Maddie On Failing Up

When we decided to create “Change of Plans” week, both Maddie and I jumped on it and offered to write posts on our own lives. So we wrote them, read each others posts, and it turned out they were interesting echoes of each other. I was writing about what happens after a major (and outwardly perceived) success, and Maddie was writing about how you find real success in the first place. (Hint: It’s not the way you were told that you find it.) Though in a sense, Maddie’s whole story is about what happens after early perceived success because of her Success Kid phase (which we must bribe her to tell us about, because it’s THAT GOOD). I hope this post sparks thoughts and discussion about making our way to life that feels successful to us (along with a healthy fear of geese).

The other day I was about to leave my house to take the dog for an appointment at the vet when I was stopped, physically, in my tracks. By a goose. An angry goose at that, and one that had a bone to pick with me.

I stood there frozen for a moment, and in between panicked thoughts of “Is this creature going to give me rabies?” and “Oh f*ck, oh f*ck, oh f*ck,” I thought to myself, “How the hell did I get here?”

Maybe it’s because I actually watched a few episodes of The Simple Life, but it felt a little like I was seeing the scene from afar. There I was, a caricature of my former city-slicker self, trying unsuccessfully to coax my 175lb dog (who has poor coordination and low-self esteem) into my hatchback while a wild goose was swinging its neck violently from side-to-side in an attempt to scare me away from his mate.

Someone call the TV crews. I think we have a hit on our hands.

But in reality, the reason that this moment made me do a double take was because it was the first time since moving to California that I felt like I’d surrendered to the change. I wasn’t shocked that this demonic animal was chasing after me. I was resigned and annoyed. And I’m pretty sure being resigned and annoyed with your surroundings is how you know you’ve settled into a place.

And it’s this level of comfort and ease that’s throwing me for a loop.

You see, before moving to California, I’d spent a few years fitting my square peg of a self into all of the round holes around me. I’ve written a little about my time working in the entertainment industry and how it tore out my soul little by little. But the reality is that there are plenty of people who love that life, and I just wasn’t one of them. So the trouble was never really with the system itself. (Editors note: HAHAHA, Maddie is being kind.) I mean, the system is flawed, yes, and anyone who works in a “dream industry” knows that, but more that I was trying so hard to force myself into what I thought I wanted to be that I was losing myself in the process.

It was an extremely painful process quitting my job in the entertainment business because for the first time in my life, I had to admit that I didn’t really know what I wanted at all (and as a former Success Kid, admitting you don’t know what you want is only slightly more jarring than actually failing at something you do want). What was worse was that I’d spent so much energy trying to become the picture of success that I no longer even remotely resembled myself.

So in an act of rebellion (and maybe as a coping mechanism for feeling like a failure), I decided that whatever I did next, I’d do it like the honey badger. I simply would not give a shit. And I would own it.

Before coming to APW, I took a job that promised good money and little to no creative fulfillment. And because I was in no way passionate about this career path, I didn’t put any pressure on myself to succeed or fit in while doing it. I dressed in the Maddie uniform (which usually involves a lot of animal print and probably a little too much cleavage), spoke up any time an opinion was asked for, and added creative flair to as many PowerPoint presentations as I could get my hands on. Very literally, I sat at the table.

These were seemingly small actions compared to the efforts I’d put forth in my previous career, but it was a solidly liberating experience to stop giving a shit about how every move might affect my future.

What surprised me most (but is probably blatantly obvious to everyone else here) was that my coworkers and supervisors responded positively to the new (well maybe not new, but a renaissance version at the very least) Maddie. They listened to my opinions, liked my zany outfits, and made frequent requests for my PowerPoint flair. As it turns out, confidence in one’s self, rather than people pleasing, wins favor with the bosses.

So then, of course, what started out as an act of rebellion became a way of life. I started listening to my gut and began to trust my instincts about what might be good for me. I became the Maddie that I knew in high school, before the real world got in the way.

Before my newfound zen, Michael and I used to fight all the time about where we’d end up living together. I was a city mouse and he was a suburban mouse (but maybe with a nice bit of land behind the house for off-roading or something). I thought that if I lived anywhere other than New York City, I’d be failing 10-year-old Maddie who just knew that’s where she wanted to live. Or I’d be failing 18-year-old Maddie who managed to get into and then survive NYU with a decent grade point average. Or I’d be failing my father, who, you know, was really proud that I was living out our plan.

So last summer when Michael and I photographed a wedding together on a couple’s farm (an APW couple, of course) and had that moment of “Oh this might be a nice life for us,” I stopped worrying about whether or not I would be selling out or giving in or settling (God, how I hate that word) and instead I shut up and listened to myself.

Which is how I ended up here. On the farm in California, being chased by a goose. While wearing animal print. And probably showing too much cleavage.

Am I going to live on the farm forever? Who knows. Part of adopting this liberated peace of mind is that it only allows for a very loose future plan. Sure, I have a rough idea of where we might be in a few years, but I’ve stopped beating myself up about having a detailed image of what that looks like.

Don’t get me wrong though. I’m still a Success Kid at heart. I don’t think that will ever go away. But as I put forth even more effort into my job and personal life now than I did before, I’m less worried about the outcome and more concerned with whether or not the effort itself feels authentic to me. Instead of “I must do this or else I will never end up where I want to be!” I’m approaching success with an attitude that’s closer to “Hey, that might work. Let’s try it!”

Last week when I announced that I was co-hosting a collaborative photography workshop, I had a momentary panic reminiscent of my former self. I thought, “What if this doesn’t work? What if nobody shows up? What if I FAIL?!” A few years ago I would have lost sleep over these questions, but this time I was able to remind myself that nobody is keeping score. Doing it, unafraid of the outcome, is success enough for now. And do you want to know the best thing I’ve learned so far? If nobody is keeping score, not even myself, then it’s almost like failure isn’t even an option. And if I do fail? Well here’s hoping I keep doing it in the direction of up.

Photos of farm life by Maddie herself

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