LESSONS LEARNED

We recently had the pleasure of being invited to speak at a middle school career day.  Speaking with these ambitious and inquisitive kids really made us reflect upon how we got where we are today.  Clearly, a natural result of being interrogated by enthusiastic young people.  Here are some lessons that we have learned throughout our careers as creative people and entrepreneurs. 

1.  Follow your intuition.  It will reveal your purpose.

Believe it or not, David and I did not arrive in this world with the knowledge that we wanted to be when we grew up.  Honestly, most people don't.  We both arrived at photography from very different trajectories, with different motivations. 

David always recounts his decision to pursue photography as being two-fold:

Part One: His mother, in her ever-present wisdom, gave him an ultimatum.  He had to go to college or move out.

Part Two: If he HAD to go to school, he was going to pick something that wouldn't need require a four-year degree and not be "too hard".  

Strategic, right?  Little did he know that he would latch onto photography as a career, and love it as a medium of expression.

I always wanted to express myself in some way, but it took me some time to figure out what would work best for me.  I have always had a creative mind and considered myself an artist.  However, I was somewhat discouraged from pursuing art as a career, so I ended up attending a four-year university to become a sociologist.  I never abandoned artful expression, and was always looking for new elements to introduce into my work. 

After I got my bachelor's degree, I started working at a photography studio to learn how to work a camera.  I never thought that I would love it so much as its own medium.  It all clicked.  Expressing my vision through a camera came so easily to me that I knew that I had to go for it.  Fast forward to the present - I do not regret forgoing graduate school to become a photographer.  It fulfills and challenges me in ways that nothing else can.

2. Trust the process.

I don't know about you, but when I get excited about something, I start to obsess a bit.  I immerse myself in information, my research-oriented brain running wild.  I try to become an expert as quickly as I can.  Enthusiasm is a trait that cannot be taught - and it can serve you well in pursuing your goals.  With that being said, patience is a virtue.  Let's talk.

It is very easy to pick up a (insert tool of trade here) and instantly declare yourself a (insert profession here).  Honestly, is it really that easy?  Thinking that any creative skill is simple to attain is insulting.  Proficiency comes with time, practice, and commitment to the craft - and that requires PATIENCE.  Don't expect to be as good as someone who has been doing it longer than you, and don't expect that someday you will know everything you need to know.  Trust in the process of learning the ins and outs of a profession before your start calling yourself a professional.  If you try to fast forward through the learning curve, you are going to miss the tools that build into longevity.

3. Comparison leads to anxiety.  Anxiety leads to self-loathing. Self-loathing is the killer of creativity - and self-esteem. (Read this in Yoda's voice for best results)

I believe in inspiration.  All artists have that something that lights a spark, urging them to create.  Inspiration can come from anywhere.  For example: Lately, I have been inspired by some hip-hop and rap videos - not the most traditional source of inspiration for a portrait photographer.  I also think that you can gain a lot from relationships with other artists - ideas, support, new perspective.  However, if you are not mindful in your creative journey, you can fall into a trap: the spiral of comparison and self-loathing.

Every artist is different.  Please accept this.  It is a hard thing to grasp onto, especially when you are young in your creative life.  You see amazing work from someone on social media, a website, in someone's house, in a gallery.  You think to yourself, "So and So is really amazing.  Look at how they conceptualized that piece.  They know how to do so many things.  Look at all the attention they are getting.  I am not getting any of that attention.  It's been a struggle for me to create the piece that I see in my head.  People aren't responding to my work they way that I thought they would.  I suck."  The spiral. 

The comparison spiral is guaranteed to rob you of the energy you need to create something meaningful.  You just dig yourself deeper into a place where no real growth can occur.  If you admire someone's art, celebrate their success and learn from them.  Artists want to see other artists succeed. Trust me on this.  No one wants their craft to die.  Speaking personally, we enjoy working with photographers that are early in their development.  We love showing them new skills, giving them encouragement, helping them move forward.  In turn, we are rejuvenated by their fresh approaches and raw creativity.  Community.

4. Stay in your lane.

There was a moment in my creative life where I carried a lot of uncertainty and self-doubt.  We were in the early stages of our company, just taking every freelance job we could find, hustling so hard to pay our bills, dedicated to this idea that we could make a living doing this thing that we love.  I was riddled with questions and anxiety.  I felt like I was being pulled in so many directions and not giving anything 100%.  Even after our company gained a solid footing, I had this sinking rock in my stomach, dread that we would be back at that place if I made the slightest mistake.  I needed to get real.

