The Purpose of Art

As we get rolling into the new year I’ve spent the last week or so thinking about why I photograph and what purpose it serves.

Agnes DeMille, the noted choreographer was quoted as saying:

‘We are a pioneer country. If you can’t mend a roof with it, if you can’t patch a boot with it, if you can’t manure a field with it or physic your child with it it’s no damn good.’

Presumably she said this out of frustration with a sociey that doesn’t respect the arts. I certainly grew up in that kind of environment and it leaves me feeling a little self indulgent when I jaunt off to make photographs since my photography does none of these things.

When I truthfully answer the question why do I photograph the answer is simply because it makes me feel good and fills a void that otherwise is difficult to fill. Perhaps this falls into the category of ‘physic’? I would argue that it does.

Even if art, photography in this case, doesn’t serve one of the purposes on Agnes DeMille’s list it does serve a number of important functions that include to surround us with beautiful things, to fill us with a sense of awe of the world around us, to shine a light into the dark places and bring those topics into the public eye. These functions need not exist in isolation, for example environmental groups have used beautiful landscape imagery to provoke discussion around conservation issues.

While I’m happy to make photographs that I like to look at and go well with the couch I have yet to make the connection between my photography and a bigger purpose. It’s something that I increasing want to do and will look for opportunites in 2015 that fit with my interests.

How about you? Why do you create? Is it aligned with a bigger purpose? I’d be delighted to hear your story.

Be Present and Do Your Best Work

If you’ve been following along with the Wednesday series of posts you will have worked on identifying the big why in your life, the purpose that pulls you forward and with that as a guide you can easily decide between the options that life puts in your path. Is this aligned with my values and support my purpose. Yes or no.

If you’ve done that you’re already ahead of the game.

If you’re like me, even with clarity around purpose you will still have an enormous amount of stuff to deal with and it’s easy to become bogged down to the extent that you’re not fully present and in the moment and as a result not doing your best work. it’s a sort of grey state that lacks the pop and punch of what you could achieve if you weren’t thinking about what you needed to prepare for your next meeting or what you needed to get from the grocery store and the multitude of other things that have our attention for much of the day.

How to handle this? A trusted system where you can park all of the things that you don’t need to be thinking of so that you can free yourself up to focus on what is important. Many of us have such a system for part of our lives – our calendar – and yet have failed to integrate other tools to manage the rest of the balls that we need to keep in the air. For many years now I’ve used David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ (GTD) system which is truly an effective method for not only capturing what is going on in your universe but clarifying meaning and deciding on next actions. Click here for more about GTD and if you have a lynda.com subscription check out David Allen’s course here.

At the simplest ‘stuff’ is processed by asking the question ‘what is it?’ and then the follow up ‘is it actionable?’ If it’s not actionable then the path is to dump it in the trash, file as reference material or hang on to it (incubate) for possible action in the future. If it is ‘actionable’ the next question is ‘what’s the next action’ with an eye towards ‘what’s the desired outcome?’ Choices here are to:

* do it – if you are the right person to do the work and if it takes less than 2 minutes to handle
* delegate it – if you’re not the right person for the job
* defer it – if it will take longer than 2 minutes and this is not the appropriate time or if you don’t have the energy for that task

For the things that are deferred they get parked in one of a couple of buckets or action reminder lists. How these lists are set up should align with how you think about the world and how you work. Good starting points are:

* Agendas – topics for meetings with staff, etc.
* Anywhere – actions that can be done anywhere
* Computer – that require a computer
* Office – that require you to be in the office
* Waiting for – actions that have been delegated and you’re waiting for a response
* Projects – an active project list with embedded multistep actions
* Someday/maybe – a list of things to explore when you have the time and energy

I find that one place where it’s easy to get lost when starting this process is not drilling down to the level of the next action, the absolute next thing that needs to happen to move the project forward. We often think of things that need to be done at a macro scale for instance ‘Fix broken light’ is actually a project in the GTD methodology which in our house starts with working out whether we need to have an electrician to do the work, in which case the next action would be ‘call electrician RE attic light’ but could easily be ‘buy light bulb’ for more capable people.

While I’m not perfect in my implementation of GTD and often fall off the wagon, I know that getting back on is as simple as taking 30 minutes to list all the things that have my attention and dropping them into the appropriate lists.

You can engage with GTD at a number of levels, the more you use it the more you get more out of it.  Using it at all will most certainly help you be present and do your best work.

Goal Setting, or Not – You choose

One of my friends recently recommended that I read ‘The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking‘. It’s an interesting read and Burkeman certainly takes a contrarian stand that he also pursues in his weekly columns for the Guardian.

My reaction to the book as I was reading it was that I didn’t realize that I was supposed to be striving to be happy. I’ve been very focused on ensuring that I’m doing things that I want to do, that are engaging and ultimately fun, rather than trying to be happy.

One of the major threads in the book is that goal setting doesn’t work and in fact worse than that, goals can lead people, teams and companies over the cliff like the mariners of old chasing the sirens call. Since I’ve been steeped in a goal setting environment almost since birth the notion of throwing goals out of the window strikes me as a little odd. How does anything get done without someone with the drive towards achievement? Without a sense of what they want to change and going out and making that change happen? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

To me the issue with goals is not the process of setting goals, or even breaking big goals into smaller achievable actions but rather the goals aren’t revisited and revised. ‘No plan survives first contact with the enemy’ and this is the issue with much of corporate goal setting. A lack of flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.

