About Success in Photography and Life

“Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.
Five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear.
five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.
How do you measure,
Measure a year?

In daylights?
In sunsets?
In midnights?
In cups of coffee?
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife?

In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.
How do you measure a year in a life?”
| Seasons of Love, Jonathan D. Larson, from the musical Rent

When Do You Know That You Are a Successful Landscape Photographer?

What is success in life? What does it mean? What does it mean for you specifically? And do we need success? If yes, why do we need it? What is success in photography? What is success in a life of a landscape photographer? When do you know that you are successful? In the last couple of months, I have heard a variety of different responses to these questions and I thought it is worth spending some time to reflect about the ideas of success.

A World Full of Gurus

Earth has transformed into a place of experts and gurus. Individuals, who use TV and YouTube channels, podcasts, magazines and other media outlets to develop a personal brand. They create lots of instructional material, lessons, workshops, offer guidance and mentorship in order to make a living. And obviously, there seems to be a market for it. Without a demand, there would be no supply. However, sometimes I’m asking myself where the average people are. Average in the best possible sense (if you are interested, what I mean by that, have a look at my blog post about “The Unassuming Traveller”). People who live and potentially don’t need nor want to be mentored.

Management gurus talk about “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, “Getting Things Done”, “The One Minute Manager”, “The Effective Executive”, “Now, Discover All Your Strengths”, “First, Break All The Rules: What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently”, “The Goal: A Process Of Ongoing Improvement”, Or “How To Win Friends And Influence People”. According to The Time Magazine, Amazon Statistics and TopManagementDegrees these books belong to the Top 50 management books of all time. These experts recommend us to come up with daily routines, with agendas, to-do lists, and goal-setting behavior in order to get things done.

In parallel, more and more life gurus have emerged (and I am not listing the most successful life books in here, but Vishen Lakhiani with his Mindvalley company seems to be one of the loudest voices in the 2020 market) who add the cold morning shower, meditation, a minute of thankfulness, affirmation and journaling to our daily routines. They also tell us what to eat when, how to sleep, how to stretch the body and how to reach longevity.

In a jungle of expert recommendations, people struggle to find path. Their own path. To listen to their inner voices. Instead, they follow and often blindly consume. One video by another. One tutorial after another. Most of the gurus achieve the opposite they may have intended to do originally. Instead of offering advice, they co-create uncertainness and unsteadiness.

The Quantified Self

Not only, that we are surrounded by a world of gurus. On top, we currently live in a quantify-yourself world. The all availability of data opened many doors for us to measure almost everything in life. We have started to use technology for self-tracking and to communicate the results with a community of like-minded others celebrating our progress. This direction is routed in the idea that better self-knowledge and self-care simplify personal development. We are counting the sleep hours of our babies to discover their individual sleep patterns, measure the ingredients of their food to give them the best possible nutrition, analyze their weight and height regularly, later on we use the number of goals they shoot in sports as an indicator how good they are in those, apply school grades to identify if they are on the right path; for ourselves, we are counting our daily consumed calories to live a healthy life, tracking sleep to ensure that we get enough of it, applying wearable fitness trackers to measure how we improve our fitness, body-hacking our physiological system with supplements, we look at how many followers we have gained last week and whether our advertisements triggered enough people into the next level of our conversion funnel. We count the hours we sit in front of the computer and use social media. We are asked to apply four hours work week. Employers track employees’ achievements through management by objectives in certain workplace environments and bonus payments are based on these outcomes. Scientists are evaluated by the number of publications in top journals and the number of citations they receive. Numbers dominate the world. And what we don’t measure, we can’t analyze, right?

This quantify-yourself movement is the perfect add-on to the world of gurus. Now we not only have all the recommendations, all the advice, all the goals, now we are also able to measure them, track the progress and compare our progression to the one’s of others.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a mathematician and I love numbers. You can get me easily involved in complex math problems, number puzzles or riddles. However, I do see a lot of problems in measuring ourselves and our progress by numbers.  It seems to be so simple to just use two numbers and compare them to each other, right? You had one patent last year? I had three. You were among the 70% best students in your class? I was among the top 80%. You got 10% more followers, likes and engagement on Instagram last month? I got double the amount. Numbers are great, but they are misleading us into a world of social comparison in which we dramatically ignore the context, circumstances and individual characteristics that lead to and formed these numbers. It makes us think that others do better than we do. Numbers led us forget that they are measured and that each measurement system has a unit. Some of these units are more objective than others, such as weight in kg compared to school grade in %. However, even objective measures are based on a context that we simply often ignore.

In sum, numbers often lead to social comparison and they do ignore how they have been measured. They however perfectly accompany expert advice as they work as tool to measure our progress in that recommended direction with the goal of improving our physical, mental, and emotional performance.

What Is Success?

Success might be defined as the status of having achieved an objective or accomplished an aim. Through the achievement of a desired state, planned goal or vision in life prosperity, wealth or fame might have been attained. In fact, very often success is the outcome of a series of accomplishments over time. And accomplishments can be measured, can’t they?

