I recently listened to an excellent episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast featuring Brandon Stanton, the creator of the Humans of New York project. I’ve been a big fan of Brandon’s work for many years and it was interesting to hear from the man behind the pictures.
What interested me most about the podcast was Brandon’s discussion of the path that led him to creating Humans of New York.
He characterised his late teenage years as a period where he was largely directionless. He spent a significant portion of his time pondering his destiny. He felt destined to achieve great things and much of his energy was directed towards identifying his path to greatness. His problem was that he couldn’t identify his purpose. He was certain it was there, in the way that only a nineteen year old can be certain of something, but the details eluded him.
The flow effect of this was a chequered academic record. When one is destined for greatness, the details of the periodic table, or the date of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln seem trivial and beneath you. Brandon graduated high school, but flunked out of college, and found himself as a man in his early twenties with a strong sense of his own significance, but little that would convince an outside observer to share his point of view.
The turning point in the Humans of New York project came with the cliched realisation that the path to success was hard work.
Things really started moving forward for me when I threw in the towel and said I’m going to stop trying to figure out what the big thing I am trying to accomplish is. I’m just going to start doing what I am supposed to do. I started riding the bus and going to community college. I got my grades back up and I focused on becoming a disciplined person and having a routine in my life.. and you know it’s funny, because when I stopped trying to think about this big thing that I was going to accomplish in life, and started just focusing on putting one foot in front of the other every single day, it began to propel me on the journey that ultimately led me to Humans of New York, which was something that was bigger than I could have ever imagined…
The entire podcast is well worth listening too, but this passage struck me as particularly significant. It reminded me of something I read in the New York Times bestselling book “Designing Your Life” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. This book puts forward the opinion that a major reason why people are unhappy is that they spent their entire life trying to find their purpose, when in actual fact, very few people have one.
This is an interesting concept. Anyone who has spent any period of time in the self-help aisle of their local book store has undoubtedly heard multiple versions of the same mantra. Find your purpose, often phrased as that thing about which you are most passionate, and pursue it relentlessly. This is the path to happiness.
In actuality, at least in the opinion of Burnett and Evans, most of us don’t have a purpose or calling. The continued pursuit of something which doesn’t exist leads us to be like mice on a wheel, forever chasing something that we can never reach. The result? In most cases, a sense of dissatisfaction with our lot in life, and in many cases, feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.
Returning to Brandon and his take on what the path to success looks like for him;
My advice to people who are stuck is to quit looking at the big picture. People get stuck because they want to accomplish too big a thing and they don’t know the right step to take. I always say instead of focusing on the year, instead of focusing on the arc of your life, focus on the twenty four hour period.
As cliched as it is, the path to fulfilment and happiness usually involves hard work and focus. More importantly though, is that the path to happiness involves working hard on the little things. It is important to sweat the small stuff.
Brandon didn’t set out to create Humans of New York. He set out to take a good photograph. It’s the small things that matter. If you figure these out, then often the big stuff takes care of itself.