I’ve just returned from a week travelling up the Oregon coast, taking a break from work and everything else that’s been happening. After Mom died in June I knew at some point I was going to hit the wall and need a break, but I didn’t know when or how hard it’d hit. That happened a couple of weeks ago during my last trip to SoCal to deal with the estate when I got so uncomfortable in the house I had to cut the trip short and head home early. It hit a point where mentally and emotionally I was exhausted; one day I spent three hours trying to write a summary of a routine meeting, unable to finish the second sentence.
That’s typically a good hint that it’s time to take a break and get your head straight. Fortunately, Laurie and the folks at work were both very supportive and understanding, so I scheduled a week off, packed the car and started driving north up 101 onto the Oregon Coast.
I’ve been struggling with some bigger frustrations as well, a growing sense that the priorities I’ve used on where to focus my time and energy is out of sync with what I really want to do — specifically, I’ve been grinding away at a long-term plan to build out my photography site and images as an ongoing business, while actually spending almost no time the last few months using a camera.
I’ve found what works for me is solitude; a long drive in the car somewhere and a few days away from everything gives me a chance to relax, reset, break routines and habits and have a long talk with myself about what the problems are and how to fix them. The best way to think about it is going on an offsite business planning session with the voices in my head, so we all get aligned again on what the priorities are and how to accomplish them, without the interruptions of the day to day noise and habits that reinforce the status quo.
So that’s what I did. I made some reservations, packed the car and headed north. Given a choice, I will head towards water, preferably moving water, to recharge the personal batteries, and head towards cool and away from hot, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Oregon Coast and the Pacific Northwest if a favorite area for me. I also decided to shake it up and for the most part not stay in the normal places, so I stopped in Bandon and Depoe Bay on the way up instead of more normal places like Newport or Gold Beach, and once I dropped anchor in Astoria for a longer stop, it was at a new hotel.
Basically, it was a week with no email, no work, no meetings, nobody I had to plan around but myself, and a lot of empty time and spaces for me to crawl into me head and think a lot of things through. And sleep. Did a lot of sleeping, and ate a fair bit of really nice fish. Really loved the Chowder at Dooger’s, a small chain up in that area, if you want a recommendation.
Back when I left Apple in 2006 — almost a decade ago, I didn’t know what I was going to do next, and I was in pretty rough shape. I was convinced the stress of working in high tech was killing me and I needed a change. In fact, I had extreme sleep apnea, which wouldn’t be diagnosed for another six months or so, and that was a huge piece of the problem and getting that under control would solve most of my ongoing physical issues at the time, but I didn’t know that yet. But I knew I didn’t want to code for a living any more.
So the plan (such as it was) when I left Apple, was to find a different path through high tech where I could make a living and work to find a way to make the jump into a second career with my camera, because I had caught the digital photography bug (my third time diving into the pool of photography) and I thought I was a pretty good photographer.
Over the next year or so I found my way into doing web hacking again and took up community management, which it turned out I was pretty good at and I found I really like doing, and so my new career, it turned out, was still in high tech and involved what can best be defined as a combination of being really strong as an online communicator and also being the organizational class clown. And I do that now, and I love doing it — and to a good degree, that killed any strong motivation to “get out” of high tech and jump in as a pro photographer.
That, combined with the fact that I quickly realized that there were 10,000 other people a lot like me all clicking away with their DLSRs thinking “I’m pretty good at this! I can go pro!” — and many did. And if you look at the last ten years in photography there’s been a massive disruption, a lot of traditional income opportunities have gone away or been significantly curtailed, and at the same time, there’s a huge increase in the number of photographers chasing those income opportunities.
So honestly, one of the best decisions I ever made was to not try to turn pro — but I’ve always had plans in place to try to build out my photography into at least a part-time situation and a “pay for my trips” income. That goal has driven a lot of my online decisions and work over the years, and while it’s gone slowly, since it’s an “in my evenings and spare time” periods, it’s paid off; in the last 18 months as the newest redesigns have gone online the passive (aka affiliate) income from less than $10/mo to about $150/mo on average, and in my image pieces, I’ve done a few deals that are worth a few hundred dollars here and there. Not “pay the rent” money, but it means my online server and etc are paying for themselves and leaving enough left over for the occasional weekend trip out to the refuges.
And to push all of that forward, I’ve continued to work on “the brand” (aka “chuq the nature photographer”) and working on content projects that would ultimately lead towards what I hope were revenue opportunties like ebooks; In the last year I’ve revamped the web sites with a more professional look and feel, added in the mailing lists to handle some specialty content and set them up as a way to build up membership groups I could interact with, and I’ve been working on this content series that grew into a YouTube podcast and kind of took off with a life of its own that I think has a lot of potential.
But the thing was, I found I was kind of hating it all, and the fact that managing all of this was keeping me from doing things like, oh, actually going out and taking pictures. There were other complicating factors, and then Mom died in June and I’m now managing the estate through the process, and all of that layered on their own sets of complications and pain and hassle, but…
But I’ve found in the last year I’ve gotten a lot closer to all of the goals I’ve set, and I’m really unhappy with the results. That’s a sync error that needs to be addressed, and so this trip was in many ways that corporate executive offsite where all of the senior execs go off to plan the pivot for a malfunctioning startup, except there’s only one senior exec. Me.
So effectively I made a plan that I liked, executed on it, made a lot of decisions pushing me down the path on that plan, each of which I think was the right decision, and I’ve ended up at a place that’s the wrong place, because along the way, I changed and my goals changed, and it’s only been in the last month or so that I’ve realized that and come to the understanding I have to pivot the plan and move in a new direction.
