A few weeks ago I was visiting family, and I had a nice conversation with my dad about work. I mentioned some of the accomplishments and opportunties over the past few years and said something about being “lucky”. And with that, my dad replied “It takes a lot of hard work to get lucky”. Don’t dads say the smartest things?

He is so, so right. When I reflect on the past few years and what I’ve done, while it might feel like luck it was a combination of a lot of little things that got me where I am today. Heck, I’ll be 32 in a few months and I’ve already written three books for Peachpit, an eBook with Craft&Vision … and I hope to add more to that list down the road. I make enough money with my photography alone to fully support myself, pay taxes, insurance, save for retirement and even have a little leftover for fun and travel. It feels like luck, but I’ve worked very hard to get here.

My path is unique to what many others will accomplish (or even want), and looking back it was a combination of a lot of things that have led to my success, and my goal is to keep doing these things (and more) to hopefully bring in more opportunities and adventures. The funny thing is that I did none of these things with an agenda. I wrote blog posts about my photography, shared Photoshop tips of mine that I’ve discovered and mastered and posted behind-the-scenes images of some of my photo-shoots … all because I just wanted to share what I know with others. I didn’t know who was watching, or if anyone even cared … I did these things because I enjoyed doing them. I didn’t realize that my efforts would result in jobs, and books, and amazing friendships.

While there’s no formula to success (despite what many self-help books will lead you to believe), there are some essentials that have helped me grow and become not only successful, but a better person and photographer. Here are a few that I truly believe in:

Embrace change, conquer fear & take risks.

Everyone’s life is different, but there is always room for risk and adventure on many different levels. For me, I went from photography being “extra” money while I was married to going through a divorce and having to fully support myself with my work. There was a lot of fear involved with that unexpected and immediate change in my life, but it didn’t stop me. It was that event that was the catalyst in my career in photography. I went from a “normal” life to an uncomfortable one, a life where I had to be fully independent and in control, and it has made me a better person, and a better artist because of it. In six weeks I’ll be packing up and moving to Seattle, where I know no one and have no idea what to expect. It’s a huge risk I’m taking—both financially and creatively—that I hope will open new doors for me and help me see things differently.

Accept critique and contempt.

To be able to get past the struggles we all face as creative people, we sometimes need to have a thick skin … but not so thick that nothing gets through. My main source of income is from microstock photography, a business model that some people disagree with (it could be that it’s just an easy target … but that’s an entirely different blog post altogether). :) It’s not easy when you get hate-comments from people who just don’t like what you do. I mean, it’s not like I’m conning widows out of their life savings to buy a photograph. But people can be mean, opinionated and vocal … I’ve learned to just let it happen and continue making my living doing what I love.

This also goes with having your work critiqued. I’m not talking about the random anonymous comment that says something extremely nice, or extremely mean about one of your photographs. True critiqe, from someone you respect and admire, is worth its weight in gold. It can be painful—and trust me, I’ve been there—but it is an invaluable learning experience that I think everyone should experience regularly.

The bottom line is that if you are ever on the receiving end of contempt, mean comments, controversy, or just basic, solid critique that you don’t want to hear, do not get hung up on it. It’s human nature to focus on the bad and ignore the good, but sometimes seeing that “bad” side of things can be a good thing. I can’t stress this enough: if you only hear good things about you and your creative efforts then you will never grow. Listen to, embrace, and accept the bad … and then walk away from it. Learn from critique, but don’t let it drag you down and stifle your efforts. Some things you can never change, like someone just not liking what you do, but other things can be used as a valuable learning experience.

Be yourself.

I believe that this is essential to going down any path that would be considered “successful” in today’s world. People appreciate “real” people, people who aren’t just a robot filling in the blanks with what they think people want to see, hear or read. Create work that inspires you, that shares your vision and comes from your heart. And, once you do, your efforts won’t seem so strenuous … it’s so darn easy to just be yourself! With photography or any kind of art or creative effort, when you create what you love and are truly passionate about then you will never, ever be wrong.