Why You Shouldn’t Follow Your Passion in Photography

Garden Grove, 2016 #cindyproject
Garden Grove, 2016 #cindyproject

I recently read an eye-opening book: “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love” — in which the author argues against the “passion” hypothesis (the idea that you should follow your passion). The author argues that following your passion often leads to failure.

For a long time, I have been a proponent of the “passion” hypothesis. I do believe that by following what you love, you will find your purpose in life, which will help you do personally fulfilling work.

However at the same time, there are always a few caveats.

First of all, just because you are passionate about something doesn’t necessarily mean you can make a living out of it.

For example, whenever I go to arts and crafts fairs, farmers markets, or “art walks” — I see lots of passionate artists, who make beautiful work, but nobody buys the work.

Similarly let’s say your passion is rap music. But just because you are passionate about rap music doesn’t mean you are necessarily good at it. Furthermore, just because you are passionate about rap music doesn’t mean you can make a full-time living from it.

Building “career capital”

LA, 2016
LA, 2016

So if following your passion isn’t the right path to “success” in your art; what is?

Cal Newport (author of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”) argues that we shouldn’t focus on our passion. Rather, we should focus on building our “career capital” — skill and expertise in our specific field.

How do we do that? He argues that we should also focus on “deliberate practice” — deep, focused, practice in whatever we are trying to improve.

For example, to apply “deliberate practice” in photography is to go out, focus on shooting, and nothing else. It also means studying the work of the master photographers; studying their compositions, framing, their philosophies, and figure out what makes their work so great.

Also it is crucial that we receive honest and critical feedback from people within our field; people that we trust and value their feedback.

For example, in street photography— you would probably trust the feedback from another street photographer more than a macro/nature photographer. While outside fields can give you insightful feedback, they often don’t know the nuances of your specific field. Therefore their feedback isn’t going to be as informed or knowledgeable.

There is no shame of having a day-job

Berkeley, 2016 #cindyproject
Berkeley, 2016 #cindyproject

Just because you are passionate about something doesn’t mean that you need to make it your living.

For example, some of the most famous thinkers and philosophers have taken simple jobs to support their day-to-day-expenses, and philosophized/worked in their free time. Albert Einstein came up with the theory of relativity while working a boring 9-5 clerk job at the patent office. Stephen King worked as a janitor before he made his first hit-books. The philosopher Spinoza led a simple life as a glass-grinder/optician.

But you might be thinking to yourself, “But Eric— your passion is street photography, and somehow you have been able to make it a living!”

It is true that my passion is street photography and (somehow) I was able to make it into a living. But for me, I think I luckily fell into street photography and was able to make it a living— rather than expecting to do it full-time from the get-go.

My personal story

LA, 2016
LA, 2016

I only picked up photography when I was 18 years old. Long before that, my passions included reading, writing, and teaching. In-fact, when I was in college, I aspired to become a Sociology professor. I loved learning about individuals, society, and communities. I also loved teaching, bringing people together, and socializing.

I was also interested in social media— I ended up teaching a seminar while an undergraduate titled: “The Sociology of Facebook and Online Social Networks”, and later got an internship working at a online media company (where I did social media, marketing, community management).

I first started this blog in 2010-2011; about a year after I graduated college. I ended up getting a full-time job as an online community manager at the company I interned, and I started the blog as a part-time hobby. My passion was street photography, sharing what I learned about it, and promoting the art to a wider public. However I had no aspiration to do my blog or street photography full-time. I had a regular day-job that paid the bills, and I loved the freedom to be able to run the blog without the stress of paying the bills.

I worked at my job for a year, learning the necessary skills of social media, marketing, and community management (while working on my blog). I would say this “incubation” and “apprenticeship” phase of being at my full-time job was crucial to helping me make the jump to teaching workshops and running this blog full-time.

I had thoughts and dreams of blogging and teaching full-time, but I didn’t have the guts nor the money to do so. I had barely $1,000 in my savings account and I doubted that I could make a full-time living from street photography (I didn’t know anyone else who made a living from purely street photography).

