The Most Motivational Thing I've Ever Heard

The Most Motivational Thing I've Ever Heard

Although it would seem like common sense, proper motivation is key toward not only getting things done, but getting things done well. This is true in any creative field and this is especially true, it seems, in the over-saturated everybody-with-a-camera-is-a-photographer world we live in.

If I’ve learned anything over the last several years, it’s that our levels of motivation can be affected - both positively and negatively - by just about anything anyone says regardless of how small and/or how seemingly insignificant a comment may be, regardless of how tough an exterior we try to build up. That being the case, it’s important to remember that regardless of what our end goal might be in all this (hobbyist, weekend warrior, working pro), it’s important to remember that unless you surround yourself with positive, hard-working and like-minded peers, there is a good chance that you’re going to continually face an upward struggle when trying to reach your goals.


About a year ago, I stopped in to visit a high school guidance counselor friend of mine.  As we stood there talking about the details of our upcoming weekends, I overheard the counselor in the next cubical talking to someone, a student presumably, about their future plans after graduation. The squeak of a chair and the heavy ‘thud-thud’ of patent leather on metal gave me all the imagery I needed; the counselor had his feet up on the desk (and, I imagined, his arms most likely crossed behind his head). I listened as intently as I could, suddenly reminded to a time when my school counselors tried to dissuade me from all the fun things in life as well.

A few moments later, my friend excused himself leaving me alone in the office. As much as I tried not to eavesdrop on the conversation in the next cube, the counselor’s voice was loud enough that I (nor anyone else in the general vicinity) couldn’t help but to listen.

The student briefly explained to the counselor what she wanted to do, where she wanted to go, and all the things she wanted to experience in life. There were, to be honest, some pretty admirable, if not lofty, goals. The office got quiet for a moment, then the counselor’s voice carried over the cube wall. In a few moments he had systematically deconstructed each and every goal that the student had, and instead, tried to put her on the fast path toward mediocrity. “I know you think that’s what you want to do,” He said, “ but truthfully, when it comes to stuff like that, most people never make it.”

In an instant I was brought back to my own experience with counselors, friends, and adults, all of whom seemed to take a certain weird joy in telling young creatives to give up on their dream. And, to be honest, after a while it wasn’t much of a shock hearing an adult pick apart and crushing dreams, I mean, that’s what adults do, right?

At that moment, my friend returned to his office, we left for lunch, and I didn’t get hear the rest of the conversation. As we ate lunch, I couldn’t help but imagine the student sitting there, mouth agape, wondering why someone would suck all the fun out of life before it really began.


As I was driving home from an Fstoppers-related trip to San Francisco to review the new Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art lens a few weeks ago, the memory of the counselor and his de-motivational speech came back to me. While I don’t, in any way, consider myself as having “made it” I do feel as though I am at least on the right path (fingers crossed). As the night wore on, the thoughts of how far I’ve come mixed with the thoughts of how far I’ve yet to go. With the easy part being over, the next part of the road ahead toward “making it” in a professional sense looks to be even more difficult and almost completely uphill. Where I could once rely on help and advice from friends and peers, the rest, actually making that leap from one stage to another is now completely up to me. The decision of making it or giving up is in my hands, so to speak. Suddenly, in a wave of panic, I had the thought that giving up on this crazy creative photography dream would be so easy.

So that night, somewhere between San Francisco and San Diego, a realization came over me; that counselor was completely right; most people don’t ever make it. For a multitude of reasons, the rule seems to be that we do what we want until life kicks in and then…and then what? And then we stop doing what we want and instead do what we have to. In short, most of us don’t ever make it.

I won’t argue with anyone’s reasons for giving up on their dream and I’m certainly not here to judge. But, as I was driving, I tried to come up with a list of reasons why we’re so easily convinced to give up one dream and settle something just because it’s more easily-accessible? Or more socially acceptable? john-schell-lifestyle-sigma-art-lens-hollyparker-san-francisco-canon

What started as a short list quickly blossomed into a multi-page essay on giving up, giving in, and striving for what we want. Rather than that, I’ve included just the list.

We Lack Self-Confidence. 

We Listen to Our Detractors. 

We Settle for Less.

We Accept the Status Quo as the Norm.

We Allow Boredom to Set in.

We Don’t Realize That Some Boredom Comes With the Territory.

We’re Afraid of Commitment / Hard Work.

We’re Afraid of What Others Thinks.

We’re More Afraid of Success Than of Failure.

We Buy Into The “Traditional Route”

Our Personal Definition of Success is Based on Someone Else’s Definition.

