Relentless

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Last year, I followed two people via social media as they undertook seemingly impossible feats of endurance. In both cases, they had invented their own torture. Both wanted to see where their limits were. Both of them failed in that regard. Which is to say, they completed their immense self-imposed odysseys.

James Lawrence completed 50 Ironman-distance triathlons in 50 different US states in 50 consecutive days. Every day, for 50 days, he swam 3.84km, cycled 180.25km and ran 42.2km. Maybe you know this, maybe you don’t: 42.2km is a marathon. A gargantuan undertaking.

Luke Tyburski set himself the goal of getting from Morocco to Monaco in 12 days. He planned to swim from Morocco to Spain, cycle through Spain to France and then run the south coast to Monaco. 2,000km, all told.

Both James and Luke went to the depths of their souls during their respective journeys. Unlike James, though, Luke didn’t cross his finish line in one piece. Where James got stronger as his challenge wore on, Luke suffered a series setbacks that almost snatched his dream from him. Most significantly, he tore a muscle in one of his legs. For most people, this would have ended their journey. It would have stopped them dead, making it impossible for them to move another inch. Luke proved relentless, though. He pushed on, even after the capabilities of his body had long been exhausted. He forced himself to endure the screaming pain in his leg for several days. He only allowed himself to stop when he was leaning up against a rock that marked the border between France and Monaco.

In the past month, Luke has released a documentary about his “Ultimate Triathlon”.

It’s a film about relentlessness.

Relentless pain.

Relentless setbacks.

Relentless effort.

Relentless spirit.

Relentless love and support.

Relentless drive, until, finally, the challenge itself relents.

There are three lessons for creatives in the film (actually, probably many more, but these three are relevant to me at the moment, I suppose).

  1. There is no limit to what you can achieve.
  2. You will have to work relentlessly to get it.
  3. You will need the help of others.

We all want our work to be recognised. We all want a decent living from our creativity. Maybe some of us want more. Celebrity. Fortune. What those YouTubers have.

Whatever it is that you want from your creative work, you have to ask yourself, are you being relentless in pursuing it?

If you aren’t, chances are, it’s the wrong goal.

By the way, if you want to hear James Lawrence’s story (it’s a corker too), go here: The Iron Cowboy Did It! (Rich Roll podcast). And just to complete the picture, Rich Roll had a conversation with Luke too, which is how I first found out about the Ultimate Triathlon.)

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Fighting Through the Tough Times

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September 2016 artwork for the Documentary Photographer Podcast

My experience of making a living as a creative can be summed up in two sentences.

It’s brutal.

It’s fulfilling.

Most of the time, I can’t see beyond the brutality. Life is a relentless struggle to find work and pay the bills that leaves me sliced open and bloodied. I’m nothing more than a crimson stain mashed into the dirt.

That makes it difficult to love the creative life. I resent the pain it brings. The most extreme manifestation has been the decline of my interest in documentary photography—once the only creative process I truly cared about.

In fact, I fell out of love with photography as a whole. It was hard to motivate myself to pick up a camera. They became soulless lumps of circuitry and metal. Maybe if I hit myself over the head hard enough with one of them, it’d stop the voices of commercial terror and doubt in my head. That would be good. (Although, did that account for all the blood in the dust?)

Luckily, I’d reached a level of professional competency that none of this affected the work I delivered to clients. But it did erase the enjoyment. And it stopped me from wanting to develop and get better. I did what was asked of me, but worked within expectations rather than exceeding them. I’d stopped moving forward. That’s a creative and commercial death sentence in the long term. You can’t nurse yourself through to the end of your career like that and expect anything good to come of it.

When documentary photography was my life, I created a podcast, mostly to help me learn from other photographers by picking their brains. It was also something I thought other (documentary) photographers would enjoy and get benefit from.When my enjoyment of photography waned, so did my interest in the podcast. Until today, I hadn’t released an episode for well over a year. I just couldn’t face it. The thought alone made me sick. So much so, I came close to deleting the whole thing from the internet, until I realised that doing so would be the act of a stupid head.

Turns out, part of the solution of overcoming antipathy towards something is engaging with that very thing. No big life lesson there. Just one we I need to be reminded of, repeatedly. Maybe you do too?

There is a caveat for a creative endeavour such as photography. You have to be in a position to engage with it on your terms, rather than someone else’s. The demands imposed by commerce on my creative life have been debilitating. I’m not the first to have this experience. That’s why personal work, doing something just for yourself, is vital. Unfortunately, I haven’t been in a spot where I felt I could produce it. No time, no money, no energy, no [fill in the blank]. I have had all the excuses. Some were real, of course. The past decade has posed genuine challenges.