That change is a pretty fundamental one for me. My original goal a decade ago was to get out of high tech and make my living with a camera. Over time I stopped being unhappy in high tech and photography was an realistic goal (at least, if I wanted to stay married and with a lifestyle similar to the one I’ve had) and since I was deep into middle age building a new profession stopped being as important, so I retargeted the plans towards a more viable supplemental income.
What I figured out on this pivot trip was that I’m not interested in building a business around the photography any more. I want to focus on the camera, not the income spreadsheet. At this point in my life, I want to get back to the basics of being a photographer and not putting the focus on running a photography business.
It’s time to Pivot
And so I’m doing a pivot, and that’s going to change a bunch of things I’ve been doing online.
For one, I’ve decided I need to back off of my social media a lot for a while; I’m tired, I’m grumpy and too often I’m picking arguments rather than opening conversations, and I want to pull back, cut the amount of time I spend on social things, and use that time on other things — like writing and taking pictures, or kicking back and relaxing. So you’re going to see me less on Twitter for a while, and I’m slimming down my activities elsewhere (and FWIW Google+ is taking the biggest hit and where I’m cutting most of the time I spend on the services, but I’ve cut a fair bit back on Facebook and some on Twitter as well). the facebook groups and pages I created to support the mailing lists are toast and are going away…
I’m putting that video podcast on hold indefinitely, because I think that’s the right format for that content, but the whole project turned into one big logistical and technical hairball, and I just don’t want to dig into hairballs right now. I’m also putting the mailing lists into indefinitely hibernation (and will send out newsletters to each announcing that); this is kind of sad because I thought they were going well and all have doubled their audience since launch. I’m killing the pieces of these projects that were tied to creating content series to build towards ebooks and all of that stuff…
The mantra is simplification, and to move from “This is content from Chuq Von Rospach, Nature Photographer” to “These are Chuq’s pictures and this is my blog” — which may seem like not much, but is in fact a major semantical shift, especially in attitude.
More focus on writing for the blogs, and less on “creating usable content”. More time spent taking pictures, less on trying to be a photography thought leader, or building my brand, or whatever it was I was doing..
And spend more time unplugged and away from all of this and spending that time doing other stuff I’m wanting to do. For instance, I’ve just bought a Playstation 4 (sorry, Xbox fans, it was a hard decision) and I’m planning to spend time not working on stuff, which has been rare in my life the last couple of years.
I’ve also had an itch that I’ve wanted to get technical again, so I’ve dusted off Xcode, I’m starting to learn Swift, and I’m going to do something I’ve long wanted to do, which is dig into programming for the Mac (the last time I did that, Xcode was called MPW, and, well, that was a long time ago). I have a specific project in mind that may or may not go anywhere, and we’ll talk about it down the road if it survives. Once this is further along, I’ve decided I need to refresh my python as well and so I’ll be playing with that again for the first time in years because that will be useful with work.
I’m going to (mostly) leave the web sites alone for now while I make sure I know what I expect them to do, but after the first of the year, if my thoughts don’t change, I’ll likely combine the photo site back into the main site and move the whole thing over to Squarespace so I don’t have the wordpress maintenance to worry about.
The goal is to write more, and write more about stuff I find interesting and not about stuff that needs to fill ebooks — but do it in fewer places with fewer expectations, and to shoot more pictures and do more interesting photography stuff, and worry less (or not at all) about how I might turn it into “viable assets” when I shoot.
I realized I was pulling my photography in too many directions. One of my thought processes heading into this trip was that I needed to look for “travel photo” type situations so I had more material to fill out my stock portfolios since I’m not submitting much to them. One of the realizations of the trip was that I kept trying to push my camera work into doing things that might be commercial but didn’t really interest me, so I had very little interest in actually shooting.
So instead, I’m stripping my photography back to my core interests — a focus back on birds and wildlife, at least for now. I did a bit of landscape work on this trip, but in reality, I spent most of the time finding all of the landscape I saw immensely uninteresting, and I’m not sure I know what kind of work I want to do in landscape. I have to slow down and basically reboot myself in this form, because I don’t at this moment know what I want to do with a lens wider than about 80mm. It’s a weird feeling to be wandering around with a camera thinking “this all sucks, why bother?” so I know I need to spend some time just getting back to basics and re-learning how to enjoy taking pictures, and what pictures I enjoy.
I figure I’ll spend between now and the first of the year in mostly-vacation mode (or maybe semi-sabbatical?) and then re-evaluate again. I expect to write for the main blog and the photo blog, take pictures, and remember how bad I am at playing video games, and at some point, I’ll either decide these changes are right (and delete the stuff that won’t come back), or I’ll decide I’ve pulled back too far and bring some of it back to life and go for it again.
But for now? Relax, write, shoot and play a bit, and stop worrying about the other stuff.
I think it’s important to know what you’re trying to accomplish in your life and build plans to get you there, and then work as you can to make those plans happen.
At the same time, I think it’s also important to understand that over time you change, the reality you’re working in changes, and sometimes, what you learn from building one aspect of your long term plan teaches you things that make you realize the plan needs to change. And when these things happen, you can’t beat yourself up or think you made mistakes, because you didn’t. Instead, map out a new plan and a new direction, and start moving forward again. It’s all part of the process called life.
And learn to enjoy the journey, or why bother taking the trip? And for me that’s the key here: the trip stopped being fun, so that was the clue it was time to stop, think it through, understand how to change what I was doing and start out in that new direction.
And this is that first step…