We Refuse to Believe That yes, it can happen to us.

We Have a Built-in Fear of Sharing / Contributing.

We Grow Up. 

I should say here that by no means do I think this list is all-inclusive. In fact, I’m sure I am missing some rather huge reasons for why "most people never make it," and I'm sure that I continue on, this list will grow and change and evolve from it's current work. So for right now, for better or worse, it’s the list I'm going with. It's also list I keep in mind to help me overcome the daily battle against the notion that giving up and settling for less is far easier and much more attractive than putting in the amount of work it takes to "make it." 

If you’ve got a spare couple of moments, I would love to read some personal experiences of how you attempt - or have attempted - to push yourself through to the next level, especially against such seemingly impossible odds. john-schell-lifestyle-sigma-art-lens-holly-parker-san-francisco

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Model: Holly Parker | Instagram

Thanks for reading,


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Great post, John. I need to think about this a little more (which I suppose is the sign of great writing :) ).

John I saw your Sigma 50 post a few weeks back and the photos you took were amazing. I just got into photography in December so I have been putting all the camera blogs in my RSS feeds. Needless to say your shots made me want to become better at what I do and made me put that lens in my list of things to get. I agree that most people unless they stay positive and surround themselves with people they admire or challenge them probably won't get better. That doesn't mean we don't succeed it just means we hit a wall.
You are an amazing photographer and have a fan in me. Keep positive and know you are reaching people.

John White's picture

Awesome post! One of my favorite reads so far

John Schell's picture

Thanks, Buddy!

The one thing I learned in life is to not be anybodies dream killer. I try very hard not to do this. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail. Let the people dream, let them aspire to be, let them dream big, life will kill any of those all on it's own, I don't need to do it for them. When I submitted my video for your contest, I had a dream. I wanted to attend the workshop I knew I could not attend any other way, but I also have a family of 7. That's a lot of people to leave for that many days in order to fulfill that dream. So I started with the most important person it would affect, my husband. He is the person who brings home the money in our home and his hard work ethic is one that is rare now a days. I wasn't sure how he would feel about the whole thing, but he didn't say one negative thing. In fact, he said, it will be hard, but our boys are older now and can be by themselves for a few days until I get home from work. Submit your video. He could have easily told me there is no way I would have won, that it would be too much of a hardship on our family, or that it's really only a hobby for me and not really a profession. He didn't. He knew that the most important thing to do would be to support my dreams, in any way he could, that life would take care of the rest and kill that dream all on it's own and because of that, I submitted my video. In this whole process, I learned that a lot of other people were supporting my dream of becoming better at photography, as well. Through their comments on my video, they showed me that they saw my hard work, determination, and a zest for what I am doing. They too, were dream lifters and not dream killers. Even though I was not the winner, I still have a determination, drive, and desire to become better at what I am doing. I believe I have something to offer the world, and even if only 10% of the world sees that offering, it's enough. My drive will remain full speed, my determination will remain constant and steady, and my desire to always become better will never die. My dreams will mold and become different with each new experience I have. While one door may have been shut yesterday, I know that another one will open up in the future where I can continue my passion of capturing the True Soul and Deep Beauty of a person and bringing it to life through the tiny lens on the end of my camera. My dream of lifting one soul up at a time, letting them see how much beauty they have inside of themselves and watching them transform as they believe that of themselves. It's like watching a slow budding flower open up over time and being in awe of the beauty that is in front of you. Each and every person has that in them, no matter who they are. Some of them have forgotten it or have never seen it in themselves. From my favorite story of all time, The Little Prince by Antione de Saint Exupery, "'What makes the desert beautiful', says the little prince, 'is that somewhere it hides a well.'" THAT is my dream.

Great read so far, John, good work.
However (God, I just loooove this word...) I wish you had expounded a bit more on the subject of "it".
Makin "It".
What is "it"?
Since most people, in our hemisphere at least, are going about with a job, aroof over their head, a bed to their own and some food in their belly and prossibly even a family to their name, the subject of "it" becomes subjective. You may ask a number of people elsewhere on this planet,
Or is "it" winninng the lottery, or havinng the museum take down its Avedon collection to make room for your stuff?
Whatever it is, it is different for everyone.
Still, it is the youth's prerogrative to explore and test themselves. To ruffle their feathers. To best their parents at their own game, otherwise the human race wouldn't improve at all.
So it's ok to go and try, and then maybe settle for a lesser dream than you had originally set out for.
As the saying goes:
Aim for the stars, and you may reach the top of the trees.
But if you aim for the trees, your feet may never leave the ground.

