I wasn’t sure I wanted to write this. I mean, even if it’s now in the past, who wants to admit to burnout? What will our clients think? What does that say about us? I don’t ever want anyone to ever feel like we gave them any less than our very best and we have a reputation to uphold after all! But ultimately, I decided this was worth writing because I see a lot of burnout out there. It’s all over the place and I feel like we owe it to all of our clients to work together to push through it and provide them with something awesome, regardless of how we personally feel. If our story can help someone else do that for their clients, that’s all that matters. If our story can encourage someone who is currently burned out – to help them see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, well – even better! So here we go…this is the story of how we burned out, and the steps we took to find the fire again.
You know that feeling when you love a certain food so much that you just can’t get enough of it? You just keep eating and eating and then a funny thing happens: you get totally sick of that food you loved and suddenly you can’t even stand to look at it. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Well, somewhere along the way, Sean and I “ate” a little too much photography business and that same thing happened. Something we loved turned into something we didn’t even want to look at. What was once so rewarding and the thing that made it so that we couldn’t wait to get out of bed in the morning and get to work, turned into a J-O-B.
It’s hard to pinpoint just one reason for why it happened. It was more like a series of things that changed our life and our priorities over time.
I think our first problem was a complete lack of balance from the get-go. We both jumped into this business head first and got fully submerged in it. Everything we did or had was devoted to making McLellan Style better and more impressive and and all the more successful. We were working 80-120 hour weeks at one point for a solid year. There were no weekends, but we didn’t miss them. There was no time to see friends and family, but we didn’t notice. We lost ourselves in our work, but we were happy. We had gained a fair amount of recognition within our industry as speakers and leaders, we were at the top of the market in the Southeast, and we were starting to delve heavily into the destination market. We were doing it together and it was exciting. But here’s the thing: there was no balance of personal and work life – it was all just work and no one can sustain that forever.
Our world changed when we lost our first baby boy in an emergency c-section at 38 weeks. Chasing all of the above very suddenly lost its appeal. We became focussed more inwardly and then when our second son was born, we were just so completely in love with him and with finally being a family. We didn’t want to work all the time anymore – to keep up the rigorous schedule that McLellan Style had come to demand. Our priorities had shifted, but we were trying to keep up with business as usual despite our lack of enthusiasm for it. Fast forward two years and our daughter joined our family. Wow – talk about feeling overwhelmed trying to juggle it all!
All of these personal factors definitely played a role for us, but it was even more than all that. At the same time we were battling what every photographer (perhaps I should say every entrepreneur because I don’t think it’s limited to just us) will battle at some point or another and that is learning how to effectively juggle all of the other hats that are now associated with the hat of being a professional photographer.
It’s interesting what the digital age and social media and the internet at large have done to our profession. Before all that existed, a photographer was largely just that: a photographer. They were one of very few in their town so work came relatively easily. A wedding photographer would interface with a client briefly before and after a wedding, but mainly their job was to shoot a wedding. And it wasn’t like shooting a wedding today – no this was before inspiration blogs and lists from bridal sites so shooting in and of itself was far less involved and complicated than it is today. After the wedding, most sent the film off for someone else to process and when it returned, they delivered a proof book to the client. They placed some print orders, put together an album maybe and then they were done.
Today a photographer must be an expert in so many more fields. They need to master branding, marketing, social media, developing and retouching of digital imagery, graphic design, etc. etc. etc. There are so many more photographers out there that you really must stay on top of all of these things or you’ll quickly fall behind. A photographer is torn in so many different directions and it can easily become far more than a full-time job. We used to see people making photography a life-long career, and now folks are often moving on after only 5-7 years. I thought it was very telling to look through the photography related sites (written by our fellow photographers) that I bookmarked on my computer 4 years ago and find that half of them aren’t even working links anymore. So many of us are just so tired and it’s really no wonder.
So that is how us and so many others have gotten to a place where we just don’t even want to look at the photography “cake” anymore, but for so many of us, this is still our livelihood and we still have an obligation to the people who hire us so the real question is, when you find yourself in that burned-out place, what do you do about it?
