With many of my fellow Americans preparing to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, let’s take a moment away from turkey and dodging awkward conversations about politics to give thanks to those who provide us the motivation to persevere.
There is no such thing as a self-made man/woman. There might be some that would disagree with that. Those people would be wrong. No matter what the latest self-help financial prophet may proclaim, we all need a little help along the way if we are to achieve our dreams.
No matter how gifted we may be as a photographer, everyone needs someone somewhere at some time to give them that first break. Someone has to look at you and say “yes.” Maybe it’s a photo editor offering you your first assignment. Maybe it’s a model allowing you to take her picture even though, up until that moment, your portfolio leaves a great deal to be desired. Or, maybe it’s your family and friends who don’t work in the photographic industry at all, but offer you the emotional support (and sometimes financial support) you need while following the long winding path to success.
One of my favorite podcasts is How I Built This on NPR where host Guy Raz has on an established entrepreneur each week to discuss how they built their business and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. Given the nature of the show, it’s no surprise that many of his guests have obtained monumental amounts of wealth throughout their careers. After about an hour long discussion, he always ends with the same question. “How much of your success do you attribute to hard work and personal talent, and how much is a matter of luck?”
As a firm believer that success is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, my own initial inclination is to believe that the scales would tip greatly in favor of hard work. But, just as quickly, I inevitably find myself considering the other side of the equation.
Yes, we work very hard as photographers to keep our businesses afloat and grow them in a time of turbulent change. Yes, the concept of our offices every really being closed or the word “weekend” tend to take on different meanings when your life becomes your business. It takes hard work to succeed in your passion. Very hard work.
But I also have to think about the luck I’ve received. Not luck in the sense of a flipped coin, but luck in the form of the sweat equity I’ve inherited from those around me.
I was raised in a comfortable middle class life. I was raised that way, not because anything was special about me, but because my parents put in the hard work to provide a better life for their children. My father was the youngest in a household full of children. His father supported them by working odd jobs far less glamorous than finding the perfect way to light already beautiful people. I’m sure my grandfather had no particular passion for construction or pushing a broom on the graveyard shift, but he did what was necessary to feed his family.
My own father has long had a passion for photography, and, while we’ve never really discussed it, I’m sure he would have loved to have had the option to have pursued it as a career. But, in his financial position at the time, such creative pursuits were not exactly a practical option, so instead, after a stint in the Army and surviving the Vietnam War, he went to medical school and built his career as a doctor. I’m sure he didn’t always appreciate being on call all hours of the night, or the regular 60 plus hour work week that prevented him from being able to spend more time with his children. But he knew that those children were precisely who he was working for, and that knowledge helped him press through more than one sleepless night.
I don’t lay out that brief dip into my family tree to be self-indulgent. Hopefully, the opposite. One thing I’ve learned is that as self-centered as we all can be (myself at the top of that list), if you live life only for yourself, you’ll be leaving a large part of life behind. Regardless of our background, we are all interconnected and not only owe a debt to those who have helped us along the way, but also are responsible for those who are coming along behind us.
My father literally put his life on the line in the military to provide a better life for me. My grandfather put in the hours behind the broom to sacrifice for him. My great grandfather kept a family safe and together through Reconstruction. And his father was born a slave.
All of these people sacrificed their dreams so that one day I could be here to follow mine. So when times get tough as a photographer, as they always will, I can draw motivation not only from my own personal desire to succeed, but from the debt I owe the men and women that came before me that made it possible for me to be here. I owe a debt of gratitude to the friends who supported me during my early days as I was still learning my craft with words of encouragement and inspired me to keep developing my work. I owe a debt of gratitude to my clients, all of them, not just the big ones, that have given me an opportunity to add my voice to their brand. They not only offer me a living, but they offer me added confidence to keep growing as an artist and pushing me further.
And, I owe a debt to those younger artists and future family members out there who have yet to cross my path, but I may one day be called upon to help. Just like my parents, I have a responsibility to put myself into a position to not only help myself, but to help them as well.
So who has helped you along the way? As you sit down to dinner this week, hopefully surrounded by some of your own personal inspirations, take time to be thankful for all those who have helped to get you where you are today. If they are sitting there in front of you, take the opportunity to say “thank you.” If they are only with you in spirit, take a moment to think about all the sacrifices they must have gone through just to help you pursue your passion.
Luck comes and goes. Hard work is, well, hard work. But knowing the debt we owe to those who have come before and the responsibility we hold for those who come after will help push us through even the most difficult of tests, and inspire us to be the best photographers and people that we can be.