Stop moving that goalpost | Family Photography Education
I can’t remember what brought it to mind, but I was thinking recently of this article I wrote for Lemonade and Lenses back in 2018 (L&L has been gone for a while now but was hugely popular for a long time!). At the time of writing this, I was freshly transplanted from SoCal to Idaho, and hadn’t comprehended how difficult it would truly be to move my business to a new state and start all over again.
I also was only four years into my photography journey, and now I am four years past this article: it officially marks the halfway point of my photography career as of right now.
And guess what? I can’t say that I feel all that differently! And that is exceedingly humbling. The truth is that no matter how far I might go, I will always struggle with moving the goalpost on myself – instead of celebrating how far I’ve come, I’ll decide I have so much farther to go and focus in on where I come up short.
On the other hand, I’ve also become so much more confident and resilient. I have chosen to dive right into things that scare me (big time). I work hard to serve my clients beautifully, and I charge prices I wouldn’t have dreamed of back then. I teach other photographers and have the privilege of encouraging and equipping them. I have four kids and somehow manage to shoot families and weddings as I work to expand the educational side of my offerings.
The point of what I’m saying isn’t to pat myself on the back, not at all. It’s a reminder: don’t compare your journey with someone else’s journey, and don’t move your goalpost. Celebrate your wins, even as you work hard and create new goals. And remember that you are doing what someone else dreams of doing, even if you’re not stopping here. Be kind to yourself, and remember that you bring something really beautiful to this creative table.
Alright, friends… enjoy this throwback! I hope these four year old words encourage you the way they encouraged me! 🙂
This is a scene that has played itself out too many times over the years of owning my business:
I am discouraged. I’ve concluded that my work isn’t good enough. I’m not successful enough. I am obsessively comparing my work to others and see only those who are better than me. I find every flaw in my work, and the frustration and anxiety begin to bleed into other areas of my life as well. I feel stressed and discouraged.
So I talk to my husband about it, because he’s truly the best listener. And he reminds me of all of the things I’ve done over the years – all of the successes I’ve had that I would’ve been thrilled over if I’d known about them in the beginning days of my photography journey – because he’s so proud of me, and because I’ve come SO far.
And then I shut him down, and list all the reasons why those accomplishments still aren’t enough, and hardly even matter at all.
It sounds absolutely ridiculous to put it out there like this, but what I described above is so much of the inner life of a perfectionist. Finding every flaw, and continually moving the goalpost further and further so that every accomplishment becomes something that still doesn’t meet those ridiculously high standards.
Boy, is it exhausting.
And it’s not just exhausting, it’s a real problem. It’s partly a problem because it’s annoying as heck to be the person in my husband’s shoes who is trying to encourage a loved one and keeps getting shut down, but it’s also a problem because it leads to the most discontented, unfulfilling, stressed-out life. You’ve heard it said that comparison is the thief of joy, but you can change that to say perfectionism is the thief of joy and it remains just as true.
I don’t like the word ‘perfectionist’ because to me it conjures an image of an overly Type A, uptight, annoying sort of person who has to have every last thing just so. And that’s not what I’m talking about at all. When I talk about a perfectionist, I’m really talking about a person who may be satisfied with their work for a little while – even very proud for a bit – but soon enough they see why it isn’t really that good after all, sometimes only because someone else is better. Or a person who achieves a goal, but then that goal didn’t mean as much as it had seemed it would, and really isn’t an achievement anymore at all. The mark of a perfectionist is that dissatisfaction comes so quickly, and accomplishments are too easily minimized, and ‘good enough’ becomes the horizon line that never grows any closer no matter how far you run.
I never thought of myself as a perfectionist until I owned a business (though my mom might laugh outright at that statement), but a few years into this and I think I might put that as the top hardest struggle for me as a photographer. And what’s become clear to me as I’ve connected with so many wonderful and talented peers, is that I’m far from being the only one struggling with this. Too many times, I have had others open up and tell me that they, too, continually see only what lacks in their work, and they question their talent and feel bogged down by self-doubt – and the surprising thing is, it has nothing to do with how “good” their work actually is at all. These are usually people with very happy clients!
Why do I, or anyone else struggle with this? Well, I can’t say for certain – though it seems to be something innate to me. There’s a part of me that subconsciously equates being the best (or at least very good at the things that are important to me) with being happy – and though I would preach straight from my heart all day that your happiness can never be based on something so subjective and unattainable, it’s still a place that I often operate from without realizing. The truth is, there will always, always be someone better. Seriously. In a creative field, “best” or even “very good” is incredibly subjective, based on the opinions of infinitely unique and changing humans and the influences of rapidly changing trends. Allowing happiness to be conditional on success is self-defeating, plain and simple.
