It was good. Too good, in fact.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. How had he done this? The year was 1999. It was a time before there was Facebook and Twitter. Before there were apps and smartphones. The Internet was new, and I was a web designer. I had been fighting the fight, pushing with no relent, no give, year on year, day on day, and I was sure as sure that I had arrived. Big things were coming. Then came this. This thing. This site – years ahead of its time. In that instant I knew everything would change forever. And I would be on the sidelines.
I could feel the well of inferiority pooling in my gut. Knowing I was less. Feeling I couldn’t be more. I hated the hurt. That feeling when you see something not just better than you, but beyond you. Beyond your knowledge and beyond your talent. Beyond your vision. As if someone operated on another level. As if they lived in a world that moved at one quarter the speed, absorbing everything in Matrix time, so much fuller, so much richer, so much deeper.
For so long, so often, that feeling has defined my life. I’ve worn it, sometimes in shame, sometimes in defiance. Always gnawing at my gut, as I trudged step by step, hoping I was more.
And I’m here to say, it doesn’t matter.
Ignore better and worse. Superior and inferior. Don’t play that game.
Because that type of better misframes the challenge and misses the point. It leads you down a path of rights and wrongs. Full of this is good and that is bad, and this is how it’s done. What you want is exploration and freedom. What you get are rules.
It’s a prison with four walls that kills creativity and limits vision. The whole point of life is to figure it out for yourself. To love the challenge and live in the process. It can’t flourish in the light of others. Comparison is the surest path to bitterness and grief. Explore. See your power. See what you can do. Success is not being better than everyone else. It’s finding you.
When you frame your value in the context of others, you place yourself on their roads in their journeys. But the problem is you’ll never see the whole puzzle. You’ll never hear about their failures and hardships – the challenges they overcame to become who they were. You will only know their successes. You will only witness their best. It will give you none of their insights, but it will leave you empty and miserable, drained of the very energy you need to live like you.
So, sure, go ahead and enjoy what others can do. Be inspired. Let them move you. But remember, learning from others is one thing. Chasing them is another, and when your gut churns, and you feel you have less, do less, or are less, let it go. Because it’s the surest sign you’ve checked out of your life to go after someone else’s.
Get over yourself.
Just let go.
You don’t know it, but that self is stopping you dead in your tracks. That self is the past. It can tell you what to do, but it can’t tell you where you need to go. In fact, when it counts the most, it’ll do the opposite, and it’s killing you.
It’s a little like this: You’re driving. You have your GPS all set and the coordinates locked in. But you have a change of heart, and you decide to take a detour. Your poor GPS doesn’t have a clue. It just keeps saying you’re off course. And the more it does, the more tense you feel. The more messages you hear, the more you worry, the more you doubt. Maybe you even start to think you are going the wrong way. And there lies the problem.
We all have our inner-GPS. And it’s great most of the time. It’s the instinct we acquire from a lifetime of experience. It keeps us safe, and it keeps us on track. But it’s built by the past, and it will never know when there’s a new you. A you who’s ready to push in different directions to find different things. In short, it doesn’t know about the detours. Yet the detours define us. When you go off the beaten path, it will just keep telling you to get back on track, and for awhile, the more you veer, the more it nags. If you listen to it, know that you’ll be navigating by a you of yesterday, and sometimes, a you from a very distant yesterday.
See, the GPS is loaded with all sorts of destinations. Notions of who we are and what we’re supposed to do. Maybe we never got over the idea that a certain career was right for us. Maybe we thought there was a best way to talk to people. And in the heat of the moment with the shot on the line, it’s sure not going to know that some new and different pose in this new and different light is the one you really want to go for.
Of course, your GPS isn’t to blame. It was designed for different times. Times when eating the wrong berry could kill you, or taking the wrong path would leave you short an appendage. It’s conservative for good reason.
But this is a bubble-wrapped world. We’re insulated from everything, and we can bounce back from a whole lot more than we think. You post the wrong post. So what? You get a mediocre review. So what? What’s really going to happen? Not to say that it won’t hurt, but at the time these things happen, it feels like you’ve just RUINED. YOUR. LIFE.
In other words, we fear pain more than we feel the potential.
Don’t listen to the fear. The fact is you change every day. You have new needs, you have new desires, and you just plain grow. But your mind and body take some time to catch up. Your GPS holds on to the old directives, and it takes the full force of all the will you’ve got to send the message that this new place you’re heading is exactly where you want to go.
We start all things free. Full of ideas. Full of purpose. To be sure, tangled and blurred and ever just so hidden, but it’s there. We lose this along the way as we find success. Once we make things work and the patterns become apparent, our bodies hard-code the recipe into a user manual for living, when, in reality, there can never be a user manual for living.
As this happens, we go from a state of freedom to a state of constriction, which is utterly backwards. After all, shouldn’t learning free us?
And it can, if you stay open and aware.
Success can be so much worse than failure. Failure hurts, but it pushes us to keep exploring. Success, on the other hand, limits us. It tells us to keep doing the same.
