Artifex Succedere! and Other Incantations

Wait. What? What sort of title is that for an “Into The Foto" blogpost. Well, there's a reason. Of late (well, actually over the past several years) I've been seeing all manner of posts that sound way too much like medicine shows of old; items such as “10 Things to improve your Landscapes”, “10 Foods to Avoid!”, “ISIS, 10 things to know!” and most recently “The 10x Principle: The Only Difference Between Success and Failure as a Photographer”. It's the last one that kinda broke the damn dam and has had me working on this post for the last three weeks.

Before I go any further, I want to post the following disclaimer:
“I have an immense amount of respect for Eric and for the work that he has done as a photographer, blogger, interviewer and educator. This post (I hope) begins a dialectic on what success and failure as an artist is compared to that of, say a geophysicist, dot-com entrepreneur or hockey player. ”
In my introduction I alluded to medicine shows. I always view universal absolutes with a jaundiced eye for a variety of reasons; mainly I've seen way too many cure-alls come down the pike each promising to fix, once and for all, poor data collection, bad project management, and a weak wrist shot. It is almost as if we don't really want to think for ourselves and would rather have someone throw out a panacea so that we can continue to flail around until the next wunderwaffen gets thrown over the wall by the marketdroids at Bang-o-grams-R-Us, Sirius Cybernetics or Jacques Latouque Hockey Sticks.


The first thing that struck me in Eric's post was that when his student (I presume) asked: “Will I be a successful photographer?” there was no discussion if the student had any talent for photography in the first place. Without a modicum of talent or at least some creative vision no 12 step program will make you successful. Sure, you can tweet and blog and network and build up your brand but if you don't have any innate talent, you really won't go that far in the Business of Photography.

When I was a kid I wanted to play pro hockey in the worst possible way; stands to reason, I'm a Canadian. But no matter how hard I worked, no matter how hard I practiced I faced a major hurdle: cement hands. 30 odd years later I picked up the game again and yup, still cement hands.

If you are going to embark on the Business of Photography, be honest with yourself. Do you have any talent for this? And this includes thing such as creative vision and an ability to deal with people like Bridezilla.

Success? Failure?

This brings me to the next observation: nowhere is “success” or “failure” defined.  Judging from the remainder of the article it appears that these are defined in terms of money and prestige. I posit that it's way more than that.

I'm going dispose of Failure right now and not return to it. Failure is not the antithesis of success as some would have it; rather Failure is one of the foundations of success. If I don't make a mistake (failure) at least once a day then that is one less opportunity to learn and develop. The only result of a failure that is a “true” failure is when you do not to seize upon that mistake and learn from it. For whatever reason we equate a business folding as a failure. Bollocks. Businesses fold for all manner of reasons and if the entrepreneur does not look back at what happened and learn from it then it is a failure. Failure as a photographer is not making the image, not growing as an artist, not treating your subjects with honour and dignity, not saying anything significant and deluding yourself that you are doing these when, in fact, you are not.

Remember the words of Buckminster Fuller:
“There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes”
What then is success? In business I suppose it means profits, cash flow and a sustained business presence. What about for the artist? What about for the photographer? Dave duChemin makes this observation in his “Craft and Vision” series:
“To some it will be a great business that replaces your soul-numbing day job, for others it means creating work you love even if no one ever sees it.”
So, everything hinges on your definition of success. Only the individual can do that and even then it is as elusive to define as it is to attain. Just make sure you know what you are getting yourself in for, unlike Mr. Anchovy:

I can't tell you what success is because I don't know your circumstances; I can tell you what success isn't based on my experiences as father, geophysicist, bespoke software writer, and one time dot-com 1.0 entrepreneur and hack photographer:

  • Success isn't overnight, it's incremental. You'll never wake up one morning a “success”. You may wake up one morning smarter that last night, richer than last night, more content than last night. 
  • Success isn't easy. No matter how you define it, big or small, getting there is hard work. 
  • Success doesn't destroy families, relationships, your integrity or your soul.
  • Success doesn't come at all costs. See above.
  • Success isn't about money. 

