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The Pain Problem by Spencer Lum

How much does it hurt?

Sometimes, too much. Often, more than I want to admit. Most times, more than I expected.

I just wrapped up a presentation at Camp Go Away last week. Of course, I use the term presentation lightly, given that I was hobbling together the pieces up to the very last minute. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Camp Go Away is a small, back-to-the-basics shindig put together by the wonderful and talented Chellise and Michael of Chellise Michael Photography, and you can count me in as a fan. If you’re looking for a get together that smells like a warm fire in a cool morning breeze (quite literally, in fact) and oozes with heart, this is it. It is a beautiful thing.

There I was, talking about some of the pain I’ve experienced in my life – in career, in artistry, in expectation and hopes and the dreams of being more that too often were less, when it hits me. Maybe this feeling that I’ve nursed so much of my life isn’t mine alone. I ask everyone, “Is pain something you know as creatives?”


They say when you laugh, people laugh with you, but when you cry, you’re going to be doing it alone with a bottle of bourbon, and if I had to hazard a guess, I’d guess that it’s a feeling a lot of people know. But hurt has a way of making you feel small and isolated and very, very alone. So no matter how much I figure it couldn’t have just been me, it was a hard feeling to shake.

But I asked, and hands went up. Hands from talented photographers producing wonderful work. And I realized, we are never alone. If you’ve ever felt worthless, you are not alone. If you’ve ever felt trapped, you are not alone. If you’ve ever felt like a fraud or a failure or like you’ve hit a wall, and maybe this time, you won’t make it through, you are not alone.

Creativity is a stream. You can drink from the stream, take from the stream, and swim in the stream, but you can’t freeze it. You can’t pickle it and preserve it or hold on to it any more than you can hold on to your thoughts, and the harder you try, the more it will stop you from seeing the next swell coming down the pipes. But you can foster it. You can become aware of it and open yourself to experiencing it and putting yourself in places that make the visit from the muse that much more likely.

Creativity is a feeling we all know. When that certain something clicks, and life gushes, and you feel it pouring out into everything you do. When everything becomes interesting and meaningful, and you can crack open impenetrable ideas as easily as eggs into a frying pan.

But no one is creative all the time, at least not in that way with the capital C. In fact, more likely, almost all of us are distinctly uncreative most of the time, but if you listen to the voices in your head and open yourself to the world around you, a little bit of that beautiful thing inside you will seep out and make its way to the world. And that is enough.

Creativity is not about pain. In fact, if being at Camp Go Away told me anything, as I stepped out of my life in a place that gave me no choice but to do so, it reminded me that creativity is love. I was blessed in each encounter I had, in each person I met, and that chance to see just a little bit of who they were, experiencing the universe, one person and one moment at a time. And this is something that’s there for all of us.

Creativity is immersion. An openness to inspiration, and the pain will only cloud that vision, blinding you to the fact that you already have what you need. You are what you need. That if you accept that and let the journey take shape, you will find all the answers.

As Mick Jagger said, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.

Holding on to the pain will only marginalize your power. It will push you to chase validation and lure you to the conformity lurking around the corner. One choice after the next, it is a slippery slope of doubt masked by further doubt.

Life coach Michael Neill compares this neediness to a game of fetch. He describes his two dogs. One loves to play fetch, and will chase the ball relentlessly, constantly begging and pleading for another throw. The other dog isn’t terribly interested in the game at all, and just enjoys where he is and what he is doing. Too many of us are like the first dog playing fetch, except instead of chasing a ball, we chase happiness, validation, and self-worth, moving the goal posts of joy so each time we accomplish something, we push our hope forward to tomorrow, instead of living in it today.

Growing up, I never had a pair of shoes that fit. My parents always bought them a size too large to let me grow into them. The only problem was by the time I would, they’d be worn out, and I’d have to move on to the next oversized pair. So I simply lived my childhood believing that shoes were supposed to be really loose.

Find your fit now. Revel in the craft. Love each step of the way.

Joy cannot be one step ahead of you. It is either there, or it is not. We either grab it, take it, and fight for it, or we dream a pipe dream of false expectations and unrealized hopes that someday, it will come. Don’t wait for the heavens to part so you can receive the divine right to simply be who you are. That day will never happen. Someday is always a day away, and if you’re to live a life of deep trust and true meaning, it will only come when you let go of the pain and take this thing you have and make it work, right here, right now, because that’s all any of us ever have.


How bad do you want it? by Spencer Lum

I always thought I wanted it pretty bad. I thought I was willing to take the hits, but when I look back and really think it through, I’d be hard pressed to make the case. It was all just plausible deniability. It was never my responsibility. Always something else. Some reason. Some excuse. Sometimes – maybe more times than not – it’s just easier to think more of yourself than to be more of yourself.

But though you can tell yourself whatever you want, life has a simple formula. You do, it gives. You don’t, it takes.


They say the bigger they are, the harder they fall, and you see it all of the time. People hit the wall – great people, often the greatest of them – who can’t crawl out of themselves any longer.

And it’s only getting harder. It’s an age of virtual navel gazing and personal brand. Hell, I’ve burnt through whole days waiting for my apps to light up. New likes? Fans? Did I go viral? It’s like an accident. You just can’t not look.

