I was visiting with some friends at Costco the other day. They asked about our wedding and portrait photography business, and I told them about how Alicia and I decided a few months back to stop booking new clients and let the business wind itself down.
The conversation turned to how artists and craftspeople struggle so much with pricing. The couple I was chatting with shared a story about some friends who had a business making small wooden boxes. Unlike most people who start a small family business doing some kind of art or craft, these people had actually created a nice little business that made a profit and provided them with a living wage.
Then their wrists started going bad. The business owners had overworked their hands to the point where their writsts were degrading and were unusable for getting the work done. They made the decision to sell the business. Sadly, nobody seemed interested in working as hard as the founders to make the business profitable, and the business went unsold.
It's troubling how, even when someone works hard and makes good choices in setting up a business, things can still fall apart. Businesses are systems with lots of moving parts, and if one element goes off the rails, the rest of the train follows along.
I've been thinking throughout the past couple of years about the hidden costs of pursuing this or that endeavor. There are times in our lives when it feels like we only have one option that will get us where we want to go. The world shrinks down to one logical choice, one path that will lead to satisfaction and rest and some kind of freedom.
For me, that path was construction. I was fifteen when I started building houses with my dad, and I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew it wouldn't be carpentry.
But I progressed in my abilities, and then I got married and had some kids, and there was nothing else I knew how to do to earn a living.
I was tired when I was home with my family, and time off was about recharging and feeling grumpy instead of feeling energized and ready to play with my children. It was frustrating and discouraging, but I honestly didn't see any other options. I just kept my head down and kept pushing through the aches and the tiredness and the days blurring together and the working all the time for not quite enough money to get by.
In the back of my mind, I knew my body couldn't take the pace forever. Parts of me were already complaining regularly about the treatment I was giving them (yes Right Shoulder and Left Wrist and Left Knee and Lower Back, I'm talking about all of you!), but forever hadn't yet come knocking to announce it was shutting down my construction career.
And I also knew I had something else I wanted to spend my time on, and I knew that whatever it was, it wasn't carpentry.
There was this other thing I did on the side, though, and that was photographing weddings with my wife a few times a year. At first, it was just for friends and we only charged for the film and print processing costs, but then we bought better cameras. And a better computer. And Photoshop. And better lenses.
When the economic downturn came along in 2008 and people stopped building houses left and right, I realized that I had an option outside of carpentry. I could be a professional wedding and portrait photographer.
Alicia had already started charging more for weddings and portrait sessions, and she had a regular small business going. It wasn't a huge leap to make the move toward working together to make beautiful pictures for people as the way to earn a living for our family.
I poured myself into learning and practicing the art and science of photography, and in a couple of years I was spending most of my daytime in the office, answering email and the phone and editing (and wasting soooooo much time on social media).
Alicia was always better at the photography part of it all, but I was able to make a lot of progress, and the pictures kept getting better. We got a little better at the business part of it too.
Problem was, we were always talking about the business. It was hard to stop talking about it at night after the kids were in bed. Alicia and I don't always see eye to eye about photography, and there was the added layer of stress from having the business provide all the money we needed to pay our bills.
My wrists started to act like they were going to give out from all the typing and mouse-clicking, and the emotional part of the financial ups and downs and disagreements was starting to wear on me, wear on both of us.
Photography stopped being as fun as it once had been. It even started to be kind of scary for me. I started to realize that I couldn't be a photographer for the rest of my life.
Here's why it was scary for me: Every wedding or portrait session was a chance for us to make something creative and wonderful for each client, and we would pour ourselves into the shooting and editing. We weren't just making photographs. We were making art.
Throughout the process of planning and creating and preparing each set of photos for clients, there was always the thought looming in the backs of our minds that the clients might hate the photos we had made for them.
This was a source of ongoing anxiety, and we didn't know how to get rid of it.
It was so hard to book new weddings and portrait sessions, because part of me felt desperate for the income while another part of me felt equally desperate to avoid the anxiety most new clients would inevitably bring.
And I felt stuck, because construction didn't seem to be the answer and photography didn't seem to be sustainable either.
In my stuck-ness, I began to realize what I had traded for taking the (seemingly) only logical paths in front of me throughout my life. I had given up some of my health for construction. I had also given up my energy to it and had very little left over at the end of each work day.
With photography, I was exchanging my emotional well-being and a peaceful relationship with my wife in order to earn a living. People always loved their pictures, but that didn't stop me from worrying and feeling fear and anxiety at unhealthy levels.
When it felt like things couldn't get much lower, our fifth child was born with a severe heart defect, and, all of a sudden, any ability I had to work in normal ways was completely gone. I couldn't take care of my family, and I could barely take care of myself.
My life had blown up, and as the pieces of it started to drop to the ground all around me, I began to see how I had been trading precious parts of my life for my chosen work because I didn't have the skill to look around me for other possibilities.
All of a sudden, it was all I could do to get through each day. Family and friends were taking care of our kids in Montana while Alicia and I were in Seattle with Kimble at the hospital. People were giving us food and paying our bills.
My anxiety level was off the charts every day, but my clarity level was also much higher than it had ever been. I saw that what I wanted for my children was for them to find what lights them up in life and gives them energy. And here I was just taking whatever seemed to come along, just trying to get by from day to day.
What kind of example was I showing them?
In my brokenness and inability, I started to think about what I really wanted to do and what I would be willing to trade to do it, and I started to see so many other possibilities all around me.
I began to see that there are ways of living and working and creating that don't have to involve me giving up important parts of my health and future for. Even though I was still in my circumstances, life and possibility were unfolding before me in new, fresh ways.
That's my story, or part of it anyway. I wrote this in hope that reading it might help you find the space to ask the question: What are you trading? What are you giving up and giving in to simply because it feels like there aren't all that many possibilities?
Are you trading your health?
Are you trading your emotional well-being?
Are you spending your precious time and life on things that take your energy and never give it back?
I just want you to know that life can be different. Even if things are hard, they can be better. It is possible to move from hoping there is a light at the end of the tunnel, to realizing that the light is all around if only you have the eyes to look for it.
If you're like I was and have been going from one thing to another just because there don't seem to be any other options, I hope you start questioning the things that feel like hopelessness and drudgery. Life doesn't have to be that way.
It doesn't change overnight. I'm back to construction, and Alicia and I are still doing a little bit of photography this summer. But my carpentry work is feeling really good right now, and I've taken a more proactive approach to our photography business.
I'm learning how to understand my emotions and manage my anxiety. The future feels open instead of narrow, and I am moving steadily toward what gives me energy, toward what I feel I was made for.
I'm also learning to listen to pain and making needed changes to my behavior while I have the chance, instead of ignoring my pain and pushing through until it is too late.
We're all born with infinite possibility. Listen to the pain in your life. Let hopelessness and frustration remind you to revisit the trades you are making in your life.
Your future can be wide open, but only if your eyes are wide open first.