Coincidences are wonderful things … after class wrapped up yesterday, two students hung around to return some gear and ask a few questions. Not about class, about what comes after class. One is graduating in a few weeks and had an idea on what she wanted to do – six month internship, then grad school in the fall.

A month or so ago I got an excited email from a student who had planned on heading from undergrad into law school saying she wasn’t doing that – after spending a day with a photojournalist at the Greenville News, she was all fired up and wanted to pursue her passion. That’s what she wanted to do next.

Grad school, law school or … what? What else is there? For yesterday’s student, I said take two years, go tell stories. I think I summed it up with a fairly Zen-like comment: Don’t do, be.

Don’t go do something because you think it’s what comes next. Go be. This student, as with so many others, went to elementary school, middle school, high school and then university. The only thing she knows how to be is a student. And while being a student of life is a great idea, just being a student gets old. Particularly for the young.

I could go into a lengthy discussion about how much more meaningful grad school was to me at 33 then it would have been at 21, but many of you have heard that. So the short version: undergrad is, in a lot of ways and even though it’s not supposed to be, preparation for your career. Grad school should be about understanding your life. It’s now about how, but about why.

And if you don’t know how to live – how to balance a checkbook, pay the rent, choose a health insurance package – then trying to figure out why you live is sort of pointless. It’s like learning how to make coffee when you don’t like coffee.

So, the coincidence … fellow Syracuse University alum Joe McNally (wow, does that ever make me seem more important or what?) has a post up about “hang(ing) up your shingle,” his response to a letter from a student who’s not really following his passion. He wraps up with this:

You are just beginning to write your pages, and the thing to remember about this early rough draft is that it hardly matters what you do exactly, as long as you continue to become something close to what you might imagine you want or need to become. Being a bit slow and never prone to academic excellence and achievement, I really have had no choice over the years but to embrace Einstein’s thought. “Imagination is better than knowledge.”

If it calls you, follow. Or, as the Quakers say, “Proceed as the way opens.”

(To any parents reading this: I’m sorry.)

Mark E. Johnson

3 Responses

  1. From personal experience and plenty of observation: if shooting pictures and telling stories is what you want to do, DO IT NOW. Grad school won’t get you your first job, your portfolio will. In the half dozen staff jobs and countless freelance gigs I’ve had, my ability to communicate with photographs was what got me the job, not what degree I earned or my GPA. In fact, I’ve never been asked to even supply a college transcript. My portfolio demonstrated my ability to get the job done.

    If you really want to excel and make your mark on the profession, do it while you’re young. Working on the personal projects that you are passionate about is something that’s typically pursued outside your allotted 40-hour work week, beyond the grind of producing daily news photographs. Important stories don’t conveniently unfold during your shift. It’s a task for young minds and bodies with fresh perspectives, boundless energy, and total dedication.

    Take a gander at past Pulitzer Prize winners. They are typically photographers in their 20s and 30s. Those with the freedom to pursue their passion with total commitment.

    Not all of us are destined to be award-winning, globetrotting photojournalists. But even those who have succeeded by tirelessly documenting their own local communities find that you have to eventually slow down, take stock, discover more balanced lives. That’s not to say there’s not important work to be done later in one’s career. But inevitably, things like family, financial security, even hobbies and other interests begin to compete for your time and energy. You become advocates (editors), mentors, and teachers. Things that require no less passion, but a little less time.

    What Mark said. Now is the time to DO. Don’t let the job market scare you off. There may be fewer newspaper staff jobs these days, but the opportunities for visual story-telling have never been more diverse. Be a pioneer while you’re young.

  2. Thanks for this post. Doing what you love for a living is underrated. A cheesy, overused quote but I love it: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs – ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman

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