You cannot change what you are, only what you do.
– Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass
In a commencement address to the graduating students of Stanford University, Steve Jobs recalled a quote he first read when he was 17.
“If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”
He went on to say that the quote stuck with him though most of his adult life and that he would look himself in the mirror each morning and ask himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”
If the answer was “no” for too many consecutive days, he knew it was time for a change.
So after waking up too many mornings with a resounding “no” reverberating through my own groggy and tired head, I drove down to the office and promptly terminated a successful corporate career. My own. It was January 14, 2003–eleven years ago to this very day–which also happened to be my birthday.
Photography was a serious hobby with occasional financial rewards, but not nearly rewarding enough to pay for my lifestyle at the time-not even close. Photography and travel were excellent ways to spend money, not make it. (That’s still almost entirely true, by the way). Still, I was determined to give it a go, even if I really had no idea how to get there. The only thing I knew for certain was that my talent and energy were being atrophied as I counted down the days to each bi-monthly paycheck.
This was new to me. I was a rationally-thinking organism with an economics degree who always made decisions with cold, hard logic and yet there was nothing rational about this line of thought. In return for a six-figure salary, benefits, and financial security, I was getting what exactly? No salary, no plan for getting any income in the near future, no benefits, no financial security? On its face, it was a no-brainer, yet my intuition and heart told me otherwise.
Wilderness and wild places were my passions in life. Capturing and sharing my experiences in these places were what inspired me to get up each morning, not my 9-to-5. It was the first thing I thought about each morning and the last thing each night before drifting off to sleep. If I were going to preach that you had to do what you love to truly be successful in life–as was my mantra to my employees–I would have to buy into it myself and not look back. I was only willing to accept excellence in myself and I could only achieve excellence by doing what I loved and was truly passionate about.
Throughout the transition, I received a tremendous amount of emotional support from family and close friends. I’ll always be grateful for that. Some were genuinely concerned and that was certainly understandable. Others thought it was only a phase I was going through – a mid-life crisis, perhaps – that I would eventually outgrow before crawling back to the real world again. At least no one told me to grow up, get a haircut, and buy a weed wacker.
“But taking pictures isn’t real work,” some would say,“You’re just running off to pretty places and having fun.”
“Right,” I would answer. “So what exactly is your point?”
You see, I never considered being nature photographer as an occupation. The word occupation is derived from the same Latin word that spawned the word occupy, essentially meaning, “to take up space.” That little phrase should paint a vivid enough word picture to illustrate precisely what I’m trying to convey here.
Vocation, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word, vocare or “a calling.” If throwing away a “successful” career and financial security – not to mention rationality – in order to chase down one’s dream and passion in life isn’t a calling, then I’m not sure what is. Being a nature photographer is my vocation. It’s not what I do; it’s what I am. There aren’t very many people who can say the same about their occupation.
So after eleven years of traveling the world, chasing down magical light, and capturing as many unrepeatable moments in the wild on film and digital media as possible, I’d like to think that I’ve achieved a modest amount of success as a professional photographer. But what is a “success” anyway? By one yardstick, I already was a success ten years ago.
But if living an inspired, passion-driven life doing exactly what I feel I was meant to do–while managing to live financially comfortable as well–is another yardstick with which to measure success, well then I guess I’ve achieved something after all. It’s also the greatest birthday gift I could have ever given myself.