Taking the Backroads, Again

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One weakness I’ve always had as a photographer is that I have never personally liked my own work. I think this is a curse for many creative types. In my past life as a musician, I rarely remember being satisfied with the music I played or produced. Fast-forward to today and I still live through a never-ending cycle of feeling generally unfulfilled with the results of my labor. That doesn’t mean I’m not passionate about my work. I love my work. I have enough “ah-ha” moments which keep me “almost satisfied” and let me know that the “BIG AH-HA” is, perhaps, just around the creative corner. This drives me to keep seeking those small “ah-ha” moments, those fleeting minutes of satisfaction when everything comes together and makes me happy enough with the result in the moment to propel me to seek out the next one.

I look at the work of photographers I admire most and silently whine to myself that I will never achieve their level of artistry. At the same time, I am making a living by providing services which are heavily weighed towards producing video and photos for clients. Photography has become democratized and the market value of professional photography has plummeted. I realize my situation in today’s photo services market is a rare and blessed one – especially for someone who struggles so much with the craft. But I’m doing what I love and making a living at it. …and that’s the big point.

One key element of being able to do what you love and continue to love what you do, is to not allow outside forces to mess up your situation. I'm looking at you, overachieving multitaskers. 

TACKLING THE MYTH OF MULTITASKING

I've always been interested in the myth of multitasking. We fool ourselves into thinking that we can do multiple things at once when in actuality all we are really doing is switching from one thing to another and perhaps to another in rapid succession. The end result is that we are not paying total attention to any one thing and everything suffers. 

It's understandable that we find ourselves in this situation. Demands on today's workers are unrealistic to the point of being insane. We have the additional stressor of watching peers, family, and friends pretend on social media that their lives are perfect when we all know they aren't. 

So how do we create a reality which allows us to slow down and not react to unreasonable requests from bosses, clients, customers, and not carry the weight of thinking we have to keep up with the fictional lives of those we follow on social media? The answer is simpler than you think.

Just stop. Slow down and react on your terms at a rate that is comfortable for you.

This doesn't mean that it's time to get lazy. It's important to have a strong work ethic. You still need to respond to clients, bosses, customers, and your work peers in a reasonable amount of time. But the key here is that you do so in a "reasonable" amount of time and that you control what that means for you. Do not let outside forces dictate that for you.

IDENTIFYING THE SOURCE

So, I said the answer was simple. I didn't say it was easy. If you are going to do this, you have to be responsive to others' needs but disciplined about exercising your free will to control what reasonable means. I guarantee it means something different to you than it does to others. Developing an understanding with others about what your boundaries are is critical - but it can be difficult at times. 

I mean it. It can be hard, messy, and uncomfortable but the pay off is living a daily life that is immeasurably less stressful.

Would you rather:

1) Spend every day of your working life dreading the phone calls, emails and text messages from clients or co-workers; or

2) Be able to relax on a daily basis because you have control of the relationships and expectations with clients and co-workers?

If you chose one, you're dumb.

You obviously chose two. OK - how do we get there? 

Setting Expectations

You have to set expectations early and often with any person who is difficult to deal with. It is critical that you mentally prepare yourself for dealing with difficult people who run over others. They demand more than they should and generally bully their way through life. This behavior is in their DNA.

Once you set your expectations about how the relationship with this person will proceed, they will continue to push the boundaries to see where your weaknesses are. If you bend, they will push until you break. This is a power struggle and all you need to do is not give in. 

It doesn't help that most people they encounter reinforce their bad behavior by putting up with it and not calling them out. They feed the monster by trying to live up to the unrealistic expectations which have been set.

How do I deal with this? I don't. The solution is really that simple. Just don't put up with it. The main ingredient in this recipe is a backbone. Say "no" when you need to say no and mean it.

My basic tactic is two-fold. 

1) Limit communications to text-based platforms (email, texting, CSM platforms). Most stressful situations arise out of verbal communications because either participants come away from conversations with a different understanding of what was agreed to or conversations get sidetracked by unrelated issues. Additionally, there are usually no notes of the conversation so you don't have an accurate record of what was discussed and agreed to, if anything, and who is responsible for what tasks.

To be fair, sometimes a client or a coworker is more comfortable just speaking rather than typing or there may be in situations where talking is their only means of communication (they're in traffic, perhaps). In those situations, I ask them to leave a voice mail and I will respond via email. If I need to keep a record of their communications, I can text the voicemail to myself and save it as an audio file in an archive. This is a feature of the iPhone so I'm not sure if it's available to Android users. 

2) Respond via text/email. I have boilerplate responses to typical requests that I can cut and paste into emails and texts. Much of the stress involved in these relationships are created when having to constantly respond to the same unreasonable requests over and over again. You can remove that stress completely by sending the exact same response that reinforces your position and resets focus on the real tasks at hand. 

