How I Changed My Life By Not Changing My Life and How Photography Helped
Recently, I read about how photographer David Kingham changed his life. Basically, he sold off all his stuff, paid off his debts, lost weight, found a god, bought a van and decided to live out of it and camp and travel and photograph. Good for him. In a followup to his post, he writes about how someone came to a photography workshop and decided to change his life by pretty much doing the same. I think it’s great that he’s trying to buck the system while using that system for his own needs, but I also think that his situation is pretty extreme and while some people might follow that path and find it suits them, I doubt that it would work for most people. If you want to change your life, I think that there’s an easier way (sort of) to do it, and a way that isn’t as extreme. In that light, I want to share the story of how I changed my life and how photography helped. If it helps you in the slightest, I’ll be glad that I wrote it.
One thing that we, as people, love is inspiring quotes from other people. They surround us, they appear in speeches, on websites, in books, on social media and pretty much everywhere. I’ve always loved this quote by Lewis Carroll:
If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.
To me the profound wisdom in the quote struck me when I was in high school. I read a lot in high school and I wanted to be the great American novelist. I wanted to be great like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I wanted to be a poet like Frost or Dickinson. I wanted it so bad that it actually hurt. I read a lot and wrote a little but spent my time photographing the world and tried to spend as much time as I could in the photography darkroom. But, I just didn’t write as much as I should of, because I was in love with the idea of being the great American novelist and liberating Paris like Hemingway claimed he did, but didn’t understand that it takes work to get there.
When I read this quote, it struck me that ultimately I had no idea where I’m going to be when I’m 80 (if I lived that long). I also realized that while I may have plans, if those plans didn’t work out it probably wasn’t that important because something else would come up. Or, as Lewis said, “any road will get you there.” It was a heck of a realization for someone in high school. I decided to go to University of Iowa and try to get into the Undergrad Fiction Writers Workshop (which I ultimately did). I left with a degree in English and Religion with no idea of what I was going to do, but that didn’t seem to be a big deal to me. My parents probably weren’t that happy with my attitude (although I put myself through school without their financial help).
I got my foot into the Parks and Recreation Department for the City of Iowa City collecting garbage for a summer. The next year, I got into Park Security (I should really write a movie about my time as Park Security) and eventually landed into the Forestry Department where I worked with a Buddhist named Judd. I often questioned him about Buddhism and his answers interested me enough to learn more about Buddhism. (Notice the lack of writing.)
The more I learned about Buddhism the more it clicked with me. The concept of impermanence, that everything changes and is always in flux, seemed particularly interesting to me. Because if everything is always changing, there would be no way that I could control my future, and again “any road would take me there.” The key to enjoying life, I decided was not to worry about it.
But, I was under a load of debt from school, had funded some outdoor equipment purchases with credit cards and I wasn’t making much money and still didn’t have a novel published. I was just getting by which felt worrisome. I did enjoy the forestry work. Hearing from satisfied home owners when they’d get a new tree felt amazing. When I was trimming a tree, I could lose myself in the moment and just be trimming a tree.
the man pulling radishes
pointed the way
with a radish
I really wanted to get on year-round with the Forestry Department, but was beat out by someone from the Streets Department because of seniority or something. At the same time, Ani Difranco released an album that I really loved, because many of the songs were about the same issues that I was feeling (typical Gen X stuff, I suppose). One of the songs in particular really spoke to me.
and generally my generation
wouldn’t be caught dead working for the man
and generally I agree with them
trouble is you gotta have yourself an alternate plan
and I have earned my disillusionment
I have been working all of my life
and I am a patriot
I have been fighting the good fight
Having lost a chance to work for the man in a rewarding job, I figured that I needed to find an alternate plan. I decided to canoe down the Mississippi River but hit a problem. I didn’t have the money to buy a canoe. So, I hiked the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia instead. A family friend gave me a Contax manual camera with a 50mm f/2.0 lens for the hike. And I found that when I used it, I was even more into the moment and achieving a flow experience than I was while hiking the trail. For the most part, the AT was 6 months of flow experience. After I finished the 2,159+ mile hike, I decided that I wanted to get out of debt and help others get into the outdoors.
I went to work in sporting goods, sold lots of gear (I was an assistant manager in a $21 million a year store and lead the camping, paddlesport and climbing lines across the 21-store chain) and got out of debt, saved some cash by living simply and not buying anything (except camping, paddling and climbing gear and then photography gear). Then I got out and moved north. The entire time I was working for the man, I knew I’d be getting out at some point, but when didn’t really matter, because I was happy and content with my life — with what I was doing — despite the fact that I wasn’t writing the great American novel.
chopping a tree
then looking upon the cut end—
Before I got a job working sporting goods, I took up rock climbing and then my first year in retail I took up ice climbing. While I was ice or rock climbing, I noticed that I would be so engrossed in the moment that everything disappeared into the moment and made me feel a sort of happiness and joy and contentment that can’t be really described as happiness, joy or contentment. I recognized that feeling from taking pictures and hiking on the AT, doing forestry and remembered it from high school photography. Somehow I knew that I if I could translate that feeling to the rest of my life I’d be better off for it.
So, I tried. First, I started with the tasks that were simple but exceedingly boring, such as washing the dishes. For a few moments I’d get into a flow state and then my mind would start to wander and I’d think about this and that and other things. Once I realized my mind wandered, I’d acknowledge that it wandered and bring my focus back to the task at hand. I eventually stated to try this on everything I did. Sometimes, it would work and sometimes it wouldn’t. Eventually though, it became natural to slip into a state of being where I was just doing what I was doing and not having my mind be somewhere else.
As that started to happen more often, I found that I just cared less about wanting stuff that I just couldn’t afford or going places beyond my means or trying to live a different life than I’m living. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have aspirations and goals, because I do. And I want to hit them, but I’m not attached to them. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll figure something else out.
bags of seeds
by the spring rain
My path has taken awhile to get where I’m at and maybe everyone gets here with age, but what changed my life wasn’t some new abrupt change in my lifestyle, it was a gradual grasping that maybe I should be more aware of where I’m at and maybe I should live my life where I’m at and work towards goals that I know might not work out. And not worry about it too much — just live in the moment, because that’s all we have.
So, where does photography fit in? In my photography workshops, I’ve seen people achieve a state of flow so deep that they’re completely immersed in the action of photography. I’ve seen that state lead to breakthroughs in understanding photography, to creativity and taking risks without worry of failure. I’ve seen flow achieved by all types of people and I think some people who achieved it didn’t know that they did. I think all people can arrive at a state of flow. And, if they can, they can also practice focusing solely on the task at hand. And then translate that state of mind and state of flow to all parts of their lives.
To me that’s a fundamental change in life. It leads you away from feeling like you should be doing something else in your life to living your life the best you can now and once you realize there can be satisfaction in doing what you’re doing, it frees you to take risks. If you fail, you don’t have to worry, because you can achieve flow in your life in failure too and eventually whatever road you end up on will take you there.
I’ve been lucky, I’ve gotten exactly where I want to be right now using my any road philosophy. I’ve enjoyed the bumps and setbacks and have learned to live for now. I’m lucky, I’m a full-time professional outdoor photographer and sea kayaking guide (15 years ago I would have had no clue I’d get here). So far, it’s working out for me and I’m enjoying this road, but who knows. Maybe, in the future, I’ll get around to becoming that great American novelist. Or maybe not.