5 career lessons I've learned


I am pretty obsessed with anything career related. I’m a total sucker for any book, article, blog post, podcast, or YouTube channel related to career, success, or money. I’ve got a quote for every career decision you might be faced with. I've read your Sheryl Sandbergs, your Sophia Amorusos, your Gary Vaynerchuks, your Arianna Huffingtons, the list goes on. I wanted to share some of the lessons I’ve learned over the past few years of being self-employed. None of them are revolutionary, these lesson are widely written about, but they are the ones I’ve felt most keenly throughout my career. Plus I love a good career discussion, so if you have any thoughts to add or lessons you’ve learned please let me know in the comments below.  

1) Perseverance is key

I’ve already spoken about the importance of not taking no for an answer. You’re going to get a lot of rejection and criticism throughout your career but you can’t let it bother you. I’ve been told I’m not good enough, my work isn’t the right fit, the shoot is too this, too that, too the other. You’ve got to let it roll off you. If it really does sting, take a deep breath and a moment if you need one, then keep trucking. Remember, JK Rowling sent Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to 12 different publishers before it was picked up by Bloomsbury. She was even recently rejected under the pseudonym she adopted, Robert Galbraith, for her new series of detective novels. So, take a leaf out of JK’s book, hold faith and keep at it. Besides, you’re in excellent company. 

Mystic Mother Christmas knows the score

2) Run your own race

This is a really important one. It’s human nature to compare ourselves, humans have a basic drive to evaluate our opinions and abilities through comparison with other people. There are many positive consequences of this, such as self-enhancement and maintaining positive self-evaluation however, the negatives of comparison can be pretty severe. 

We all know we present a glossy facade on social media, but it can be difficult to remember that when scrolling through our feeds. It might look like another photographer is working all the time while you’re sitting at home writing your 20th unanswered email but you don’t know the reality of their situation. Maybe they’re testing, maybe they’re working for free, maybe they’re panicking because they’ve bitten off more than they can chew, maybe they’re not creatively satisfied. The point is you don’t know.  Try to just take the positive from social media, healthy competition will spur you on to do better. But I find the best way to drive myself forward is with a blinkered focus on my own goals. Failing that, try and remember this little GEM I heard recently: ‘Everyone else is faking it too’.

I read an interesting article yesterday about the importance of ‘showing the brush strokes’. (I found this article via Emma Gannon’s newsletter. Every Sunday this newsletter drops in my inbox and is packed with intelligent, thought- provoking reads about career - a weekly highlight). In this article Matthew Weiner, creator of ‘Mad Men’, talks about the dangers of ‘hiding the brushstrokes’, i.e. the tendency for artists to cultivate mystery around their careers and processes. Weiner says ‘[i]f you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that. People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged, because they can’t do it like they thought it was done. An artwork is a finished product, and it should be, but I always swore to myself that I would not hide my brushstrokes.’ I think we’d all do well to remember that the brush strokes are hidden on social media, which of course was famously exposed by Essena O’Neill last year.

I went to the Vogue 100 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery this weekend. Part of the exhibition emulated the room where, pre-digital photography, the editors would review the photos from their shoots. I was heartened to see a roll of photos from a shoot with a famous Vogue photographer were shown and not all the shots were brilliant. Of course the photos that made the final edit were, but lots of them were not. I emerged from the exhibition feeling better that even some of the most celebrated photographers in the world take bad photos on Vogue shoots.

3) Look how far you've come

This is a great tactic I employ if I’m in a frustrated funk of feeling like things are not happening quick enough, or at all for that matter. I just look at where I was a year ago. I bet if you do the same you’ll realise how far you’ve come and how much you’ve achieved in that time. Now give yourself a pat on the back and imagine how far you’ll be in another year. Exciting eh?

4) The power of networking

You really never know where your next commission will come from. When I used to shoot street style, I met hundreds of people because I had to talk to strangers walking down the road. Some of these people became friends, some of them became clients, some of them introduced me to people I went on to work with. I met my friend Stephanie when shooting street style for Company magazine. I asked to take her photo, she obliged and gave me her card. Turns out, she was (and is!) PR at Levi’s. I emailed Stephanie saying I’d love to shoot for Levi’s. About a month later I was shooting a campaign that went into Levi’s stores across Europe and I made an awesome friend to boot. I’ve overheard people in cafes talking about commissioning photographers and have introduced myself. The person sitting opposite you on the train might be your next collaborator so get out there and talk to people, ask for introductions from your existing contacts, don’t be afraid to sell yourself and always have your business card in your wallet.

5) Don’t be afraid of failure

I’m going to reference JK Rowling again. What can I say? I’m a fan. She shrewdly says ‘[i]t is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well have not lived at all - in which case, you fail by default.’ It really is true that you have nothing to lose by trying. If you succeed, bingo! If you fail, then you learn. Some of life’s most valuable lessons come through failure. Every rejection I’ve had throughout my career has made me a better photographer. There’s a great Ted Talk by Sarah Lewis in which she discusses the Archer’s Paradox; the phenomenon in archery where in order to hit your target, you have to aim for something slightly skewed from it. Sarah praises the near win and how that is worthier of celebration than success because success, she argues, is just a moment. However, building the tenacity for the constant pursuit of excellence, is mastery. And that mastery is achieved through a lifetime of near wins, not a lifetimes of successes. ‘Success motivates us but a near win can propel us in an ongoing quest.’ Something to remember every time you are rejected.

If you have any recommendations for career resources let me know in the comments below or drop me an email (holly@hollymcglynn.com) or a tweet, I’d love to hear from you.