On July 5, 2013, I wrote “If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or objects.” — Albert Einstein
What follows is what Kevin O’Leary, Shark on ABC’s Shark Tank and late of CBC’s Dragon’s Den, had to say on the subject in a LinkedIn Influencer post dated February 3, 2015.
Best Advice: What You Want to Do Isn’t Always What You Want to Be
Feb 3, 2015
I was raised in a household that deeply valued education. When I was a teenager, my brother Shane, was making a beeline for engineering — an aspiration he had held since he was a kid. My parents were thrilled. Me, on the other hand, they were worried about.
Success was not a given for me. I liked music, taking pictures, and hanging out with my friends.
In my last year of high school, my stepdad George sat me down for the Talk About My Future. I was fidgeting, reluctant to pay attention, worried about telling him of my photography dreams. George was adamant. His singular question: What do you want to do with your life?
I told him that I didn’t want to go to university. That I was going to be a photographer.
“That’s not what I asked you. What do you want to do with your life?”
I repeated my answer with greater conviction.
“OK. That’s all well and good, Kevin, but do you have any idea what you have to do in order to be a photographer?” he asked.
I didn’t know how to answer that. Be? Do? There’s a difference? I crossed my arms and mumbled something about taking night classes, getting an agent, opening a gallery. I had no idea what I was talking about, but it sounded good.
Then he asked another crucial question.
“How much money do you think you’d need to make, every year, to be happy?”
I told him $20,000 which in the early 1970s was a lot of money.
“Most photographers don’t make that much money,” he said. “They’d be lucky to pull in a few thousand a year. On the side.” He explained that the majority of my income would have to come from a job of some kind, a job I wouldn’t necessarily like doing, but one that wouldn’t interfere with what I love doing. That was the “do” part of George’s question.”
“Are you able to do that Kevin — to work at a job in order to support yourself as you try to be a photographer? That’s how it’s done, Kevin. Actors wait tables between auditions, and writers hold down steady jobs, writing in their spare time.”
What was I willing to do to make money while I honed my craft? Lay bricks? Work in retail? Clean garbage trucks? Plant trees? I’d done all those jobs. The idea of spending the rest of my life subsidizing a passion felt impossible, and because I had no postsecondary education, those were about the only jobs for which I was qualified. George wasn’t discouraging me. He was being brutally honest with me about my chances at making it. Without the drive to work at other jobs to support that passion, I had no chance of becoming a wealthy photographer.
So “to be or not to be?” isn’t the question. The question is: What are you willing to do in order to be what you want to be? It’s not enough to say you want to be a photographer, or an actress, or a writer. You have to want to do all the necessary difficult things that are required to support that goal.
Lots of people are willing to do just that. Some of them make it, both at the doing and the being… but George’s advice was that most don’t.
I simply wasn’t willing to take that risk, to perform all the tasks and jobs required to support my dream of becoming a full-time photographer. I wasn’t willing to work days as a bricklayer or at a mall, shooting and developing photos on weekends. I didn’t want to inch toward my twenties — maybe even my thirties — accumulating debt and rejection, just to build a portfolio of work or a string of shows where most or all of my photos would go unsold.
There was no shame in understanding that about myself. It was an important, life-changing discovery. It meant that I had to stay on the scholarly path, because getting off the path altogether wouldn’t take me anywhere good. I wasn’t willing to make artistic pursuits my full-time priority, and I really wouldn’t have fared well as a punk. I love money too much.
Today, thanks to George’s advice, my decision to pursue academics, and a few other fortunate events and right turns along the way, I’ve built a successful career that allows me ample time and resources for my real passion — photography.
In October 2013, I held an exhibit of my photography in Toronto, titled Kevin O’Leary: 40 Years of Photography. I sold framed prints for $6,000 each, and raised $97,000 for teen entrepreneurs. There’s no doubt in my mind that this never would have been possible if George didn’t teach me the importance of knowing that you need to know what you want to do with your life, before you decide what you want to be.