How many careers will the average 30 year old have by the time they retire – if they can even afford to retire? My guess is anywhere north of five. This is a stark contrast with my parents’ generation, where working with the same company for life wasn’t unheard of – and 20+ year stints were pretty common. A move after anything less than five years was seen as ‘unstable’. When I began my career 14 years ago, that timetable was down to three; these days, a year is just fine. Are we learning faster? Probably not. Are we getting more impatient? Definitely. Tomorrow, I’ll turn 30. I am aware that this is probably a bit younger than most in the audience, if the workshop demographics are anything to go by, but I’m both here and I’m not; having graduated and started work at 16, I’m now on my second career and the vast majority of my friends and peers are in their 40s and 50s – which puts me in a rather unique observatory position (or eternal no-mans’ land, depending on how you look at it). If you’ll permit me the digression – I promise we will talk photography at some point later in the piece – I’d like to share some thoughts.
The further back in history we go, the longer one’s career lasted – to the point that it was often determined from birth or caste and one had absolutely no say at all. There wasn’t even an opportunity to discover you had an aptitude for anything other than what you were already doing, simply because education was limited and for the privileged. Information simply was not as freely available as it is today. It was possible to live one’s entire life without leaving the small village in which you were born, doing the same trade as your ancestors. Today, it is possible to have a credible and useful working knowledge on pretty much any subject so long as a) you have an internet connection; b) some common sense and ability to evaluate credibility of sources, and c) adequate time and commitment to the topic at hand.
It is these three things that lead to my career as a photographer. I’m a physicist by training, a financier/corporate-exec type by first career, and initially, a horological enthusiast by passion and curiosity for all things mechanical. In researching purchases, history and other information, I became increasingly aware to the point I taught myself to service and later on, design, complicated watch movements – all from information that was freely (or nearly) available through easily accessible sources. All it took was time. Photography developed from here: I was captivated both by the images I was seeing and unable to replicate, and moreover, by the fact that I could feel some sense of ownership and longer-lasting appreciation for watches that I could gain access to (thanks to internet communities) but have no hope of ever owning (and still have no hope of owning). I could make my interpretation of that piece of art, and thereby have something unique that satisfied both my creative needs and my avaricious ones.
The same approach to acquiring information on watches was what I applied to photographic knowledge. This one stuck a little longer, because the available universe of information seemed to be never-ending; there was always something more to learn, and beyond that, no two photographic situations were identical – so you never had such a thing as repetition, either. It provided creativity in small-sized chunks of time to fit around every other commitment, a lot of knowledge to anticipate, and the satisfaction of making something at the end of it. I think that’s why photography stuck – for me, at least. I suspect the same can be said for a lot of the audience; for others, it’s the gear, the community, and perhaps a sense of escapism at being able to be somebody other than their normal professions (not here; as my wife points out, I’m a photographer 24/7).
In true democratic style, though, the photographer of the earlier age was content to use what he had – for the most part (or at least for longer periods of time) and focus on the image making. Perhaps the pace of the process had something to do with it; knowledge acquisition was a lot slower because the feedback process was necessarily slower with film (and more expensive). If there were no alternatives, we were forced to use our creativity to surmount the challenge and find a solution. Today, we can pretty much buy a solution for everything (if not, it’ll be on kickstarter tomorrow), and the learning process has accelerated a hundredfold. We have become far too used to buying a solution than devising one – and our creative brains have atrophied as a result. In practice, this means it’s now pretty easy to get to a level of adequacy that was the reward for many years of diligent work previously; any further gains require substantial effort. And since we have choices to the nth degree in everything else, with the ability to buy our way up the food chain – why not in photography? Surely if I can choose between hazelnut brown nappa and cinnamon tan leather in my car, I should be able to find that one ‘better’ camera that makes my images instantly go up a notch.
The trouble is, unlike interior upholstery selection, which is an academic dead end and zero-return, photography is a two way process. You get out what you put in, and it is actually the hardware that’s the zero-return: it is nothing more than a mirror of one’s own abilities (or lack of). If anything, the better the hardware, the more acute a mirror it presents: anything lacking in vision or technique is simply magnified. But we are so conditioned to expecting that more money gets us more performance or more higher faster better whatever [insert desired quality here] – that the self-development aspect is often left sorely neglected. Effort is required, and often quite a bit of patience, too. Rewards are not instant – there is no sudden step change from increase in skill as with a camera with double the pixels, but rather a very slow and incremental one that’s proportional to one’s own commitment.