Yeah, now more than ever, you have to stand for something. Be something. And, yeah, be proud. Stand tall. Do all of it. Don’t run from your shadow, and pack your achievements in a tiny dark box in the back of your brain.

But now more than ever, you also have to let it go. Thomas Szasz said:

“Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self- esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self- importance, learn so easily; and why older persons, especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.”

If you want to step into your future, it’s not about building, but tearing down. The walls being removed aren’t exposing you. They’re letting you go forward.

And if you’re not stepping into your future, then you’re going to have to ask the question: “Is this really what I want?” Because the hard is what makes everything great. The hard is what makes it all worth doing, and if you don’t want the hard, and you just want the fame or the fortune, maybe you don’t really want that future.

There are going to be excuses, and there are going to be obstacles. Excuses you create. Obstacles you encounter. If you come across too many excuses, odds are you really don’t want it bad enough. Look where you are, and see if it’s the path that’s the problem and not the barriers. But if the things that are stopping you are in fact obstacles, then double down and push through with everything you’ve got.

In all cases, you either hang onto the past at the expense of the future or you let go of the past and find your future. That’s the choice. Pick carefully.


Sometimes, the shit hits the fan, and you’re stuck cleaning the mess. And it sucks. How much does it suck? It sucks to the tune of about 10.9 million results plus or minus a few when you Google “What to do when your client is unhappy.” As it turns out, there’s no dearth of advice on how to slink your way through the gauntlet.

And, yet, for all that, the first time I ever Googled those words was exactly 36 minutes and 12 seconds before I started writing this.

Here’s my small contribution to the mix.


When things go wrong, as tempting as it is, this is not your chance to get your passive-aggressive on. People sniff out self-interest faster than you can inhale glue. Carrie Bradshaw once said “Don’t forget to fall in love with yourself first.” And if a narcissistic, fictional character who spends $40,000 on shoes says it, then I’d say it’s a good sign to do the opposite.

There is no dearth of people who are already far too far in love with themselves. Angry clients hate defensive businesses. I like to employ the forget-being-in-love-with-myself-and-just-solve-the-damn-problem” strategy instead. It’s not as new age-y as acknowledging your self-love and living fiercely from the I, but it makes the pain go away a whole lot faster, and, guess what? It makes your clients happier too.

And when things go wrong, you want happy clients.

For real? Yes. For real.

Not because the client is always right and all that. Who really thinks that? But the real question is, does it matter? You’re in business. Some clients will be wrong, some will be right. You’ll have to deal with both.

Here’s the oft forgotten point:

Unhappy people fight back. Happy people don’t.

This is important. It kind of flies by, and you don’t really notice, but here’s what it means. If you focus on making someone happy, they’ll be willing to hear you out and even accept what you’re saying. But if you focus on making people hear you out and accept what you’re saying, they’ll just get angrier.

Now, maybe you say “But they’ll blame me if I don’t defend myself!” In reality, they already blame you. And no matter what you say, they’ll make up some reason that you’re still wrong if they’re mad. All these years doing this, and not even one person told me I showed them the light, despite my proclamations of innocence. Not even a thank you. Sheesh.

See, on it’s own, Super Secret Success Principle #209 is sort of a “Fine. Meh. Got it.” sort of thing. But in the heat of battle, it’s everything, because almost anything you read from an unhappy client is probably going to read a little like “blah, blah, blah, you’re wrong…blah, blah, blah…I think you’re an idiot, and I blame you.”

And when someone hears “I think you’re an idiot, and I blame you,” whether it was in the words or not, it is very, very hard not to push back. But, see, that just makes them come back at you harder. See how the cycle works? All bad.

For example, I’ve noticed when I get in a fight with my wife (umm…you know…once in awhile that happens…) she’s a whole lot more willing to listen to me after we’ve made up than in the middle of the argument. Because she’s happy. Or at least not pissed.

Here’s a simple guide whenever things go south:

1. TAKE 5
Calm yourself down. Responses written in anger and frustration rarely read well. And absolutely no passive-aggressive-y stuff. People can tell when you say things like “I’m so sorry you feel that way,” that you’re really not. If you say, “I’m sorry we missed that,” people feel better. If you say, “I’m sorry we missed the shot that I wasn’t required to take according to the contract,” people don’t.

A simple “I’m sorry. Do you have a moment to talk, so we can figure things out?” will do the job. And reply quickly. When someone is angry, minutes matter. Remember, as clients, we all have long histories of being treated badly, so a little care can go a long way. Sometimes, it’s so shocking and disarming, it’s enough on its own.

Also, keep your emails short. No essays describing every sensation pulsing through your body. Who wants to read an essay? Email excels at efficiency, but it stinks as communication. Get them to talk. If people hear you’re sincere, people will let you off for a lot. Also, clients are often more reasonable than their emails sound.

Know what you’re willing to give in on and what you’re not. Know what you want to achieve. If you don’t, it’s easy to get carried away in the heat of the moment.

Whether you can fix it or not, make your client feel valued. Listen to them intently and fully. When most people are heard, even if the problem can’t be fixed, they feel better.

As Gloria Gaynor would tell you, you will survive.

And there you have it. You’re welcome.


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