And sorry, I can't tell you how to attain your success and avoid those pitfalls; only you can sort that out.

Success and the Work-Life Balance

I'm reminded of a story that I heard somewhere, back before the idea of work-life balance started getting ink. It's about what constitutes success and what matters in life.

What Really Matters in Life? 

To turn Eric's exemplar from Thiel around (“You must study the endgame before anything else.”) : You have to be honest with what your endgame is; the fisherman knew  what his endgame was before he even started.

History is Written by the Victors

Eric quotes extensively from two Web 2.0 “captains of industry” but in Business as in War, history is written by the victors and their hagiographers.  After each major conflict or outrageous business success there is a “memoir boom” as participants from all levels rush to their typewriters trying to cement their place in the national histories and show how they, and only they, made “the difference at the Khyber Pass”, “ensured victory at Wadi al-Hira”, or “prevented disaster at D-Day”.

It was getting so out of hand after World War II that even the Goons were poking fun of it. I remember a Goon Show from many years ago where Major Bloodnok, to the SFX of a typewriter says: “The day war broke, I said to Allenbrooke, "You fool, don't you realize that...” In fact there is entire Goon Show devoted to lampooning the whole memoir writing wheez: “Seagoon's Memoirs”!

So too, now.

Every dot-com gazillionaire has, is or will be generating endless ghost written words about why they were successful and their competitors a bunch of nebbishes who where incapable of arranging a piss up in a brewery. All of these tomes may have a germ of truth in them, but all of them are written a posteriori through the coloured glasses of hubris and ulterior motive: usually to confirm the corporate “founding legend”.

These authors most certainly weren't thinking of the management gems they are now writing about when they were in the heat of battle building the company. I'll invoke a military analogy here; it was more along the lines of “We need to take reference X to take City Y. (strategic goal). To do that we need to first encircle Hill Q (tactical goal) and then control roads A, B and C (tactical goal). We will succeed using this battalion, that air wing and that tank corps.” Of course it never quite works that way because of unanticipated counter attacks, equipment failures and other tactical goals that where never thought of in the first place. When they get to X and C it's sit back, catch your breath and then lay plans for the next strategic goal.

At the end of the conflict of course the generals and field marshals look back and say “Oh weren't we clever, we did R, S and T and that is how we succeeded in taking Y.” This is what gets written in the memoirs when in actual fact while R, S, and T may have been helpful in the taking of Y, if they were honest with themselves, R, S and T were responses to particular circumstances not part of any great gift of wisdom and in fact the success was that they could extemporize and create R, S and T before the other guy did.

Back when a certain Netherlands based company was an investor in my Web 1.0 company, I recall sitting outside the great man's office waiting for a meeting to finish. It was quite a heated discussion and finally I heard a fist slam a desk and I heard a colleague shout:
“Damn it Jan! Circumstances make leaders! Leaders do not make circumstances!”
It is the circumstance that allows a person to become a leader by reacting, developing, and deploying the correct strategy and tactics. A leader attempting to manufacture circumstances to apply strategies and tactics (remember R, S, and T?) that worked in the past is asking for trouble.

What worked in the past should be recognized and used as a backdrop to inform future decisions, but to describe why SomeCo was successful after the fact by spouting atomized aphorisms that have been bent to fit the corporate legend is hubris at its finest.

Applying these atomized aphorisms to your unique circumstances is just asking for trouble. At best you can adopt the practices that fit your you and your situation.

10x? Shmenex!

Hate to break this to everybody out there: only once a generation is there a musician, photographer, a physicist, a medical figure, sporting figure, whatever that is ten times better. In business it's only once every business cycle, if that. Look at the NHL: Howe, Orr, Gretzky, Lemieux, Crosby, they only happen once a generation. Further, these guys weren't ten times better than the one before them, they where only ten times better than what was in the league at the time.

