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The Art of Exclusion

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If life is short, then it follows that there is more to do in our brief, beautiful days than we could ever accomplish.

It is said that photography is the art of exclusion. What the photographer leaves out of the frame is as important as what he leaves in. Within the frame of the photograph every element pulls the eye, and though not every element demands our attention in the same way, there is only so much impact a frame can contain; the more the included elements compete for that impact, the less impact any one part of the frame can have. That is to say, the photograph is stronger for the photographer’s ability to say no.

The photographer who wants to move hearts or change minds knows that saying yes to all the possible elements and letting them all into the frame is not an act of generosity: it’s a refusal to allow the most important elements to play with the strength with which they’re capable.

No one can do it all, but the pressure to try is paralyzing. And so we say yes to a million efforts that pull us in a million directions, and say no to the most important things in our lives by our refusal to give them the time they need.

But we keep saying yes because we want our lives to have impact. We want to make a difference. We want to love others. But what impact can we have if, by diluting ourselves over a thousand trivialities and the tasks of others, we leave our work undone, or done with less than our full attention and energy? Saying no seems so selfish, but so be it. I don’t think there are many lives so full that we can’t extend ourselves generously to others, so perhaps there’s a middle ground. If you have trouble saying no to others, I want you to look around, make sure no one’s listening, and repeat after me: “I would love to help you. I’m in the middle of a project right now that requires all of my attention. I can give you an hour tomorrow.” Now say it again (this time say it for real, because I know most of you just cheated.) Does it have to be tomorrow? No. But give it some time because if it’s really truly important they’ll be glad for the help, even tomorrow, and if it’s really urgent, they’ll find someone else before then. Do your work first.

Imagine having unlimited funds. You’d give money to almost anyone that asked, wouldn’t you? But now imagine you’ve got money in your pocket but have no idea how much is there. How carefully then would you give it away? What would you choose to spend it on, and to whom or what would you say no? You can say no with a smile. You can apologize. You can be kind about it. But every demand on your time that does not serve you, your work, and the people and causes that mean the most in this world to you are asking an audacious thing when they ask, unblinking, to take a piece of your most precious commodity.

Guard your time fiercely.  Be generous with it, but be intentional about it. Guard it the same way you guard your money. It’s the one resource with which we have increasingly less to do our life’s work, and to be with those we love. Say yes to those things first.

Anarchy-Paperback-196x300The Art of Exclusion is an excerpt from my latest book, A Beautiful Anarchy: When the Life Creative Becomes the Life Created. You can get a copy of that as a paperback (with an included PDF), as a PDF only, or as a Kindle version. You can read, or leave, reviews on the Beautiful Anarchy Blog.

“A Beautiful Anarchy is a manifesto that has changed how I see the world. Read this book if you want to make more meaningful photographs and live a more complete life.”
~ Chris Orwig, author of Visual Poetry.

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