Balanced Rock Sunset | Arches National Park

Ask James: 5 Things To Make You Better At Life

Hey James!

Love this Ask James series, please keep them coming! And I really hope you’ll consider this one ūüôā

Ok, my question is this: I consider you one of the best photographers and teachers out there, so what are 5 things you do that you feel set you apart from the competition and/or make you a better entrepreneur/photographer/human? Ok, thanks!Amelia

Before I get started with my answer, I want to say thank you for such an awesome question! Not because you said nice things about me (thank you, I do appreciate that) but because it’s such a unique question and one that will really make me dig in and think about my¬†response. Thank you!

I have several things I do on a day-to-day basis that don’t feel all that common in todays world. I have a goal that I keep in the back of my mind to become a better person every day. Not a better photographer, not a better entrepreneur, but a better person. Now, some days that means becoming a better photographer or post processor. Some days that means becoming better on the business side. Some days that means learning a new skill in a totally unrelated field. I don’t do these things for any reason except that I enjoy the pursuit of constant advancement¬†and I enjoy the results this mindset provides. Simply put, I don’t just want to be a good/great photographer, I want to excel in every aspect of my life that I can. So here are a few things I do that help in that effort, thanks again for the incredibly thought-provoking¬†question!

1) Waking Up Early

When I first went into business for myself, I took advantage of the fact that I could sleep in¬†or work as late as I wanted to. I’ve never been one to sleep in super late but I have been a night owl for most of my life. I’d stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning and sleep in until 9 or 10, not getting started on work until lunch or the afternoon. Those were some of the most unproductive days of my career as a photographer. Thankfully, it didn’t last long. I saw the problem it was creating and began noticing a pretty glaring trend in the lives of successful people: they all seem to get up super early. Tiger Woods is a night owl, and has always survived on a mere 3-4 hours of sleep per night. That’s crazy to me, I could never do that, but he gets up every morning at 4-5am. Donald Trump, Tim Ferriss, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, Jack Dorsey, Warren Buffet…all of these insanely successful titans of their industries/sports are up around sunrise. There are many reasons for this, but the main takeaway¬†is that you just get more done in the mornings. It is the most productive part of the day once you’re actually used to doing it. Waking up early also means finishing your work earlier, which means more time in the afternoon and/or evening to spend time with family or for recreation. The benefits are multi-faceted.

2) Reading Books/Gaining Knowledge

Most of my (good) habits didn’t come easy. I used to hate reading. This mindset came from grade school where I was always told to read books that I had no interest in so I could pass some useless test that I had even less interest in. I never finished a single book in elementary, middle or high school. I read just enough to pass the test or would read the cliff notes online. Eventually, just like discovering the benefits of waking up early, I started noticing how many successful people love to read. Waking up early and a love for reading are two almost universal traits of successful people.

I read around 90-95% non fiction books, 5-10% fiction. The reason for this is that when I read a book, I’m doing it because I want to learn something from it and grow as a person, not to¬†escape to¬†a world of fantasy. There are books that can do both though, like my favorite book of all time: The Alchemist. You can see a list of the books I recommend most over at my Reading List page.

3) Remaining Open/Keeping the Mindset of a Beginner

One of the least talked about and most common traits in the photography community today is pride and ego. We all struggle with it, myself included, but I diligently work to rid myself of it. Pride is looking down your nose at a photographer with less experience than you when they’re¬†sharing advice or giving critiques. Pride is seeing a peer post an incredible image on social media but you refuse to comment on it (or even like it) because you don’t want to potentially elevate them above yourself or “give them a big head.” Pride is not listening to someone who tries to help you with your business or craft because you just don’t think they could possibly understand it. Pride effects many photographers who start to gain a following, and then stop learning because they figure they are creating images that people like so why change the formula.¬†Pride is what kills our creativity, our progress and ultimately our success. It can be a slow death, but a death nonetheless.

