Success is the result of happiness, not the preface

by Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor on February 5, 2012

in This is Life

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“If I work harder, I’ll be more successful; if I’m more successful, I’ll be happier <- This way of thinking is scientifically broken, and backwards."

So shares the funny and fast-talking psychologist Shawn Anchor in his TEDxBloomington presentation, “The happy secret to better work.”

I just saw this video for the first time today, and I had to share with you guys – I think Shawn speaks to an illness that afflicts so many of us photographers, especially in the early stages of our professional careers.

We’re never satisfied.

We’re always wanting.

We think, “If I could just create art like that photographer, I’d be so happy.”

We look at the work we’re creating today, and a negative flood of emotions washes over us: disappointment, frustration, confusion, sometimes downright disgust.

The self-critical nature of photographers, like most creatives, is legendary. Humility has its place, but especially when just starting out, we beat ourselves to a pulp in the process of trying to hammer out why what we shoot doesn’t look like what we envision.

We always say to ourselves, “If I could just succeed (get more paying clients, buy a better camera, create art on par with our mentors), I would be happy.” And thus we work harder trying to chase an ever-changing vision of success that always hides just over the horizon – no matter how far we’ve come.

Shawn’s presentation covers this affliction with humanity and insight, and although the solution seems simple (be happy first, then greater success will follow), the application of wise words is always harder than hearing them.

“When you raise the level of positivity in the present, the brain experiences a happiness advantage; the brain at positive performs better than at negative, neutral or stressed,” Shawn shares.

How much better? If you’re happy, you’re 31-percent more productive; 37-percent better at sales, so says Shawn.

No wonder the “sales session” comes as such an unnatural experience to most new-to-the-profession photographers – we artists love to make salable art, but then we stress out about pricing, products, policies, session fees, minimum orders, and the entire sales process.

This is one of the many reasons I try to help you, dear PTP reader, to keep your business simple and honest. Get right legally, don’t sweat the small stuff, price your work fairly but profitably, and don’t be afraid to buck tradition and convention to build a business you can believe in.

If you let negativity stick around, by the time you’re done with your daily responsibilities and you’re able to invest some time in your photography and business, your motivation and inspiration will be flatlined. I’ve experienced this myself, and it almost caused me to quit professional photography – by the end of a stressful work day, the last thing I wanted to do was take on the additional stress and worry of shooting a paying client.

You started your business because you love photography, your skills are well beyond just being a Mom or Dad With a Camera, and you’ve been encouraged by friends or family to step up to a professional level and serve your community. Never let the business side of your venture kill the passion you have for creating art. There is a balance to be achieved between your the two, and while each can be frustrating at times, they should work symbiotically in uplifting the whole.

Shawn shares five tiny lifestyle changes that can (re)train your brain and create ripples of positivity in your life. Here they are, with my advice on how to translate this into your walk as a part time professional photographer:

3 Gratitudes

Consider three new things you’re grateful for each day.

I loathe mornings. I won’t lie, one of my life goals is to do work that does not require me to wake before my body says it’s time. It takes purposeful, conscious effort to drag me past my disdain for an early morning and replace it with a positive, enthused, motivated vibe for the day.

But that’s okay. Because I’m aware of it, and I know how to do it. I am grateful for the opportunity to take a dreadful morning and turn it around by the time I get to work. It’s not easy, but it is possible.

One of the tools in my kit for brightening these mornings is to focus on the things I’m grateful for. And it’s improtant to always explore your heart for new things – it’s too easy to fall into a lazy rut of being thankful for God, country, and family, and to never really light the spark that comes from considering specific people, moments, experiences, and comforts that you’re truly thankful for.

You know you best – pay attention to your mood throughout the day, and identify when you could most use some positive reinforcement. It may be in the mornings, or after lunch when you want to do anything but go back to work. Make it a daily ritual at this time to pause and consider three new things you’re grateful for, and see how quickly you’re able to halt and turn back that negativity.


Is it cheating that my day job is as a journalist?

You don’t have to be a professional writer to journal honestly and introspectively about your experiences in life. Nobody needs to read your journal but you – and honestly, once you’ve put pen to paper, you may never read your words either. It’s the act of pouring it all out on paper (digital or dead tree) that helps you purge distress, think more clearly, and take time out of a busy day to focus on your dreams, goals, and life experiences.

Shawn encourages folks to journal each day about one positive experience from the last 24 hours.

Length is irrelevant, but try to “get it all out” on paper – don’t skimp on the details, the feelings, the people, the moment.

As young reporters here in Bandera, Texas, my fellow journalist Jessica and I would always ask our salty old editor Newt, “How long should this story be?” And Newt would respond, while typing away in clack-clack fashion with just his two index fingers (as he had done for over 40 years), “As long as it needs to be, children.”

Sit down, start writing, write until you’re done.

(ProTip: If you get writer’s block, kill it by embracing the art of The Crappy Draft. Just start writing. It can be complete horsesh*t, it doesn’t even have to make sense. Everything will fall into place. That is how almost every single article here on PTP starts out.)


Shawn shares that exercise teaches the brain that behavior matters.

The benefits of good exercise are many, but where I think most folks get caught up is on the idea that they must be physically suffering to experience worthwhile benefits – and this is by no means true.

