There is often a lot of talk of "taking the leap" to full-time photography. It might be a cliché, but it does feel as if you have to throw yourself into the partially unknown to have any chance. But whether you're winding up to jump, or you've landed on the other side and are wondering what's next, you can benefit from the Tipping Point.
I capitalize "Tipping Point" because it's a theory and an idea, and it isn't mine, it's from business genius and author Malcolm Gladwell and his book of the same name: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Of all the books I've read pertaining to business and self-improvement (I read about two per month; here's my top 10 for 2018,) this one is in the top three in terms of influence it has had on me. Before I unpack exactly what it is and why it's powerful, I need to take a step back to before I read it.
When I first went full-time, I tried to consume anything and everything on running a small business. There were common threads which run through almost all books and podcasts, and that was goal-setting. Essentially, the more specific, detailed, and varied the goals, the better. So, I sat down and I began inventing my dream career as I had been told to do by author Rob Moore. You're explicitly instructed not to pull any punches and to forgo any shyness towards saying what you want. That is, if you want to be shooting Vogue covers every month, photographing A-listers, paid by National Geographic to travel the world, make Cannes Film Festival shorts that win awards, you must say it. If your goals are realistic, you've essentially failed the task.
Then comes the more laborious — but just as essential — setting of goals for the short term. Everything from daily tasks through to yearly benchmarks you want and need to hit. Even the tasks themselves felt productive and useful, and I remember feeling pleased, motivated, and driven in a specific direction once I'd completed them. Then, over time, I realized that even if I were to set longer-term goals, there felt as if there was a chasm. As if I was riding on water towards my goal, but the goal was oil and even if we started to get close, where I was and where I wanted to be would never blend. Just a couple of months later, I read Gladwell's famous book and I felt as if I had it all a little wrong. Not completely, mind you, just not quite on target. What's worse is I think it's common for amateur and professional photographers to make a similar mistake. While it is certainly not a terminal error, a refocusing can be valuable.
What Is the "Tipping Point"?
Firstly, I implore you to read the book. Any summary I give will not do his work justice. However, I will do my best to summarize the concept he presents. Gladwell primarily talks about the spreading of ideas. Ideas could be taken to mean theories or concepts, but really, a lot of things behave in the same way as ideas. For example, you as a photographer trying to make money work similarly to an idea. The more the idea of "you" spreads, the more familiar people are with your work and the more likely you are to get work. This what PR and media agencies mean when they talk of developing a brand, or brand awareness.
Well, the Tipping Point is when ideas (or brands) get to a point where they gather so much momentum they can't be slowed. With a video of a cat pushing a glass off a table while under a barrage of protests from the tepid owner, for example, it will begin to spread as people share it. It might generate tens of thousands of views, but eventually, it will reach a critical mass and go viral. Gladwell compares this concept to the spread of epidemics (as I have no doubt is the source of the word "viral") and how they reach a point where they have infected so many people, they become for all intents and purposes, unstoppable.
Why Should Photographers Aim for the Tipping Point?
Aiming one of the leading photographers or videographers in the world is a great aim. However, it doesn't equip you with the tools to pave the way, though it never claims to. In many ways, I think that when you're wondering whether your hobby could become your profession, trying to figure out how to get the DoP job on a Hollywood studio's next production is completely ineffective. Instead, a practical shorter term goal would be to work out how people get to the point where they get such coveted positions. The realization I had from Gladwell's book is that I need to approach my "brand" (and I really hate to call it that) in a way that I want to reach a point of critical mass. I want my work in the industry to be known enough that I have more work than I know what to do with. That is a life post-Tipping Point, but it makes much more sense to me to work towards that.
I will now — and have for a few years — ask myself the question of whether an idea or task I've thought to do will help push me towards my own Tipping Point. For example, going out and taking some images to upload to stock websites has a relatively low value in terms of achieving that critical mass. In contrast though, going to a networking event for creatives instead has a much better chance. You want your name to become synonymous in whichever area you want to dominate. If you want to shoot music videos for rock bands, the more bands, record labels, and venues you get to know, the closer to your Tipping Point you will become. Whenever you feel jaded and stuck for ideas on how to progress either in to a career in photography, or further your career, try to think of ways that will best get you known and wanted in your niche.
The subtitle for the book "how little things can make a big difference" really does underpin the concept that has resonated with me so well. You need to find as many ways as possible to move you towards the point where your success is inevitable and unstoppable, and they'll usually be small tasks. But the more you do, the more consistent you are, and the more creative you're being in moving your boat forward, the closer you bring that point where you tip over the crest of the uphill battle you've been locked in, and can enjoy the building momentum. You can grow in all directions faster than you ever have and without any extra effort. So, while you may aim to be part of the 0.1% in the industry, first aim for the Tipping Point that'll take you there.