Business Success: Photographer Angst
What does it mean to run a successful photography business? What is business success? These questions in themselves are likely to produce an uncomfortable level on angst. But hang with me.
Running a business is stressful work. And the odds are not in our favour. As mentioned in our previous article, too many small businesses fail.
That all said, grappling with what success means is critical. On the one hand, if you aim for nothing, you’ll hit it every time. On the other hand, unrealistic expectations can drive you nuts. Barmy even. In fact, defining success incorrectly is a sure way to book an appointment with burn-out.
This is the second article in our series on building a thriving photography business. We hope to enrich and empower your business efforts—whether you’re just starting the journey or you’re well down the track. (If you’re just joining us, we suggest that you start at the first article here: Building a Thriving Photography Business.)
Business Success Vs. Artistic Success
It goes without saying that being a successful artist is very different from being a business success. However, when business isn’t going well, we feel like a failure on both counts.
This is another reason why I feel it’s so important to look at how we define success.
In The iBoss Dilemma, Craig shares his experience and how he had to rethink his definition of business success.
I looked at the clock. 6o minutes to go.
I had an hour before I was up to speak. I had spent hours preparing the talk. Collating my thoughts. Gathering motivational quotes. Formulating succinct, memorable anecdotes. Creating PowerPoint presentation slides. And this wasn’t my first rodeo either. I had done this many times before. Still, I felt uneasy.
Now, truth be told, I’m a self-schooled public speaker. It doesn’t come easy. Or naturally. I don’t have the gift of the gab, and I’m not an extrovert by nature. I’ve had to learn how to do it. Yes, by reading on the subject but mostly by watching good public speakers in action.
And from the feedback I’ve received, I do a reasonable job. (I still get invited back, if that’s any measure of the validity of the feedback.)
However, on this occasion, my unease was different from the usual nerves I typically have to master. You see, I had been through a tough year. The Midas touch I’d once enjoyed had dissipated and over the preceding six months, all I touched turned to dust. The talk I’d prepared was good and honest, a reflection of lessons and points garnered from better times. From my past successes, not my present failures. Even so, it adequately satisfied the topic I was invited to address.
45 minutes to go.
With time counting down to my session, my unease increased. Taking in a deep breath, I put my finger on the discomfort.
I feel a little fake, I admitted to myself. Like I’m about to talk about someone else. Someone else’s lessons. Someone else’s successes.
My revelation didn’t help me. I was one of the main speakers and I was having a crisis of conscience minutes before I was due to deliver my presentation.
Do I just go through the motions? I wondered anxiously. Or do I bare my soul? Am I allowed to let it all hang out? Panic set in. Will the conference organisers drag me off the stage if I get real? What if the delegates, who’ve paid good money to listen to “successful people”, walk out in protest?
30 minutes to go. What should I do?
I ran over my talk. I checked through my notes. I perused my PowerPoint presentation.
Yeah, it’s all good. All valid. Motivating and helpful. Great take-home points.
But I still feel like a fraud.
10 minutes to go. Oh, freak! What do I do?
What did I do?
I’ll tell you at the end of this chapter. (And the answer is probably not what you think.)
After the session was over, I reflected on my pre-session angst and got honest with myself. Why did I feel so pressured to come across as “altogether”, as “successful”? Why did I feel I had to present this triumphant picture of unbroken success?
Two answers emerged. The first I’ll tackle in this chapter. The second in the next chapter.
Okay, no more beating around the bush. Here’s the first answer that dawned on me.
My definition of success needed a serious edit.
My definition of success went something like this: upwards and onwards!
And by this, I meant continually upwards and always onwards. To quote a certain Buzz Lightyear,
“To infinity and beyond!”
I was not alone in my delusion. In our world today, we generally define success as continual achievement. Growing influence. Wider reach. Bigger bank balance. More clients. Better reviews. More followers. And the faster, the better. In a phrase, the accumulation of more.
Right? Maybe I’ve overstated it, but if we were using a graph to explain success, it wouldn’t be remiss to depict success with a bold green arrow whose trajectory pointed up. A line with a sharp, steep gradient.
The problem with this definition is that not only does it present a false picture of reality; it’s also a sure recipe for burnout.
For many, the illusion of success, as per this definition, acts like the proverbial carrot and stick. Like the donkey, we chase the carrot with relish not for a moment asking who tied the vegetable to a stick and why they’re being so cruel. And the more pointed question: why are we so eager to have it?
Yes, some catch the carrot. They enjoy a season of unbroken success and then get invited to speak at conferences to show off their awesomeness. They share stories of their success, possibly hint at one or two challenges, but confirm the definition: “If you’re not upwards and onwards, you must be doing something wrong!” (No one says those actual words, of course, but it is implied.)
What we often fail to appreciate is the singular set of circumstances that merged to catalyse the success in the first place (things like timing, the right connections, the unique skill-set of the individual, good fortune, and the like).
What we don’t see is the toll it often takes to keep up the pace (especially when one needs to maintain a degree of hype). What we also don’t see is the despair that sinks in when the season of unbroken success suddenly comes to an end.
And yes, it always comes to an end. Because that’s what seasons do. They change.
This was the lesson I had to learn, the lesson that helped me adjust my definition of success.
As the wisdom writer said,
“To everything there is a season.”
