Nothing Happens Fast: 5 Steps To Creative Success

A crow hops between ledges in a residential area of Rampur Hat.

A crow hops between ledges in a residential area of Rampur Hat, India.

Based on a series of presentations at Chattanooga State College, This is part one of a five part series on challenges faced by creative professionals. Click here to read Part 2: Don’t Do it for the Money.

I recently was invited by the wonderful people at Chattanooga State College in Tennessee to give four presentations to their student body on a variety of subjects from globalization to poverty – but all within the context of my personal experiences as a photojournalist.

The students at Chattanooga State turned out to be one of the most receptive audiences I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to. Eager to learn and with a minimum of pretension, a few of the sessions went nearly an hour overtime because of the great conversation-generating questions they put to me.

While I enjoyed all of the talks hugely, I wanted to share the some of the finer points of one in particular that was hosted by the college’s media department. The presentation was loosely titled “Making Your Way in a Globalized World,” and focused on some of the lessons I’ve learned about the realities of establishing yourself as a creative professional in the modern fast-paced and interconnected media industry.

Part of the reason I liked giving this talk so much, apart from the great crowd, was the fact that it forced me to think critically about what I’ve learned over the years of trying to establish myself as a photojournalist. In preparing for this session I spent a long time trying to organize my experiences and thoughts into a coherent presentation, and I think the process was of as much benefit to me as it was for the students. In the end I boiled everything down into five talking points which, while there are countless other minutiae that could be delved into in great detail, I think embody some of the most important lessons I’ve learned along the way.

I initially wanted to outline these points in one article, but it turns out I have too much to say on these subjects and a single post would be unmanageably long. So instead I’ll break them up into individual entries and post them separately.

Part 1: Nothing Worthwhile Happens Fast

A monk outside his pagoda in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Part of a larger story on the recent trend of Buddhist monks entering the political sphere in Cambodia.

A monk outside his pagoda in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Part of a larger story on the recent trend of Buddhist monks entering the political sphere in Cambodia.

The Internet has made us into some of the most impatient generations the world has ever known. I want almost everything I do to happen as quickly as possible, and most people I know are the same way. Even as technology is allowing me to do some incredible things – such as self-hosting a publishing platform like this web site, which brings my work to an international audience – I get irrationally irritated at any sort of holdup. When it takes slightly longer than normal to upload new images to my portfolio page, or when my favourite news site takes a little more time to load, I will often curse my computer or Wi-Fi provider. The faster technology allows me to work, the less I am able to be patient.

This loss of patience is one of the biggest obstacles to professional success for a lot of aspiring creatives, photographers included. We demand that everything happen instantly, that our every desire is gratified just as soon as they pop into our minds. This attitude leads us to forget something important: anything that is worth doing will take a lot of time. Previous generations – I’m thinking of my grandparents, for example – spent decades crafting meaningful careers for themselves. Now, however, many people will quit after putting just a year of modest effort into something.

My friend and photographic mentor Zoriah Miller explained to me that if I was making a semi-decent living from photojournalism within 10 years of starting out, then I was doing well. I have kept this in the back of my head and it has helped me to put my career into perspective, and, mostly importantly, kept me from quitting.

And this is really the crux of my point. The easiest way to fail at achieving your creative vision, in whatever form that may take, is to quit. I’m not suggesting that you miraculously acquire a saintly patience; in fact a healthy dose of impatience is probably necessary in keeping you hungry – but it needs to be harnessed. It is easy to be motivated straight out of the gate, but building a career, especially in competitive industries such as the media, is about the long game.

River taxi drivers take shelter during a rain storm in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

River taxi drivers take shelter during a rain storm in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

For example: If one million people per year (probably an overly conservative estimate) declare that they are becoming professional photographers, by the end of that first year at least half of them will have quit. Discouraged by a lack of quick progress, or the fact that TIME Magazine isn’t beating down their door because they bought a 5D Mark III, they will take the easy option and make excuses as to why they should stop – “the industry is dead,” would be a common example. By the end of the second year still more people will give up, citing a lack of money or that it is time to grow up and get a real job. The same thing will happen again after the third year, and so on. By then end of the fifth year, those who have found a way to keep at it, to bear the lack of financial success and recognition, and have struggled forward anyways – those will be the people to watch. They will have built up the contacts, the knowledge, and the resourcefulness to weather any storm and continue to create. And the next group of people who decide they want to become professionals will look at them with envy and ask, “how did they get to where they are?” – all the while looking for a fast and easy answer on how to duplicate their achievements.

I can say this because for a long time I was the same way. I spent hours each day performing creative Google searches along the lines of “how to become a photojournalist.” If I am honest with myself now, what I was looking for was someone to tell me how to get what I wanted quickly, some sort of step-by-step guide to success. The last thing I wanted to hear was that the secret was a lot of practice over many years, and it took me nearly a year of beating my head against a wall before I accepted this reality. But once it sunk in, I took the most important step of my career – I stopped Googling and started working. By no means am I representing myself as some sort of industry leader, but I am fully supporting myself from the work that I love doing, and for me that is the victory.

A street portrait in Kolkata, India.

A street portrait in Kolkata, India.

The bottom line is that whether you are an aspiring photojournalist, a novelist, or an independent filmmaker, there is no shortcut to success. If you are searching for that magic-bullet solution, it doesn’t exist. But if you put good work into the world for long enough, good things will happen. Keep working.

Click here to read Part 2: Don’t Do it for the Money.

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