis and many others.  There was one speaker Jia Jiang that really resonated with me.  He talked about his 100-day “rejection therapy” project. You can watch Jia’s talk online. He must have struck a chord with a lot of other people as well, because he brought the house down.

I’m certainly not a stranger to knowing what rejection feels like.  The last two years of my life I have been rejected more times than I have probably in my entire life.  It’s not that I’ve been seeking ways to get rejected.  It’s because I’ve pushed myself into new and foreign territories – I mean that both literally and figuratively.  For example, I challenged myself in my career by producing a big film project that literally took me around the world.  But when I think about the “journey” part and the production of that film, it pales compared to the hard work, time, blood, sweat and plenty of tears on getting the film seen. I got scads of rejection letters and emails from film festivals, distributors and agents but most outsiders see only my successes.

When I heard Jia talk about his rejections that led to his “rejection therapy”, I understood exactly how he felt.  In a way, I’ve lived my life like Jia’s rejection therapy. But, it wasn’t because I set out to heal myself from some missteps and misses that didn’t work out for me.  As I look back at some of the things that I’ve done in my life, I realize now that I was simply naively bold enough to do them.

I can’t really say that I have ever gotten used to rejection.  It continues to hit me hard at times.  But when that happens, I stop and I think about all the wonderful and crazy things that I’ve done in my life that never would have happened if I had let my past rejections stop me. I suppose I’m like one of those blow up punching bags that keeps popping back up.

Dealing with Rejection

Steve Jobs used to quote a saying “If you live each day as if it was your last – some day you’ll be right”.

I’ve pretty much applied this philosophy in my life and in doing so, many (but certainly not most) of my days are full.  Some days are filled with joy and accomplishment and other days it seems like nothing is working out.  Most days are a mixture of both – “hits and misses.”

I’m the type of person who tends to live life passionately, with hopes and dreams that are probably too lofty, and with that comes a lot of rejection.  A lot of successful people are like me in that way.  That’s not to say that I always feel successful, but some people may perceive me that way because every so often I achieve what I set out to do. What they don’t realize are all the times it didn’t work out. I can tell you, that I’ve had my fair share of misses.  So how do I deal with rejection?

  • I remind myself – not to take it personally.  Many times, it’s just that someone else has a different point of view and it’s just not the right fit.  It may be a job that I didn’t get or a party I didn’t get invited to. And more times than not – it’s not about me or my work at all.
  • I try to find out why something was rejected.  I do this because even though it’s hard to hear “why”, I know that if I can take my emotions out of the equation, I can learn and grow from it.
  • I remind myself that something I thought I wanted, maybe just wasn’t meant to be and in fact, many times that rejection ends up being a blessing in disguise.  I look back at some of the pivotal points in my life, where I took a different direction after things didn’t work out.  Almost every time, a low point prompted me to make a shift, it led to something extremely rewarding.
  • I tell myself that “playing it safe” is in fact very risky. If I don’t try, then  it’s a given that I won’t succeed. So, while “playing it safe” may seem like it can eliminate rejection – it can also eliminate feelings of accomplishment and maybe even self-worth.
  • I talk about my rejections, rather than pretend that everything in my life is roses.  In fact I have found in writing this blog over the past few years that the most popular posts have had the word “mistake” in the title.  Why is that?  Because, we humans seem to take comfort in the fact that we aren’t the only ones getting rejected. Misery loves company.  Ask any successful person how many times things didn’t go their way. You’ll find out more times than not.
  • I take comfort in the ones I love and who love me.  They get me through it every time and I’m grateful for those people in my life.

Rejection comes with living a life fully and I tell myself that every time I want to throw in the towel and give up on my dreams.  I want to live every day as if it were my last and if it comes with heartache and rejection, I’ll remind myself that it makes the “hits” that much sweeter.

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Facing Our Fears

I read a post “Lessons from Childhood” by Judy Herrmann this week on ASMP’s Strictly Business Blog that really hit home.  She was talking about a children’s book that she was reading to her daughter that touched upon one of the universal themes of life – facing your fears.  The story talks about a young turtle with a cracked shell being reluctant to get an x-ray because it would show how scared he was inside. Dr. Bear assures him that bravery isn’t about fearlessness, but rather “doing what you have to do, no matter how scared you feel.”

I remember reading those same childhood tales to my own daughter when she was young. erin_dunes And it reminded me of when she was in her sophomore year of college and headed to Santiago, Chile to study for 6 months.  I sensed she was anxious and afraid of the unknown – a perfectly natural response, and she was holding it inside. I asked her if she was afraid and she hesitated a bit, perhaps not wanting to show me her vulnerable side and she finally replied – yes, a little.  I told her that just about everything I’ve ever done that’s been most rewarding in my life – were the things that I was most afraid of doing.

I’ve spent a lifetime facing my fears and if I really break it down, I realize that what I fear most is the possibility of rejection.  That if I put myself out there, reaching down into my deepest self and presenting that to others and it wasn’t embraced, how devastated I would be.  I wish I could say that whenever I have faced my fears and put myself out there through my work or in my personal life that it always had a happy ending.  Quite honestly, for every step forward, there have been at least two steps back.  And like the turtle, I have taken solace and crawled into my shell at times.

Ultimately, though someone or something comes along that pierces that armor and I reach out – facing my fears once again.  And every so often I get rewarded in a million different ways.  That’s what keeps me going, what I keep my eye on – that even though the setbacks and rejections far outnumber the successes – they all play into making the triumphs that much sweeter and meaningful.

And so I face my fears and push myself over and over – seeking, exploring and never really feeling comfortable, even after all these years. But I know no other way, nor would I choose another way because it’s far scarier to live a life inside a shell.

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