In this series, I attempt to identify the key professional virtues I have found to be the most important in building my own career, as well as identifying traits of other successful photographers that are most key to their success. Today's Word of The Week? Standards.
I like to watch. More than just an intentionally suggestive tagline in one of my all-time favorite dramedies, “Being There,” by one of my all-time favorite directors, Hal Ashby, I think it’s a phrase that can be used to describe many of the better moments in my life. Watching a great movie. Watching a great match. Heck, what is photography if not to a certain degree watching a subject, waiting for the perfect moment to press the shutter?
But the act of watching itself is hardly the best reward. For me, the true benefit to watching lies in the process of learning. A great film can share the experience of what it feels like to walk in the shoes of a character unlike ourselves. A great athlete can teach us about the will to win and the sacrifices it takes to succeed. A great subject? Well, they are teaching us with every movement if we just take the time to watch. Really watch.
One of the groups I like to watch most? Highly successful individuals. No, I don’t mean watching TMZ or cyberstalking whoever has placed the latest claim on the cult of celebrity. The people I watch are those highly successful individuals that have moved beyond the ordinary and managed to really excel in their chosen profession, field, or intellectual pursuit. Those people who have built a long-lasting career. Those people who have set goals and achieved them.
Of course, built into the term “highly successful individual” is the word “individual.” So it is incumbent in the process of studying such people to take into account that every single man or woman’s life is a bit different than the other. We live unique lives, with unique passions, and under unique circumstances, so keys to long-term success are hardly a one size fits all proposition. Heck, even the word success will generate a different definition depending on the individual person writing it.
Yet there are still certain ingredients that tend to be consistent with all of these diverse stories. There are certain character traits that seem to be constants on the pages of all these varied tales. And while there are many such traits, the one that seems to keep replaying in my head over these last few years has been a simple one: they set a higher standard.
Standard. There goes that word again. We all have heard it a thousand times, but few of us really take the time to understand what it means. Like success, it can mean different things to different people, so how do we take it into account in our own lives and own careers and use it to help take us where we want to go?
STEP ONE: KNOW YOUR STANDARD
What is it that you want out of life? Are you driven to be the best in your field? Or are do you just want to achieve enough security to keep you firmly in the middle of the pack? Do you want to be the class Valedictorian? Or do you just want to pass the class with minimal effort?
What is your standard? Not the public standard: the “hard work” we profess to publicly, while privately sitting in our pajamas on a workday playing Madden. Rather ask yourself, “what is the real standard I have set for excellence?” “What level do I really hold myself to when no one is watching?”
Be honest with yourself. The answer is just for you. But it’s important to know your starting point before discovering your destination.
STEP TWO: ELEVATE YOUR STANDARD
No matter how hard you work, know that there is someone out there working harder than you. This doesn’t mean they are better than you. This doesn’t mean they are more talented than you. But it does mean that there is someone somewhere out there that is, at a bare minimum, working to close the gap between you. Someone is either nipping at your heels or extending their lead. The competition that just a month earlier ran neck-and-neck with you is now pulling away, leaving you in the dust.
I’ve written before about how my fitness transformation was indirectly a big influence on my career in photography. Learning what it took to succeed, to really succeed, and get the body I wanted was (and continues to be) a painful process requiring a great deal of self-reflection and an honest look at the excuses I told myself to justify my own shortcomings. Pulling myself out of that spiral began with my acceptance that, despite what I was telling myself, I was not putting in the work required. I was not working hard enough. I did not hold myself to a high enough standard. It was only when I committed to setting a new standard, a higher standard, that I began to see results.
While bearing witness to those who have achieved real long lasting success, regardless of their field of expertise, one can’t help but notice that these people inevitably hold themselves to a higher standard than the rest of the crowd. It would simply never occur to them to knock off early rather than put in the extra hours necessary to get an edge on the competition. And of course, they made every cold call they planned that day without exception. It never dawned on them that failing to do so was an option. Of course, they took the risk of failure to ensure that their product was the best it could possibly be long-term even when their decidedly more hasty colleagues were pressing them to put out something that would be just “good enough.”
The highly successful individual has set his or her standards higher than the requirement. They have redefined what it means to succeed. And, as a result, when they meet that higher standard they arrive at a higher level of success in their business.
STEP THREE: THE STANDARD IS THE STANDARD
I am a Tennessee Titans fan. And while that is not particularly germane to this discussion, it did happen to be the reason I found myself watching a broadcast of Thursday Night Football last week as the mean old Pittsburg Steelers utterly dismantled my beloved Titans to the tune of 40-17. But while I was forced to watch most of the game horror movie style through the slight part between my thumb and index finger, there was a fairly random bit of audio that immediately stuck in my head.
While discussing Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, the announcer referred to a refrain he is known to repeat often to his players over the course of the season. “The standard is the standard.”
The sentence is simple in its design, as most true statements tend to be, but very few phrases could have driven home the point with more eloquence. “The standard is the standard.”
What Tomlin was saying is that, with the Steelers, he has tried to set a standard for excellence. And no matter the opponent, no matter what trials and tribulations the team may be going through at the moment, and no matter what is going on in the locker room, the only thing that ultimately matters is that standard. No matter the odds, you will not give up on a single play. No matter your injuries, you will not take a play off. Whether you win or lose a game, you will not give up until the final whistle. That is the standard. No excuses.
As photographers and entrepreneurs, we too are empowered to set our own standards and maintain them. We set the level of what is acceptable in our business and hold ourselves accountable. We know that it takes hard work, real hard work, to market our services and must accept nothing less. We know that our work has to not only meet a client’s expectations but raise the bar. Such is our standard. We know that to be the best shooter we can be, we need to constantly raise our perception of success, put in the effort to obtain it, and stay true to those values through thick and thin.
We set our standards. And the standard is the standard.