  • I hate to run, but I love to cycle.
  • I hate to walk on a treadmill, but I love to walk the park with my kids.
  • I hate physical labor, but I love lifting weights.
  • I hate dumbbells, but I love kettlebells.
  • I hate fitness classes, but I love cross training with YouTube.
  • I hate most competitive sports, but I love shooting hoops and disc golf.

You don’t have to do things you hate to lose weight or just improve your fitness level – there are limitless options for physical activity that can improve your health and give you the benefits, mental and physical, of good, regular exercise.

My fitness grew to be an issue as I moved from the studio to doing more location shoots, and I’d find myself running out of breath while walking from location to location with my clients – it was embarassing, and it threw my focus off of my subject and my art.

Doing anything more than what you’re doing now will be a major improvement, even if it’s just going for a walk. If you’re already exercising, mix up your fitness routine and do something completely different – keep your body guessing. Whatever your fitness level, challenge yourself daily to improve – and you will see the results of those improvements faster than you think.


“Meditation helps us get over our cultural ADHD,” Shawn says.

I will adimt that I struggle with this more than any other activity. Between a day job, photography business, wife, three kids, and friends, it’s a real challenge to take time to stop everything and just breathe.

Ironic, isn’t it? To get more done, you have to slow down.

I try to meditate in the mornings when the world (and my household) is still quiet. I let my brain address and sweep out all its concerns and responsibilites, I envision success in any projects I have coming up for the day, and then try to simply be still, breathe, relax, and calm my soul. It is vastly more challenging than it sounds, and it takes practice.

But what clarity, what energy I have when I make the time for meditation! Instead of letting life pick me up and whisk me away on a sea of reaction, meditation lets me retake control of my mind and my activities – all of a sudden, I’m in charge; I’m reframing my day around the actions that will really make a difference, and I take on the day with a clear, bright, burning vision of what I want to achieve, and why.

Meditation is as much about retaking control as letting go.

It is so, so easy to let life carry you away – then one day you realize the past six months (years?) passed in a blur, you’ve gained 15 pounds, and you haven’t even started on most of the goals you wanted to have reached by now, much less made notable progress on them.

Stopping everything, disconnecting from the world, and just being quiet with your Self allows you to chart your journey and adjust course on a daily basis, instead of finding yourself lost and far from where you wanted to be as though you’d been unconscious for months.

Meditate, and live consciously.

Random Acts of Kindness

As my BFF says, “It’s the little things that improve the overall quality of life.”

I think it’s safe to say that folks like you and me are “good people,” but life just doesn’t often present us the opportunities to show it. Again, we get carried away on the buzz and rush of life, and we don’t take time to do the little things that make life better for ourselves, or others.

You know what Random Acts of Kindness are – you’ve performed them, you’ve been the recipient of plenty, no doubt. The little things aren’t hard to do; the hard part is slowing down and shifting your focus long enough to do them.

Shawn suggests opening your e-mail and writing one positive letter each day to someone in your social support network.

The Facebook “Like” button has disguised itself as this sort of support, but I think it’s worlds apart from actually showing someone personal attention and caring.

I recently helped a young friend put together an awesome resume which landed her a job when she needed it most. I spent 15 minutes talking honestly with another friend about his new efforts as a musician, offering constructive criticism and encouragement. I try every day to text someone on my contact list and let them know I’m sending them good vibes for a great day. If you’ve ever left a comment here on PTP or written me an e-mail, I hope you’ve found me to be open, interested, and invested in your success.

These aren’t heroic acts by any means, and none have taken more than a few minutes each day averaged out. But this kind of caring, personal attention is so rare in our ever-efficient digital age – very few people take the time to really listen, to really invest their emotions and imaginations in offering support or friendship.

And these acts of kindness are by no means limited to your friends – you should look for chances to do the same for your clients. Pay attention when they say their child’s birthday is coming soon, or that their husband is returning from Afghanistan in two months, or their mother is undergoing chemotherapy. Even so little an act as dropping an e-mail to say you remembered the conversation and show you care enough to ask how things are going, it means the world to people.

But don’t be reactionary – don’t wait for an obvious situation to present itself before you spring into action. Each day, by e-mail, Facebook, phone, or in person, take just a few minutes to be a positive presence in someone’s life.

Remember that passion and excitement you had when you first decided to become a professional photographer? Despite what the grognards say, that honeymoon doesn’t have to end. By cultivating a positive nature, you’ll not only find success more quickly overall, you’ll enjoy the journey throughout.

Next Steps

  • Take 12 minutes out of your life to laugh and learn with Shawn Anchor. His presentation is spot-on, and it may well be one of those lightbulb moments that changes how you perceive your world.
  • Add Shawn’s five little suggestions to your daily routine. Start right now: plan where those five acts will take place in your day, then make it happen. Do it for a week. Do it for three weeks, then take the time to evaluate how much of a difference these additions have made in your mood, art, business, and life.
  • Brainstorm session: What makes you happy? What makes you unhappy? How can you have more happy and less unhappy? What little changes can you make to your lifestyle that will make a big difference over time? What’s stopping you? How can you overcome those hurdles? Write all this down and file it away in your Brainstorms folder.
  • My writing at exists to serve your needs as an amateur photographer making the transition to paid professional. I appreciate and welcome your readership, and invite you to subscribe to my e-mail newsletter at the top of any page of this site.
  • If anything in this post has spoken to and inspired you, please comment below, drop me an e-mail, or call or text me at 830-688-1564 and let me know. I’d love to hear how you use the ideas here to better your part time photography business!

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