Your follower count is BS, the “likes” on your photos are BS, and even if you have a MILLION followers, it isn't really worth anything.
I used to think I was going to be a musician. I played the guitar throughout my youth, sang in choir, and even built a guitar for a school project. I wrote my senior paper on the qualities that made certain musicians stand out and become successful in the industry. When my desire to be a musician faded away, and the cracks in my voice helped me make the decision to pick up a camera, one thing remained: I was obsessed with finding success.
Humans, at almost any age, universally want one thing: to feel important in the eyes of others. At the technological and creative boom of photography a few years ago, I found my desire to feel important a little bit earlier and a little bit stronger than my peers. When I first picked up a camera, my hope was to use it to become wildly successful, roll in fame and riches, and gain thousands and thousands and thousands of fans. Somewhere in there, I wanted to become a better photographer - and I truly did. However, my desire for acquiring something to fill my pathetic, misguided and broken desire for fame and fortune overshadowed my desire to be a better photographer.
I worked hard at creating new photos every single day, day in, and day out. But if my view count didn’t reach 100 by the next morning after posting the photo on Flickr, I considered it a failure.
Eventually, of course, 100 became a normal number. Then it was 500. When 500 faded out, it was 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 30,000, 50,000. I chased numbers like fire chased oxygen. If I was having a bad day, you could be sure it was because my photo didn’t hit 50,000 views on Flickr. I’m partially thankful for this fuel, however misguided, but I wish I would have known how much value I had aside from those numbers. Those followers. Those view counts.
See, the problem with artists and internet culture is that we want to feel important, and we use numbers on a screen to validate our worth and value.
That's what social media is all about, right? I remember when I became a suggested user on Instagram. 40,000 new followers poured in to my account overnight, people were fighting over the things I were saying and I had strangers defending the images I posted. Nothing felt better, and I was on top of the world. But I was still broken by this system, and there are incredibly talented artists around the world who I know are reading this right now, and are thinking, at the same time, about how many “likes” their last photo is getting. You know who you are. If this is you right now at this time in your life, hear me out: I feel you. I know that life. And I know how damaging it can be to real life relationships.
This process spiraled me in to a disconnection with the real world, spending hours upon hours on the internet, finding all my value you in 10-word simple sentences written on a comment thread as praise for pixels on a screen. I was hungry for anything that made me feel valued, and I found that value in the internet.
Let’s take a quick step back. The internet? Comments? Likes? This stuff is actually all SUPER good. Without the internet, we wouldn’t be communicating right now. I wouldn’t have met my wife. I wouldn’t have become a photographer. I wouldn’t have travelled. The internet has done the best job of connecting people around the world than any other single thing ever created. Unfortunately, like many good things, there is a side of the good thing that breaks off, becomes warped, and messes things up.
You see, success isn’t about how many followers or likes you can rack up overnight. It will leave us feeling empty, no matter how many numbers display across that screen, no matter what goal you hit. 100 or 50,000 or 5,000,000 in any form is only going to leave you empty handed if you’re putting your value and self worth in that place.
Success, instead, is more like a never ending road. You start your drive in the desert, and along the way you meet mountains, forests, tundras and oceans. There are waterfalls, barren lands, towering trees and never ending rivers. The sky is sometimes clear, and sometimes full of clouds. Some people think they’re driving a motorcycle through life, single rider, you and the road. I think life is more like driving a bus on that never ending road, and filling that bus with all the people who make your life worthwhile. People who are with you through all the experiences offered on that never ending road.
Because life is about the journey. Not about the destination. It was never, ever about the destination. Whether you apply this to success, or religion, or money, or passion, the journey is what means the most. The life lived and the value given and the hearts healed. The art created and the tears wept and the scrapes bandaged. The smiles. The laughter. The pain. The redemption. All of it. You’re never looking forward the end goal, you’re looking for the next goal.
Where are you headed that is so much more important than what’s in front of you right now? How many likes do you have to get on your photos until you finally feel like you’ve accomplished something? Even when you think climbing a mountain will lead you to feel content in your success, you still have to come back down. What can you do along the way to give your value back to world?
That’s why your follower count is BS. That’s why the likes on your photos are BS. Are likes and followers good tools for business and community? Absolutely. But value wrapped up in followers or likes is the messed-up by-product of the internet, and you should avoid as strongly as possible.
If you’re in this place, I feel you. The best possible thing you can ever do to get out of it is to give value back to the world around you. Collect moments, and wisdom instead of followers and likes. Share what you learn with your friends and family. Make amazing things. Help people. Share your art or your science or your community.
It’s not the stats that count at the end of the day. It’s the journey.
Are you enjoying the ride?
Images above are from our road trip to the Valley of Fire, NV for our honeymoon this week.
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