Most people by now I would expect to have some across the SMART acronym:

  • Specific
  • Measureable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time bounded

The difficulty with this approach is that the bigger the goal, and the longer the event horizon the more uncertainly there is in our ability to decide whether the goal is achievable, realistic, and what the likely timing is. It is these factors that need to be revisited on a regular basis and reviewed and updated as more information comes in.

Overlaid on this is the need to make sure that goals as originally envisioned are aligned with your purpose and that this alignment is also reviewed regularly to ensure that this is a goal that you still wish to pursue.

Perhaps a good case in point would be my goal to have a book of my photography out by the end of the year. This aligns with my overall purpose that boils down to ‘make things and get them out into the world’. It’s SMART(ish) and yet with additional thought and reflection I realize that the timing is probably off – it will most likely take 12 months, that it’s not a project that I could complete on my own but will need to engage at least a book designer to help and so will need to be revised, most likely to ‘Release a book of my photographs before the end of 2015’ with many subgoals along the way. ‘Identify and engage a book designer by the end of Q3 2014’ for instance, ‘decide on preliminary cut of photographs for inclusion into book Q4 2014’ and on and on. Each of these of course will also have sub-goals and will be further scrutinized to ensure a high likelihood of success.

Are you a goal setter? What works for you? How do you keep projects on track and moving forward? Please share your best practices in the comments.

Resources for Finding Your Purpose

I thought that I’d share some of the resources that I’ve been digging into over the last few weeks as I’ve thought about finding your purpose. So here goes:

Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why is a great place to start your journey (also check out the follow-up book Leaders Eat Last. Sinek’s TED talk above is an excellent introduction to the material presented in Start With Why. Additionally there is a good bit of material on his website including some free exercises such as this 5 minute exercise to help find your why.

An alternate to the TED talks are The Do Lectures. The founder of The Do Lectures David Hieatt wrote an excellent book ‘Do Purpose‘ that I found hard to put down. Lots of easily digestible nuggets of wisdom.

In case you haven’t heard of The Do Lectures before you’ll find that there’s a substantial overlap in the intent of TED and the Do Lectures, ‘Ideas worth spreading’ vs bringing together ‘do-ers’, ‘the movers and shakers, the disrupters and the change-makers’ to tell their stories and hopefully inspire others to action, the vibe is distinctly different. Well worth checking out.

In ‘The Way of The Seal‘ Mark Divine both describes an effective way of uncovering your purpose and highlights how being clear about your purpose and what you stand for helps when it comes to making tough decisions. More than a book on how to discover your purpose and deeper than ‘just a book for meatheads’ worth exploring and spending time working through the 8 core principles.

Finally on this very short list is Danielle LaPorte. Having found LaPorte’s work initially through her book The Fire Starter Sessions I’ve enjoyed reading both ‘Style Statement‘ and ‘Desire Map‘ as I’ve been thinking about mission, purpose and why.

Why Do You Photograph?

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If you’ve been following along here, in the last few weeks we’ve been digging in to identify our purpose, the big why that is the underlying reason for the choices that we make in life. A touchstone that helps guide us through difficult decisions.

Before I leave this topic for a little while I could help but ask a final question. Why do you photograph? Perhaps related is how does your photography support your big why?

Now I’m not thinking about what kind of photography, sports, documentary, editorial, fine art etc., or what you photograph but why do you do the thing that you’ve chosen to do.

There are lots of reasons that people photograph, to capture the essence of a person or a pet, to make other people feel emotion, to preserve significant moments, to create something, as a meditative practice. The list goes on.

Making the connection between your photography and your big why can help identify new photography projects, bring existing photographic projects into focus, give a sense of direction to your work and also a reason to keep going when you’re wondering is it worth it. Additionally, as we’ve discussed previously understand why helps guide your decision making and help make sense of the myriad of options you have for spend your most precious resource of all – time.

Eliminating Distractions: Edit Ruthlessly

If you’ve gone through the exercise to unearth you why or crafted a mission statement you should have a better sense of what is important to you. So here’s a question, how much of the stuff in your life actually supports your mission, actively contributes to what you’re trying to achieve? How much is left over commitments to old hobbies that lost their luster a long time ago. This can be true on multiple levels, physical and emotion. Patterns of behavior that don’t fit with who you want to become, to what you want to achieve.

Fortunately with your newly crafted mission it’s easy to edit the things in your life so that everything that you do points you in a forward direction. Starting this editing process can be overwhelming but it needn’t be. You just have to start. Start by taking an inventory of your commitments. What still fits what doesn’t. Bow out gracefully from those things that are taking time away from what you’d rather be doing. Think about what you should be adding that will move you towards your goals. Finding a supportive community to share your work with and receive feedback from can be an important step forward for any artist.

Reducing the physical clutter in your life can be remarkably freeing and result in bursts of creativity. This can be a simple as taking 10 minutes to work on a specific area – your desk, the kitchen counter could be good places to start. Places where you have to move things around before you are able to start working are strong indicators of the need to optimize that work area.

Take stock of the things that come into your life – magazine subscriptions from discarded hobbies are a major source of clutter for me, not dealing with the mail as it came in also overwhelmed me when I first moved to the US. Books can also be another problem for some, clothes for others.

Removing these distractions to free up space and time to focus on the things that are important will have a meaningful impact on moving you towards your goals.