So you’ve never been the creative type but always had this lingering feeling that you were put on this earth to create something. Sometimes you sit back in the chair in your old musty, three-walled dingy cubicle wondering what life would be like if you only knew what it was you wanted to create and how to create it. Brandon Stanton, founder of Humans of New York, which has amassed 20 million social media followers, had that same feeling.
Stanton worked in Chicago as a bonds trader and always knew he wanted to do something creative even though he admits to having no artistic ability whatsoever. He majored in history—a field not known to open up a world of innovative opportunites.
His master plan was to save up enough money from his bondsman job and then venture off to some imaginative never-never land once the time was right. He took an interest in photography as a hobby, mainly photographing on the weekends as a means to escape his everyday stresses from corporate America.
The master plan was foiled after he was laid off from his finance job after two years. A jobless Stanton then decided to pursue a newfound passion for photography.
He came up with a new master plan: live off of unemployment and move to New York to take 10,000 photos of interesting people to create what he referred to as, “a kind of a photographic census of the city.” His plan was to sell his work to the New York Times or other publications in hopes of eventually earning an income from his photos.
The social media gods had different plans in mind.
Humans of New York was gaining little traction with photos alone. The tipping point came when Brandon decided to introduce a new element to his photos: a simple story.
The spark came after Stanton, instead of just snapping a photo, decided to engage with a green-haired woman. Stanton said:
It wasn’t a great photo; the lighting wasn’t good and I botched the composition, but she said to me, ‘I used to be a different color every day. Then one day I tried green and it was a really good day. I’ve been green every day for 15 years.’ I put the photo up, added the caption, and it became the most popular photo I ever posted.
One reply from a stranger on the streets was enough to enthrall Stanton’s audience. More stories would follow. Humans of New York would swell to millions of social media followers making it the success that it is today.
The concept behind HONY sounds relatively simple; approach everyday working New Yorkers on the street, take their picture, ask some intriguing questions and then post the picture along with the person’s quote or story and become “instafamous” overnight.
If only it were that simple. The evolution of HONY went through a series of reworks and changes and continues to evolve to meet the needs of the ever-changing social media platforms.
Stanton’s journey teaches us five key lessons about experimentation, consistency, paralysis by analysis, authenticity, and prioritization.
Find your creative outlet through experimentation
Stanton started with only a feeling that he wanted to do something creative. A feeling that pushed him into trying new things while eventually stumbling upon a passion for photography. What started as a weekend hobby to escape everyday corporate pressures, turned into an obsession.
Be consistent and keep producing
Stanton told Crain’s New York Business about the importance of being consistent during the early days of HONY.
During the first three years of Humans of New York, I probably took less than 10 days off, and took pictures for six to eight hours a day. I had no friends. I had no money. When I wasn’t doing the work, I was thinking about it. You can get lucky. But it is impossible to sustain an audience daily or hold their interest without consistency. In order for an audience to be built, you have to have consistency before you get to your first fan.
He adds that making mistakes is essential for success:
But when I was first starting, I’d take several hundred shots a day. That’s how I learned. By taking thousands of photos and making thousands of mistakes. I think I took 100,000 photos during my first year of doing street portraits.
Stanton admits to being a horrible photographer during the early days of HONY. Many photos were out of focus and lacked proper composition. He continued to post his work regardless of the amateurish photos.
Stop paralysis by analysis and get your work out to the world
You can trap yourself by spending too much time on minor details and constantly over analyzing ideas. Sometimes you just have to get your work out there to see what works and what doesn’t. You have to start somewhere.
Stanton, during a BH Photo interview, discusses how too much analyzing can be paralyzing:
From the beginning, I’ve wanted to keep the focus on the people. I didn’t want to get too bogged down with flawless focus, white balance, and aperture. I think a certain paralysis can result from juggling too many technical considerations in your mind.
Don’t wait for perfect. People are waiting for that perfect idea. It is safe to plan. Stop planning and start doing. You cannot wait until you’re ready to begin doing what you really want to do cause you will never get there. You have to start working toward your dream before you’re ready.
Authenticity is important in any creative endeavor when trying to connect and inspire others in a world full of digital noise.
Stanton said during a Wisdom 2.0 conference:
Talk to 12 million people like you’re talking to your best friend on the couch. Be authentic. The power is in the concept of the story.
Stanton’s candor and modesty are admirable and somewhat humorous with his constant mention of his mediocre photography abilities. He doesn’t claim to be a professional photographer but is considered to be one of the most popular photographers in the world. His power is derived from the stories he’s able to extract from people. The stories that the rest of the world can relate to. Stories of defeat, triumph, and inspiration. Stories that are authentic.
Prioritize time over money
Choosing how to spend your time is much more important than constantly focusing on making money. Stanton mentioned that putting the money first was one of his early downfalls. While giving a speech to aspiring Harvard graduates, he emphasized the importance of taking immediate action on all creative aspirations, even if it’s a challenge to pull away from everyday academic studies.
Write your story
Stanton took a chance by leaving his history and finance background behind in order to pursue a life behind the camera with no prior experience in photography. He has influenced millions, not necessarily with his breathtaking photography, but more so with the heartfelt stories that he’s able to capture from everyday New Yorkers.
What would you tell Mr. Stanton if he approached you on the streets of Manhattan looking for a compelling story?
The time to write your story is now.
Photo by Brandon Stanton