A Powerful Tool To Keep Your Spirits up Even in the Uneven Life of an Artist

Making a living in an oversaturated marketplace can be a challenge even without a global pandemic present to further shrink the marketplace. It takes a lot of tools, even some unexpected ones, to make it the distance.

There I was. Flat on my back on one of the most comfortable mattresses ever created. Just about five feet above me was a skylight, running maybe six feet on the long end. The skylight was slanted a bit so that debris would roll easily off the roof. Over the previous days, I had found it nothing less than Zen-like to awaken to the soft glow of that skylight as the sun began to emerge through pillowy clouds. At that particular moment, those clouds had something extra to offer and my view of the skylight was decorated by heavy rain which rolled down the slanted glass drop by drop.

Of course, I could have moved to a different bed. The log cabin which, as best as I can guess, serves as a camp dormitory during the summer seasons, was outfitted with seven different beds spread out around the house. And while I usually found the second-floor bed underneath the skylight to be the best overnight location, I did make a point over the course of the long weekend to at least take a nap in every bed on the premises. It was a lost weekend in a sleepy town on the coast of Oregon. A terrain and a locale I don’t often get to see. A moment of solace I don’t often get to experience in the hustle and bustle of life.  

Those few moments when I didn’t find myself tucked carefully beneath a litany of blankets would find me strolling carefully along the edge of the town’s single main road. I had a rental car. So, it’s not like I had to walk. But the rocky beach was literally less than a half-mile away from the cabin. Another quarter mile up the road was the town’s only real commercial strip were the closest thing I could find to a supermarket was a small convenience store, which, while quaint, had about as much inventory as a gas station pit stop. Luckily, there were a number of small restaurants, most touting freshly caught seafood, to quell my hunger.

About another mile up the road was a hiking trail. It seemed like the type of place that would be mostly empty even in the busiest of times. Hiking there in the cold and damp winter months left me with most of the grounds all to myself. The proverbial walk in the woods. A clear moment to be alone with my thoughts and to take in events of the year led me to be standing both literally and figuratively atop a mountain, staring off at the beautiful crashing waves in the distance.

Now, at this point in the essay, you are likely starting to think that you have accidentally landed on a Travelodge or that I am auditioning for a role as the host of a new vacation-themed reality show. You may also think me the laziest man on Earth, following my dedicated prose on sleeping options and my apparent cruelty to the Airbnb host who would have to remake every bed for a single occupant. But as I was standing on that mountaintop, listening to the waves crashing beneath me, the thought running through my head didn’t include the exact thread count of the blankets in the cabin, nor was I calculating profit margin or planning my next shoot. No, at that very moment, there was only one word running through my mind. It is both an end result as well as one of the primary reasons I found myself on that mountain top one cold December day. My only thought was of gratitude.

To be successful at anything in life, especially an entrepreneurial pursuit, requires you to have an excess of ambition. Unless you accidentally trip over a hidden oil well in your backyard, it’s highly likely that whatever success you garner will be the result of hard work. People who get more out of life tend to be people who put more into it. And for those efforts, they expect a lot in return. 

But there is a downside to ambition. For the truly ambitious person, success, or their chosen definition of success, may very well be within grasp. But the cruel irony is that no matter how much you succeed, human beings will always find a way to want more. Success itself can be addicting. Like a powerful drug that you can’t seem to stop injecting. Every time you taste success you will want more and more. And, if you are fortunate enough to receive a great deal of success, you may soon find yourself unfortunate enough to experience the diminishing high associated with each successive accomplishment.

You’ve always dreamed of seeing your work on a billboard. Now, it happens, and the only thing you can think about is having your work on the bigger billboard across the street. You finally win that prestigious photo award. In fact, you win it three years in a row. But, while the first time was a rush, by the third time, the win has simply become an expectation and no longer gives you the jolt of electricity when you receive the news. Worse yet, when you inevitably don’t win the award one year, rather than your mind receiving the news as normal to not always win every award, you instead start to think that the fact that you didn’t win a five thousand to one bet is a personal failing.

Success is a moving target. It’s impossible to pin down. And the very minute you think you’ve achieved it is the exact moment you will find yourself wanting more.

