How I Found My Dream Job
I quit my day job two years ago. Since then I traveled the length of the Andes, done river trips in the Grand Canyon, press trips in Canada, went trekking in the Cordillera Huayhuash, all for work. I’ve notched some life goal accomplishments, published my first article in National Geographic Adventure, landed multiple magazine cover shots, been hired to create video content for major gear brands.
I’m working my dream job. How did I get here?
Sometimes people ask me how to become an adventure photographer. I set out to offer some tips and advice on how to do what to many is a dream job. But as I started to write this, it quickly changed into a personal story.
I will be writing a more tactical approach to becoming an adventure photographer. But first, here’s my story version.
I took a grand total of two photography classes. Both were black and white film classes that required 15 hours in a dark room to produce two or three prints that would be received with little enthusiasm by my photography professor. I learned quickly I was no prodigy.
But I produced one photograph that kind of looked like an Ansel Adams photograph if you held it at a distance, squinted, and had a few drinks beforehand. That was the moment I knew I loved photography.
After I graduated college with my business degree, instead of pursuing a life in business, I traveled around the world for a year. I traveled with a missions organization, spending a month working in a given country, then moving on to another country. I eventually circumnavigated the globe.
While traveling, I met a girl. We got married and moved to Florida.
For the next three years, I tried to turn photography into a business. But unfortunately this did not work. Frankly, I wasn’t that good of a photographer yet. I had jobs that detracted from my ability to travel, and photography was roughly fifth on my life’s priority list at the time.
After three years of marriage, we got divorced. This was a heartbreaking time in many ways. I felt a lot of shame about it for the next couple of years. Brendan Leonard talks about his “big bang theory of extreme joy,” in which people suffer from disruptive life events that force you to start over. While these events can feel crushing at the time, they can also be times that lead to ultimate good. My divorce was exactly that. Suddenly I was on my own and I had an opportunity to do anything.
Despite the fact that divorce was the hardest thing I have ever gone through, it also became an opportunity to reorient my life. This is by no means my advocacy of divorce. But it is my advocacy that even crushing events in life can ultimately play out in your favor.
I decided to reorient my life around something I had always loved; the outdoors. I took a job in wilderness therapy. I moved to southwest Utah and worked alongside adults and adolescents who were struggling with drugs, alcohol, and behavioral issues. This was the best environment I could have landed in after my divorce. For the next three years, I spent at least sixty percent of my year backpacking and camping in the wilderness. I worked eight days at a time in remote Utah wilderness. Then I had six days off to go climb, hike, camp, and explore southern Utah. The time I spent in the outdoors was healing and energizing.
Wilderness therapy was the best job I have ever had. It required all of me. This was year-round work. We worked through winter blizzards and the blazing hot summers. Some weeks it never got about freezing the whole week, and we were out in the wilderness (no cabins, no lodges, no time in “civilization”) sitting around a campfire doing therapy in three feet of snow.
Their therapy was my therapy. It’s amazing how much I learned about myself while working with heroin addicts; how I think, how I operate, where I hid my post-divorce shame. The roots of an addict’s behavior are often the roots of anyone’s behavior, including my own. This was a powerful realization for me.
When I wasn’t working, I spent days on end in Zion National Park. My photography was improving dramatically as I was shooting regularly. I got really into canyoneering. I began working on a documentary on climbing and canyoneering. While filming, I almost got myself, my brother, and two close friends killed. We were caught in a flash flood and we walked a razor’s edge between life and death.
After three years of working on the documentary, I released Rock of Refuge, my first film project ever. The IMAX theater outside of Zion picked it up and showed it twice a day for eight months the following year.
Despite the fact that my time in wilderness therapy remained incredibly rewarding, it came time to move on. I had been working towards building my business as a freelance writer, photographer, and filmmaker. I had been working as an outdoor professional, which lent credibility to my work. At the outset, my “real job” helped establish my side job. But eventually the full-time job became a hindrance.
I needed to take the leap. I quit my job in wilderness therapy.
That was two years ago. That was the last time I held a traditional job (to be fair wilderness therapy doesn’t really qualify as traditional). Soon after I quit, I left the States and flew to Ecuador on a one-way ticket. I had no idea when, or if, I would return. My plan was to travel the length of the Andes, all the way to Patagonia. I would travel at my own pace, only moving on when I felt like it.
This wasn’t just a dream trip. I was not going on vacation. This was strategic. This was work. I wanted to do something that would help me launch my career. By traveling the length of the Andes and hiking, climbing, trekking, and doing adventurous things, I was doing things I loved. But they were also things that forced me to grow personally and professionally. I was shooting almost every day. It is amazing how much I improved in my photography by shooting every day. There is a stark difference in quality between photos I took at the outset of my trip and photos I took towards the end. I started writing for Gear Junkie and various outlets. This trip was all about professional development. It just so happened that it was pretty damn fun.
WATCH – SPINE OF THE SOUTH
After seven months of travel, almost all of it solo travel, I decided it was time to go home. I felt like I had done what I needed to do. Plus, football season was starting.
Upon my return to the US, I thought about moving to Seattle or Boulder, places where the Outdoor Industry is bustling. But I opted for Flagstaff, Arizona. Flagstaff has it’s charms. I’m not sure what is easier to find in Flagstaff; a sale on granola, a delicious pint of locally brewed beer, or a Bernie Sanders supporter. With world class mountain biking and rock climbing and some of the most beautiful landscapes around, people live here because it’s a damn fine place to live.
I’ve been in Flagstaff for almost a year now and work continues to grow.
Working as a freelancer requires being comfortable with discomfort. There is no guaranteed income. I’m away from home about half the time. And the work regularly requires physical discomforts; getting up before dawn, being outside in crazy monsoon storms or whiteout blizzards. While the finances associated with this lifestyle are not to be envied, the lifestyle is. And really, it’s all about doing something you love, finding work that challenges you and makes you better. And to me, that’s being an adventure photographer.
I am extremely thankful for the way life has worked out. I have never felt healthier, physically and emotionally, as I have the last few years. I am doing what I love and finding great satisfaction in that. It hasn’t always been easy. Far from it. But the path of following my dream has been good.
(coming soon: the tactical approach to quitting your job and doing what you love)