What to Do When You Feel Like a Failure with Vanessa Joy
When I first came to Shutter with this topic, I was ready for Sal to hit me over the head. Not sure why, though, because Sal is one of the most supportive people I know—and, let’s face it, he isn’t scared to ruffle some feathers if it benefits someone. Maybe it was because secretly I didn’t want to talk about this. I didn’t want to admit it and step down off the pedestal that some put me on. That pedestal is pretty; it makes me look pretty. But it’s nothing if it’s not open and honest, so here we go.
Almost every wedding, engagement and photo session I do, I come back home feeling like I failed. Most of the time I say to myself, “Why did they hire me?” or, “They’re going to hate these and sue me.” Sometimes when I look at other people’s incredible work, I degrade my own and think I should just throw in the towel.
Why admit this? Because I know a lot of you are thinking it too. I recently saw a friend’s status update admitting that she’d been up all night, anxiety-ridden and having a panic attack, after a tricky wedding, feeling depressed because her photography is nowhere near where she wanted it to be. The ironic part? I had looked at a photo of hers three days before that made me think this newbie was going places and I’d better step up my game.
Toward the end of the year, burnout really comes in to play, knocking most of us on our ass. It’s normal. Most of us get into a creative rut and comparison frenzy—even those that you think have it all together. But we’re not going to sit and have a pity party, not here, not now. Put the ice cream back in the freezer, save the glass of wine for a happy occasion and let’s find a way to get back in gear.
Step 1: Look at the Facts
Hey, you emotional train wreck, let’s not go jumping off the track just yet. What do you know is true? Often, things aren’t as bad as we feel they are, and it just takes a step back and a reality check to get us back on track. For example, what I perceived as my worst engagement session I did in 2014 turned out to be my most profitable session all year. When we think our photos are horrible, they’re actually the best photos our clients have of themselves. So if you think things aren’t going so great, look at the situation realistically, and make any necessary changes.
Step 2: Stop Comparing
The only person you should be comparing yourself to is you. Take a look at your work from two or three years ago. If it’s the same, guess what? It’s time to move your ass and make a change to better yourself. If it has improved, then pat yourself on the back. Continue to look at other photographers for inspiration, but don’t overfeed yourself other people’s work so much that you start putting down your own. After all, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” as Theodore Roosevelt once said.
Step 3: Surround Yourself With People Who Are Better Than You
The late motivational speaker Jim Rohn said that we are the average of the five people we hang around with the most. Are your friends the kind of people you want to be? Are they motivating you to hone in on your strengths, or are they enabling your weaknesses?
I’m not telling you to ditch your lifelong friends, but don’t be afraid to add new ones to the mix. Having a mentor or someone who’s doing bigger and better things than you can be extremely inspiring, and if that person is good at getting you into high gear, then keep them around at all costs.
Step 4: Stop the Vicious Cycle
Are you a victim of this typical creative cycle?
The key is making sure you’re staying on top of enhancing your photography instead of waiting for your work to become stale. Here are some tricks I like to try when I’m feeling creatively stumped:
- Off-camera flash
- Double exposure
- New posing
- New props
- Long exposures
- Night photography
- Personal projects
- Get published
- Styled shoots
Step 5: Refocus Your Energy
Here’s the thing about feelings: You don’t have to let them control you. Instead of letting yourself get buried by the onslaught of emotions, use them as motivation to kick it up a notch. You don’t have to give in to every emotion and whim. You have the power to decide what to do despite how you feel.
A few months ago, I told Sal that looking at his latest travel-photography masterpiece made me recognize the creative rut I was in. He told me to keep pushing it, and you know what? I took two of my favorite pictures that month that I’d ever taken, while messing around with double exposure and Profoto B1’s.
All of this also applies to when you’ve seriously failed. I have failed. I’ve hit rock bottom, smacked my face on the pavement, never wanted to get up again, failed. Truth is, you need to be failing or at least feeling like you are. Failure and pain can push us ahead and be our best teachers. Deal with failure however you want—just make sure you can get back up again.
Maybe you can’t relate to all of this and you’re on top of the world. If that’s you, you probably have a different problem. And that reminds me of a quote by Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek: “If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard-enough problems. And that’s a big mistake.”