It doesn’t help that we live in a society that increasingly values success, or more specifically,, the performance of success, real or imagined, over the substance of hard work. We are surrounded 24/7 by social media imagery highly curated to present only our happiest moments to the world. We live in a world where we only encounter each other’s greatest hits album while the deeper cuts remain hidden for fear of a deficiency of likes. We are both victims of this newfound artifice and its perpetrators.  

Personally, I have been fortunate to accomplish more in my photography career than I ever thought imaginable when I first picked up a camera as a hobby. Put all the accomplishments together and they paint a decidedly positive picture. But, even I feel the pangs of jealousy when I see a succession of my colleagues booking big jobs in one post after another. Forget about the fact that I have no idea how long it’s been between big gigs for them in reality. Forget about the fact that the job they booked may not even be one that I would want. The innate competitiveness of an ambitious person can trick the mind into thinking that every bid you don’t win is a personal loss. That’s nonsense.  

On the flip side of the coin, while we are all quick to post about our victories, how often do we honestly post about the gigs that didn’t go our way? Even for the most successful artist, there are more losses than victories. Why isn’t everyone's feed overrun by posts about assignments that weren’t successful, awards not won, or days spent filling up your outbox from dawn to dusk with emails to clients with the only messages actually landing in your inbox being those from marketers trying to sell you products that you couldn’t afford even if you wanted them.

We tend not to talk about the in-between days because we are taught to put the entire onus onto results. We are awarded respect and adulation as a result of being able to say that we accomplished X. But we are rarely patted on the back for the millions of tiny steps which we took to get there. At the end of the day, you are going to spend far more of your life taking those tiny steps than reaping the rewards. So do the math. If you only allow yourself happiness in the moments of triumph, you are dooming yourself to a feeling of chronic failure.

So, what’s the answer? For me, it is to actively recognize not only the big moments in life but also the small ones. It’s easy to feel fortunate when you are standing on a mountain top in a magical location on a day sandwiched between two assignments for one of the biggest companies in the world and in the midst of one of the best overall years of your life. But what about those days when the mountain top is traded in for a seemingly insurmountable valley? What happens when, just twelve months after you stood on that mountain top, the entire world and the industry you love is brought to a shuddering halt by a global pandemic? What gets you through days, weeks, or even years like that?

The secret is to recognize that, even in the darkest of times, amazing things are happening to us every day. Not every win announces itself with a prestigious award or a cash infusion to your bank account. Sometimes the win is simply that you created a work of art that you previously lacked the craft to bring to reality. Sometimes the win is not that you booked a job, but that you have reached a level where your work was in consideration. Sometimes, the win isn’t business-related at all. Sometimes, the win is simply the fact that you got out of bed this morning and continued to fight.

Regardless of what you want from your life, take a moment to cherish what you have. Have a look at all the special people in your life. Not everyone feels that level of love. That is something to be grateful for. So, maybe you didn’t win the most prestigious photo award this year. You are still an artist. You have the talent and the tools to create. You have the power to express your emotions through art. Not everyone can do that. That is something to be grateful for. Have you been down for a while? Does it seem like life is really kicking you in the teeth? Well, if you are reading this, it means that you woke up this morning. And if you can look up, you can get up. That is something to be grateful for.

Focus not on what you don’t have, but on what you do. Recognize that, while we all have struggles, we are also all gifted with the ability to hope.  We all have things we can be grateful for.  Remember those things the next time you feel overwhelmed with temporary struggles. Our successes aren’t permanent. But neither are our struggles. And, in either scenario, we can make a conscious effort to acknowledge the good things. Gratitude helps us weather both the sunshine and the storm. Gratitude helps us see the sun shining, even when it rains. So next time you find yourself standing on a mountain top, or lying in a valley, just remember, it’s a beautiful day.

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Julian Ray's picture

Yet another inspiring and refreshing article Chris. A much needed reminder to enjoy what we have and not waste that gift.
I want write more here but I have to get out there and create! 😀

Christopher Malcolm's picture

We are here to create. Go out and make that art :-)

Christopher Malcolm's picture