Living for a Living: Paul Hassell’s Light Business

A guest post by Paul Hassell, February’s Gu.eber of the Month.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life.”
~ Mary Oliver

Paul HassellI started taking nature photos when I was eleven years old. That’s also when I began dreaming about the life that I live today.

I spent long afternoons beside the Tennessee River, climbing sycamores and skipping rocks. I ran barefoot in the day’s last light just to feel the stiff-cut grass between my toes. I carried my mother’s old Canon camera to document my adventures, and though I hadn’t found the words yet, I loved light.

I won a few photo contests around town, and the powder-faced, perfume-drenched ladies at church pinched my cheeks, saying, “You’re gonna be a little National Geographic photographer.”

At sixteen, I got my driver’s license and traded the river for short treks to the Great Smoky Mountains—the oldest mountains on earth. A few years later, I carried my camera up Mount Sanford and several of Alaska’s other snowy peaks. I used the art of photography to express my love of the natural world, and my brother encouraged me to pursue nature photography as a profession: “Why not? Dude, just go for it!”

I am now 25 years old, and I’ve run this business for ten years.

I have sometimes felt a subtle, if persistent, hesitancy to conform to a mold created by other nature photographers, a mold that was in many ways appealing to me. I wasn’t afraid of this seemingly predetermined career path, and I wasn’t bothered by what the old church ladies, and many other people, didn’t understand. If the expressions on their faces and the words behind their words seemed to say,  “Grow up and get a real job,” I tried not to let that affect my decisions. I just had a strange inkling that something more profound and more beautiful than money or status was at stake.

But I love getting up in the morning, and yes, I am a gifted nature photographer. I own that. Too many accomplished artists have affirmed that truth for me to deny its reality out of false modesty. It’s also true that I’ve slept soundly when I was supposed to be tossing, turning, and worrying about my uncertain future. Of course my future is uncertain. Regular paychecks give the illusion of control, but they can’t make any guarantees.

Life throws me curveballs all the time. For example, I sat down last week on a white leather couch in Daniel Allen’s office. He has a gift for bringing clarity to entrepreneurs, business owners, and executive leaders.

Six hours and sixteen sheets of white butcher paper later, my life stretched across the wall, and the source of that hesitancy I mentioned earlier was staring me in the face.

Daniel wrote upon the 17th sheet, “I am in the _______ business.”

When I told Daniel about becoming a photographer at the age of eleven, I had said nothing about photography. I had said, “That was the year I became obsessed with light.” The next page said, “see light,” and the one after that, “share light.“  He’d asked about my mission, and I had replied, “My mission is to usher light into the world.”

Daniel went back and underlined the word that had appeared on every three-foot-tall sheet of paper.


I began to sweat, and then came the Aha! moment, the stroke of insight. I knew how to fill in the blank! I hadn’t been looking deep enough. I am not in the nature photography business. I’m in the light business.

What’s the difference?

I had confused my gift with my predominant expression of that gift, and limiting my specific gifting of seeing light to the profession of nature photography had become a creative drain. The parameters other nature photographers had placed on that career path were suffocating my gifting. I felt this happening, but I didn’t understand the full scope of the problem.

I now realize that the hesitancy I felt was really a desire to discover my real gift. What if I had been too engrossed in making my career and rising to the top of my profession? I would have been using my gift, but not living solely from it or working out of its overflow.

This is truer to life.

The same confusion between gift and predominant expression afflicts hundreds of graphic designers, writers, web developers, painters, and craftsmen. Left untreated, it causes them to slip into a predetermined creative mold. Forging a career out of creativity is hard enough without going one step further and breaking one of the few established or accepted occupational molds.

Creatives exist to shatter molds. That’s what we do. That’s a fundamental part of who we are. We are to wake others so that they might answer the question of how they wish to spend their “one wild and precious life.” The vitality of a creative person comes from his or her out-of-the-box-ness.

Many creatives plan their businesses by asking questions like, “What is the good or service I offer that no one else can?” Though this questions has value, I challenge my creative friends to look one layer deeper than that. What is the gift that makes the business possible? What is the gem buried in the mountain of creative talent and energy?

Get dirty. Dig. Find the diamond.

I have begun axing tasks, obligations, and jobs that don’t align with my true gift of ushering light into the world, and I’ve begun new ventures, such as public speaking, with clear connections to it. This April, I’ll lead five other photographers to Chilean Patagonia for a ten-day photo tour. I have a business doing what I love, and I hope to never work a day in my life. I know my true gift. I am in the light business. This insight has made all the difference. I’m living for a living.

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