Two years ago today, I had a heart felt conversation with my then boss, and told him I wanted to quit my position to pursue something that felt crazy but necessary; something that I had tried to deny since college but kept raising its little voice in the back of my mind over the years. I cried. I shocked him. I shocked myself.
I wanted to pursue photography professionally. It was like an itch that wouldn't go away. I'd scratch it here and there by taking photos of personal and work events; Instagram let me instantly publish perspectives from my daily life; but it was never enough. I wanted to make a go of it as a living. I had no idea what that really meant or how I would do it. It felt exceedingly scary and sobering.
I hadn't really planned on quitting my job. It just hit me one day. I could no longer supress that part of me that had been so quietly persistent over the years. Or if I did, it would come at a great cost. I did not want to regret, on my deathbed, not pursuing photography as a career. So here I am, two years later. It feels like forever ago that I took the leap, trusting that I would find a way to make things work and would learn a lot about photography and myself along the way, regardless of my relative success or failure in the pursuit. And I have.
1. I learned that I can still live extremely simply. Before I quit my job, I considered approaching my transition into photography in a more rational and responsible fashion--work for two more years to save more money and earn full vestment in my last organization's 401K. For better or for worse, I decided against that option because I feared that when the time came, I would a) be too comfortable with my lifestyle, b) no longer have the energy to restart my life/career, and, honestly, c) no longer have the cajones to take such a drastic leap. So I dived in head first.
I went from making the most money of my career in the social sector to making zip pursuing a dream as a newbie in a very competitive field. Whereas most people are fleeing the city because of high cost of living, I did the reverse and moved from Oakland to San Francisco, so I could be closer to City College, where I enrolled in classes to improve my technical skills and build community with others interested in photography. Being an AmeriCorps VISTA many years ago prepared me to live frugally and simply. I lived off of savings for my first year, doing some paid work but not a lot. If you're wondering how much savings I had to live off of, so did one of my friends. I asked him to guess. He guessed $100,000. I survived on less than $25,000. My expenses were confined to shelter, basic utilities, public transit, food, and classes. I probably could have skimped a bit more and stretched my savings longer but I did not want to feel like I was depriving myself of some fun. (As a VISTA my maximum monthly stipend was about $1000 and I definitely had some encounters with deprivation because I was also paying off student loans and was too stubborn to ask for help.)
Granted, I didn't have to up and quit my job to pursue photography professionally. Believe you me, I have had my moments when I rued such a drastic change of career paths and slashing of income flow. But knowing myself, I wanted the freedom to immerse myself in the work of becoming a photographer. I knew that I would be frustrated by the constraints on my time from a job that dictated my hours.
2. I've come to realize how deeply I value my autonomy. Sure, I miss the steady paycheck, benefits, and the psychological boundary of "work" provided by a set schedule and location of most jobs. However, I would not exchange those things for the freedom to choose how I spend my time. At least not now. Circumstances change, and maybe someday I will want a salaried position again. Currently, I love being able to commit to a class, photograph a client, volunteer at the SF SPCA, or tend to business organizational/development stuff on a more flexible basis.
3. I've learned and am still learning how to wisely and reasonably value my time in several dimensions. The most obvious dimension being financial: "How much do I charge clients for my experience, skills, and services?" The others are less tangible but are of equal and sometimes greater consequence than the financial dimension. They are professional, social, emotional, and energetic. Is it worth my time to take a gig at X dollars that is related to photography or do I take another gig that pays more but is not related to photography? Do I plow through some photo editing or do I hang out with a friend whom I've not seen in a while? Do I work on marketing ideas (good for income) or do I go play with puppies at the SF SPCA (good for heart)? Do I bike or BART to my next appointment? If I bike, I'm getting more physical activity. If I BART, I could read or catch up on a podcast. How much time and/or energy will it cost me for either of those choices? What are the trade offs for passing my time in this and not that?
Sometimes the trade offs are not so easy to weigh. I turned down a temp job last summer even though I desperately needed to earn income as my savings were running out. The temp agency did a bait and switch--offered me a lower hourly rate than what had been previously stated. The job was not related to photography and was an hour commute. Each way. I walked away from it. I was glad to have held my ground on the principle of the pay but it did not feel so righteous.
4. I now understand that being a photographer really means being a freelancer (unless I take a staff photographer position). There are a shit-ton of decisions to make as a freelancer or self-employed person aka my own boss - yay, autonomy! Actually there are a shit-ton of things I must tend to in general: generating business and income, networking, book keeping and invoicing, communications and coordinating, etc. It's a lot of work. I don't really have a lot of free time because there's always a long list of things to do for building my business and knowledge as a photographer. My "free" time really means, "non-photography related activity" time. Practicing some yoga counts as free time. So does doing laundry. Some of these things I can multi-task; whether that is a good idea or not, is another decision.
5. I'm learning to pace myself better. I'm no spring chicken anymore. I definitely feel bushed after a week of hustling. It requires a lot of discipline and energy, which I have to varying degrees on any given day. Yet I have noticed that when I'm tired, it's not the same sort of tired I had as a salaried professional. Yes, I'm hella tired at times but it's a more gratifying tired that comes from investing in and building something for myself. I used to schedule monthly spa days to manage my stress and physical exhaustion in my last job. I rarely feel that kind of stress these days, although I wouldn't mind the ability to have those monthly spa days again! But back to pacing--in alignment with my intention of creating more spaciousness in my life, I've been better about setting aside unstructured time for myself in the past two weeks. It may not always be possible every week but there has to be some balance amidst the busyness.
6. I'm learning to trust the Universe more even after long silences on the radio waves. When there are long radio silences, negative thoughts or stories often start to creep up from the dark corners of my mind. I've learned to confront them with action. "You're stuck. You're always going to struggle financially as a photographer." Oh yeah? Well then I'm going to reach out to some people right now to see if they need an assistant! And it has worked. Not all the time but it definitely makes me feel better.
I've come to believe that as long as I'm doing the work--diligently, sometimes ploddingly, more often than not, tediously--something good will come my way. It may not be what I expect or want but it may be just what I need. I've certainly had hopeless moments this past year when I thought, I may have to move back home. To my parents'. Out of desperation, I've applied to FTE positions not related to photography, and been rejected, almost immediately. So I took that as a sign that the Universe was saying, "Ah ah ah. I don't think so. Try again, but this time, with more conviction. This time with something related to photography, please. In the meantime, you have to squirm a bit more." It's not always a nice Universe. She's more mischievous than that. But I think she is mostly fair. Mostly. It's a process and I'm learning to live with the ambiguity rather than struggle against it so much. I'm learning to accept that I really don't have control over many things. But I do have control over my thoughts and actions. So I do my best to keep positive and productive. More challenging is to remember to be kind and patient with myself as well.
7. I could probably write a couple more things but I've spent all day on this and this is probably waaay too long anyways. So I'll end with this: I've learned how rich I really am. I am blessed with such a great community and network of folks. I have been humbled and grateful for all the support I've received from near and far, from family, friends--new and old, current and former colleagues, mentors and coaches, and even complete strangers on this path. I could not have even imagined the sort of support I would receive from them.
Most of my paid work has been through friends and word of mouth because I haven't quite gotten it together enough to market my services. I'm working on it. Some of those gigs have been pretty amazing. And loads of fun. My friends will treat me to a meal or drink, or some other pleasure that feels frivolous and extravagant on my budget. They have let me cry on their shoulders and cheered me on. Colleagues from work and school share my interest and excitement in new projects. Folks have connected me to people and resources along my path. Strangers share kind words and encouragement when I tell them my story. They often share their own stories with me, which, in turn, inspires me.