“There are so many people that use ‘following your dreams’ as an excuse to not work,” he said. “When in reality, following your dreams, successfully, is nothing but work.” – Brandon Stanton
How to stay motivated and on the right track to living your dreams.
After seven years of working in an operating room and one year in a call center of a hospital, this past June I jumped into the wonderful world of being my own boss. I am now running my own business and a successful nonprofit traveling workshop tour. I have never felt a freedom like this before and I hope for it to continue. To say I’ve been busy the last four years of my photography career is an understatement. I started photography in June of 2010 and I haven’t had much free time since. But it’s never felt like work. Sure, I would feel tired, burnt out, and run down. But I was also working forty to sixty hours in the operating room and coming home and working another forty hours a week on my photography business. I was juggling clients, deadlines, and getting enough sleep to function during my ten hour shifts in the operating room. The last two years especially I had two jobs, my own business, and a nonprofit workshop tour to plan and run. Eighty hour work weeks were a common experience. I very rarely went out. My social life was abysmal. When I wasn’t working I was sleeping. But that was okay. Your dreams don’t work unless you do. And I knew what I wanted my life to be like and I knew it would take a lot of hard work and sacrifice to make it happen.
If you are not living your dream, you will end up living the 9 – 5 of someone else’s.
There is a common misconception that a lot of success is lucky breaks and stumbling upon opportunity. You don’t wake up and suddenly you have a career. I wish it was that easy. It is not easy. If anyone tells you it is that easy they are lying. Living your dream is long hours. It is no vacations. It is learning how to run a business with no experience. It is laying the ground work for success. It is marketing until you are tired of hearing your own name. It is learning more about yourself and your work ethic than you could ever imagine. It is staying passionate and inspired among self doubt. It is trying to find balance. It is sacrifice. It is constant worry. I would go to work miserable. All I wanted to do was go home and work on my own business. I would wake up so bitter that I had to go to my 9 – 5 and work on someone else’s dream when all I wanted to do is work on my own. I was dejected and depressed trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. I wanted what I wanted now. I had no patience to build the foundation to earn a living at what I love. I was burnt out trying to manage it all. But we all have to do what we have to do to pay the bills and for me that meant putting my business and photography aside.
It doesn’t happen over night. But if you keep at it and keep working I promise you it will. You CAN live your dreams. The last two years have been wonderful regardless of it’s struggles and the fruits of my labor have been starting to pay off. I’ve traveled over 28,000 miles. I’ve been on book covers and magazines internationally. I’ve cohosted twenty two workshops. I’ve made wonderful friends and helped build an incredible community. Now that I am a full time photographer I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the past and what kept me sane and motivated to keep trudging up that hill on those long sixteen hour work days when all I wanted to do was give up.
Learn how to say yes. Take risks. Take chances. Take jobs you might not have ever thought you would. Shoot large charity events. Shoot marketing campaigns. Second shoot for another photographer. Intern for a local studio. Step outside of your comfort zone and absorb as much knowledge as you can. Every yes said is an opportunity to market yourself, your business, and learn. When you are starting out and trying to build your name, this is crucial. Run contests. Do giveaways. Submit to magazines. Upload your work to stock agencies. Write to local modeling agencies asking to test shoot. Do what you need to do to build your brand.
Learn how to say no. To unpaid work that is not fulfilling, does not further your career, or aid in marketing. Time is precious but not every trade for trade is going to be worth it. Learn to say no to work being used for “credit”. Learn to say no to unpaid client shoots. You deserve to be paid for your work and time and “credit” doesn’t pay the bills. Learn what you are worth and stick to it. Don’t undersell your ability and time. Don’t let yourself be taken advantage of.
Find a support system. Join a photography club. Go to a photography meet up. Join local photography groups on Facebook. I cannot begin to tell you how useful and comforting it is to talk with people in the exact same spot as you who understand the struggles and triumphs.
Eliminate distraction. Deactivate your Facebook. Put a block on it. Turn the TV off. Get off of Reddit and Tumblr. Eliminate anything that will cause you to procrastinate.
Create a schedule. And stick to it. When I’m not on the road having a schedule is such an important part of staying motivated. To function I need my days planned out and routine. Wake up. Have breakfast. Thirty minutes for emails. An hour for editing. An hour for backing up files. Lunch. Time for TV and goofing off on the internet. Blogs posts and creative writing. When you keep a schedule and stick to it, you are never guessing on what needs to be done.
Stay organized. I create lists. I get a lot more work done when I have lists because I find it utterly satisfying to be able to cross things off of it. Even on the road I create a daily list of all the things that need to be accomplished that day. If it’s not accomplished that day I move it to the next day until it is done. It eliminates the inevitable forgetfulness and holds me accountable to myself if I do not do what I need to get done.
