We have been sold on the biggest myth of all time; In order to succeed at anything and have a lustrous career you must spend 4 years in an overinflated educational institution and spend a small fortune, which doesn’t include costly textbooks, supplies and living expenses. All in exchange for a fancy sheet of paper we call a degree… a piece of paper that gives us instant credit and a golden ticket to the gravy train. Right?
A close friend of mine, Chris, spent nearly 10 years in college. Chris has two college degrees and is probably one of the smartest persons I know. He excels in 3D modeling, graphic design, photography, video, carpentry, engineering and just about anything creative. Chris currently works as an architect despite his degrees in game design and graphic design. Chris does not like his job, and aspires to be a game developer in his spare time through his company Visual Villains. He has been out of school for nearly a decade and is still paying off student loans. He soaked-in the book education, but didn’t get the experience that is needed to thrive in today’s market. So, Chris works at a day-job not in his field of study to pay off a piece of paper that has brought him little to no income. In this day in age, Chris didn’t need to go to school to learn how to design games or design a brochure. Sadly, this is the case for many young adults who graduate college. Once the college cord is cut, they are suddenly swung into a fast-paced commercial river, cold, naked and without a paddle.
Unemployment among college graduates is at an all-time high, and the majority of those graduates with jobs are not even working in their field of study. Not to mention, those graduates owe a thousands of dollars in student loans. For decades, the cliché term “Work Smart Not Hard” has been ingrained into our conscious. Mike Rowe, host of the popular Discover Channel series “Dirty Jobs” noticed such an epidemic in this country, that he started a foundation called mikeroweWORKS Foundation, which he promotes both working hard and working smart, giving opportunities to those that display a good work ethic in a specific trade.
Like many young Americans, I was thrust into college at the discretion from my parents without an option for anything else. It was just the thing to do. I was fortunate, my parents had saved thousands of dollars to fund my college education and it was the next logical step. But, my mind wasn’t ready for another four years of education and I certinatly did not want to waste thier hard-earned dollars. I was living and breathing music, it was my sole focus and it was a strong passion that clouded anything else in my life at the time. After a semester of living in a dorm and skipping class, I decided to confront my parents and do what most 18-year-old’s are afraid to do. Tell the truth. Fortunately, my parents were completely supportive of my dream, which in the end, was to simply create art.
I digress, if you want to be a doctor, lawyer, accountant or plan on leading a Fortune 500 company you’ll probably need that degree by your side. But, if you are looking to flourish in anything creative all you’ll need is some experience, a solid portfolio, a set of business skills and the ability to talk to people. This most definitely applies to the world of photography.
Invest The Money
Over a small conversation recently, I was told that a new breed of parents were giving their bright-eyed high school graduates a choice. Take $40,000 and use it towards owning a business or use the money towards a strong college education. All this in attempt that their children they may learn the business-world through experience and failure, rather than textbooks and education. Imagine what a photographer could do with $40,000? Not only would that be able to purchase several camera bodies, but that would cover a range of high-quality glass and a top-of-the-line strobe kit (within reason). But, I wouldn’t advise that one go gear crazy with any large amount of cash. Instead, I would recommend one investing into the business, such as expenses and marketing. Gear will come and go, but your brand has to stick to continually make income.
While most students are yawning over textbooks, they could be hitting the “digital streets” and getting their name out there. Coming from the music business, I had to work from the ground up, which included street promotion, online promotion and picking up the phone. I spent hours hanging flyers on dozens of lamp posts and spent even more time online networking. Perception value and quality advertising always played an important role in achieving a sold-out show. And, as photographers, musicians or artists our goal is to always leave a good impression. At the end of the day, what’s going to leave that good impression for a future client… a degree or a strong portfolio? My first publication didn’t come from an interview or random email. It came from confidence in my portfolio and making friends with all the right people.
Attend A Workshop
I can sit here all day and debate how easy it is to learn for free, online with only a laptop in hand. However, there is a lot of noise and mis-information out in the world-wide-web. So it’s important to do the research and find a quality class that will not only benefit you as an artist, but also inspire you to challenge yourself. You can sit on YouTube for days, but there has to be a catalyst or a spark of inspiration to get you off your feet and trying what you’ve read or watched. For me, it was attending one workshop that changed it all.
Shameless Plug Alert! I’ll be hosting my annual “Masterclass” October in Louisville, Kentucky. The workshop will cover absolutely everything. From my philosophy to lighting to post processing to marketing and back. It’s just so revealing that I can only have this workshop once and year and it’s limited to just 14 photographers, so if you’re interested, then don’t miss out on the opportunity. www.claycookmasterclass.com
I had the amazing opportunity to travel all over the nation as a touring musician during my time as a young adult. From the age of 18 to 26 I visited every state and witnessed a lot of crazy things. But, it gave me wisdom that not many can claim and it’s the sole reason I’m a full-time professional photographer today. I learned how to talk to people, to live on a budget and run a LLC. I made connections that still benefit me in the photography industry to this day. I’m not saying to pack up and hit the road tomorrow, but get out and experience the world if you can; you never know what connections you might make.
Mentor or Internship
I have 4 amazing interns that assist me day-in and day-out. Each and every one of them currently attend a university and they all know my stance on college education. The reason I welcome interns who attend college is because I want to make a difference and give them an experience that no university can. My interns do receive college credit for the internship, but it's worth much more than that. They receive the knowledge of networking and true-life experience that most professors cannot teach.
“Working with Clay for the last six months has given me more invaluable knowledge of photography then my entire college career” – Brandy Fulton (2014 Intern)
When I started my photography journey, I had mentors such as Josh Eskridge and Joey Goldsmith who really paved the way for where I stand today. If you’re a young photographer looking for more, then network with other photographers and research internships or assistant position. Soak-in the knowledge and apply it to your own style, you’ll be glad you did.
While I fully expect backlash from those who have spent thousands on a college education or those who perhaps teach, I challenge you to step back and re-evaluate the world we live in. I'm not trying to downplay a great education or insult those in the profession. There are many great photographers and legendary artists who once attended college, but in this day in age if you’re looking to run a small business in the creative realm, you don’t need a degree-on-the-wall to do it. What you do need is a strong body of work, some experience and a lot of good friends.
If you’re a young photographer yawning over textbooks and looking for more, I’m currently accepting applications for a 2015 internship. Email me a portfolio and resume: firstname.lastname@example.org