It’s all that damn stuff. Literal. Metaphorical. You know – baggage. Once you have something, you fear the loss, which is why nothing is more perilous than early success.
See, once you are something – once you earn something, deserve it, have it and need it, letting go is hell. We’re all a bunch of pack rats, when it comes down to it, but it’s not just about keeping this or that, which is hard enough. What we really cling to is ego, and losing that is most painful thing of all.
So we stay the course and re-tread familiar ground. We let creativity die.
You live by the fear or you live by the potential. When you know whatever you do this second is all you are, you know you can be anything. When you know today is what matters there’s no ego to feed. But more than anything, when you turn off the GPS, you get over yourself in the most glorious way possible. You live free of definition and free of restraint.
And that’s the detour you want to take.
It’s official. The rockstar is dead.
Dead, gone, and six feet under.
But if the patina has worn thin and we’ve been rubbed a little raw, now that our unvarnished lives are out there for everyone to see, what becomes all too apparent is the single burning question we have yet to answer. What next?
The rockstar was nothing but the worst in us all. Hope hemorrhaging on dreams of quick money and good times in exchange for the belief we could all be the next big thing if we just learned to wash, rinse, and repeat.
We killed the rockstar, but wash, rinse, and repeat is exactly what we have left.
There are more tips, more tricks, more advice, and more more than ever before. We’re awash in knowledge. Search brand. Search SEO. Search marketing. Search sales. It’s all there. By this point, if you’re not finding it, you’re not looking.
But no amount of information is going to do the trick.
The industry is running scared. Bodies crowded, flesh to flesh, mouths open, gasping for air. And we wait. Counting the inquiries. Waiting for revelation. We dangle on the hook ready for the next shot of adrenaline to keep us going. Just get a little more knowledge, a little more cash, and we can keep the raft afloat until we hit solid ground.
It’s not enough. The downgrade from an economy of hope to an economy of survival may be a correction, but it’s not a cure. Because all the information in the world will do nothing for us, if we have nothing to use it for.
We chased our dreams. We followed the bill of goods we were sold. Find your passion. Find the thing you love. Make that your life’s work. And we found something we loved, but we have been let down. Because what no one told us was how to keep that passion alive.
The truest problem in the age of the rockstar had nothing to do with broken promises and unfulfilled dreams. Like the day after any party, the real disappointment comes when we wake up in the cold morning light with the hangover pounding, and the emptiness is still there when we ask “What’s next?”
So often, it’s the very reason we started taking pictures. To quell the nagging voice in the back of our heads, asking if there was more, asking what was next, and wondering who we were. Photography was the answer. The thing that set us free and let us be, in this world, as part of it, with purpose and power and feeling.
But as the days grew longer, and the nights got harder, we were slammed into the wall. We can run our hardest, but we can never catch up, because what’s next is always an arm’s length away. It’s always out of reach. It’s the carrot in front of the stick, and it’s never going to be here in the now, when the here and now is the only thing we ever have.
It’s a question we can never answer.
But we can stop asking.
These are hard times to be sure. But the choice is always the same. You can put full faith in the present or you can let the doubt swallow you whole, because when you wait for the money and the likes, and dwell in the tension and fear, you diminish your power and bypass all the potential of the now to build a hollower, emptier future.
Committing to the moment lets you find the future you need and forget the future you want. Do what matters. Reconnect with the stories you need to tell. Start writing the unwritten tomorrow.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Look. Act.
Now, I’m not saying business doesn’t matter. But Duke Ellington had it right: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Do not create a business that pits you against yourself. Our security against our freedom. Our ego against our creativity. Don’t let your vision detach itself from your destination. The question isn’t how to get it done. It’s how to get it done your way.
It’s fully true that you don’t need to take great pictures to make a great living, but it’s so often said, and we’re too often mislead, because when you connect the dots and relentlessly stuff your products so full of your vision that they’re ready to burst at the seams, you’re worth your very most.
The trick is so deceptively simple. What’s true is selling only the quality of your images is a perilous proposition. But what’s too often left out is that the dedication to delivering your very best – all of the exploration, the toil, the craft, and the art – these are the most powerful weapons in your arsenal to build the exact story people will hire you for.
The world craves the real, but it’s a story you can’t fake to make. You’ve gotta hit the ground hard, keep on the move, and push your way through. True grit is the stuff of real legend, and skipping it is the surest way to find yourself back at the end of the party, wondering what’s next. So if your very best doesn’t matter to your business, change things up and make it so, or else you’re wasting the very power of the stories you have.
We’re blessed with a task that asks us to dwell in the present. You can’t engage in the act of photography without some vision, some direction, and some place you’re trying to go. We don’t always know what it is. We don’t always know how to get there. But don’t lose faith before you arrive. Dive headlong. Find your verve. Find your vector. Find your little corner in the universe, and build from there.
Are you moving forward with heart and dedication? Are you living boldly? If you can just see the movement, that’s enough. Because once you lock-on to even the smallest sliver of that person you are, you’ll never need to think about washing, rinsing, or repeating ever again.