In technology true disruption has only happened a few times: The Mac, The PC, Smartphones, the World Wide Web; everything else is incremental. Consider: Twitter is just an evolution of IRC. Facebook, Google+? Their roots are in the old news groups (remember rec.alt.photography for example?). Texting? Shoot I still have an ICQ account that dates back to the nineties! The cloud? That's just FTP for dummies if all you do is store your data on it; for cloudy computing resources look up time sharing (and I don't mean condos in Puerto Vallarta).

For Google to trumpet that “we only do things that are ten times better than what went before” is as if to laugh! Is:

  • Android 10x better than Windows, Linux or OS-X?
  • Chrome 10x better than Firefox?
  • Google Search 10x better than Bing or Yahoo?
  • Google Maps 10x better than Apple Maps?
  • Google Nexus 10x better than an iPad or Surface Pro? 

10x? Shmenex!

The Artist as a Young Brand

Doing a quick survey (well, I googled the web) I noticed the following: if you search for “personal coaches” (a really hot ticket a few years ago) and “personal branding” you'll see that pretty well the same motley crew pops up. 'nuff said.

Why in heaven's name would you, as an artist, want to brand yourself. Are you a commodity? Really? Do you need sloganeering to define who you are? Do you want to be thought of as some catchphrase? “Dodge: Ram Tough”, “Chevrolet: The Heartbeat of America”. Do you want to be pigeonholed?

I recall an interview Lee Ritenour did before a concert in Japan where he said something along the lines of:
“...it's so refreshing to play in the Far East. I can take my music in some different directions and everyone understands what I am trying to do. If I do that back home people get upset...”
And what if you decide you want to change your brand, beyond an exploration of other things as Mr. Ritenour above? Good luck with that. On the web, everything is remembered so if you don't want to be the uber-wedding photographer you once were and want to be known for f64 type landscapes that will be a massive undertaking. Ask any company that needed to re-brand; business schools have tons of case studies about what it cost those companies.

I also don't buy this thing that a brand is a tangible indication of trust. A brand is what the ad-men say it is. Branding is propaganda, dammit! You are who you are and if you are a person of integrity, humanity and talent that will get around and you'll end up fat and happy. Trust me.

And Finally

Eric provides a possible framework for commercial success in this ADHD world we currently occupy. It has little to do with photography or being successful at photography.

It's unfortunate that we all want a simple recipe for whatever we deem as success. We seem to have lost the mental discipline to truly understand what the heck we are doing and rely on public intellectuals that dispense aphorisms and treat these as oracular utterances guaranteeing good outcomes if we do the incantations properly. We have become a product of a Powerpoint mindset.

You know what? There is no single thing, no single technique, no single paradigm, workflow, process, voodoo spell, Potteresque faux Latin mumbo-jumbo or Powerpoint slide deck that will guarantee you success at anything: geophysics, bespoke software development, hockey, business, photography, anything. All what these things can do, at best and only if the deity is willing and the crick don't rise, is create a possible environment for possible success – nothing else.

It's a crap shoot. Always was, always will be and anybody who tells you different is selling you something (like snake oil). If you buy into it just make sure you pay for it in unobtanium: that way neither of you will be out of pocket. Remember the great poet Burns:
“The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy! ”
But, (there's always a but isn't there?) if all what you get out of this article are these:

  • “Go out and try. What's the worst that could happen? Exactly.”
  • “Ignore the self styled experts, the potion sellers and the 12 step specialists. They are in business to make money, usually by taking yours.”
  • “Do your best at what ever you do. Do it with all your heart, with integrity, with respect. You will succeed, however you may define that Success. It won't be overnight, you might be on your deathbed, but you will succeed. It may not be what you thought success would be, but you will succeed”
  • “Failure is the foundation of Success. How you respond to Failure will determine your Success”
  • “Horatio Alger wrote fiction.”
  • “Ignore all “Keys to Success” lists (like this one).” 

then I will have, within the confines of this article, succeeded (a very modest definition of success).

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