Just as there are seasons to life, so there are seasons (or cycles) to business. After summer comes autumn. And winter follows quickly behind it. But don’t despair. Spring is on the wind, and a glorious summer awaits. Then again, when basking in summer’s glow, don’t get smug. For autumn will keep us grounded.
“That’s all good and fine, but what do I do with all this?” I hear you ask.
Whether you’re just about to start your maiden voyage, or you’ve long left the harbour, make sure you define your destination correctly.
What is Success to You?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we turn success into a wishy-washy, come-what-may endeavour.
I remember seeing a cartoon strip that exposed the emptiness of this way of thinking. Armed with a bow, the cartoon character shoots an arrow into a wooden fence. He then paints a target around the embedded arrow. In this way, you see, he’ll never miss. But what’s the point other than a laugh?
I am not suggesting such a lackadaisical approach to something as important as the success of your business.
So, what am I suggesting?
First, let’s start with a good dictionary definition of success. Here it is:
success [suh k-ses] – noun
the favourable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavours; the accomplishment of one’s goals.
Success is the accomplishment of one’s goals.
That’s a good start. This isn’t a definition shaped by external forces and outside pressures. It’s a definition that takes into account your aspirations, aspirations that are contextualised by your situation: your unique gift-mix, your strengths and weaknesses, your opportunities and limitations. It’s not determined by Steve Stunning, the conference speaker, or Peter Perfect, the industry guru.
So, What are Your Goals?
If it starts with “I want to be the best at…” well, good luck with that. (You may well become the best at what you do, but take the pressure off yourself before you actually start, okay?) Or if it begins with “I want to make heaps of money…” well, all the best. (I certainly hope you make heaps of money, but this isn’t a helpful goal at all.)
It goes without saying that we go into business to make a profit. No one goes into business to make a loss. So, set your aspirations higher than merely acquiring filthy lucre.
If it starts with “I want to provide a great product or service that adds value to the world, a business from which I earn a good living,” then you’re on the right path.
Every successful business offers a quality product or service. And (most) successful businesses offer outstanding customer service, too. Pitch your goal into that space and you’re closer to success (and for that matter, the satisfaction that comes from taking pride in your work). Anchor this in a sincere determination to add value to your world, and you’re tapping into something powerful.
And yes, I understand that technically, goals should be smart-goals. You know, specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. However, I’m referring to big-picture goals here. Aspirations not targets. An overall sense of ambition not monthly objectives. We’re talking reason for being not just results on a spreadsheet. (Yes, both are valid, but the order is important. Get the big picture in focus, and specific targets are easier to define.)
Second, once you’ve gotten a handle on what success is, factor into your aspirations the reality of seasons.
There’ll be times when you’re enjoying an upward trajectory, and there will be times when you’re enduring a downward spin. There’ll be times for sowing and times for reaping. There will be times to celebrate and times, well, when you’re not.
As Will Smith said,
“Don’t let your successes get to your head or your failures get to your heart.”
Good advice from the Prince of Bel-Air.
If I were using a graph to explain this edited version of success, I’d depict it by drawing a modest green arrow whose trajectory rises then falls, two points up, one point down—a line whose overall gradient is shallow. Success involves scaling both mountains and traversing through valleys. Peaks and troughs. Highs and lows. Cycles.
Yes, the trajectory should be a gradual upward curve. If it doesn’t, a new set of questions need to be asked and answered. (And it takes a whole other level of courage to be honest in such a situation.)
But, and here’s the point, don’t be a slave to an onwards-and-upwards definition of success. Understand the seasons of business, and learn to manage them. When it’s time to plough the field, do so assiduously. When it’s time to sow, do so generously. At harvest time, reap humbly, knowing you’ll need to till the field again before ploughing soon. And remember, a lot of patience is needed throughout the process.
So, what did I do when I walked onto that stage?
I compromised. Yep, not what you thought I’d do, right?
I walked onto the stage knowing that I was going to get real. To be honest. To share my heart. And my failings. But I also knew I needed to honour the organisers and offer value to those in the crowd looking for take-home points. So, I divided my time into two parts. In the first half, I shared about the foundation of the success I’d enjoyed. In the second, I wore my heart on my sleeve. I shared the reality of the challenges I was facing, and the tough year I’d endured. I shared both my successes and my failures. I concluded the session with my conviction that though I was enduring a winter, spring was around the corner.
A standing ovation. Yeah, I didn’t see that coming either.
On the feedback I received afterwards from the organisers, delegates voted my session as the most rewarding and enjoyable of all the sessions they attended.
To think, I nearly robbed them of the experience and myself of an important lesson because of my ego.
Tsk. The pressures of the onwards-and-upwards delusion.
Yes, my winter didn’t last. Spring did bring new life, as it always does.
Redefining Business Success
That’s a lot to chew on, I admit. But it’s important stuff.
Don’t rush this. Give it the attention it deserves. First, clarify your aspirations. Success isn’t a “to infinity and beyond” upwards trajectory.
And second, factor in the reality of changing seasons.
Business, like life, is often a few steps forwards, a few steps sideways, and yes, a few steps backwards.
Just make sure you’re always leaning forward 😉
Okay, I hope you got something out of that. Next, we look at the forces that drive us as individuals and business people. Eye-opening stuff.