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You have to be willing to lose to win
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Ruin, 26 July 1996

California Ruin, 26 July, 1996, my most famous shot, made as a gamble driving a few hours back to see what might be there. This free website's biggest source of support is when you use these links when you get anything, regardless of the country in which you live. Thanks! Ken.


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I was having a discussion with an entrepreneur neighbor about how we might best raise our kids to think for themselves and be successful, instead of thinking like everyone else and confusing "getting a job" or "building a career" with success.

My neighbor explained that it all came down to learning to take risks, and that the way to learn is to start with small risks and be rewarded for them. That's positive reinforcement.

Ordinary people are too scared that they'll starve if they quit their jobs to strike out on their own, so most people spend their entire lives quietly working for others, always afraid that they're one step away from layoffs, outsourcing and myths like "economic downturns" that threaten their jobs.

These folks never excel (except at making money for their boss), they're never confident in their own futures, and are always too afraid to speak their minds at "work" for fear of losing their jobs.

Employers capitalize on these fears to keep an endless stream of hard-working employees enslaved, keeping these employees ever fearful that if they ever actually took the vacation they've earned, that on the next round of layoffs, it might be they who get laid off. (Ever notice how employers use the meaningless word "accrued" instead of "earned" when discussing your vacation?)

Most people are so afraid of losing that they never get in the game, so they can never win. They spend their lives in fear of losing their jobs, and never break out on their own and become billionaires as some other American does every week. Did Facebook's founder become a billionaire while working for Yahoo? I think not.

It's all about learning to take risks. It's safest in the short term to work for someone else and let them take the risks for you, but long term, you're never going to get rich or famous working for someone else. Heck, when your employer loses the game, you all get fired anyway when he goes out of business, so why would anyone work for someone else? Laziness and fear, that's why, but that's another day's story.

So how does this relate to photography? Simple: the best photos happen only when you take the risks to get them. Just like life, you can't win if you're not even in the game. You have to be willing to lose a few in order to win big.

It takes a lot of mental fortitude to run down some empty path for a few hours hoping there might be a picture there, and then to keep doing it even when you get nothing three times in a row. Rational, normal people will never keep doing this, but the only way to get winning images that stand out from the rest is to run down those crazy paths no one else bothers to investigate.

Risk taking ought to start off small. Take a chance on something, and see that it pays off more often than not. When you start winning a few, you'll start to be able to brush off the losses and focus on your winnings.

Never gamble in someone else's game, as in Las Vegas. The house always wins long-term. Gamble in your own game.

Engineers are horrible at risk taking for the sorts of things for which we have no data, because they spend their lives designing around all the things that might happen, losing sight of what would probably happen if they took the risk. What usually happens when we gamble intelligently is that we win more often than not, but normal people worry more about what might happen if we lost.

Insurance companies win because most people think bad things happen far more often than they actually do.

Just as most people don't have the risk-taking guts to quit their crummy (but high-paying) jobs and start something great from scratch, rational people just won't invest the time or effort to do the crazy things that are the only ways to get astounding photos. Go the same places at the same times as everyone else, and you'll get the same photos.

Most of the time you stay out late or go down a crazy path, you won't get anything. You lose. The key is that sometimes you win, and the only way you win the photo game is by taking chances and getting yourself out there.

It's always easier to call it a night and head back to dinner, but only by staying out late in the woods while my photo pals headed back to town did I get this snap about a half-hour after sundown.

Mono Lake

Mono Lake, 25 July 1993.

These crazy colors are the way it actually looked, caused by Pinatubian light, winning me numerous awards, while my photo-trip friends went for the sure thing — dinner — instead.

Always take chances in photography. It may seem like a pain and a waste of time, but when you start bagging a few winners by hiking farther, longer, staying out later or spending a day just to see what's out there, you'll start doing more of it, and getting more of the extraordinary photos that matter.

Remember Galen Rowell's iconic snap of the rainbow over the Dalai Lama's palace? He made that by running a mile in the rain, pretty much knowing that he'd get the shot, and even when he invited the rest of the photo tour group he was leading, they all preferred to stay back at camp and have dinner instead. Galen won because he took a calculated and informed risk. They lost because they were lazy.

In both of these cases all the others got was dinner on time, but we got great shots that they never will, and still had the same dinner an hour later.

While most people lack the guts to quit the high-paid stress they call their "job," (see How To Afford Anything for hints on how to develop a nest egg, or a "screw the boss" fund), there's little to worry about taking risks exploring further for better photos. Sure, my friends always think I'm nuts when I go off someplace strange, and often I get nothing, but ahhhh, when I find something good, it more than makes up for the wild goose chases.

Mark Twain wrote:


"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”


(While my personal experience is working in private enterprise of which I'm poking fun, those who honor us with their service in government, like the police, fire, Marines, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and etc., obviously take greater risks every single day than do entrepreneurs, and unlike entrepreneurs who take risks for their own personal benefit, those who choose to serve us all take these personal risks for the benefit of total strangers. Thank you!)


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Thanks for reading!



Mr. & Mrs. Ken Rockwell, Ryan and Katie.


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