Even in those times when we really weren’t “into it”, I feel like our work hasn’t really suffered and our clients have all continued to be very happy. There were several factors that helped us, and our business, survive the burnout phase until we were able to come out on the other side and I’ve shared them below.
1) Keep the Client in Mind.
We have always been very mindful of the fact that this may just be another job to us, but it is a HUGE deal to our clients, be it a session or a wedding, and we need to treat it like the huge deal that it is. Having that mindset forces you to bring your A-game whether you feel like it or not.
Knowing that you must bring your A-game doesn’t make it magically appear in the middle of all the hustle and bustle of a wedding day so preparation is key. The more burned out we felt, the more preplanning and pre-visualization we did to get ready for our shoot. We looked through magazines, made sketches, drew out comprehensive plans…we gave ourselves time to be creative before we were under pressure and that helped a lot.
3) Attitude is Everything.
I know there have been so many times where we’ve been kind of down as we drive to a shoot, but as soon as we’re there, it’s great. I truly believe happiness is a choice and we choose to get wrapped up in the happiness and excitement of our clients. Joy is contagious, but you have to be open to catching the bug.
As a husband/wife team, we have the luxury of handing off tasks that one of us doesn’t like/isn’t great at to the other person. However, if there’s just one of you, or even if there’s two but there’s a task that you both hate, passing along frustrating work to more qualified hands can make your job so much more enjoyable. Don’t feel like you have to do everything – it will only weigh you down. Make your work feel rewarding again by honing in on the aspects of it that give you joy and outsourcing the rest whenever possible. And if you can’t outsource it, assess whether the task is really important or if it can be let go altogether. Not everything is a must-have.
5) Adapt, Change, Grow.
It was huge for us to realize that our business model for McLellan Style needed to change now that our lifestyle and priorities had. Just because you’ve always done business one certain way doesn’t mean that you have to keep doing it that way. Making the adjustments needed to take McLellan Style from the type of business two workaholics would run to the type of business that would work well for two photographers with a young family has helped us to enjoy it again.
6) Bring Balance.
We made time for us. Whereas before we just worked all the time without thinking about it, we now have clearly defined workdays and highly protected days off. We’ve brought balance to our life and having down-time/family time/time for other stuff in our life besides photography has been essential in making us feel rested enough to give our clients what they deserve.
7) A Little Something For You.
You hear people encouraging you to shoot personal projects all the time. I think that’s great advice. For us, our personal project is photographing our family – documenting these fleeting moments with our small kids while they change so rapidly. I make a fusion piece at the end of every year with our favorite video clips and photos and fills me with a whole new appreciation for what we do and what we’re able to give to other people.
Spend time with people who are still on fire. The old adage says “like begets like” and I think passion and enthusiasm apply here. Go to workshops, conventions and local meetups. If getting out is hard to do, connect via online sources such as Facebook groups and google+ communities. Spend time with people who are excited about what you do. Exchange ideas, collaborate, develop a healthy competition. I know we feel so much more excited about diving in and tackling things again when we’ve been hanging out with others who are in neck deep and loving it!
Side note: Sean and I just started up a google+ community for photographers to facilitate video hangouts. This way we can get together and discuss ideas from the comfort of our own homes (read: when the children are sleeping ;P). We would love to have you join us! You can connect here.
9) Don’t Rush It.
As you go through all of the steps above, just know that it will take time. More than anything, I think sometimes it’s all about giving yourself time to breathe and knowing that’s ok. As with anything or anyone that you love, emotional highs are seasonal and cyclical. It’s ok to not be passionately on fire all the time, so long as you’re committed and are taking steps to bring the passion back.
And hey – good news! Things do turn around! If you work at it, if you want it, if you’re willing to let your business grow and change as you do, you absolutely will find that spark again. It won’t happen all at once – at least it didn’t for us, but slowly over time we found ourselves enjoying photography more and more. We rediscovered a drive to pursue furthering our business again – because we found a way to integrate it into our new life and make it fulfilling once more rather than draining. I know you can too, and it is my hope that this post will help you get there.
Here’s to happiness and fulfillment in all that you do,