Humility sucks

pensive baby sculpture from the Louvre


This post has sat in my draft folder for 13 years. Looking back, there’s enough distance to feel comfortable enough to publish it. Unfortunately, we’ve lost Mark Waters and Jonny Donhowe, but Satoru is still creating amazing art. (March 12, 2021)

I learned humility the hard way. It sucks to learn that you aren’t the rock star you envision yourself to be. To come back down to earth is at least a practical lesson that everyone needs to learn sooner or later. Let me see if I can fill you in on the details.

I studied photography at Palomar College in San Diego. This is putting it very mildly. I was part of an amazing group of student photographers. Mark Waters, Shawn Zenor, Jonny Donhowe, Satoru Yoshioka, Susan Coppock, Meredith Hodge…

We were the shit. We pushed each other. We fought each other. We did things no other set of students had done at that school. We kept telling each other how great we were, how the work we did was revolutionary, how clever our experiments were, you name it.

Each of us were waiting for doors to open when we graduated. Now, we weren’t just hot air. There was some extreme talent in that pool and each of us has gone on to do creative, recognized work. But let’s continue with the head trip.

Post-graduate big head

I rushed my classes in the end. I had plans to move north to Seattle. My friend Heidi had just relocated to the city and I thought it would be a great change. Unfortunately, Boeing was in a down turn and the tech bubble wasn’t in sight. So Seattle was in a recession and no jobs were available.

I stayed in San Diego and continued working on my concert photography, AIDS Art Alive, and began working to open a small photo lab. I was hired with a Brooks graduate to do portraiture and run the equipment. I was the equipment person, retail, and various other duties.

With my super photo skillz and over-whelming confidence, I attacked the job and had fun. I began teaching some free classes to locals and enjoyed the job. We expanded and hired a new person that I really liked, but she found the job a bit boring and left.

After a while, I started thinking the job wasn’t really worth my massive talent and started to get bored. Lo and behold, my former co-worker calls me with a job running a photo lab with some unique challenges. I jumped at the opportunity. It was more money, was downtown, and allowed me to go back to school to study art.

Once again, I had big ideas. I was going to create the perfect environment. I was going to be the best boss, hire great talent, build new business ideas, cut production costs, increase productivity… After all, I was part of this super talented Palomar group that hung out together and continued to wow each other.

But a funny thing happened along the way. I was a horrible manager. Horrible! My business ideas were laughable. I hired a real loser that dragged us down. I couldn’t manage our labor costs. Our work was sloppy. And I caused the business owner to lose a lot of money. It’s not that I didn’t try. It’s just that I didn’t realize how little I knew until it was too late.

After about 9 months, the business was in shambles and the owner had to sell it and I was laid off. Surprisingly, the buyer was my friend, though I had nothing to do with her purchase.

It’s a sad thing to destroy someone’s business to learn an important lesson: Humility. I realized afterwards that surrounding yourself with a circle of self-admirers is great for artistic creativity. We would have never learned as much as we did if we weren’t so close.

However, you need to stand back and face reality. There’s a time for utopian perfection and a time to accept business needs. Sometimes you have the luxury to create the perfect module, widget, essay, etc. Sometimes you need to cut corners to make it work. Nobody succeeds if the cost of your perfection is self-destruction.

I also learned that a group of self-congratulating people can build a strong platform. That group can be extremely productive. But destruction occurs when that group loses track of reality, goals begin slipping, deadlines are missed, and outsiders are demanding action. Perfection is no longer a goal shared by all, sometimes things just need to get done. When reality rears its ugly head, the group is no longer a utopian crew. It starts to lose contact, break apart, become jaded, and eventually learn to be humble.

I don’t want to suggest my classmates went through the same experience that I had. As a group, we are represented in museums, galleries, magazines, books, and the internet. We’ve traveled around the world and garnered much respect. Many of them are still the shit and have earned their place in the spotlight. I especially recognize Satoru Yoshioka and Mark Waters for their hard work and success.

Post reality

After destroying the photo lab downtown, I went back to school to get my Fine Art degree. I began managing Alcala Pet Care and started working on their web site in 1997. I continued playing with web sites while working on my degree and have steadily improved. Now I’m on a train from Paris to London as an engineer for Yahoo. I work very long hours to make sure the product I’m associated with is a success. I try to build perfect code and to meet any deadline. I want to know that I gave my very best to a project.

Yahoo includes a roster of incredibly talented and smart individuals. It’s hard to get big-headed here. Whenever I begin to think I know what’s going on, I sit in a meeting with an engineer or product manager that leaves me stunned. There are so many things I don’t know yet. That to me is humility. I’m proud of my work, proud of my talent and knowledge, but aware of what I still need to learn. I appreciate the future and realities of the present.

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