However in 2012, my company IPO’d, the stock climbed high, and we all thought we’d be rich. Then the stock started to tank, and half the company ended up getting laid off (myself included). This was the necessary impetus for me to try to risk teaching workshops full-time, traveling, and blogging.

About 4 years later, I am making a comfortable living out my “passion” for street photography. But I would say that it was necessary for me to have the comfort, financial stability, and resources from my full-time job before I was able to pursue my passion full-time.

Furthermore, a lot of me making my passion into my full-time job was luck. I started this blog when there weren’t many other “how-to” blogs on street photography, and not many resources on street photography. So the timing of starting my blog was very fortunate. Furthermore at the time street photography started to become much more popular— from Fujifilm (promoting street-photography friendly cameras), from Leica (same thing), from Instagram/iPhone (helped more street photographers publish their work), from DigitalRev (Kai is a huge advocate of street photography), the numerous street photography collectives out there, and many other factors that I have no idea of.

Thinking about Cal Newport’s theory on “career capital” — I was able to build a lot of it by studying the work of the masters (and writing in-depth articles about them), investing in thousands of dollars of photography books, of meeting and learning from some of the most influential street photographers in the field, by featuring and curating the work of other street photographers, and also by spending a lot of time shooting in the streets. I would say that I’ve written at least 300 articles on street photography before I started to teach workshops and blog full-time.

So what should I do?

LA, 2016
LA, 2016

If you’re reading this— I’m certain that you’re passionate about photography. You love looking at images, studying the work of the masters, creating images, editing and post-processing, printing your work, publishing your work, and meeting other passionate photographers.

My simple suggestion is to continue to passion your passion in photography, but don’t quit your day job (yet). If your dream is to be a full-time photographer, have the stability of a day-job while you build up your “career capital.” The advice I’ve learned from many other people is that you should wait until your passion earns you enough money to make a living (before quitting your day job).

So if your dream is to make a living from shooting weddings, commercial work, teaching workshops, selling books, selling photography-merchandise, from a YouTube channel— whatever; pursue your passion on the side. Wake up early and fit in a blog post before you go to work. Use your lunch breaks to research, connect with other photographers over social media, and perhaps even make a few photos. After you get off work, don’t just go home and vegetate. Use that precious time to build up your “career capital.” Maximize the use of your weekends to meet clients, do shoots, or teach classes.

Your success will be a combination of hard work, perseverance, skills, and luck. Without a combination of all these factors; you probably won’t succeed.

Be patient with the process, and don’t use money, social media follower numbers, or anything else be an indicator of your “success.” For me, my only definition of success is to look at yourself in the mirror and be proud of the work that you do. Success shouldn’t come from the external affirmation of others. Success only comes from your own self-judgement.

Seek success from within

Provincetown, 2014
Provincetown, 2014

You can be a great artist like Vincent van Gogh, and never receive any affirmation of your work until after you’re dead. The same goes with Vivian Maier— she photographed for herself and for the love of it. The fame came afterwards.

So what if you follow your passion your entire life, and you never earn a single buck, never gain a ton of followers on social media, never publish a book of your work, never have a solo-exhibition, or make a living from your photography. Who cares? Don’t you shoot photography for inner-happiness and satisfaction?

Realize that also life can be cruel. Just because we are passionate, skilled, and hard-working doesn’t mean that lady luck will always be on our side. Even Nikola Tesla (despise of all his accomplishments) died alone and penniless, in debt (while Thomas Edison thrived, while many argue that Tesla was the superior inventor).

So friend; follow your heart, and don’t worry about success or accolades. Keep your photography personally meaningful, and let it bring you joy and enthusiasm. Let photography enrich your life, and don’t have any shame of having a “day job.” In many ways, a day job will give you the financial security to create your life’s work.

But if you do want to pursue your photography full-time; be bold, courageous, work your ass off, and never give up. Focus on always expanding your knowledge, meeting others who will inspire and help you, and by building value for others.

I believe in you!