Defining Success and that Dirty Little “A” Word
How often have you come home from a photo shoot feeling awesome about how well everything seemed to go and how great some of the pictures you managed a back of camera sneak at seemed to look, only to put those photos on the computer and then think “Well shit, what’s so amazing about these. What was I thinking?”? I bet there’s a crap-load of you out there who are going “OH MY GAWD YES!” at that, right now. Don’t lie. You are. Why do you think that is?
As Artists (Yes, I said the dirty word) we are hard wired to critique every single aspect of not only our work, but also our lives. Recently, I’ve been going through somewhat of a major change in my life, especially when it comes to my art and my career and I find myself mulling over things with increasing intensity. Let’s face it, this world we live in, this world of photography, of film-making, of teaching… it’s harsh, and not everybody makes it.
But who does make it? What is success? Is success finishing University? Getting your first paying job? Starting your own business? Getting published? What is it for you that defines your success? For me? Well… I find it incredibly difficult to answer. Everyone’s situation is different and in the past few months I have found myself wondering if I can truly call myself a success.
What does it mean to move to a foreign country, to learn a language, to integrate into a new culture, to start a business? What does that truly, really mean? Have I actually been successful at these things or am I just kidding myself? In his cute little inspiration book “Steal Like an Artist” Austin Kleon talks of something called the “impostor syndrome” which he quotes the clinical definition as being a “psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalise their accomplishments.” Sometimes, all it can take is a simple phrase in an even simpler book to whack you upside the head. An epiphany perhaps? Or maybe just simple realisation that maybe, just maybe, you ARE successful. I may not internalise my so-called accomplishments but I did internalise that little snippet of the book. And I can’t stop thinking about it.
We often think of success as the sum of what others make of our end results. But I’m starting to wonder if that’s really true. It’s not uncommon for us to hear from friends, family, clients that we are amazing or we do amazing work and most of us accept it graciously while simultaneously cringing inside and feeling like that impostor I mentioned above. I know you do. So why do we find it so hard to accept? We hear this and we see this in our growth, whether that be growth in our process or growth in our business. It’s there. So why is it so hard to actually believe it. Isn’t seeing believing? What have I actually achieved?
So frequently I am told I need to sit back and marvel at how “awesome” and “brave” my decision to take the path I took is, and I shift uncomfortably in my chair every. single. time. I HEAR what they are saying but inside… those little annoying voices are screaming “Impostor! Faker! More wine!” and I start to think back on my years since I first made that all important decision to actually quit my 9 to 5, soul-sucking, white-collar office job and jump off that proverbial ledge and into what is now my career. If we’re being frank, here, I didn’t jump. I was pushed. When the Global Economic Crisis finally hit Australia, it was bad. People were being let go from their jobs everywhere and losing their pensions and I was no exception. So when I was pulled into that tiny little office with my Boss and a woman from HR I knew what it meant. I was being given my marching orders.
As we sat there in the cramped, glass-walled grey space I began to notice that they looked more nervous than I did. It was weird. I was the one being made redundant yet THEY were the ones who were nervous? It wasn’t until I came out and said that I knew why I was there and that I was okay with it that they relaxed and took deep breaths of relief. For me, it wasn’t the end of the world. I had already began to take my weekend warrior status as a photographer to the next step and I was preparing to go full-time. But up until then I actually lacked the drive. I was scared. What if it didn’t work? What if I didn’t have enough money saved? What if I sucked? But in that moment, it all made perfect sense. I needed to jump. And because I am afraid of heights, I needed that little push to do it. I got that push in the form of losing my job. So I jumped.
Not long after that I met my Husband and since then it’s been almost 5 years since I first moved to Sweden and RE-started my own business. I thought, I can do it back in Sydney, why not in Stockholm? And believe me, I had my reservations. And it’s put challenges on me that I probably would have never had to deal with back in Australia, but the one defining thing I have come to realise… whether it be here or back home in Australia…. is that I WANT this. And I want more.
I always ask myself what it would have been like to fully run my business back in Sydney the way I do here. Would it have been quicker? Yes. Would it have been easier? Most definitely. Would I be more successful? And there it is. That little impostor voice creeps back in and hurtles me back into that inability to accept what is. Am I really successful? Am I really creating what I set out to create? Am I happy with the work I’ve produced so far? The short answer is no. The long answer is who the frack really knows, anyway! What I do know, is that while this Impostor Syndrome is hiding in my shadows, I also feel that it is something I am constantly trying to overcome. So what does that mean?
It means that as long as I don’t feel good enough, I will keep striving to be better. Not keep striving to be good enough. Because good enough is mediocre and I want more. I do not believe that I will ever fully, 100% perfectly feel so sure of myself that I’ll stop shifting uncomfortably in my chair every time someone offers a compliment, but I do believe that that’s almost what defines an artist. I guess the phrase “Tortured Artist” is something we can all relate to at some stage in our careers. But that thing in the back of my mind that causes me to wonder “Am I good enough?” is enough to tell me that to me, I am not, which means I will always try and beat that.
The day that I can sit and say “Gee. I’m fracking amazing. There’s nothing more I can do to be more amazing.” is the day I will call it quits as an Artist. So every time I come home from a shoot and feel that feeling of “What’s so amazing?”, and after reeling from self loathing, it only makes me more determined. After all, success is relative, right?. Cut yourself some slack, now and then. But then stop it and get back to work, slacker. 😉