I want to share a story with you. It it comes from my earliest days as a professional photographer and taught me an important lesson. Some of this story has been altered to conceal identities.
It was around 2007 and I was working as an assistant to another, much more established photographer during a charity event. Let’s just call him Joe. The idea of the event, was to provide struggling families with beautiful family portraits, free of charge, to help foster family ties in a community that often saw families fractured. The portrait sessions were each about 15 minutes long and were held in a community center cafeteria, one after the other for an entire afternoon. My job was to fetch props and equipment as needed, and to handle organizing and printing the images when a session ended.
At the time, Petruzzo Photography was truly in its infancy. Back at home, I had a one camera body and maybe a paltry two or three lenses I wasn’t skilled enough to really use to their potential. I was working at a Thai restaurant in the evenings, and shooting family portraits a couple times a month in the mornings, and weddings on the weekends whenever I could.
At the time of the charity event, I was carefully avoiding taking on shoots that required me to manipulate light. I wasn’t comfortable with a flash unit and my attempts at ‘studio’ photography looked like, well, shit. The stiff subjects, harsh light, and distracting backgrounds I would inevitably produce all made me sick to my stomach. So when the charity event came around and provided the opportunity to work with a seasoned professional, I thought I might finally start to get over that fear.
I had been nervous about asking him questions and felt a pressure to prove myself first. Joe and I were about an hour and a half into the event and probably on our fifth or sixth session of the day when we broke for lunch. Joe and I went to get some food together. As we were eating, I took the opportunity to ask Joe how he got into photography, about his business and what he’d wished he’d known when he started. Joe was very friendly answering my questions. He seemed to enjoy the admiration. Who wouldn’t? He returned no questions my way.
As we were walking back from lunch I mounted the courage to share a little about myself. I said to him, “I was excited to work with you today because I was hoping you’d teach me about studio lighting–I’m trying to start my own photography business.” Joe stopped walking and looked at me, then started walking again at a slightly faster pace. I could sense, somehow, I’d struck a nerve.
When we returned to the studio area in the cafeteria, Joe was less jovial. He wasn’t asking me to fetch gear anymore and he was no longer discussing the photos with me. We shifted into a very uncomfortable silence. After some time, during a lull, I asked Joe, “Is everything okay? Did I do something to upset you?”. Joe put down whatever he was tinkering with and looked at me for a moment then said, “No, you have to learn how to do this the hard way. Don’t expect any handouts from me”. I was taken aback. Truthfully, I don’t remember exactly what he said. The moment he started speaking my head got warm and flushed with embarrassment. I left that day feeling about two inches tall and like I’d messed up beyond repair.
Of course, here we are today, and that was hardly true. Whether Joe meant to or not, he taught me a valuable lesson.
Joe thought if he could squash my request, he could squash a competitor before they were big enough to be a threat. Joe though he would make or break my success as a photographer, and that he was doing himself a favor by refusing to share his knowledge with me.
What Joe misunderstood, and what many people in business misunderstand, is that ideas and knowledge don’t make someone successful in business. As any college graduate working at Starbucks can tell you, they don’t move the needle by themselves. Ideas and knowledge are the underlying circuitry, but it’s hard work, endurance and bravery that are the power flowing through them.
Running a business is hard in a special way. While knowledge is acquired every day, and ideas are born below the rush of warm water during every shower, only a fraction of those people with knowledge and ideas are able to actually act on them in business. I was one of those people with ideas and in search of knowledge. If Joe had known how unlikely it was that I’d follow through, he might have nurtured my desire to learn and earned himself a very good employee. But instead, he felt threatened, for whatever reason, and cast me aside. My ideas didn’t die with that disappointment, and my search for knowledge didn’t end there. Today, Joe and I do indeed compete with each other, though I’m happier about it than he is.
The people who are excited about your ideas and your knowledge are the people you want to share them with. Some might go on to compete with you, but most will instead invest back in you and give you a stark advantage over those who took the knowledge and ran.
Openness is a better policy than paranoia.