Yes, you heard right. Joy.
When I picked up a camera six years ago and started shooting meaningfully, it was because it felt incredibly good to do so. I couldn’t think of a better outlet for my creative energy while raising two young boys. I saw my world differently as I studied light and composition. Sandwiched between nap time, preschool pickup, grocery shopping, and laundry, I used my camera to capture my children in their various stages of development. The images made me swoon and reminded me why motherhood was worth all the work. It felt good, so I continued.
Not long after I starting shooting regularly, I came upon an advertisement for an online self-portraiture class. Take a picture of myself? I was intrigued. The photos of previous participants looked fantastic, and I had a strong gut instinct to go for it, not knowing why. I jumped into the course, initially thinking that I might get kicked out because I wasn’t an “artist,” just a mom with a camera. I quickly learned that every other woman in the class felt intimidated and excited. We dug deep together, for a full 52 weeks, 200 women from around the world. I found not only my voice but also a community of women who have become soul friends. I had no idea what I was moving towards, but in the early days, I didn’t press myself to define it. I was having fun as I worked to deepen my understanding of the medium using the subjects in front of me — my children and myself. That was enough.
Each year, I gave myself a new photography challenge but only if it sounded fun. A 365? I loved the concept of applying daily discipline to my creative practice, so I kept it up for 2-½ years. I stopped mid-year on the 3rd go-round because, well, it no longer felt fun — a sure sign I needed to move on.
Filmmaking? Whoa, that looks incredible. I felt a strong pull towards the films I saw others making. I took class after class until I got the hang of it. I set goals for how many movies I wanted to make each year, and I met them. My skills improved over time, and it felt great.
Somewhere along the way, I saw other artists photographing their children underwater, and my jaw dropped. I had to try it. I began with a waterproof cover for my iPhone, then graduated up to a GoPro. My passion continued to grow, so I decided to purchase an underwater housing for my DSLR. That purchase (a big one for someone who didn’t exactly know why she was shooting underwater) started to get things moving for me.
Digital fine art printing caught my eye too. I saw what a huge difference it could make to learn to print my photographs. I didn’t know precisely why this mattered, but a new fascination was born. I signed up for classes and eventually found a mentor who could help me execute my vision onto paper.
Mingled in there was a desire to understand the world of project-based fine art photography — developing a series, writing artists statements, entering juried competitions. This may sound like work to you, but I was lit up by it. I sat at my computer for hours as I immersed myself in this process. I found fine art mentors willing to guide me. I studied and worked and of course, failed an awful lot. But boy was it fun.
I kept myself busy following the next breadcrumb, and the entire process felt so joyful. Yep, there’s that word again. Joy. I didn’t know that each of these skills — developing an innate understanding of my camera, shooting underwater, filmmaking, digital fine art printing, project-based fine art photography — were connected in some way. I just knew that each of them sparked a deep curiosity and gave me immeasurable joy.
Unconsciously I was making a commitment to move towards the things that felt good and further away from the things that didn’t. It was as simple as that. For me, the path fell within the realm of photography, but for someone else it could be an entirely different medium — food, woodworking, gardening, writing, music, or sign painting (I have a dear friend who is completely in love with sign painting. Isn’t that cool?). I learned a few lessons along the way, and I’d like to share them with you now.
First, spend as much time as possible doing something that gives you joy. Don’t attach too much meaning to any of it — don’t expect to get a new career or make a ton of money (but hey, don’t assume you won’t either). Cultivate space and time to play. Give yourself permission to get lost in the flow as often as possible.
Second, stay open — really wide open — to possibilities that may come your way as a result of feeling good for extended periods of time. If new interests come into your sphere as a result, see where they lead you. This is the “following the breadcrumbs” phase and it is rich with opportunity. As you pursue those new avenues, you will find that some things will light you up and others don’t. Keep following the ones that feel really, really good. That feeling is the confirmation that you are on the right path. At times you may think that the various directions you are moving feel random, or seem dissonate. As long as you are in your joy, don’t get hung up on why. Our brain wants to over-analyze and over-process everything, but all the good stuff comes to us when we turn off our thinking brain and get busy having fun.
Third, attach some discipline to the process but let’s not call it work, ok? Set goals that feel exciting or challenging and perhaps just a touch out of your reach. Think in terms of long stretches of time, like six months or a year. In my case, I made a year-long commitment to self-portraiture, 2-½ years of daily shooting, two years of studying under a printing mentor. You get the idea. By the time you reached the end of the goal, you will be amazed at how different the landscape looks. You will have made new connections, discovered entirely new pathways, or gotten clarity on what you do and don’t love. Completing this stage often leads you to new goals for the next year. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
And finally, when you are in the early stages of following your joy, it is a bit like a teeny tiny flame has been lit. Such a small flame can be extinguished very easily by the criticisms of others, even well-meaning “suggestions” or mild disapproval. For that reason, I recommend you keep your new ideas private until you are deeply established on your path. This is not about being secretive. It’s about honoring something sacred during the early stages of gestation. To this day, I share my early ideas with a few trusted individuals; the people who applaud any wild scheme I come up, who willingly fan the flame I have lit, or throw another log on the fire. When your ideas are fully formed, when you are deep in your understanding of what you are creating, then begin to share it with others. Waiting until your flame is a roaring fire allows you to shine your light on the world.
For those of you reading this who are wondering, what is my joy? Don’t be stymied. It simply means you have one extra step — uncovering what lights you up. Congratulations. This is the BEST assignment you will ever receive. Have fun with it. And remember, even small steps in the right direction provide an opportunity for something incredible to unfold.
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something and it seemed obvious to them after a while.”
— Steve Jobs