Don’t get me wrong; one can certainly do more with better tools, but it’s getting easier and easier to fall into the twin traps of entitlement and short attention span – then blaming everything but the operator for an unexpected (and undesired result). I see the same in a lot of my generation (whom are mostly at much earlier stages in their careers) and even more of that in the generation after me – there is the expectation of more coming easier and faster because success stories are magnified by social media, and failures buried and shamefully self-hidden. If anything, the range and quality of tools and knowledge at our disposal both career-wise and photographically means that it’s even harder to reach a level that stands out from your peers. It doesn’t help that once you pass a certain point, you’re competing on an international level, too, thanks to the internet. If anything, it becomes even more critical to have skills beyond the job. I’ve always believed that the best specialist is really also the best generalist, because to handle the edges cases you need to have seen all of the exceptions – and be able to deploy the esoteric knowledge from other disciplines.
It’s become easy – normal, even – to give up and try something else if instant success isn’t forthcoming; perhaps this may not be a bad thing because at least in the long run, more people will be doing things they enjoy and are good at (and hopefully this translates into more passion and quality across the board) – but it also means that there will probably be fewer people who a) achieve their full potential and b) are fully satisfied. I wonder what the split of career motivations between money and intellectual satisfaction as primary drivers looks like across time – my guess is social media, rising costs of living and the increasing wealth gap are driving it more and more towards the former in the present day.
Paradoxically, I think that’s why doing something you enjoy as a career is more important than ever now. Sensible working hours have gone the way of the dinosaur, median pay hasn’t moved in line with inflation*, and the only way to get out of that – other than by inheritance or sheer luck – is to be good enough at what you do that you occupy the thin percentage at the top that can set their rates. And the only way to do that is to care enough to go the extra mile to develop your skills, deliver additional value to your customers, and put in the extra effort to get out there. From personal experience, whilst I was good at my previous career and reached a position of fairly high status much earlier than most – my peers were in their 50s, I was 25 – I don’t think I’d ever have been exceptional or one of the wunderkind. I could feel myself dragging in the mornings; the inertia got larger and larger. If I didn’t leave, I’d probably have gone over the hill and been asked to eventually.
*For example, in Malaysia, the average house price to annual income ration has widened from 1:5 to 1:25 in the last 30 years; the actual average graduate pay has not changed much: 1,500 RM/month in the mid 80s to 2,200/month now. But a meal at a hawker has gone from RM0.50 to RM10.00. It has become harder than ever to earn a comfortable survival wage, let alone a good one.
The choice of doing something for oneself is actually a very difficult one. It’s selfish and selfless; by forcing yourself to do something society expects you to, you’re unhappy and land up burdening everybody else in a subtly compromising way. In picking your desires, you’re being immediately selfish but probably much better to everybody else in the long run. There’s a slight initial guilt that comes with it, but in the long run – well, five years later at least – I can confidently say I’m contributing far more to society now than when my responsibilities were primarily based around the number of colors I could successfully deploy in a powerpoint chart. In a way, though tomorrow marks a chronological 30 for me, I don’t feel it. I feel much older, like I’ve been through the wringer once and come around for rebirth. At the same time, I look at the 30-year olds around me and find most of them still trying to figure out what they want in life – not that most of us ever do – but the myth of stability and societal expectation and happiness is just that; working harder doesn’t mean a better title and that doesn’t mean anything other than endless steps on the hamster wheel. In a way, this generation has it right, if for the wrong reasons: there is no risk in change, and at least you might learn something about yourself in the process.
To bring this neatly back around to photography, we must first know why we shoot – at the core for most people, it’s the intellectual satisfaction of creating something that’s often not so easily attained in other parts of life. But that satisfaction only comes when a challenge has been surmounted: if something is too easy, the resultant payoff isn’t there. This of course means that pursuit of hardware improvments without matching knowledge is going to be an endlessly frustrating road, and one that eventually leads you further away from your actual desired outcome (even if that may not seem to be the case). Looking back, the one really important thing I take away is that greater happiness for me has always come on the back of greater challenges – and in the process, stretching one’s creativity. Of late, I’ve not been stretching that enough, and I’m occasionally feeling twinges of frustration and discontent. I think I might have to do something extreme to fix that…MT
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