9.20.2019

OT: Coping with long term success. What's next?

Mulling over the idea that Compound Interest 
can be your Best Friend or your Worst Enemy...
whether you buy cameras or not...

Some of us are laid back and seem content to let life wash over us, making do with whatever the universe decides to send along. This cohort falls into jobs and stumble into careers without much thought. Others of us are planners and worker bees and we tend to set goals, set procedures in motion, and constantly push toward some distant pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

I'm not sure where I fall on the continuum but I am discovering one thing: It's more fun to struggle and work hard, and fail, and get back into the game again, than it is to be finally, successful. Why? Because, if you don't have to struggle; if the friction of artistically participating in life is reduced or eliminated, then it seems like there's no point.

"Success" as described by a freelance photographer or small business owner can have many measures and many definitions. A lot of our culture's measures of success have to do with how well we have done financially. Wealth and security are key yardsticks with which to measure small business success.

When I meet with other photographers (or ad agency people, or illustrators, or filmmakers) there is always a question that seems to get asked after everyone is into their second beer, and that is, "Do you have a plan to retire?" And usually what is really being asked is: "Will you ever be able to retire?" The implication being that people in the arts have made a stream of conscious decisions to reject economic stability and security as some sort of required payment for being invested in creative enterprises. For doing their art. For writing their books or painting their canvases.

I am disheartened when, with each mention of my having bought a new piece of gear, the comments pour in questioning whether I have raided my child's college fund, stolen communal money from the kitchen cookie jar, done this behind my partner's back, or if I have just plunged myself into the bowels of sticky credit card debt from which I'll never recover. My acquaintances who opted for STEM careers seem not to be able to conceive of a non-technical/big vision job (like photography) that isn't wedded at the hip with intractable poverty and, at the end of life, financial ruin.

But what if...... what if you had little business successes every day, week, month and year of a long career in the arts? What if you shied away from endless exotic vacations (those are trips which clients are not paying for) and big, fancy cars, and houses which were clearly a stretch too far? What if you ate evening meals that you or your spouse prepared from scratch, in your own dining room, five or six nights a week, for decades at a time (and actually became better chefs than those in 90% of the restaurants you've visited) and saved somewhere between the $9,000 and $13,000 a year the average American family, whose appetite for meals acquired outside the house, spend, on average (family of four, middle class) eating out?

What if you saved up and paid in cash for your cars? What if you started saving when your child was an infant to ensure that you could send them to the college of their choice? What if you put all your "disposable" income in SEP accounts and Roth IRA's? In short, what if you did all the things people in all those other careers do (mostly in concert with HR departments) while you were happily grinding away at a pleasurable career in the arts?

I had a big epiphany this year as I was working on other people's financial legacies. The reveal was that I had followed in my parents' footsteps by doing the 1950's work/live/save construct in which people get decent jobs (or careers), spend less money than they make, invest that money in things that generate compounding interest, and reject the ideas of conventional, contemporary status seeking. No ten thousand dollar watches. No Ferrari in the garage. No skiing in Gstaad. No gold flakes on my butterscotch pudding...And, no gold toilet seats.

Doing the final math I discovered: that I could have retired (with few financial consequences) a few years ago. That I don't need to accept any jobs I don't want and that I can pretty much purchase any gear I want without  impoverishing or inconveniencing anyone in my family. The house is paid for . Our cars are paid for. We have no outstanding debt. We're not in thrall to our credit cards. There's money in the coffers....

At this point of sudden economic realization I hit the wall and experienced my own bout of post responsibility depression. If you don't need to work then you have to come to grips with what it is you really want to do. Why you want to do it. How you want to do it. And all that this entails. You have to find a new target that has meaning for you. A new thing, besides need and want to drive you to do your work.

The realization I've been batting about is related to something I wrote long ago, called "The Passion is in the Risk." (You look it up, I don't get paid to do research...) The whole idea, in a nutshell, is that art works as long as there is fear and friction, and the chance of failure involved. Get too comfortable and you lose the spark that kept you awake at night (sweating the numbers) and working hard at doing your best work during the day.

I wonder if so many of the readers here at VSL are in the same existential boat. Is our random flirtation and dalliance with gear a substitute for the passion we felt for photography when we had to work harder at it?

I don't really have an answer and I haven't figured anything out. But I wonder, if I had the chance to do it all over again (which I may....) whether I should have emulated some of my younger friends and spent every last cent on expensive alcohol, amazingly impressive German cars, and a never ending stream of expensive and emotionally needy partners. Would my work be better now? Even better in the future?

In the end I'm okay with my choices. Now I have to figure out how we succeed once you've been blindsided by success.

the "serious" business face.