Our lives and our art are interconnected. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you can improve one without the other. Sort of like thinking you can spot reduce belly fat in the gym. Most people would love to get rid of a little here or there, but the actual fact is that reducing body fat is a global adjustment. Crunches won’t accomplish anything until you look at your overall diet and fitness from head to toe. A similar realization allowed me to take control not only of my fitness, but my life, and, as a result, my career.
I hated looking at myself in the mirror.
Not so much because of the excess weight, but because of the seeming hopelessness of it all. My once proud athletic frame had now ballooned to nearly twice it’s size. Whereas, I used to dream of getting my weight up to 200 pounds to more easily sustain the impact of onrushing linebackers as I dropped back to pass, just five years later I was struggling to keep my weight beneath 300.
It was a long time coming.
Once my collegiate career had ended, I had quickly found myself a port in the storm. Robbed both of a preset training regimen, as well as my established identity as a athlete, I became rudderless.
Normal twenty-something questions of “Where do I go now” were compounded by the incumbent agonies of adjusting to life in the real world. Like many people, I turned to junk food and candy to salve any wound. Sure I was still “working out.” But there’s a difference between physically going to the gym and actually putting in work.
I lied to myself that sitting stationary on a bench press for an hour, completing maybe a handful of lazy sets was adequate. I lied and said that playing a pickup basketball game once a month was sufficient cardio. And, most of all, I lied to myself in thinking that fast food was actual… food. And that pizza, an entire pizza, was an appropriate dinner choice multiple times a week.
Obviously, as I type these things out now, they all seem so ridiculous. Of course, you’re going to have a weight problem when your biggest healthy choice of the day is selecting Diet Pepsi instead of the regular one. Or even thinking there is such a thing as a healthy soda to begin with.
But we tell ourselves stories to justify our bad habits. And we’re darn convincing.
We can convince ourselves that fast food is actually good for us. We tell ourselves it’s okay to have that extra cupcake, because we “earned it by going to the gym,” knowing full well that a single cupcake has more calories in it than you can burn off in a week of going to the gym. And I would eat five at a time.
We tell ourselves that we’d be better photographers...
..if only we lived in the right city… if only we had a better camera… if only we had the magical marketing gene that everyone else seems to have been born with…
Any of those sound familiar?
I’ve said all of those things at one point in my life. But, like changing my health, nothing changed in my career until I accepted the fact that these stories I was telling myself were pure fantasy. I had to accept that the girth of my waistline was due to my actions, or lack thereof, not some genetic predestination. And my photography career would never really reach the level of my dreams unless I put in the actual work. Not talk about it. Do it.
I wish I could say I turned around either overnight. But, like most stories untold on the silver screen, the truth was a bit more complicated.
I went fifteen years before I finally decided to stop lying to myself and change my diet and start putting in real effort in the gym. I started small. I said I was going to push myself as hard as I could for two weeks and see what happened. That quickly became three weeks. Then four.
For years, people had told me to change what I ate. Some told me to change how often I ate. Some said it was all about how much I ate. I did all three at the same time.
At the end of the first month the weight began to fall off. The success spurred me to push harder and harder. To stick to my new rules for nutrition.
I stopped skipping days at the gym. I took up weekly long distance runs at the beach. First one mile. Then two. A bit more each week until I was regularly in the 14 to 16 mile range. Instead of going to the gym to chat, I went there to work. And, no, I didn’t buy any more donuts as a reward/demolition of the hard work I just put in.
In roughly a year and a half, I lost a total of 83 pounds.
Finally, I could look at myself in the mirror.
But, more important to than that, I begun to dream about what else may be possible if I were to simply stop believing my own stories about why I couldn't make the other dreams in my life come true. I went from being unable to comfortably descend a flight of stairs to winning the local 5K run. So why couldn’t I take control of my career as well? What are the stories I was telling myself about my photography career that were holding me back? And what could I take from the success of my fitness program to bring to my life behind the camera?
As I stood, or more accurately bent over in exhaustion, mid-workout yesterday, I started to think about those lessons. They are endless, but I think there are a few that anyone reading may be able to apply today, so I thought I would share.
There Is No Try, There is Only Do Or Do Not
Yes, I just quoted Yoda.
In fact, I quote him quite often as I attempt to drag my best friend and workout partner kicking and screaming through our daily routine. His constant refrain of “I’ll try…” will undoubtedly be quickly followed by a succession of excuses why he can’t. Well before he’s actually even attempted the exercise. More false stories he tells himself to soften the blow of what he believes will be inevitable defeat.
But with all due respect to what our mothers teach us, mine included, trying is B.S. There is no try. There is only do.
You will lift that weight or you won’t. Don’t make excuses why you’re going to fail. Just go all in.
Either you’re going to put in the work to build your photography business or not. Don’t make excuses why you’re going to fail before you've even gotten started.
There is no try. There is only do.
You Have To Believe Before You Can Achieve
Another phrase I badger my friend with on a daily basis is an even simpler one. If you believe you can do something, you will do it. If you don’t believe you can do it, well, you’re right.
Nothing happens without belief. It may not always seem practical. The odds may be stacked against you. And the obstacles may be real. But you simply have to believe that you will find a way.
If you don't believe in yourself, you’ve lost already.
Repeated Reps Build Muscle
If you want massive biceps, there’s simply no other way to achieve that but through repetition. You lift heavy. You lift a lot. You don’t just do one rep a day, go home and expect results. You have to do it over and over again until the muscle begins to grow.
The same can be said for your photography. You can’t just take a picture once in awhile and expect to grow as an artist. Creative growth also requires repetition. You learn new skills then hone them by using them over and over again until muscle memory persists.