Always be professional, respond only to items which are work-related, ignore personal comments (until you are ready to quit over them), and always, always be courteous and positive, even when you have to fake it. 

If it helps, imagine the difficult person you are dealing with as a speck of dirt on the mountain you are climbing. Focus on the mountain, not the dirt on the bottom of your shoes.

Real Talk

So here's the real secret of being successful at this: you have to passionately care about your client's success, their customers, and you have to deliver what you say you will deliver when you commit to it. This means kicking tail and not taking names. This means having a servant's heart and practicing humility. This means committing to realistic deadlines, not fantastical ones. This means owning your mistakes and keeping your client/co-workers in check when necessary.

This also means being prepared to quit, get fired or removed from a project if the time comes for any one of those scenarios to play themselves out.

Standing up for yourself will not be popular with everyone around you. It will certainly be unpopular with at least one person on your team or you wouldn't need to be utilizing my advice. 

You have to be good at what you do. You must keep yourself in demand at a level that getting fired may be an inconvenience, but not a crisis.

Your goal here is not to start a personal war with anyone. Your goal here is defending your mental and physical health so you can perform at your highest level for the longest amount of time. The difficult person who demands too much of you will not see it this way but that, frankly, is not your problem. Let them get their own self-help. You are responsible, first and foremost, for you. By taking care of yourself, you can fulfill your obligations to those who you work with, including the overachiever, and those who count on you.    

When you find yourself at a place when "the worst that can happen" is not a factor in how you handle a situation, you are freed from the chains that the overachiever wants to saddle you with. Once you are there, you will find that you command attention and respect because you naturally carry yourself with more confidence. It's amazing what working hard, performing at a consistently high level, and staying focused on what's really important does for your daily life.   

I'll prepare a post later with specific suggestions about my successes and other successes with this. I call every situation a success because no matter how I handle it, I remove the stressor from my daily life. Sometimes I stay on a project, sometimes I fire a client, sometimes the client fires me. I've even had a couple situations where I parted ways with a client only to work with them again in the future. So many stories... I'll have to start a series. 

I promise, this really is simple. I understand it's not easy. Rarely is anything worth doing easy. The payoff is worth the effort. 

A Tip For You When You’re Traveling ABOUT DIFFUSING STRESS

I have to drive to Austin from Dallas frequently for shoots and events. It’s a soul-sucking drive on three to five-lane highways of nothing but construction and chain restaurants. I have stopped taking I-35, our main cross-state thoroughfare either direction. I don't like it so I stopped doing it.

I avoid I-35 using one of two strategies. One: I’ll drive 281 via Hico, TX to Austin or back. Or two: When time allows, I tell my GPS to “Avoid Highways” and then travel to Austin/Dallas using an alternate route with a city or town I’ve never been to as the mid-point in the drive. This means that on occasion I take a 3 1/2 hour drive via I-35 and turn it into a 5 or 6-hour excursion via small towns and two-lane roads. The added time includes frequent stops to shoot interesting things along the way. Of course, most of you are not traversing I-35 across the great state of Texas. Apply this to the I-35 in your work-life.

I’ve rarely shared the pics from these excursions because the travel is more of a way for me to collect my thoughts, plan ahead, and to explore the greatest state in the US. Maybe I’ll start posting these at random intervals with a little backstory. Maybe seeing what you’re missing off the I-35 in your life will persuade you to take the backroads sometime.

Evant, Texas

This is Evant, TX. It’s a town of less than 400 at the crossroads of highways 281 and 84. Evant was first a settlement called Langford Cove, settled by Asa Langford and his family in 1855. Langford served as postmaster in the first post office, named Cove, established in February 1876. By the late 1850s, Langford had built a general store, a blacksmith shop, and a sawmill near the current site of the town. In 1884 the town changed its name in honor of local land-owner Evant Brooks.

This image was shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR using a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L Series lens at 17mm. I shot this at about 9 PM at ISO 3200, auto WB, aperture set at f/18 with the shutter open for 15 seconds. This was obviously before I sold all my Canon gear and converted to Fujifilm so it's a pretty old photo. 

I have to give credit to singer/songwriter Beth Wood from Portland for the inspiration to make this change in my travel. Do yourself a favor and pick up “Backroads” by Beth Wood for your next trip. You can thank me later.

“Here it’s all neon and noise
But I am denim and turquoise
I’m trying to find the meaning in all the chatter

The moment’s demanding a little understanding
You go on ahead, but I’m gonna take the back roads

Always running two steps behind
Truth be told, lately, I don’t mind

It’s a mystery where we go when we die
But some folks try and crack that code
You can spend your attention looking for redemption
You go on ahead, but I’m gonna take the back roads” – Beth Wood

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