Tomorrow I’m speaking to a group of creative directors for one of Canada’s most recognized ad agencies. But as I write this I’m still going over my thoughts for the presentation. I don’t have much to contribute to a conversation about the How of creativity at this level, so I’m going to tell stories, and ask some questions. The stories will be drawn from the zig-zagging arch of my own story, and the questions will be about the work we do, and how we do it, specifically these: Is it authentic? Is it narrative? Is it human & alive? Is it good? By this last question I only partly mean quality. I also mean: does it do good?
Those questions keep me calibrated. They help me create work I love, to make a living, and to make a life. If my work isn’t touched by those questions, I don’t do it. I have the luxury now of being so idealistic because I’m no longer struggling to pay my bills. But I’d argue that I’ve always done my work this way and that I am where I am now, in large part, because of this idealism, which I’ve found to be wonderfully pragmatic: my questions help me produce my best work, and create the most value for the world around me.
“Is it authentic? Is it narrative? Is it human & alive? Is it good? By this last question I only partly mean quality. I also mean: does it do good?”
Ultimately we have two things: now and then. We live in the present. In one sense Now is all we really have and I want to do work that gives me meaning, that doesn’t chafe my soul while I do it, or leave a bitter taste in my mouth when it’s done. I have no idea how long I’ll live – none of us do, and most of us try not to think about it. But if today’s the last, it’ll be too late to change my mind about the things I fill my days with. It’ll be too late to do the things I could have done. Should have done. It’ll be too late for more wine, more laughter, and more stories. Now is what we have.
And if now lasts long enough – which it might – it will become Then. And eventually it’ll be over and the only thing left to me will be my legacy. Legacy is the difference between whether you have stories at the end of your life, or regrets. Legacy is the knowledge that what you built mattered in some way, to someone.
You can make a million things with your life. The ability to do that, and to do so while answering yes to those four questions, transcends your constraints. You can do it without a penny to your name; poets and painters often did. You can do it limited by your health and circumstances. You can do it regardless of what life has thrown in your way and the excuses we allow to accumulate and, when they get high enough, to insulate us from the fear. In the end it’s fear that keeps us from living a life – and doing work – that is authentic and human and good. It’s fear that keeps us watching great stories instead of living one. Sure, fear disguises itself as busy-ness and laziness and a million other things. Just like excuses so often look like reasons, though often only from one angle and you need to squint just right to see them that way. But it’s fear. And the only thing for that is to face it, see it clearly, take a breath, and move forward. Fear is the voice saying: “You don’t know what might happen!” Courage is the voice that says: “You’re right. Let’s find out.”
“The way we build a life – now – that is good and authentic and fully alive is to make our work, our days, our relationships, that way.”
So why the sermon? When a couple weeks ago I suggested a version of these four questions as helpful for finding next directions in your photography, I don’t think I acknowledged what was at stake, nor the obstacles that might seem to stand in the way. And I wanted a chance to say, I get it. I have skin in the game on this one. Unless I’m a little scared of whatever my next steps are, then those next steps aren’t taking place in the unknown, and they aren’t so much next steps as repeated ones, a sure sign I’m walking in circles. Unless I feel like I’ve bitten off a little too much, it’s probably not worth doing. Unless there’s a chance I could fail, I’m not sure it’s worth the time, the one resource of which we not only have a limited amount, but we have no idea exactly how much of it we have. My four questions help me spend that time wisely, passionately, and without regret. Mistakes, yes. Regret, no.
“Legacy is the difference between whether you have stories at the end of your life, or regrets.”
I guess I’m as concerned – no: more concerned – with making a meaningful, extraordinary, good life, as I am with making art or work that is also those things. But I think we accomplish the one by making the other, because the way we spend our minutes and our hours is the way we spend our lives. The way we build a life – now – that is good and authentic and fully alive – is to make our work, our days, our relationships, that way. They are the materials from which we build that house and legacy.
This is probably the last thing I write before I head to Scotland. I’ll be photographing in Europe for the next two months and will be posting regularly as I travel. I’ll send postcards on Instagram.
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