I wanted to be an artist, but didn't fit in. I found my community by exploring beyond my comfort zone.
When I was 16, I was lucky enough to have a computer in my own room. It opened a window to a world I had never seen before. It was a portal away from all of the things that I knew to be true in my hometown.
Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, my access to culture was limited by proximity. There weren’t many sneakerheads, fashion brands, street artists, or alternative lifestyles. The education system provided a very structured plan for what and how to think.
Looking back I realize the awkwardness of our teen years comes from trying to find our place in the world. Before the internet, we were left with the few options that our surroundings provide.
I tried my way at fitting in where I was. Like any kid, I wanted to figure out a way to feel comfortable and assured in my social circles. There’s a favorite quote of mine that goes, "Style is knowing who you are and what you want." But as a kid, those two things are hard to define. We try on masks as we search for our place - a place where we don't need to wear a mask anymore.
In the process of personal discovery, we go through phases, exploring for something that fits. I am a band kid, a soccer player. I want to be a teacher, or I'll be a doctor. I love punk rock. I love '80s music? We question authority and tradition. We push to some of our edges to see what's there. We even try wearing a new bright patterned shirt to school, then we get ridiculed by our classmates.
At age 16, I remember browsing Cool Hunting, scrolling around Tumblr, stalking fashion photographers, and reading bloggers. It was the work of unknown photographers on Flickr that led me to begin a path of photography. It was aggregation sites that led me to find unique voices that I connected with. It was the countless bloggers and artists contributing to online platforms that led me to see the potentials for who I could be.
As I breezed and binged around the web collecting bits and pieces, I found gems and artifacts of lives that were being lived differently than mine. And I slowly realized that what I wanted more than anything was to partake in other types of culture, while defining my own creative voice.
What I saw in those early days of the online world felt like a juxtaposition - I saw my own world and compared it with the world of people blazing their own path, expressing themselves to the world. And I didn't know how, but I wanted to be involved in that group of entrepreneurs and artists.
In college, I also found new ways of thinking through small groups of friends who actively participated in worlds I never even knew existed. I connected with local entrepreneurs who were willing to assist me in my earliest, most naive attempts at understanding their culture. I had decided I wanted to build my own path, but I did not yet know what that meant.
My first attempt was as a freelancer, just a year out of college in 2012. By "freelancer," I mean I took whatever odd marketing, photo, or design jobs I could get my hands on. Meanwhile, the rest of my friends in Ohio had solid paying jobs, were saving money, and paying down their student loan debt.
And there I was - scrambling around, awkwardly trying to find my place. I had a crazy scheme for my first big artistic leap. I approached growing companies and offered to pitch their brand throughout the Midwest and West Coast. I would embark on a travel adventure around the U.S. and create visual media for their company along the way. Basically a modern traveling salesperson.
I packaged my pitch into a slide deck and set up meetings with CEO's and marketing directors. I remember shaking as I pitched a CEO on why his brand should have great photography for Instagram, this up-and-coming network.
And I was rejected. Painfully. Over and over again.
My failure with this project led me to understand two things. The first was that I was waiting for these companies to accept me and my work. Fair enough, I was young and inexperienced. But more important, I was looking at the wrong places to find acceptance. The second realization was that I could create my own group instead of joining another. I didn’t need to wait to be selected. I didn't have to wait for anyone else's approval.
During this time, I found inspiration from other entrepreneurs and artists, people who shared their experiences about rejection and creating their own companies and projects. Their voices gave me permission to keep going.
Later that year, I started a small project with my friend Allie called Death to the Stock Photo. It was a community for artists and creatives around the globe looking to carve out their own path. Instead of focusing my efforts on my own search, I realized I could choose to help others. Giving them resources to find themselves and their art immediately included them in a creative community of my own making.
It was a way to build my own culture, to put out a call to others like me. With almost no experience or funding, I trudged my way through the initial stages of building an online business.
More than three years in, we now serve over half a million creatives from around the world. Every month we send out stories and resources to artists building their own projects. More than almost anything in the business, my conversations with our community give me the most fulfillment. Now, I'm in the position to give permission and leadership to others on the journey. And I do it every chance I get.
Three months ago we put out a call to creatives around the globe to ask, "Where are you, what are you working on, and how are you carving your own path?"
The responses we heard were incredible. People shared stories from remote locations about their work, about what it meant to be a creative in their community. Others felt isolated, and they shared how our community had become a lifeline and a window into a different world. It wasn’t just the designer in a big city we heard from, it was mothers, bloggers, farmers, and those trying to make a creative life work in all kinds of places. People just looking to make a contribution.
This is how we find ourselves.
We grow out of our small worlds by recognizing that there's something bigger out there. We embrace change, explore, participate in cultures outside our own. We connect with others from all over and take bold steps. Through Death to Stock, we take all artists, everywhere, and embrace them into our creative community.
I encourage you to actively seek out groups or individuals who inspire you to find your path. Don't worry if you don't find your group right away. If you need to, build your own. You don't need anyone's permission.