Today, I found myself with an unexpected window of time and the unedited recording of an hour-long conversation with documentary photographer and film maker Damian Drohan. (Coincidentally, one of the topics we discussed was overcoming inertia and antipathy towards a former creative devotion.) We’d spoken almost a month ago, and I was starting to feel bad that I hadn’t done anything with the recording.

It felt really good to produce the resulting episode of The Documentary Photographer podcast. So much so, that I was able to tackle another job that had been hanging over me: creating new cover artwork for the podcast and weeding out the inconsistencies and errors that had crept into the associated blog over the years.

The blog feels refreshed. So do I.

I’m hoping the same trick will have the same outcome for my interest in producing documentary photography again. The funk lingers, but maybe not for much longer.

I’d post the episode of the podcast in a player on this blog, but sadly WordPress doesn’t allow such things on its .com hosting service. Instead, you can listen to Damian speak a lot of sense here: The Documentary Photographer Podcast—Episode 25: Damian Drohan—Relentlessness.

Lesson from a Dog

We have a dog.

She drives me nuts.

She’s always underfoot.

And she is relentless in her pursuit of one thing: getting the humans to throw her ball for her.

Relentless.

Every time one of us comes in through the kitchen door, she’ll scamper from wherever she is and present herself, full of expectation. Ball Time!

The response is pretty much always the same: she gets told to go away. Sometimes nicely. Sometimes, because I’m the world’s grumpiest person, harshly.

She sags and drags herself under the small table in the kitchen, or back to her basket. Her ball-chasing dreams destroyed.

It’s crushing to see. But I could spend my entire day throwing the ball for her. I don’t have that sort of time.

The same happens when someone leaves through the kitchen. She trots out behind them, sneaks out through the closing door (she has this down to a fine art), only to be told to get the hell back in when she’s discovered outside.

She mopes her way back inside and the door closes on her. No ball time. Again.

It’s an endless cycle.

But she never lets up.

Because, sometimes, there she is, big expectant eyes, tail swishing from side to side, ready to go and we relent. She gets her wish and bolts out of the door in case we change our minds before she’s through it.

It strikes me that there is a lesson here for us as creatives. We’re not good with rejection. It’s crushing. But rejection is part of life and part of business. It’s hard to knock on doors with our work in hand, only to be sent away—sometimes dismissively. It can stop us from knocking on more doors and trying to get meetings with people we’d like to work with. ‘No’ is really hard to take. Who needs it?

I remember, early in my career, setting up a meeting with an agency in Dublin, only to find they’d forgotten I was coming and to overhear the receptionist tell the person I was meeting: “He’s only a photographer”. They sent me away. Too busy.

Even when meetings did go ahead, the vast majority of them died within the first few minutes. ‘No’ was the default setting.

So I stopped trying to set up meetings.

That was the wrong thing to do. I should have set up even more meetings. Because, eventually, someone would have thrown the ball for me. And the more meetings I would have had, the quicker I would have heard ‘Yes’. I wish I was like our dog. Relentless.

Are you relentless?

A Response to Copyright Infringement

I have friends (I know, it surprises me too) who own a design business called Baba Studio. Karen and Alex are very good at what they do. They have built a world-class business that has a big reputation in a particular niche: the world of magical realism, tarot card decks in particular. In this niche, which, you might be surprised to learn, is a substantial one, they are a big deal. Big. Capital ‘B’. Leaders. Others copy their style, their themes and their designs.

Very recently, someone went a step further. I say ‘step’. It was more of a rocket-propelled stride. A company called Oranum published a deck of tarot cards under its own brand using Baba Studio’s designs. They did so without attribution, without licence, without permission and without paying Baba Studio a penny. Copyright infringement, anyone?

Oranum says it bought the designs from from a third-party it believed had struck a “distribution deal” with Baba Studio. It claims to be innocent of any wrongdoing. I have to wonder, though, why Oranum didn’t think it strange that Baba Studio would sell its design files to anyone who wanted to produce carbon copies of its products. Especially as it’s common knowledge in the tarot space that Baba Studio spends years and quite a lot of money developing its decks, which are collectors’ items. That’s besides the point, though. The law doesn’t allow ignorance as a defence. Claiming to be unaware of copyright infringement doesn’t protect you if you commit it.

Karen told me that when she contacted Oranum, the response she got both verbally and in writing wasn’t, shall we say, ‘polite’. Perhaps Oranum would have been less hostile had it realised whom it was dealing with. Baba Studio might be a small company, but Karen and Alex are very experienced people indeed. They have a top-notch international trademark lawyer and a top-notch international copyright lawyer. They also have a case that is the very definition of open-and-shut. Instead of being intimidated by Oranum’s posturing, they have fired off a devastating legal broadside.