The good news is that there are antidotes to this perfectionistic struggle. There are practices that are incredibly helpful to me when I’m beginning to be dragged down into the murky waters of self-doubt, self-criticism, and discouragement. And though I won’t pretend to have any of these mastered, I’ve begun to rein in my destructive thought life and feel more power over my well being as I implement them.
The first, and perhaps most important practice, is to define your own success. This looks different for everyone, and can change over time. But it is so incredibly helpful to do this, because it keeps that goalpost from moving further away with every accomplishment. And this shouldn’t just be a list of long-term goals, but a big picture of what you want to be part of your life – and not part of it. For me, this definition I’ve constructed includes things like how much I want to earn and what I want my business to look like, but it also includes things like having lots of family time, more confidence and peace, less stress and anxiety, and one very important non-negotiable: that I am enjoying my work. When I am evaluating my decisions and my progress, I can come back to this description of what success is for me, and measure against that – not against that faraway goal I’ve decided should become mine because someone else is doing it, or against my impossibly increasing standards.
The second antidote is just to talk about your struggles. Be open – take time to encourage others – form connections that encourage you back. I mean, who really likes a perfect person anyway? Perfection can be envied, but genuine authenticity is encouraging and inspiring and easy to love. I sometimes write down little snippets of my thoughts on the occasions that I get any space to form them (because really, with three little children at home, any thoughts not immediately recorded are lost forever). And last year, I began a little note about my perfectionism, and it went like this: “If I’m being honest, I’m a major perfectionist. I certainly don’t expect perfection from other people – and I intentionally try to share the struggles I face in life because I’d rather happen to encourage a person or two along the way and risk a few people thinking I really don’t have it all together, than think I missed a chance to do that and left someone in their loneliness.” Now, do I do that well? I don’t really know and I hope I keep doing better at it – but I do know that every time I interact with a client, and behind everything I do on social media, I aim to open doors and encourage those around me wherever I can. I’m sure I could do better at it, but I’ve seen real fruit from my efforts in the relationships I’ve formed with my clients and peers – the relief evident when I just leave my flaws visible and tell ridiculous stories so they can say, “Oh good! I’m so glad I’m not the only one without it all together!” Don’t ever underestimate how meaningful it can be to hear from someone who isn’t perfect. Really. Use your weaknesses to build bridges, destroy loneliness, and make others stronger.
The third antidote – learn to be kind to yourself. Imagine if your significant other/parent/friend/etc. talked to you how you talk to yourself. Or if your children heard what goes on in your own head. Whatever situation is relevant to you that illustrates just how cruel your internal dialogue really is, remember that. And practice speaking encouragement to yourself, harnessing that desire to always grow and improve but simultaneously working on gentleness and contentment and love for the imperfect person that you are.
Remember this, without any success at all, you are still valuable. If you went blind, or never picked up a camera again in your life, or if every person on earth told you your work was awful, yes, it would be devastating, but you would still be every bit as valuable as if you were the most incredible photographer alive. My work feels like an extension of me; it feels vulnerable, and it feels like a reflection of my worth many times. But the truth is that you are not your work; you are so much more. I wish for every person to achieve their business goals and feel amazing about what they create, but never in a million years is your work what defines you or makes you valuable. Never.
In case it seems like I have this all figured out, I just have to share that while writing this I went from feeling so incredibly excited and inspired and honored, to deciding that everything I’d written was terrible, that I somehow managed to tie this up too neatly and yet simultaneously ramble on and on and on and on and on (I don’t think it’s possible to do both), and that no one wants to hear what I have to say. Friends, if you don’t think I am intimately acquainted with the struggles of a perfectionist, please just read that last sentence again. I’m either crazy, or I’m a perfectionist who is constantly working at managing it.
Above all, remember happiness isn’t found there, wherever there is, it’s found here. It isn’t in more accomplishments or more followers or more recognition or having more or doing more or being more, no matter how great any of those things might be; it’s found in showing yourself and others kindness, in creating art and a business that is uniquely you, in serving your clients well, in cultivating important relationships, in defining success in your own terms, in remembering why you got into this business in the first place, and in looking at all that you have and have done, not at what you lack. Easier said than done, I know; but it can be done. There will probably be a whole lot of failing at it along the way – at least if you’re anything like me – but I know without a doubt that holding onto the joy I originally found in this job, and preserving my own happiness (and sanity) is worth every last bit of effort that it takes.
Hey, friend! I’m Hannah, a photographer and educator based in Boise, Idaho. I am passionate about equipping family photographers to create the work they dream of and build profitable businesses in alignment with their own vision and values. If you’re interested growing as a photographer and business owner, check out my mentorship and coaching offerings, and read more about me to learn why I believe so strongly in what I do.