On Passion and Regret

I made many mistakes in my early career directly attributable to a youthful lack of wisdom. One thing in particular: I wanted to be the best photojournalist, to have my name spoken in company with the best of the 20th century. To win the major awards. To witness the great events. To have my images of those events become iconic.

Luckily, none of that occurred. And while I suffered a bit of youthful regret as soon as it became apparent that dream wasn’t going to happen, I did manage over some measure of years to settle down and be cool with the way things were working out.

Things have worked out better in many ways. But my 24-year-old self would not have recognized my understanding of “better” today.

After earning a Ph.D. and getting a proper academic job, I did the tenure grind and the promotion grind and wound up a full professor. I made a decision in 2014 that, only a few years later, I figured out was sort of wise. So, yeah, gotta be careful there. Wise is a lot like cool or woke. If you claim it, you probably aren’t it.

Some years before my wife and I made a list of things we individually hoped to achieve as we landed in middle age — that was a few years before I finished graduate school and took an academic job, while life was still in flux. At the top of my list I wrote: “Learn to make documentary films.” Not too surprising for a visually-oriented, non-fiction guy. The list was put away and forgotten until my wife found it sometime around 2016 after I’d finished my first documentary film. Oh, look! It was on the list!

In 2014, I began production of my first documentary film with a group of my students. I had not made video much over the length of a standard news report to that point. A colleague in the department asked me — I was a print journalism professor, after all — what I hoped to achieve. I answered with one word: mediocre.

And I achieved it!

Somewhere, somehow — possibly owning to my adherence to Stoic philosophy — I stopped trying to be the best. A first hint was right there on that list of goals. I wrote that I wanted to learn to make documentary films. Not a word about being good at it.

My 24-year-old self would not understand me because I do what I do for me first– and last.


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