Whether we are successful however, we can only answer individually. We set our own goals, we have our own vision, we have our own path that is mediated by our values, preferences and beliefs in life.

What does success however mean to you? If you defined your goals and achieved them, how do you feel? What does it change in you? How do you continue afterwards? How much time do you give yourself, before running after the next goal?

Very often, success is seen as contradiction to failure. However, failure might mean that you are on your path, that you tried, that you actively move forward. Failure is potentially one of the achievements leading towards success.

When Am I Successful?

Theoretically spoken, you might be successful if you achieve your objectives and over a series of accomplishments you interpret those as success. What this success might mean to you, will impact your life satisfaction and overall well-being. As such, the aspect of meaning or interpretation of success seems to be as important as the accomplishments in itself.

What is Success in Photography?

Are you successful in photography if you won the Pulitzer Price, the International Photography Award (IPA), the Sony World Photography Awards, National Geographic’s Travel Award,  or might be called a Hasselblad Master? If you are a winner of the ILPOTY, IPOTY, IPA, TIFA, Px3 or the many other competitions? If you have more than one million followers on Instagram? If you sell prints for more than one million $ US? Or sell prints at all? If you were invited to the “F-Stop, Collaborate & Listen” podcast or to the “Vision & Light” interviews with Alister Benn? If you have a huge conservational impact with your work, such as the work of Nick Brandt and have exhibitions in all major museums and galleries around the globe? Well, as said before, this very much depends on your own definition of success. Almost all these achievements will lead to a number. And as I argued before, numbers often lead to comparison and therefore mislead.  Here is a number that I personally like:

525600

Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes are the number of minutes in a common year. In the remarkable 1996 Broadway musical “Rent”, written by Jonathan D. Larson, the song “Seasons of Love” originally is sung twice. In the beginning of act two, the whole cast stands downstage in a straight line facing the audience and performs the song. In this song, the cast is asking us what the proper way is to quantify the value of one year in a human life. Should we measure it in “daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee, in inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife, in five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes. How do you measure, a year in the life?”. Four of the lead characters have HIV and when the song is performed the second time in the musical, the cast will again stand downstage in a straight line facing the audience performing the song. But this time, Angel – one of the characters being infected with HIV – has died. And the straight line of the cast has a gap in it. Such an emotional and impactful moment.

To add even more drama, Jonathan Larson, the composer and writer of the musical Rent died the night before the preview opening of the show. And as a consequence, the cast sang the song “Seasons of Love” right in the beginning to show their respects to the composer.

In opposite to my thoughts above, in this song the main characters don’t ask about success in life and how to measure it, they ask about the value of one year in our life and how to measure it. This seems like a minor, but important difference. What do we value? Very often, we do not value our accomplishments or success. We even often move to the next objective. What do we value? And shouldn’t this what we value determine our meaning of success?

Maybe, we all need less gurus, less recommendations and much less quantification in life. Fewer routines, fewer to-do-list and less agendas. But more presence and more connection.

To me, my meaning of success and success in photography has changed a lot over the last decade. What I value is the present moment, the connection I have to myself, to my family and my friends, health, peace and freedom. This appreciation leads into a constant thankfulness that creates a lot of positive energy. I deeply believe that as artists we are at our strongest if we are in connection with ourselves. Photography is such an amazing medium for well-being, for connecting us with ourselves and with nature, for expressing ourselves, and for discovery. Or how Jonathan D. Larson argued in his song “Seasons of Love”, we should measure our life in love. I am happy, thankful and full of love. Therefore, I am.

 

References:

Allen, David (2002): Getting Things Done: The Art Of Stress-Free Productivity, Penguin Books.

Blanchard, Kenneth and Johnson, Spencer (1981): The One Minute Manager, William Morrow.

Buckingham, Marcus and O’Clifton, Donald (2001): Now, Discover Your Strengths, Free Press.

Buckingham, Marcus and Coffman, Curt (1999): First, Break All The Rules: What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, Simon and Shuster.

Carnegie, Dale (1936): How To Win Friends And Influence People, current edition by Pocket Books.

Covey, Stephen (1989): 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press.

Drucker, Peter (2006): The Effective Executive, Harper Business.

Goldratt, Eliyahu M. and Cox, Jeff (2012): The Goal: A Process Of Ongoing Improvement (Revised, 30th Anniversary), North River Press.

Larson, Jonathan D. (1996): Seasons of Love, from the Broadway Musical Rent, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hj7LRuusFqo, 30082020.

TopManagementDegrees (2015): Top 50 Best-Selling Management Books of All Time, https://www.topmanagementdegrees.com/management-books/, 30082020.

Wolf, Gary (2010), The Quantified Self, https://www.ted.com/talks/gary_wolf_the_quantified_self, 30082020.

Wolf, Gary (2007), “Quantified Self Blog“, oldest entries, from: www.quantifiedself.com. Archived on 27032012.