In addition to the boardroom, there is a second arena in which this is playing out. Online. Facebook, mostly.

Oranum went public with a statement and a GIF (below), proclaiming its support for art and its love for everyone in general. This is at odds with what Karen and Alex tell me they were experiencing from Oranum offline at the same time. They weren’t feeling the love so much.

The response to Oranum’s Facebook statement was sceptical and plenty of people waded in with negative comments. In reply, Oranum blocked people, saying they were being abusive. Oranum may also have deleted comments, although it denies doing so. However, at least one person protests to have had a comment (non-abusive in nature, they say) deleted by Oranum.

The stream of Facebook comments must have rattled Oranum a little because it told Karen to “call off her dogs”. That the comments were from genuinely angered fans acting independently and out of their own sense of injustice didn’t occur to Oranum. (Strangely, I can’t find Oranum’s dog comment on Facebook anymore, although people’s responses to it were still there when I last looked—and I do have a screen capture of it).

Most of us might have left it at that. The legal battle is as good as won. The social media battle has already been settled. But, did I mention earlier that Karen and Alex are hugely experienced? Instead of letting the dust settle, they have kicked up more and turned the whole affair to their advantage. They commissioned a short video that parodies Oranum’s GIF and posted it on their own Facebook page. Produced less than a week ago, it has already hit 16,000 views and hasn’t run out of steam yet.

Baba Studio has turned a substantial threat to its income into a hugely successful opportunity to connect with the tarot community and with other artists. And, of course, they’ve struck a blow on behalf of all of us as creatives.

Peeve & Mr Montgomery

Softy, softly. That’s how it’s started. The plan.

It’s the only way it’ll get done. I’ve begun so many grand projects, only for them to fizzle out prematurely. My life is a trail of the abandoned. I’ve come to recognise that my ambition often outstrips my resources. My available time and energy are finite and feeble in the face of the unbridled ambition I can conjure up. Consequently, I’ll set off on a creative marathon like a puppy—all spring and bounce. My puff dwindles quickly, though, and the project dies. The puppy lies down, spent.

So, I’m adopting a new approach. Small steps, regularly. Over time, imperceptibly, it adds up.

And nothing too grand. Not for a while, anyway.

For me, 2016 needs to be about steadying the ship, getting clarity on the direction I want to go in and making a solid start.

Here’s part of the puzzle. A cartoon series about food. There is a hugely ambitious expanded story behind it (I mean Game of Thrones ambitious), but for now this thin slice will suffice. It’s enough to be getting on with.

A cat and a fish. Fast friends. Discussing one of life’s finer aspects: food. My style is still developing from frame to frame, which is interesting to experience. I’m looking forward to the day Peeve’s lines settle down.

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Stop Wasting Time, You Idiot! (Not You. Me)

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Super-yachts in Antibes, February 2016. Hulking reminders that I still haven’t started on my plan for future financial security. © 2016 Roger Overall

I was in Antibes this past week for a video shoot with a client. Lovely location, even at this time of year. We spent two days down in the port filming with super-yachts as our backdrop. Massive things. Expensive beyond comprehension—especially when you think they spend most of their time moored in one port or another, crewed and primed to go at the drop of a hat should the owner dain to turn up. But they rarely do, apparently. The purpose of a super-yacht is owning one, rather than spending time on it. Now, that’s wealth.

It’s not only the yacht owners who are dripping with money. The crew are too. They get paid well ($75,000+ salaries are pretty common) and they don’t have to spend a cent on living expenses. Their accommodation, clothes, food, all the stuff you and I need to cover is taken care of. On top of which, they don’t have to pay income tax. They live on a yacht, after all, not in a nation state as such. So nobody has a claim on their income.

The average career for yacht crew is anywhere between ten to 15 years. In that time, they will earn at least $600k. Chances are they’ll earn $1 million. With no expenses or taxes, remember.

How many do you think leave the business with some money stashed away?

Remarkably few. The vast majority fritter away all that money, and along with it the opportunity to be financially independent by the time they reach 35.

Only between ten to 20 per cent are smarter and manage their money so they leave the business financially solid.

How do I know?

My client is a specialist yachting financial advisor. Their quest is to help people set themselves up so that they can pursue whatever life they want when they come ashore—or “swallow the anchor”, as one former yachtie put it to me.

I have no money. I haven’t been financially secure since the day I started working for myself. My financial future is uncertain. I don’t expect to retire and live off a pension. I’m going to need something else. Hearing about the opportunity in yachting made me regret not knowing about it when I was a young man. Sadly, that ship has sailed—in absolutely every sense. (Quite how I would have dealt with my legendary seasickness is a big question, but for $1 million I reckon I could put up with a lot).