Reward yourself. Every one loves a nice present. Even if you give it to yourself. Everyone loves having something to work for. So along with my daily goals and lists, I give myself little treats. If I answer all my emails, I’ll take myself on a nice walk. If I edit all of my client photos, I’ll allow myself time to take a bath. It’s the little life joys that keep you going and motivated. Treat yourself.
Create your own opportunities. My very first photography dream was to be on a book cover. I spent most of my teenage years reading. When I had to donate my book hoard I had collected the last decade of my life, it was nearly four hundred books I had somehow managed to cram into my apartment. It was my dream but I wasn’t quite sure where to start so I wrote to just about every publishing company on the planet with links to my portfolio and the question of, “How? How do I get my photo on a book cover?” Most publishers never replied. But the ones that did, all said the same thing. Join a stock agency. So I did. I found one that was right for me and gave it a go. I’ve now been on over thirty covers internationally. And now that my social media has grown, opportunities have been finding me. If opportunities are not coming to you. Create them. Write to companies asking to shoot intern on their next campaign. Write to local business asking if they need any photo work done. Don’t be afraid to ask. The worst anyone can say is no, and then you still won’t be out anything.
Do the hard work first. If you get the tedious time consuming parts of running your business out of the way early, it’s all upkeep. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done is legally create The Wild Ones Workshop Tour into a nonprofit organization. I had never run a nonprofit. I had no experience or connections with anyone who had. I went in blindly trying to grasp at a way to make it work. The paperwork alone took me four months. I spent months researching and planning. I had weekly conference calls with lawyers, sponsors, and accountants. Anyone at all who could help me push the nonprofit forward I would get in contact with. But once it was done, it was done. Register your business. Keep your Cv’s and resumes up to date. Create the ground work for expense reports and excel spreadsheets so all you have to do is keep adding receipts to your reports for tax purposes. If you do the ground work, it’s only upkeep.
Learn how to ask for help. And in that, learn how to accept help. If someone has offered to share the burden, let them. I remember last year I was at a point in my life where I was so exhausted and busy I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Something came up at work and I hadn’t had a day off in three months. My business was suffering. I was suffering. And my darling wonderful twin sister stepped in and asked what she could do to help. She offered to keep track of my receipts from the last year and organize them so all I needed to do was upkeep. If someone wants to help, let them.
Change your definition of success. Success is not always big clients, big jobs, and big paychecks and if you define your success by that alone you’ll always be disappointed chasing after the next high. Success is not the number of followers you have. It is not the number of likes on a post. Success is getting out of bed every day and having the freedom to do what you love. Success is answering all your emails in one day. Success is being able to go outside and shoot a new concept. Success is being able to travel and love and laugh with friends. Success is how YOU define it. You are as successful as you imagine yourself to be.
Don’t compare your achievements to the success of others. Your journey is your journey and theirs is theirs. There is enough success out there for everyone, including yourself. Have patience, work hard, and good things will happen to you. If you are always comparing yourself to others, you will always feel inadequate. Don’t sell yourself short. Be excited for your own achievements.
You will have to make sacrifices. When my friends were going out to parties, I was at home editing photos. When my coworkers were asleep getting rest for their 5am wakeup call, I was answering my emails after a long day at work. I’ve spent days outside in the cold in knee deep snow trying to get the perfect shot. I’ve gone out alone at midnight to test out new concepts. I’ve sacrificed sleep. I’ve sacrificed money to set up locations and styles for shoots. I’ve put my life on hold for six months to travel North America hosting workshops. I’ve given up my apartment, sold all of my possessions, and the comfort of my full time job and steady income all to live my dreams. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. It has all gotten me to where I am today and I’m proud to say I love my life and what it has become. I love living minimally. I love living out of a van and traveling with my best friends. I love hosting workshops and meeting new people. You have to take risks.
Have patience. It is not going to happen overnight. It might not happen this year or the next or the next. It takes time to build up your name, brand, and reputation. The more work you put into it, over time, the more opportunities will come your way. Keep plugging away at it. Keep building your portfolio. Keep challenging yourself. Keep going. I even got myself tattooed as a reminder.
Don’t give up. Running a business is a hard often seemingly impossible uphill climb. Some days you just can’t seem to be able to muster up the energy. But you got this. Keep pushing forward. Every day is a new opportunity to give it the best you got. Your big break might be just around the corner and if you quit now, you’ll never make it happen. I believe you can do it. I know you can. Just keep going.