Don’t Do it for the Money: 5 Steps to Creative Success (Part 2)

Based on a series of presentations at Chattanooga State College, This is part two of a five part series on challenges faced by creative professionals. Click here to read Part 1: Nothing Happens Fast.

A young family in San Andres, Manila. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

A young family in San Andres, Manila. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

A recent survey from Forbes Magazine placed journalist (they used the moniker “newspaper reporter”, but I think it’s safe to count these as being roughly the same thing) at number nine in the top ten list of the most stressful jobs in the world. The official list published is as follows:

1)    Enlisted Military Personnel (Soldier)

2)    Military General

3)    Firefighter

4)    Airline Pilot

5)    Event Coordinator

6)    Public Relations Executive

7)    Senior Corporate Executive

8)    Police Officer

9)    Newspaper Reporter (journalist/photojournalist)

10)  Taxi Driver

This list looks pretty fair to me – all these jobs seem to be relatively stressful and I don’t think any of them are out of place. What jumped out at me were the disparities in income between various jobs. I can see how being the CEO of a major company would be less than relaxing, or how hard-working PR agents could burn themselves out in a high-stakes industry. But for these jobs they are rewarded financially, whereas the same Forbes list estimates the median income of working journalists at $36 000 per year, compared to $146 000 for a commercial pilot. The only jobs on the list that pay less than journalism are taxi driver and soldier. So why do people do them?

I would argue that driving a taxi is a job undertaken out of necessity rather than passion. While there may be some drivers out there who love going to work each morning, and wouldn’t dream of doing anything else, to my understanding it is generally the sort of thing people do to earn money when they can’t find anything better. A friend of mine drove a cab when he moved across the country and needed money quickly to pay the rent on his new apartment, but once he got on his feet he moved on and never looked back. There is nothing wrong with being a professional taxi driver (to the contrary, if you love what you do then you’ve already won in life), but I don’t normally think of it as being a driving passion in someone’s life. I don’t remember any of my classmates in the first grade declaring that when they grew up they wanted be a taxi driver, for example. Driving a cab is something people do because they need to make ends meet – a straightforward exchange of money for services rendered.

Koh Kong Province, Cambodia. Koem Bunloerum, 30, enjoys a moment of reflection in the Areng Valley. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Koh Kong Province, Cambodia. Koem Bunloerum, 30, enjoys a moment of reflection in the Areng Valley. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

According to Forbes, soldiers make only about $5000 a year more than taxi drivers, but the jobs seem worlds apart in terms of what motivates the people who do them. Sure, there are probably large numbers of enlisted military personnel who sign up because they are in financial or personal trouble and see no other alternative, but these people are likely to accept a discharge as soon as they possibly can. A career soldier, however, must have an entirely different outlook on his or her job. In order to risk your life for less than the price of a mid-range car, there has to be something that makes it all feel worthwhile. Never having been a soldier I can only speculate, but I imagine it has something to do with feeling like they are a part of something larger and more important than themselves. They see themselves as the guardians of their country (all political opinions aside), and in their eyes what they do is important. Others may disagree with them, but for those who thrive in military careers there is probably nothing else in the world they’d rather be doing.

If taxi drivers and soldiers, the first and second lowest paying jobs on the Forbes list, were surveyed, which of them would likely report a higher job satisfaction? I say soldier almost every time. Most taxi drivers would probably quit their jobs the moment something higher-paying came along, but I would wager that it would be much harder to convince a dedicated marine to leave the service. According to the list, a military general makes more than five times as much as an enlisted man. But to become a general, one first needs to be a soldier for many, many years. If all they cared about was a paycheck, there are certainly easier (and safer) ways to make a living. The best soldiers stay in uniform because they think it is something worth doing, and the same mentality has to apply to anyone who wants to succeed as a creative professional.

During my first full year of being a “professional” photojournalist, I was paid in sandwiches. I was working for a small independent magazine in South Korea, and they had literally zero budget for paying contributors – apart from advertiser-donated gift certificates. One publication earned me one meal. But sandwich or no, I would have made these stories anyways. There are innumerable articles floating around the internet that deplore the practice of working for free as destroying the market for paid professionals, and for the most part I agree with them. Giving high quality work away for free so that others can profit from it is a slippery slope, and should be avoided at all costs. At that point in my career, however, I was barely literate in my craft – and truth be told, looking back on those first clumsy attempts, I don’t think they were deserving of paid compensation. In the end, learning to work with a photo editor on a deadline was worth far more in the long run than a few hundred dollars that I wouldn’t have remembered spending.

Darjeeling, India. Nawang Chonzom, 83, sits inside her house in a centre for Tibetan refugees. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

Darjeeling, India. Nawang Chonzom, 83, sits inside her house in a centre for Tibetan refugees. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

When I eventually decided to leave the magazine and strike out on my own as a full-time freelancer, I spent my life savings (twice) before landing a single paid publication. I shot stories in eight countries, and each one was a little better than the last, but still money eluded me. I would send pitches to only the most prestigious publications in the world, and when I received no reply I took it as a sign that the stories were not good enough. While this was extremely discouraging at times, I still went out everyday for four to five hours and hunted for stories.

Why? Because I loved doing it. Even now, when my entire income is derived from documentary photography and writing, if I found an interesting story that nobody was interested in publishing, I would still shoot it. If I was born into a richer family, or if I had scooped up some rental properties in an up-and-coming neighbourhood – making money a non-issue – I would still do exactly the same thing. In the end it took more than three years to start getting paid for my efforts, and even now it is only possible to survive on what I make because I’ve worked hard to keep my lifestyle as cheap as possible.

Manila, Philippines. Men passing a bottle of rum in San Andres. Excessive drinking is common in Manila’s lower class neighbourhoods, as the price of alcohol is extremely low in the Philippines. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

Manila, Philippines. Men pass a bottle of rum around a circle in San Andres. Excessive drinking can be common in Manila’s lower class neighbourhoods, as the price of alcohol is extremely low in the Philippines. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

These days, particularly in photography, people seem desperate to be recognized as professionals rather than receive the dreaded label of amateur. Some will give their work away for a pittance in exchange for a promise of exposure, often to profit making organizations (as opposed to free independent magazines that genuinely cannot pay). But the word amateur derives from the Latin amare: “to love.” I would suggest that in the hyper-competitive and image-saturated modern world, it will be the people who work because they love doing it that will succeed above the ones looking for a big payout. Just like a soldier who puts on a uniform because of what it represents over what it pays, the best in most creative fields tend to be people for whom money is secondary to the gift of being able to do what is important to them.

In order to really prosper in a creative field like photography, writing, or filmmaking, even the most well respected professional needs to be an amateur at heart. Figuring out what sort of work is important enough for you to dedicate your life to is the hardest part. The rest is just logistics.

This is the second part in a multipart series. Click here to read Part One: Nothing Happens Fast.

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