It was at that point where I discovered Sue Bryce.  I watched a video on YouTube from her series on creating a portrait photography business, and I was mesmerized.  I was struck by her honesty, her notorious accent, her confidence.  She explained that she used to torture herself with what others were doing and how it sucked the life right out of her.  I had never heard it explained that way before and it just clicked.  Why expend energy obsessing over what another photographer may be doing when you can spend that energy on your own gig?  A total epiphany for me.

Fast forward to now, and I view our business and creative process through a completely different lens.  I spend the majority of my energy running towards my goals and towards what lights my creative fire.  Tunnel vision, somewhat.  I occasionally resurface to get inspiration from other amazing creative people and their work - not just photographers.  I value the work of other people because it gives me perspective, gives me ideas of new angles or poses to try, gives me encouragement.  As creative people, we have to appreciate that we are all different.  If we were all the same, we wouldn't really be that creative - would we?

5. Mistakes do not equal failure.

Imperfections.  Mistakes.  Misunderstandings.  All of these things are inevitable.  Learning how to manage them is a foundational skill.  Early in our business life, I ripped myself apart if I made a mistake.  I tortured myself if someone didn't like a picture.  I cut myself down if someone chose to work with another photographer over me.  Maintaining your self-worth as a creative person is really hard.  Creative people are sensitive!

The reality is that it is mistakes are the best teachers.  This is as cliche as it gets, but TRUE.  I try to learn from every mistake so that I don't make it again.  I have also learned how to address mistakes with clients and coworkers so that molehills don't become mountains and my authority is intact.  Mistakes have made me a better business owner and a better photographer.

I also have learned what ISN'T a mistake - a key distinction.  For example, people often enter a portrait session with a lot of baggage - Maybe they don't like how they have aged. Maybe they feel like they look fat in every piece of clothing they own.  Maybe they have acne and they feel like it ruins their whole face.   Maybe they had a horrible experience with another photographer.  Sometimes they simply hate getting their portrait taken and would rather jump into traffic than do it again, but their employer, family member, or significant other is requiring it.  As photographers, we want people to feel great about their experience and about the product they receive from us.  We try to make them feel comfortable, soothe their concerns, find solutions.  We try to show them the best version of themselves.

You show them the portraits you take of them, and they are not pleased.  They list off all of the reasons - reasons that communicate the baggage they brought to the session.  Some concerns can be fixed with the almighty Photoshop.  But some concerns are so entrenched that they cannot be alleviated - even a great session experience, all the Photoshop in the world, and endless retakes.  At that point, I feel that I have not made a mistake. Though I would like to think that every picture I take can solve the world's self-esteem issues, I know I am not that powerful.

I sure try, though.

6. Don't turn what you love into a chore.

There is an old saying that goes something like this: "Do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life."  While I agree that this is a very idealistic view of one's journey into a career, there is some truth to it.  I love photography.  It has become a major vehicle for expressing myself, a frame for my world view, a place for me to disconnect and also reconnect (depending on what is necessary).  However, this does not mean that there are not challenges or annoyances to overcome.  

One of the major struggles of making a living as a creative person is finding a balance between unbridled artistic expression and having your art consumed as a product for money.  Owning a small business - creative or not creative - is not for the faint of heart.  Sometimes you can really lose yourself in it.  You lose your joy, the "why" that made you take the plunge in the first place.  I have met so many photographers that end up not wanting to shoot anymore after grinding and trying to make a living.  It is hard to have your art on display and scrutinized, especially if that is how you are playing your bills.

I am constantly reminding myself why I love doing what we do.  I circle back to it when I am feeling a little worn, and it brings me back to that balance.  When I am feeling pressed and at a breaking point, I push through the negativity to find: Regardless of any difficulty, we are making a living and supporting our family doing what we love to do.  We get to create things every day.  That is a truly special opportunity.

7. Success is about longevity.

As you get older, you start to understand why older people tell a lot of stories.  Both personally and professionally, we have been through a lot and there are lessons to be learned from that.  I find that I want others to not have to make the same mistakes that we did, or see warning signs that we didn't, or even take risks that we did to see the payoff.  You get better and better at see the long game as you age.

Every year, we meet young creative professionals that have an expectation of their career taking off like a rocket as soon as they graduate.  Every year, we meet creative professionals that have a crisis in perspective because a new trend has arisen and they feel like they are missing something.  Every year, we meet creative professionals that feel like they know everything and refuse to evolve.  All three of these approaches places the focus where it shouldn't be.Success as a creative professional requires commitment to your point of view.  Trends come and go (remember spot color?).  Creative success does not happen overnight.  Going the distance requires flexibility.

If I can impart anything on those reading, it needs to be this:  Find your voice and commit to it.  Embrace the slow burn of building your brand.  Don't panic when things don't explode on contact.  Observe reactions and figure out what works.  Cultivate your skill set.  All of these things take time.