Being around financial planners for the week brought home the truth that I need to get a shift on if I want to put something in place that will feed me when I’m too feeble to work substantial hours any more. Planning for the future requires a measure of certainty about the present, however. Certainty is one thing I don’t have much of. That’s the nature of a career built on hopping from one creative project to the next.

Step 1, then, is to create a business model that is geared towards recurring income. That’s what Show & Tell is all about. I’ll still do project work, but the ambition is to build lasting content creation relationships with clients.

There is no guarantee that Step 1 will work. It’s going OK at the moment, but the company is so young we’re really only attracting project work. We don’t yet have the track record as a business that makes us an appealing long-term partner. That’ll come. Or it may not. We might fall flat on our faces before we get to that point. Who knows?

Even if Step 1 comes off, that really only takes my business partner and me up to the point when we retire. We’ll have got that far, at least, but we can’t guarantee that we’ll be swimming in a pot of cash big enough to carry us through until death. Nor will we be able to keep working as hard as we do now for too much longer. If we do, death might visit us an awful lot sooner. That would, I suppose, take care of the problem, but not in a way I’d look forward to.

No, I need to start building an income stream that I can maintain even as an elderly man. Nothing too demanding, physically speaking. And something that I can do from home and doesn’t require expensive equipment.

Cartooning and animation is where my thinking is at the moment. In fact, it’s been my thinking for quite some time. Build an audience (or community, to use the current parlance) that I can gently monetise to sustain me in my advanced years. At the same time, I’ll create a large archive of intellectual property that I might be able to extract value from in other ways. It’s not new thinking. People are already doing this.

The key here is time. Attracting an audience takes many years. Ten years at least, likely longer. Fifteen perhaps.

Wait.

Ten to 15 years?

That reminds me of something.

And just as most yachties waste their ten to 15 year opportunity, I’ve brazenly set about wasting mine.

Do you know how much I’ve done to get started with my plan?

Nothing.

I’ve threatened, sure. Told people. Said big things. But taken little action.

Back home from Antibes, I feel as if I’ve been smacked upside the head. I can’t afford to waste anymore time. I’ll be 48 in a few weeks’ time. Sixty is only 12 years away, if I last that long. (When you get to my age, you stop taking your time for granted). I really, really need to get moving. I must recalibrate my priorities.

Just as soon as I’ve written a blog post about it…

And posted another photograph.

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If I don’t get a hurry on, the sun will set on my ability to create a secure financial future for myself. © 2016 Roger Overall

More Thoughts on Calculating Your Fees

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Should you charge just time and materials, ignoring your creative talent and years of experience?

In a previous post, we looked at a way of setting your fees. It was facts and figures based, and designed to address your particular financial needs. You can find that post here: How to Calculate Your Fees.

Since then, I’ve realised that a couple of things are missing. Don’t get me wrong. The post is solid and I think the advice is useful. It’s just that the calculation is a cold one. Hard. It makes no allowances for intangibles. These intangibles are important, but many clients won’t pay a penny for them. Nevertheless, let’s have a look at a couple.

1. Your creative ability

Creative ability is the kind of thing famous creatives charge sackfuls of cash for.

For example, the cost of creating a painting isn’t the same as its value. The value is more than the hours spent making it and the materials used. It’s more than merely a reflection of the money the creator needs to earn from that particular commission to pay the bills. All of these are important. Of course they are. They are all part of the calculation. But nobody would argue that the value of, say, a Monet was in the paint and canvas. Or the time spent by Monet painting it. The value is in his creative genius.

So, how do you add some recognition of your own creative ability into your pricing?

Tough one.

For a start, you can only think about doing so when you have a distinctive voice and style all your own. Something people can only get from you. Only then are you in a position to add your creative ability to your fee.

Here’s the bad news. Most clients don’t want that. They want safe. They want what everyone else is doing. And they want it cheap. They are less interested in letting you have creative freedom. Why do you think stock imagery is so popular?

But there is some good news too. I’ve noticed that some companies are looking to separate themselves from their competitors in terms of their marketing creative. And they are willing to find extra money to hire the people whose creative ability they admire. I think this trend will continue.

2. You oil the cogs

By this I mean that you are able to make things go smoothly. Ironically, this often means you spend less time doing the job. That’s bad for you if your client is expecting to pay you by the hour.

It’s funny how clients will often baulk at paying someone who is going to make their lives easier more than someone who is going to make their lives harder. It’s a false economy. We all know that. But at the pricing stage, it’s one many companies are less concerned about. It only starts to matter to them if things go wrong during the assignment. By then, it’s too late.

Paying more for an experienced creative who’ll help things go smoothly and contribute to solutions is like buying insurance. But like I say. Not everyone is willing to pay for this.

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that your experience is valuable. Surely that is worth something when you’re setting your fee?