What On Earth Do I ‘Do’? | The Collective Cry of the Creative Millenial

Matthew standing in the middle of Osaka

I remember sitting in my 5th grade classroom, and my beloved teacher asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be an artist, a photographer. With a well-intentioned explanation along with much wiser people than myself, I was steered a different direction - towards science. I was to be a doctor. 

Career options

I refuse to place blame on anyone for this tangent, as there was as much internal pressure as there was external to perform with the most prestigious position I could possibly imagine. I believe this to be one of the greatest wrongs in the culture in which I grew. If only there wasn’t so much value and importance placed in an individual’s work. However, after graduating with honors and a bachelors in physiology, an additional minor in chemistry, receiving a 34 on the MCAT, and beginning the application process while considering Harvard as one of my possible options — I gave it all up. 

I didn’t want to be a doctor. Not at that time. I had a camera in my hands at nearly every moment, I overbooked classes my last years of college just to fit a minor in studio art, and I spent nearly every penny I had on travel to any destination I could find cheap enough tickets. I taught myself Swedish and Spanish JUST FOR FUN. I spent nearly all of my time, all of my mental capacity on what I could create, what I could photograph, what other cultures I could experience and tell stories about, how I could find success with my art and escape the impending doom of medical school. As I came closer and closer to signing the deed and committing myself to another 4 years of school, it became more and more apparent how much I desperately needed try and make doing what I really love my permanent job.

Why would I torture myself going into a career to do something I didn’t actually want to do? 

Now, 4 years later, self-employed and running my own business as a freelance photographer, I question my past choices. Could I have been right about the job-security, guaranteed high-pay, and prestige to make an easy-going life? Could I have been misguided, blinded by my passion to create amongst an army of counter-culture misfits? From what it looked like, the creatives I followed online were wildly successful and doing monumental things all around the world. If they can do it, so can I.

I followed the notion that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. 

Now I understand that by doing what I love, I never stop working.

Photo via  @LukasKorynta

Photo via @LukasKorynta

I’m not saying that one can’t be successful and make a comfortable life for themselves doing what I myself am trying to do, but that I grossly underestimated the difficulty. In all honesty, I believe going through medical school would have been a much easier path. It’s straight forward, there is structure and curriculum and a definitive plan that gets you from point A to point Z. You’re well respected in society, and people comprehend and understand your position. There is clarity there, and there is deep comfort in that clarity. However, no one said doing what you’re passionate about would be easy.

What I find most frustrating, most excruciatingly painful, is that I do not know how to explain what it is that I exactly do. The activities of my work change from day to day. It’s difficult to pinpoint a single duty or a single job. A teacher can tell someone that they teach and the public generally understands what that means. But a freelance photographer, social media consultant, influencer, marketing entrepreneur who also runs a small blog but creates video content from time to time to make a bit of income too? I could tell someone that I’m any one of those things - but I do them all. The truth is that I am working 4 to 5 different jobs all at once under the same singular business name where I am the boss and all of the employees. All of this to hardly maintain the income to support one individual millennial creative — me!

Flying looking out airplane window

Consequently, this leaves me confused, deflated, overwhelmed, and a bit unsure of what direction I myself am trying to go. I know what I want to do. I have my end goal in sight. But I have no idea of how to get there. I want to write and photograph in a consistent position for a reputable publication such as National Geographic or Travel + Leisure. What’s complicating is that I am unaware of any set path in place to achieve such a position. There’s no surefire way to get from point A to point Z. Anyone in the industry that I’ve spoken to has gotten to where they’re at by completely different methods - however usually involving knowing someone from within. Connections. 

What’s shocking to me, is that when I look around at most of my creative friends - we all are in similar positions. Looking successful over social media (in correspondence with positive brand relations), perceived by peers and family as “making it” in life, yet in reality struggling on the day to day to even figure out if we have work, let alone if that work contributes to our overarching career paths. This is now normal. 

So I ask myself, “What on earth do I ‘do’?”

And I join the chorus of questions coming from everyone and anyone in the world asking me too.

I try to explain to well intentioned individuals in my life, lovingly asking what I’m doing, and how I can be recklessly traveling anywhere and everywhere on a whim. It’s hard to be a travel blogger if you don’t travel, and it’s hard to travel consistently when you don’t have companies readily paying your way.

I’ve convinced myself that without the appropriate connections to begin with - I must pay my way to make my own work and connections. You have to start somewhere. I view it like working as a volunteer in order to get a foot in the door. But, how can I appropriately explain this when to the majority of people, it looks like I’m just having a ton of fun traveling? Especially when my job involves maintaining a brand image of fun-loving leisure online.

Matthew on a bridge in Budapest

I cannot be sure if I will achieve my end goal photographing for a reputable publication in a consistent position, or if my goal will eventually morph into something different as I progress. But I can be sure of the work that I am doing now. In a way, I’m creating my own path and in a completely unique position of creating my future. With all of the uncertainty, there is still the optimistic notion that anything is possible.

Yesterday, I edited photos from Thailand, I wrote a travel blog, uploaded photos to three different Instagram accounts, corresponded over email with several brands, wrote a concept for an ad, planned an appointment with a wedding client, looked up flights for future potential travel projects, and finalized a wedding set. I don’t know what work I need to do today. My schedule is random.

I am amongst a sea of creators, all frantically uploading content, building brands, and hoping that someday, somehow all of this will lead to a sustainable position doing what we love. Then, perhaps I could explain to someone what exactly it is that I do.