If you do something for more than 40 years, chances are, you’ll learn a thing or two about it. In the field of photography, that counts in spades. No matter how much time I spend behind a camera, no matter how well I am doing in my career, I find myself always learning. And it’s in that learning that I personally find joy. Note I didn’t say happiness. Happiness is transactional – joy is a state of mind that you can live in permanently. More on that in a minute…
When you start your photographic journey, you look up at a ladder. This ladder has 10 steps. If you’re serious and passionate about your photography, if it brings you joy – you will apply yourself and you’ll find that in the first couple of years you can easily climb the first seven or eight steps. Add another year or two and you can get to the ninth step. But that 10th step. . . well that one is harder. I have spent more than 35 years trying to go from step nine to ten and I have to admit, the closest I’ve come to making that 10th step is to get my toe on it a time or two.
You see just when I think I am about to take that final step – to really become a master of photography, I find something else to learn – something else I need to practice or perfect.
In short – we never stop learning – as long as we’re willing.
And this is the main key to finding joy as a photographer. If you decide that you know it all, that you’ve learned everything there is to learn, then you will not be joyful and you will certainly not become happy. You cannot be. Because the only way to truly be joyful in your photography is to continue that stage of constant discovery and wonderment and child-like curiosity about this incredible medium that allows us to capture moments in time and preserve them for all of eternity.
If your photographic goals are tied to achievements, you have set yourself up for failure. Why? Because as you reach each new goal, you have to set another. First it’s to place in a photo contest – then it’s to win the contest – then it’s to place in a bigger contest and win in that contest – then it’s to get published – then it’s to get published again – then it’s to get paid for a picture and then it’s to get paid MORE for a picture and and and and and and – you see where this is going. If you’re always chasing a goal – then you have no time to experience the joy that comes with just being.
If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you have heard me talk about Shoshin (初心) which is a word from Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind.” It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.
The secret to photographic joy is to approach each day like it’s a chance to learn something new. Resist the notion that you are done and embrace the notion that you are just getting started.
As for myself, when I look at my work from five years ago – I think wow – I wasn’t nearly as good as I am today. I expect to feel the same way in five more years. Why? Because I intend to spend those years trying to maybe get more than my toe up on that 10th step on the ladder. I will constantly be in pursuit of more knowledge. That pursuit – knowing that I am just on a constant path of improvement – by following that I am doing EXACTLY what I was meant to do. And that is where joy comes from.
Because I am old, and therefore I am very experienced, I find myself feeling secure in the quality of my photography. I have even received many accolades. I count myself fortunate in that regard. But I approach each photographic opportunity as an underdog – a newbie – a guy that most people do not think can get the job done. I stay hungry and determined and I try to learn everything I possibly can about every single opportunity I face. It is here where I find joy. Maybe this will work for you too?
My advice is simple. Don’t chase money or fame or power or position – simply spend more time growing and learning and BEING in the spot where you are supposed to be – doing that which you are supposed to do and all the stuff that you really need to bring you joy.
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