Variety Is The Key To Longevity
Part two with relation to the last point. Once you have established a baseline of strength through repetition, it is then time to diversify your skills.
Yes, if you bench press 300 pounds 25 times every day of your life, you will have massive pecs. You will also, more than likely, be bored as hell. And that boredom will eventually lead you to stop working out.
Once you’ve perfected Rembrandt lighting of a head a shoulders portrait, it’s likely time to try something else. Not that you don’t continue to hone those skills, but you add to them. You continue to grow as an artist. You have a baseline of strength. Now, you want to be able to add to those skills to sustain your career for the long haul.
If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying
People are like sharks. If they aren’t going forward, they are dead in the water.
It’s nice that you can bench press 300 pounds 25 times. Now, it’s time to add weight. It is only through increasing our challenges in life that we move forward. Decreasing our effort or keeping the status quo may be tempting, and certainly easier, but it doesn’t lead to growth.
You’ve probably even seen this in your own workout. You do an exercise that is, at first, incredibly difficult. Impossible even. But since we know that nothing is impossible, you eventually work hard enough to be able to accomplish it. No sweat. But then what? Suddenly, you realize that your muscles are no longer growing. You’ve hit a plateau. Well, that’s when it’s time to take things up a notch.
There’s No Such Thing As A Day Off
Before you say it, yes, there are such things as planned rest days that actually aid in muscle growth. Similar to taking a day or two away from your photography to reflect on where you are in your business or creatively.
But to succeed, one cannot simply workout only when you feel like it. There will inevitably be days when you get to the gym and your knees hurt, your back hurts, your legs are sore. Or, in the case of people like myself of a certain age, all three simultaneously.
But a champion is the one who pushes through the pain.
When you see someone who has really excelled in their field, excelling day in and day out, it is easy to assume that they are doing so simply because it is easy for them. Sure they can put in killer workouts every day. Their bodies don’t ache the way yours does. They are younger than you. Or they are more athletically gifted.
Regardless of how it may appear from the outside, everyone has their aches and pains. Everyone is born with shortcomings. Everyone can be at a disadvantage from a particular point of view. But real winners push through that pain and don’t accept it as an excuse. They believe in themselves. They believe in the work. And they are not going to let the pain stop them. It doesn’t mean the pain doesn’t exist.
Successful photographers push through the obstacles and the days they just don’t feel up to it and put in those cold calls anyway. Every day. Not because it’s easy, but because, in a world with endless competition, that is what it takes to succeed.
Don't Compare Yourself To Other's Success
Now, let me make it clear. I am not, nor do I envision myself to be, an athletic god. Yes, I think I'm in good shape... for a middle aged balding photographer. Compared to a superstar athlete? Yeah, okay probably not. Well, definitely not. But, then again, that's not the point.
The point is to be the best that I can be. I can't control, nor would I want to control, anyone but me. My goal in life is to get the best out of myself that I can. So the only relevant measuring stick is whether or not I am doing the best that I can. Can I increase from ten miles to eleven when I go for a run? Other people may increase from twenty five to twenty six. Yet another may only increase one to two. All three accomplishments are significant.
I also want to make special mention that my objective is in no way to say that everyone should lose weight. That just happened to be my particular cross to bear. It was important to me. And a useful metaphor which has helped propel me in other parts of my life.
Perhaps your goal is to gain weight. Perhaps your goal is to simply be a better chef. To learn another language. To be a better father.
And I'm guessing you share my own goal of constantly being a better photographer. Not comparing your success to the success of another photographer. Not comparing number of publications or day rates. Not comparing who he's shot verses who you've shot.
Instead, focus on your own development. Are you a getting better at your craft than you were yesterday? If so, you know you're on the right track.
It’s Nice To Look Good In The Gym, But It’s What Your Do When No One Is Watching That Will Set You Apart
One of the reasons we can lie to ourselves and believe that successful people are simply more privileged than us, is that we tend to only see the end result.
Yes, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time (sorry LeBron fans). Yes, he is 6 foot 6 inches. But there are a lot of even taller people in the world that don’t go on to be The Greatest of All Time.
So why is he different?
It is no secret that Michael Jordan, yes, that one, was cut from his high school basketball team. It’s part of his lore as well as one of the most questionable personnel decisions since the Trail Blazers took Sam Bowie ahead of him in the 1984 draft.
What is lesser known is that the morning after he was cut from the team, he was in the gym at four in the morning, practicing to get better. He was also in the gym the following morning, and the one after that.
He worked so hard on his game that when he came back the next year, there was no way the coach could deny him a place.
But, even then, there was no room for complacency. Once he earned his spot, he continued to put in the hours before the school bell rang. This continued through college. Into the pros. Perhaps the hour of the workout changed, but the work ethic did not. He knew that he had no control over the number of 6 foot 6 shooting guards there were in the world. The one thing he could do is make sure he was working harder than every single one of them.
As fellow G.O.A.T. Muhammed Ali once said...
The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.
It’s those endless test shoots you do that no one will ever see. It’s when you set up that mannequin in the garage and spend hours practicing your lighting. It’s when you dedicate hours upon hours, without being paid, to simply get better.
Those moments when nobody is watching but you, those are the moments you become a great photographer.
Hard Work Does Pay Off
The most important thing I learned from my weight transformation is universal. Hard work does pay off.
It may not be overnight. Success is very rarely a straight line and there WILL BE setbacks along the way. It may not even be obvious to you at the time that you are even making any progress at all.
But if you continue to believe, if you continue to put in the work, not the lip service, but the real hard work necessary to succeed, and you don’t let anything or anyone (including yourself) stand in your way, you can make your dream come true.