Now and Then

In A Beautiful Anarchy, Life Is Short, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, The Life Creative by David15 Comments

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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  1. David, I also wanted to thank you for your virtual mentorship and encouragement. You and Chris Guillebeau, Chase Jarvis and Seth Godin have inspired me to start a blog of my own and try to make the way a little bit smoother for a particular audience. If you would like to see what you are partly responsible for creating by proxy, you can have a look here:

  2. Wow. I had to stop half way through your article and write a note to say thanks. It is what I needed now. I came to th iPad tonight to google ‘finding your way again with photography’. Then I thought, why would I do that when I can check in on David. I’ve lost my way completely and wonder if there is reason to fight to keep this fire burning. Your words really resonate with me, and not just when it come to photography, but how we spend our time, what we value. One thing crystallized for me this summer -life is short and time moves in one direction, make the moves we need to make. Hopefully I will use photography again to help me connect with authenticity, narrative and good. Thank you David.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the note, Simon. It looks like you’re in Victoria, BC. If you ever need to sit down for a coffee at Discovery and chat, let me know. You buy me coffee, I’ll give you an hour to talk. 🙂

  3. Hello,
    This is less for David and more for readers of his writings. As one of the creative agency people in attendance the following morning for his talk, I can tell you it left quite the impression. David talked about all of the things he mentioned above. However the talk was not about photography , or using photography to draw analogies to advertising and finding your own authentic creativity within but finding from within what it means to be human and doing good . It was very powerful and had many of us talking for days after. As powerful as his photos are , his words may strike you even more deeply on an emotional level, and that is saying a lot.

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  5. Hello,

    thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and beautiful photographs! Please do not consider my comment as criticism – it is just another opinion. As I understand the word legacy, it is a kind of recognition that you obtain from others after you have died. It seems, in my opinion, almost a religious concept.

    The legacy would be the bigger, the more people you somehow affected or influenced. In my opinion, this puts too much importance on what others think of what you did. In addition, since legacy is what you get when you are no more – it is not really something of you, but rather of others from you. Finally, by putting so much emphasis on legacy, and ascribing regrets to those without legacy, you do, in my opinion, injustice to the majority of people who live good lives, do good things for the people that are close to them, but who do, probably even want to, remain anonymous and be appreciated in a small circle of friends. In my opinion, in directing my life and making my choices, I must thus not be concerned with legacy.

    I completely agree with your statement that we live in the present and we have no idea how much time we have and how long we will be able to appreciate the time we have. In my opinion, the past does influence how we feel in the now and the now does influence how we will feel when the future has become the now. Living in the present does thus not mean we should be ruthlessly selfish and so on. However, making life choices in order to maximise legacy is, in my opinion, rather alienating you from yourself than the opposite.

    I do not mean to criticise ….

    All the best and thank you again,


    1. Author

      Florian, I don’t see this as a criticism, but a misunderstanding. What I mean by legacy is simply this: it’s what we leave behind. Some leave a legacy of good, some don’t. It is not my concern so much that anyone think one way or another of me when I am gone but that I’ve lived a life that’s worth remembering, that I’ve left the place better, in some way, for my presence here. Perhaps what we leave behind matters to others less than to me, all I can do is speak from my own hopes and desires. How we define the word “legacy” will frame this conversation in one way or another and I suspect you’re working off a different definition than I am, while in some ways saying the same things.

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  7. Awesome philosophy and wisdom ? Hope your time in Scotland is enriching, tis magnificent and sublime in it’s myriad wild places!

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