"It" is living authentically as who you are and not who others impose upon you.

Well, If you don't feel successful then I have definitely got a looong journey ahead, way further than you mr Schell, I would kill to be in your shoes :P I must be honest though, I'm not too sure where I would like to see myself. It's hard to decide with so many amazing career options..

Everyday things happen and I think to myself, am I really meant to be doing this, putting all my blood, sweat and tears into becoming a photographer. It seems like life just keeps kicking me in the nuts! No matter what I have to fight through the days with no money or inspiration, just pick up the pieces and go shoot more. I realize, there's actually nothing else I can see myself doing in this world, it scares me. I think that makes the whole situation more difficult, knowing that if I don't succeed I will be left floating in the world aimlessly, knowing that I'm not fulfilling my purpose. It makes me push myself as hard as possible every time if hit that shutter, it also makes me extremely hard on myself. The biggest challenge I have had the past few years is trying to find a photographer who will let me assist them, I have asked so many... And yet non will have me. It sucks. I guess I will just continue to learn things the hard way on my own and hopefully one day I will get to a place where I can be free and happy.. I think that's where the real magic will happen. Next stop , who the hell knows!

Lauren Parker's picture

It seems to me that all the iconic photographers were so motivated and passionate about their work that they couldn't stand to do anything else with their life. Even Richard Avedon (or it was commentary on him) said that if it weren't for him demanding that people paid attention to him and his work, it would be likely that he would have never become one of the most prominent fashion photographers of all time. He demanded attention because there was nothing more he wanted to do in life.

You might want to add "We put our dreams on hold for someone else." I'm sure there are a lot of people who would be fine to take the risks necessary to follow their dream if they weren't more concerned about their family or friend's well being than their own.

Happiness should be your end goal. Too often our dreams are too finite and reward driven. It should be real happiness that is sustained. You need to be honest with yourself about what makes you happy. It's cliche' but the journey is all that matters. The destination, be it a job, a title, an accomplishment, status, or wealth are nothing but short lived rewards. There will never be a time, where you will say, "I can die now. I've done x" By then, you'll be infatuated with "y".

If you want to do extraordinary things, you need to avoid ordinary things. If you like ordinary things, great! Don't beat yourself up. There are small miracles all around us. Embrace yourself and stand behind your choices. You'd be surprised the world that opens up to you when you let yourself be happy.

James Nedresky's picture

Exactly! In the end, it's all that will matter. The last paragraph really sums it up. Too bad that school and western culture don't put more stress on this, earlier.

Greg T's picture

You contradict yourself in indicating "happiness" to be the "end goal" and then declaring the "journey [to be] all that matters" (even while I realize you're comparing two separate things). what's cliché is parroting staid "motivational" quotes and inflecting them with mixed parables and metaphors.

Thank you

Graham Glover's picture

Six days ago I started my own company. Square Photo LLC. Fashion photographer. Some would say the odds are against me. I'm nearly 60 y.o. (I'm still alive.) I'm no where near a real fashion center. (I'm making one.) I have no time. (Sleep is overrated.) I have trouble getting models. (Two are booked in the queue.) The chances of me "making it" are slim. (The chances of me making it are infinitely larger than if I didn't try.) Isn't life fun!

@mathogre:disqus , this reply is every bit as inspirational and thought-provoking as this wonderful article (that has said so much to me)!! Thank you so much for posting. I will look for your website.


John Schell's picture

Good for you, Graham! Best of luck and please keep us updated!

Graham Glover's picture

I will. Thank you!

"The chances of me making it are infinitely larger than if I didn't try." <-------Pretty much sums it up.

Greg T's picture

...and you obviously had the capital, nevertheless, to take this risk, and presumably at a time in your life when you are "taking it easy", amirite? Real applicable comparison for the average teenager growing up in arch-neoliberal-era America, dude, thanks.

Graham Glover's picture

"Taking it easy!" Yes. That's what it is. You got it! Full time engineering job where mistakes are not tolerated, family with kid, volunteer activities outside of work (on the order of hundreds of hours a year), and somehow having the chance to finally pursue a dream, putting in the hours and the work to make this happen. You're welcome, Dude. Piece o' cake, just cruising along.

