“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” – Matsuo Basho
I was this close.
I’d navigated to the website. I’d triple-checked my credit card balance. My cursor hovered over the “Register” link.
But I couldn’t bring myself to click.
So I did what I’m trying to do more often: I followed my gut, pushed back from my computer, and took a breath.
-What do I really want from this?
“This” was a week-long photographers’ retreat, practically guaranteed to inspire, engage, and revolutionize. One of those, “your life will never be the same” events. One of those, “don’t think about the money!” assurances.
So I messaged my friend Ara.
-What I really want is to feel renewed. I want to go away and write and make photographs and drink whiskey by a fire and commune with nature and sit side-by-side with people who get it, get me, get this messy phase I’m in. Is that a thing?
And Ara said,
-Yes. It’ll just take some work.
Maybe it’s our culture; maybe it’s my own laziness; maybe it’s how awfully busy everyone appears to be. But these days, while we can’t find time for drinks with friends or a weekend away, we’ll pull out our checkbooks at the slightest provocation and pay big money for someone else to make an experience for us.
Wanna be inspired? That’ll be $1300 for a week with industry leaders.
Wanna photograph beautiful models? That’ll be $800 for a two-day intensive.
Wanna network with other creatives? That’ll be $2500 – once you add up the conference pass and the overpriced hotel and the flight and the rental car and the $6 bottles of water you’ll be buying for the next five days.
And maybe you’ll find what you were after. It happens. You sign up and you attend and you meet amazing new people and learn mind-blowing new techniques and leave feeling ready to get back to it.
Except when you don’t. Except when the conference ends and you trudge home feeling alone and disconnected and unnecessarily broke. Which has happened to me one too many times.
And I don’t think that’s because there is anything inherently wrong with going to a retreat or a conference or a workshop. I’ve been to plenty; I’ve even hosted a few. Large, organized events like these offer very specific advantages that you won’t find anywhere else: access to the top professionals in our field, connection to hundreds (if not thousands) of like-minded creatives, lessons that simply can’t be learned on the internet.
But there’s one thing they can’t do for us. They can’t make us work.
Over the past few days, Ara and I have been working toward a little gathering of our own, curating a handful of people who we think would fit well together in a house by the sea in mid-winter Oregon. We’ve found a home to rent, with beds for 14 and a view of the Pacific. We’re working on grocery lists, packing lists, reading lists, playlists.
And in the work of our planning, I’ve already begun to feel it, the thing I realized I wanted. Connection.
Connection colored by creativity. Connection bolstered by shared meals and strong drinks. Connection challenged by rain and sea air.
Because, when we swipe our credit cards and hold out our hands for the experience, are we missing out on something? What do we forego when, every year, we go through the motions of connecting, but leave having never revealed our hopes and dreams and fears and struggles? Where do we fall short when our only personal projects are those prepared for us and thrust in front of our cameras in a room full of eager photographers?
Is there more?
Maybe it’s time to skip the portrait class, get off your ass, and just make another portrait. And another. And another. Until you’re better. (And you will get better!)
Maybe you’re ready to bypass the networking event, and simply reach out directly to people you love, people you want to love, people you think you could love if you’d only make room for them. (And our hearts have so much more room than we give them credit for!)
It’s hard work, saying, “Hey, let’s be friends,” and then making good on that promise. It’s hard work coordinating calendars and making arrangements. It’s hard work, revealing our most vulnerable selves.
But that’s the investment, and the thing that can’t be bought.
You can buy classes and how-to guides and tickets to events. But you can’t buy community.
You can’t buy the person who will say to you, “Stop being pathetic and go make something.”
You can’t buy the friend who believes in you on rough days.
You can’t buy the way your soul warms when you realize you’ve been talking with someone for hours and still have so much left to share.
You can’t buy the relief of feeling truly, fully understood and accepted.
But you can work for it.
You can reveal yourself, and find your tribe. You can share your truth, and make real connections. You can do the work, and reap the rewards.
So this year, before you load another debt onto your credit card, ask yourself:
-What do I really want out of this?
If it’s textbooks and Powerpoints and diagrams, maybe you’re on the right track. But if it’s community and authenticity and support and inspiration, maybe you’re knocking on the wrong door. Maybe it’s time to forge your own path. Maybe it’s time to take the risk, make the effort, do the work.
Me and Ara? We’re going north this winter, us and 12 others and plenty of whiskey. Because whatever happens, it’s gonna be real. And all it will cost is a plane ticket.