4) Avoiding Work Just For Work’s Sake

Work/Life balance has become a cliche term in our lives today for a very sad reason: it just doesn’t really exist in most¬†peoples lives, especially here in America. We work to live and we live to work. Countless children grow up being raised by their nannies because both parents work full time jobs to afford…the nanny (and the endless pursuit of stuff). I usually put in around 15-30 hours per week. Could I make more money each year if I were willing to work 40-60 hours a week? Absolutely! But why? There are two currencies in our world today: time and money. Talk to any person on their death bed and see which one they wish they had more of; or for that matter, which one they wish they had cherished more in the past.

The fact is, just about anyone reading this could get their week of work done in 15-30 hours or less.¬†Most workers spend so much time just standing around, checking emails, sitting in meetings that don’t even have a real purpose, etc. If it’s 1:00 in the afternoon and I don’t have anything else to do, I stop working and go spend time with my family.

5) Have a Healthy Lifestyle

This is a step¬†that I’m currently right smack dab in the middle of, but it has already been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done for myself. In June of this year (2015) I was just getting ready to eclipse 200 pounds on the scale. Not everyone who weighs 200 or more is gross, but I was starting to get pretty gross since I’m only 5’7. I was extremely out of shape, I had man boobs and love handles and a gut, my large shirts were getting too tight and I so were my 36 inch waist pants. That month, I decided I had had enough of this sedentary lifestyle and made a change. It’s not October and I’ve lost just under 20 lbs and am just 2 lbs away from my initial goal weight of 180 lbs. From there my secondary goal will be to build muscle, tone and settle on whatever weight I end up at with a fit and healthy body.

The only way I can stick with something is to make it a hobby. This usually isn’t a problem because the things I stick with are the things I love, so they automatically become a hobby. Fitness was different because I hated it. I had to take something I hated, and turn it into a hobby which would then, hopefully, become something I love. And it worked. Here are the things I incorporated into my daily life to help in the process:

  • Subscribed to BeachBody’s new onDemand program and started doing a hybrid routine of P90X and Insanity 6-7 days a week.
  • Stopped eating fast food. In the past, I’d drive to Chick-Fil-A in the morning for a chicken biscuit (sometimes two) and an iced coffee. Lunch would be something like Taco Bell or Whataburger. Dinner would be whatever we had at home or out to a restaurant where I’d eat to my hearts content. I’m tellin ya, I was gross.
  • Started doing Shakeology for breakfast every morning no matter what along with a scoop of Amazing Grass SuperFood.
  • Went through social media and followed¬†people in the fitness world so my stream would filled with inspiration.
  • Began listening to podcasts about health, fitness and body hacking (The Tim Ferriss Show is an excellent place to start).
  • When I can’t avoid fast food, I make smart decisions. No tortillas, no chips and salsa, no french fries. Chicken sandwiches instead of burgers. Grilled chicken instead of fried. Salads instead of combo meals.
  • Cut out all liquid calories (except for the morning shakes which don’t really count). This was really easy for me, but I know it’s hard for others. Sodas are one of the worst things we put in our bodies. Sweet tea isn’t much better.
  • Began drinking 60-90 ounces of water per day. Easily drink 48 during my daily workout and another several glasses throughout the day and with meals.
  • Turned my garage into a workout room. I’ve got a heavy punching bag, pull up bars, weight machine, kettle bells, dumbbells, a large mat for ground exercises¬†and a TV for streaming P90X and Insanity.
  • Adopted the mindset that true health and fitness is a marathon, not a race. I’m ok with only losing .5 lb some weeks because other weeks I lose 2 lbs. I know that I’m building muscle too and that makes the process slower as well. It took me over a decade to get into the mess I was in, so it’s going to take a while to get out of it. That’s ok!

The main takeaway here is that I made fitness a daily interest and hobby. I did that by immersing myself in the world of fitness which made we want it that much more on a daily basis. Just remember, everything in balance ūüėČ


There are plenty of¬†people out there who sleep in every day, hate reading books, think they know everything and work 60 hours a week. Some might even call these folks “successful” in their respective fields. I think what it really comes down to is how you define success. If monetary wealth is the only qualifier, then feel free to ignore everything I’ve said in this article. But if time is more important

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