One of the hardest parts of starting out in any industry or job is your inevitable failures while learning and growing. I don’t care who you are — you’re going to make mistakes and learn lessons the hard way.
As someone who is currently trying to transition from a hobbyist to professional photographer, I’ve had plenty of firsthand experience failing in the last few years. But how you react and grow from those failures will play a key role in how you evolve as a photographer, and as a business owner.
Obviously, this isn’t a new concept. Look in any school in the country and you’ll find a cheesy motivational poster with an uplifting quote about using failure as a stepping stone to success. But when you’re starting your own photography business, it’s easy to magnify each failure as a colossal error.
Your business is your baby, and you’re emotionally attached to all aspects of it. A critique of an image can feel like a critique of you, a failed job equates to you yourself being a failure. If you’re like me, and live in a relatively small town, the fear of failure can be magnified by worrying that one unhappy customer could spread the word and tarnish your name in the industry.
So how do we as photographers and small business owners move forward in the face of failure? Over the past few years I’ve organically created a “failure path” that I mentally go through each time I mess up. While acknowledging that everyone processes things differently, below is my path to reframing failures.
Let yourself react
Getting bad news or failing in some sort of way will cause an immediate burst of emotions. Disappointment, embarrassment, sadness or even anger may be your body’s initial reactions. Give yourself time to feel and process all of those emotions, (wallowing in self-doubt seems to be my personal go-to emotion).
Get out into nature, binge some ice cream or do whatever you need to bring yourself back from the negativity spiral. These feelings could linger for an hour or a couple of days (although I don’t recommend eating ice cream for two days straight!).
Acknowledge the emotions but try to keep in mind that they are temporary, and don’t make any major decisions while you are feeling negative.
When I bid on my first ever commercial contract I misunderstood what the client was looking for. Before I could amend my bid, they had gone with the next person in line and I lost the contract. I remember walking in the forest alternatively crying and reprimanding myself for making such a mistake and missing out on my first big opportunity. I was devastated for a couple of days, but was eventually mentally ready to move forward again.
Analyze and reflect
Once you’ve had time to feel your reactionary emotions, it’s time to look a little deeper into why it happened. Was it one simple mistake that is easily remedied, or something that will take a little more time to overhaul?
This is a time to put your emotions and ego aside to focus on the root of the problem and figure out how to prevent it from happening again. Figure out what you have learned from your mistake.
When I looked at why I had messed up the bid on the commercial contract, I realized that I hadn’t asked the right questions from the client from the onset. Most importantly, I had not clearly defined the client’s expectations.
To this day, it remains one of the most important lessons I’ve learned thus far. I still have a sticky note above my computer I wrote that day that says “Communicate expectations: Number of deliverables, budget, previous work done and usage.” These things may seem like business of photography 101 now, but when I was just starting out it was a difficult lesson to learn at the price of losing my first real contract.
Accept and apply
Now that you’ve processed the mistake as a whole, it’s time to move forward. Accept that you blundered and try to stop beating yourself up about it (this can be tough, especially if clients are involved).
In the science world, a negative result is just as important as a positive one, because it establishes what isn’t going to work. Try to apply this mindset with your mistakes. Look at each little failure only as a delay, not a defeat, on your path to overall success. With each failure you will hopefully have a new tool to apply moving forward to build your success.
In short, if you mess up, it’s OK! Despite living in a society that stigmatizes failure as a negative concept, it can be equally as powerful as your success. Process, analyze and learn from each experience. Correct your mistakes if possible, and embrace the lessons learned. But don’t be afraid of failure, because in the end it might be the thing that will ultimately determine your success.