Be Nice. Work Hard.
One of my most memorable projects was documenting the founding year of KIPP Infinity’s Elementary School. Every few weeks I would visit the school and do “day in the life” type photos. While I was shooting, I would listen in on the class and realized how different it was from my own elementary education. The school had a holistic approach to their teaching—having good character and integrity were as important as being good in math or reading.
Sitting together on a rug wasn’t just about reading a book, but to learn about the ethics of sharing and being considerate of others. If a fellow classmate was sitting in the seat you wanted, you didn’t push them aside so you can sit there, but instead ask them nicely if you could sit there. From something so simple, the teachers took the time to help students go against their natural impulses and make good choices that would lead them to be better people.
All along the walls of the school, there were phrases and words of ideas that they championed and wanted to instill in the students. The students and teachers wore T-shirts that had the word UNITE on the back:
Never Give Up.
My favorite phrase was one they had painted on a wall in the cafeteria:
Those four words have stayed with me years after the project ended. I recently had a conversation with a friend, reflecting on what we’ve been through and dreaming about where we want to go. I brought up this story to them because it boils down how to be successful as a freelancer. Freelancing essentially is about providing someone (the client) with something of value (your art). If you can do that over and over again, and earn more than you spend, you can make a living as a freelancer. And the way to do that is to be nice to the people you work with, and work hard on making your art. It’s so simple that it seems obvious, but it’s not easy to put into practice.
The majority of the work I’ve gotten has been through word of mouth. It wasn’t because of advertising, a well-designed logo or website was, or because of the camera I was using. It was because someone put their credibility on the line and recommended me to someone else. I never took that for granted. You never really knew whose words would get you the next gig. The only thing that I could do was be nice to each person I worked with.
Being nice doesn’t mean you let people take advantage of you, or that you can’t stand your ground. It means starting a relationship by giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. It means being humble despite you knowing better than the client, or having to fire them. It means doing your best to not make the relationship reciprocal; to give more than you receive. Great client service is about connection and empathy, not about discounts and saying yes because the “customer is always right.”
It’s about going that extra mile for someone, because as Ian Maclaren says, “everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” It’s a call for empathy and vulnerability, something that’s hard to do but always the right thing to do.
There were times when I went farther, much farther than seemed reasonable, but looking back all that effort was worth it. Because even in the worse case, when the client was still dissatisfied or if the situation wasn’t fully resolved, I know I tried my best and did everything I could. most of the time the client was pleasantly surprised, and delighted to have worked with me.
It’s really easy to complain about clients and speak poorly of them, but that fuel doesn’t burn clean. Freelancing is nothing if not a marathon and the goal is to stay in it as long as possible. Be nice, and let the chips fall where they may. You can call it karma, good vibes, but it’s just about being a good human being, and in the end that is what really matters.
Ask nicely, share when you can, and don’t push each other around.
It’s not enough for people to work with you because you’re a nice person. You also have to be good at what you do.
I love watching people do their craft well. The evidence of hard work is something you can’t fake, and something everyone appreciates. It could be in everyday life, like Dan the bartender, or during the 2005 U.S Open when Federer makes a seemingly impossible score against Andre Agassi. David Foster Wallace describes watching Federer play as a religious experience and I fully relate with his reaction:
I don’t know what-all sounds were involved, but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs.
(A quick aside, Wallace affirms this philosophy of “be nice, work hard.” A few paragraphs after that quote, he describes Federer as the best tennis player in 2006, and that he also has “good sportsmanship and evident overall decency and thoughtfulness and charitable largess.” Be nice, work hard.)
Working hard is one of the few things fully within our control. There is a lot of serendipity involved in getting work as a freelancer. Word of mouth is great, but it’s something you can’t control. You can easily overthink yourself to paralysis if you focus too much on when the next job will come. Rather, spend time building your craft so you can take advantage of each opportunity that comes along.
Small Steps, Everyday
My wife calligraphed for me this beautiful quote from Samuel Johnson thatis up on the wall in my office:
“Great works are performed not by strength, but by perseverance.”
James Clear in his book Atomic Habits says that if you improve one percent each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better than when you started by the time you’re done. It’s a simple idea that power lies in the hard work of being consistent.
Practically, it means that you don’t have to beat yourself down when you don’t finish your 20 item to-do list. If you can accomplish one to three tasks everyday that can move your business forward, you are well on your way. The important insight, then is not how much work you do, but why you are doing what you’re doing.
The Trajectory of Self Awareness
Even if you show up everyday to do the hard work, if you don’t set a clear destination, all that work goes to waste. It’s imperative to take the time to understand where it is you want to go, not based on others’ expectations or because you’ve seen others do it, but because it resonates with you.
In the past, whenever I worked on my wedding and portraiture portfolios, I’d spend so much energy making sure it fit in with the trend and work I saw around me. I wanted to include photos similar to those of other photographers I admired, or images I thought clients would want to see. Each year I’d spend weeks on them, but I ended up with images that were predictable and not very memorable.
This past year, I took the time and dug into understanding what moves me as a photographer and where I want my work to go. I realized that my best images are ones that are bright, happy, and optimistic. I capture smiles much better than melancholic moments. My favorite images have a sense of play and ease to them that is intimate and uplifting. This is the work that I can do effortlessly and want to do more of.
I used this as a guide as I combed through my catalog of images. It felt as if I was seeing of them for the first time. Usually I’d gravitate towards the same images year after year, but this year was different. The work of selecting images took just as long as previous years, but the result was completely different. I charted a course true to me and my aesthetic, and its trajectory landed me at a completely different destination—one that I am proud of.
This is the crucial part about working hard: developing the self awareness to understand where your work is now and where you want it to go. Getting there has its own journey, one that is specific to each one of us. Naval Ravikant calls this uniqueness, specific knowledge:
Specific knowledge is the knowledge that you care about. Especially if you’re later in life, let’s say your post 20, 21, 22, you almost don’t get to choose which specific knowledge you have. Rather, you get to look at what you have already built by that point in time, and then you can build on top of it.
Very often, it’s not something you sit down and then you reason about, it’s more found by observation. You almost have to look back on your own life and see what you’re actually good at.
There’s so much more to say about this but my hope with these kind of essays are for you to know that you and I are walking through the fog together, and we can keep each other company.