Hand me another bon-bon, please. :D

Greg T's picture

Actually, I was merely extrapolating circumstances from the information given, a not-unjust thing to do when a sextogenarian on the internet propounds his love for, and intent to 'make it', in extracurricular photography after what sounds to be a rewarding career. But the implication of what you're saying is clear: all it takes is "hard work" to "make it" (!!) and yet you've *already "made it"*—do you see the fallacy of this "wisdom"? You are already financially-secure and you expect the observations from your life-experiences to be intrinsically universally-valid for all. Consider an industry where magazines, newspapers, and even hired wedding photographers are all on the decline, while at the same the saturation of high-quality imaging reaches an all-time high: see a problem?

Well done, Graham! You keep pushing it!

I don't think that I've "made it" as a working creative professional. I think that i'm just stealing someone else's time and if that's the case i try to enjoy making a living with pictures as best as I can. I waited 5 years between dropping out of school and just working dead end jobs until my ex just told me to try. Since that day I haven't looked back. Sure I've had some missteps on the way, had to swallow my pride when things got really rough and sell-a-marketed but I wouldn't stop doing this. I don't know how I would be able to live a life without obsessing over how to get a better image, how to be better. The joke of it all is that nobody didn't tell me that I couldn't do this, there wasnt any great gatekeeper, I just made a choice and kept pushing as hard as I could.

So, I've been in and around photography for 10/12 start with nothing of any particular interest other than it was fun. Then 4 years ago I began to take it more seriously. I worked freelance alongside another job, then I moved in-house for a fashion label for 2years and then 7months ago I was made redundant from that position. I did the only thing I vaguely knew how, I went 100% freelance. Weeks into being freelance my girlfriends parents said

"How is it going being unemployed?"
I replied "I'm freelancing now, I'm self employed not unemployed"
Sharply she said "yeah, but its the same thing isn't it"

That was possibly the lowest I've ever felt, but I also took away from that some positivity. Yes, technically I'm unemployed until my next job but that doesn't stop me from progressing myself and my business.

Then my own mother said 'yes, but what about when it doesnt work out. What then?"

To me, there isnt a what next...I learned to understand that these naysayers arent TRYING to put us off our goals, they simply dont understand it or comprehend how it works.

To them work is 9-5 Monday to Friday and knowing when payday is, but to us it's completely different. Theres no one kicking our asses, we have to do that. There's no one sorting out any business problems, we have to do that. Theres no one telling us what to do and when to do it....we have to do that.

Freelance makes sense to some, and to others its completely baffling.

This response is so well written! I am about to graduate college and want to pursue photography as a career, but I know that many people, including my own parents have their "doubts" about making it as a photographer. Whether it be freelance, working with a fashion label like yourself, or shooting for some company. Freelance is the toughest because, like you said, you get paid by finding work - and sometimes work can come in bunches or have weekly/monthly gaps. There's a lot of uncertainty in a profession such as photography unless you have "made it" and you are pulling money in regularly. I think that's what makes it enjoyable, though. Kicking yourself in the ass going out and finding work to make a living. To me, that is the thrill of it. Best of luck to you, my friend! Sounds like you are well on your way. Thanks for the inspirational post!

There is no security in a life where others hold your future at their whim. I say good for you. If freelance is what feels right and authentic, you can thrive by pushing it hard. Your belief in that path will give you the energy required to make it happen.

Every day is a struggle to do something new. I left a corporate job to take care of my son, thinking I was hanging up my creative spurs forever. I started doing Poptent commercial contests as a way to occupy my imagination, with no knowledge of how to work a camera, light, etc. With every project, I push myself to learn a new style or try something new stylistically. Engaging myself in a challenging way helps me enjoy being a stay at home dad more, because I'm not just the family babysitter. I have an active, living creative life that is amplified by my domestic duties, and vice versa. Despite competition from hundreds of other commercial filmmakers, I sold five commercial spots to major national brands in my first year of work (Popsicle, Western Union, etc.)This all started as a way to goof off. I'm still goofing off. But I'm pouring my energy into focusing my goofiness into a professional direction, and so far, I'm pleased with the results.

About one year ago I decided that I was not going to settle with anything else than becoming a successful photographer. I've been told over and over again by people of influence that it's too hard and only a few people make it. People who haven't even seen my pictures or have any idea what I know about driving a business. They just assume that I am one of those dudes with a camera who is going through an entrepreneurial seizure and is going to fail miserably when I actually throw myself out there. At first I got discouraged, but now I don't see it like that anymore. Now it energizes me and motivates me because I know how satisfying it's going to be proving them wrong.

The last year I've spent a lot of my spare time reading up on how to drive a business and I am at the moment studying business economics at one the finest universities in Sweden and within a year I am going to start my own photography business and I am going to succeed.