I recently published a video with three tips for earning a living from doing work you love. The last tip was about how to stand out as an artist and make yourself different. I read the classic book by Victor Frankl “man’s search for meaning” this weekend from cover to cover. I always knew the premise but it was the first time I have sat down to read the whole thing. For me one of the main things it reinforced was the importance of having a purpose. My life has changed considerably since I uncovered my purpose and found a meaning behind the work I do. The biggest change was identifying why creativity is important and knowing that I have the skills and knowledge to help people and make a difference to their lives. My work is something that allows me to live my values on a daily basis and therefore it is hugely fulfilling. In this article I want to share with you how I uncovered that and why I believe it is a key element which will allow you to stand out as an artists and give your work new meaning.
The first thing to ask yourself is why are you doing what you do? Think about it properly. Are you just a photographer because that’s what you are good at and what people will pay you for? Or is there a higher purpose and a message you want to convey? You may have come across the Ikigia diagram before which in Japanese means “reason for being”, it always helps to centre me and remind me not to get drawn away from doing what I love and what gives my life meaning.
If I think back to when I used to be an event photographer, for a good few years I really enjoyed it. Rubbing shoulders with A list DJ’s, going to gigs and festivals for free and seeing my photos published across the web were just a few of the perks of the job. However there was always an underlying feeling that what I was doing was ultimately pointless in the grand scheme of things and somehow quite a shallow pursuit. Whether it was or not was almost irrelevant, the point was I felt it, a consistent feeling that didn’t just pass. I then started thinking about what the difference was between me and some of the other photographers who now earn a living from doing what they love and get a huge sense of fulfilment and achievement capturing those same images. The answer dawned on me as I was reading Viktor Frankl’s book; it was the purpose, the meaning they gave to what they were doing. For them, the act of taking photos had a completely different meaning than it did to me. That in itself was the difference between the value they would add vs the value I would add. They had given what they were doing one meaning and I had given it another. They saw its purpose and that drove them to do things that I wouldn’t have done.
There is the danger that you will go too far either way and that’s why I love that diagram so much. For example; just because people will pay you for something because you are good at it doesn’t mean you should do it. Visa versa, just because you love doing something and you are really good at it doesn’t mean that someone will pay you for it. I’m not talking about short term income here, we all need to pay the bills and eat to survive so there are going to be things that you don’t enjoy doing as much, so just try to see them as a means to an end but be constantly working towards your Ikigai. I work with a lot of artists who tell me repeatedly that they don’t know what their purpose is and have no idea how to find it, to which my response is always the same; find time to introspect and identify your values. Essentially everything goes back to your values, I would recommend reading this post if you have trouble finding meaning and purpose in the work you do.
So how does this relate to making yourself stand out from the crowd? Well, your purpose, the meaning you give to your work and the reason you do it is what makes you unique. You can use this to connect with people on a deeper level. Conceptual art is fine if you’re an established artist and you have a big enough platform, but if you really want to build a following, an audience, then you need to appeal to human emotion, something deeper than just what is on the canvas or what is playing through the speakers. Of course there are more than enough examples of artists, bands, photographers and creatives who have built a large following through just their work alone but if you are working from the 1,000 true fans theory (which I recommend you do) then I believe you need something more. The best and easiest way to do this is to be authentic and express your purpose and meaning to your audience explicitly. You will always get artists who try to give a meaning to their work that doesn’t really exist but you can spot the inauthenticity a mile away. You don’t have to write an essay with every photo you take or picture you paint, my point is more about you as an artist. Who are you? Why do you do what you do? Why should people care? That’s what makes you different to any other artist out there and that’s what will make you stand out as an artist in today’s crowded market.
Please let me know what you think of this article and what you struggle with when you are trying to stand out as an artist. I read all of the comments.