As a self-employed editorial photographer, I tend to work in isolation. As a self-directed stock photographer with less and less assignment work, I need to keep motivated so I can move my work and career forward. One of the real joys of blogging and workshop teaching is that both of those do an excellent job of counterbalancing that isolation and keeping me motivated. I never really thought about this situation in those terms (or really much at all,) until someone wrote me with a question about isolation and momentum.
I have been self-employed for almost twenty-five years so I am pretty comfortable with the relative isolation of being a solo practitioner. For most of that time, I had plenty of paying work coming in and my career was moving forward pretty clearly, so I never lacked for motivation. In the last five years, like so much in the world of photography, things have changed. I am aware of the change, but a note from a friend prompted me to think about, and write out, what I regularly do in order to keep motivated in this ever more difficult photography market.
The questions came to me as:
“Can I ask you a question – how do you keep your momentum? As someone running this on my own, I’m still finding the “perfect niche” and I’m at a point where I’m losing momentum! “
My first reaction was, “that’s a great question!” Then I started jotting down thoughts about that exact question. Many of the strategies I use to keep my forward momentum were learned along the way over the last twenty-five years. Some have been learned the hard way. Others have been things I picked up from other self-employed professionals. In no particular order:
– Break each project down into small parts. Almost any project can be look like a monstrous undertaking if you look only at the big picture, so I usually set small goals for myself. Teaching has forced me to take the information that I already “know” and break it down into more manageable and understandable bits.
– Reward yourself when you accomplish something. I do this daily, usually with small rewards. Lunch is a small reward. An afternoon walk to get a coffee and read the newspaper is a bigger reward. In my blogging, when readers comment on something that I have written it means a lot to me. That is because for each person who comments there are dozens of others who had similar reaction, but did not take the time to write.
– Understand your own working process. For the first two hours that I am awake I can do nothing that requires deep, writing-based concentration. I can edit images when I wake up but I never blog or answer e-mails until I am fully awake. Also, in both blogging and teaching, I do not like to improvise too much so I tend to get things organized pretty far in advance.
– Know when to say “no.” I turn down many “opportunities” because they do not look like they will have any substantial return on my investment of time and energy. I used to blog twice a week and I found that too stressful, so I cut back to once a week. I am pretty clear that I write better blog entries because I am under much less stress.
– Know when to be generous. Giving something back to my community, peers or friends can be very rewarding, so that benefit goes into the calculation of when to be generous.
– Know when to be selfish. Some of the people who want things from me that I suspect will be bad returns on my investment of labor and time are usually asking me from the position of having a paid job (where they do not necessarily make that kind of calculation.)
– Know when to look at the big picture. As much as I love certain projects that I have created, at some point they are not getting me the return on my investment and I have to cut those off. It is very painful, but doing work that I know is a waste of time is the most de-motivating thing of all.
– Seek out and enjoy external validation. Publicly marked accomplishments, like my being featured in Photo District News as one of “The Best Workshop Instructors” certainly has its rewards. That will keep me motivated for a long time to come.
– Keep external validation in perspective. I was nominated for the Santa Fe Center’s photography teaching award a few times by students who valued my work as a teacher. Despite their earnest nominations and a teaching practice that won me the PDN award, I have been routinely rejected for that award with the most generic (even insulting) form letters.
– Seek out guidance from others. My blog and my own photography website are continually being refined based on feedback I get from people I know as well as from people who write me out of the blue. Knowing when to listen and when to ignore them is the real “art.”
– Constantly look for ancillary benefits. A guest blog entry for another site is of limited value to me, unless I can have plenty of links within that blog entry sending readers back to my site. The blogs that I write for B+H Insights are the perfect example of this. Another example of ancillary benefits is when I turn questions that I know I want to answer anyway, like the one that triggered this blog, into something of value for the questioner AND for myself in the form of a blog entry.
– Revel in your successes but know how fleeting they are. When I am doing the best part of my job, whether on a great shoot or reading about myself in PDN, I say to myself “Enjoy this moment. Remember this feeling. Hold onto it for when things are not going as well.” Similarly, a really happy student gives me a charge at the end of a class, which can last for days.
– Accept your disappointments and focus on how fleeting they are. As a self-employed photographer, I get rejected for a living. I literally let it roll of me like rain, because I know, based on my past experience that something good will happen soon enough. An unhappy student is usually a good source of constructive criticism, so I embrace their input, unless their comments are so far removed from the reality of the class that I take it in, consider it thoroughly but do not let it drag me down.
Looking back on this list, I am pretty sure that few if any of these are unique to photographers. I am guessing that most of these ideas work well for anyone who needs to keep their momentum going. A paycheck, from an external source, such as an employer, can be pretty obvious motivation. Whether that motivation is as deep or as substantial as the motivation that drives someone to struggle through the peaks and valleys of self-employment, that is another question.