The Travel Photographer: On Pursuing Your Passion – 30 Things I’ve Learned

A snapshot of the 5-star property I got to review and shoot this week in Montego Bay, Jamaica | Copyright Lebawit Girma

Quit your job, do what you love (for me – travel, shoot and write), get paid for it and live happily ever after. Sound too good to be true?

Well it’s not. There are hundreds, thousands of folks out there doing exactly what they love and getting paid for it. Some part time, others full time. Some worked for years to get there, some lucked out. All worked hard and sacrificed a lot at the beginning. There is no formula – everyone’s talent and path are different. The point, in my humble opinion, is to try and to live rather than just dream.

Three years ago I decided to try. I may not be at the National Geographic level, but I know that slowly and surely I’m doing the very things I love and I have been and continue to get paid for it. Not at the full-time level yet, but the more I try and work hard at it, the more the universe responds.

So when some people I know say to me “welcome back to the real world” whenever I return from my travels, I smile inside because it is reality for me now, to do what I love or work at it until it comes to fruition. To travel and photograph. What’s the real world, doing work you hate day in and day out forever until you retire?

I’ll be honest, taking the leap I did three years ago is the most daring thing I’ve done. I left a cushy full-time attorney position at a top law firm to being a part-time consultant, making much less and with no prestige, just so I can pursue travel photography and writing. I didn’t know at the time that I’d go into this field. I knew I loved travel, I loved shooting, and that I was unhappy at work, and super unhappy with my life. I had been living out someone else’s expectations for my life. So I saved up, and when I felt like I had sufficiently enough, I leaped.

But I will make clear again: transitioning into your dream isn’t easy, and not for the meek of heart. Yet it is rewarding. And ironically, it’s the happiest I’ve been my entire life – not “vacation-happy” but “all-year happy.” Even minus the Gucci or Louboutin shoe shopping. Even with uncertain days and the “unknown” (as a lawyer and a control freak I liked knowing the outcome of my day, my months, but I had to learn to let that go). And it developed a whole other side of myself. More spiritual, more grounded, even better person in my relationships. I’ve learned a ton since leaving the idea of society’s “real world” and entering “my” real world. So if you’re thinking of doing the same – maybe what I’ve learned will help you decide whether to make that leap.

1.  Hard work and patience in all you do and your goals have more value than any amount of money or talent you have. Without persistence and endurance, you will have a hard time getting to where you want to be.

2.  Your list of friends will rapidly dwindle and it becomes infinitely clear who really supports and believes in you. Those “true” friends will be people who encourage you and admire you for your dreams.

3.  Sometimes quitting entirely isn’t the solution. Perhaps going part-time for a more flexible schedule or other solutions are better while you build/pursue your dream. Even from overseas – find work, volunteer, set aside some money for exploration, make value one way or another.

4.  Time overseas flies even faster than at home, and if you don’t structure your day a little to write/blog or work and explore a little, there will be plenty folks to distract and tempt you to just “hang out” – so it’s up to you how your day goes.

5.  Not everything is worth shooting or writing about immediately. Sometimes it is best to soak in the surroundings, the people or information and think then return to shoot and take notes.

6.  Manage your finances and have a monthly budget when overseas. Money has a way of coming out when you’re on the road and not working faster than you can say “account.”

7.  Taking care of yourself is crucial during this transition time. From simple details like taking daily vitamins to getting some weekly exercise. Physical health and mental health go hand in hand and it’s easy to forget when you’re busy worrying about your “next phase.” If you’re a competitive person the urge is to constantly work or produce. But you need balance to stay sane and produce better results.

8.   Networking and reaching out to people who have similar interests or are going through a similar phase, is more beneficial than isolation. There is strength in numbers. Run into someone who is doing what you want to do? Email them, ask to meet them!

9.   Stay in touch with people who matter the most. They may not always understand your need to pursue your passion, but you can still check in on them and show them you are integrating them into your life.

10.  As cliche as it may sound, nothing is impossible. All you have to do is dream it and try it. Study and learn from other successful people in your dream field.

11.  Celebrate all successes, especially small ones. Managed to stay afloat overseas for a month? Fantastic. Still have electricity on three years after quitting your full-time job? Fabulous.

12.  Dance to your own beat – you don’t have to want what others want. You can create your own life, your own schedule and destination. Some folks’ idea of success is to have a full-time office job – well, good for them, but just because you want something different does not make you weird.

13.  Not every day will be a productive one or a successful one. And that’s OK.

14.  If you’re into travel, it’s all about making the most out of your dollar and time. That means, miles are golden. I started collecting miles years before I quit my job, not even realizing at the time the value it would have in the future. And when I did quit, I had enough miles to cover two free roundtrip tickets on United: one to London, and one to Belize. Pretty sweet.

15.  It’s OK to seek advice from a career expert. Brush off those who laugh at the idea. No successful person has made it without a mentor, official or otherwise. I consulted with a coach a couple of years ago and it did me a world of good, and opened my eyes to new possibilities. It made me realize I was not “alone” out there in my thinking and that I had more than succeeded in my life along the way. It helped me get unstuck from that endless and scary “what am I meant to do for the rest of my life” question. I only had a short session with my coach but in that time she made me realize that all I had to do was think in six month increments at first, rather than asking that overwhelming one-question and hoping some magic solution pops in my head (hey, I just saved you lots of money in coaching fees!). Ask, what do I want to do over next six months – not what should I do. What would make you happy?

16.   Surround yourself with friends of similar interest and outlook. Join relevant blogs that feed your spirit and motivate, or follow those folks on Twitter. Schedule time in your week – even two hours – just to read and interact. You’d be surprised what can come out of that.

17.  If you don’t ask you don’t get (this is the biggest lesson I’ve learned). And if you don’t try, you won’t achieve. It really is that simple.

18.  Do not compare yourself to others. Learn, ask and improve but don’t envy or it clouds your own ideas.

19.  Not everyone deserves to know about your life plans or dreams. Guard them preciously.

20.  “Stuff” doesn’t bring happiness. Trust me, I know. I had a six-figure salary for seven years. Human connections, doing activities you love, and being true to yourself, are all more fulfilling.

21.  Carrying a small notebook every day is invaluable, as ideas and stimulation happen on the road, Write them all down even if some seem silly at first.

22.  There will be rough days. Days when things aren’t moving quite as fast, when you wonder if you’re crazy, if you’re doing the right thing and if you’re not completely off your rocker to think you can chase your dreams. You will feel low and even shed some tears. Prepare for those moments, embrace the feelings and chase them away – they are just normal human emotions, moments of self-doubt that you can train yourself to shoo away. Don’t listen to those “gremlins”!

23.  Avoid those who ask “so what are you going to do now?!” Their panic is not your panic. They mean well, and are only projecting their own fears unto you. Recognize, take note and answer nicely “oh I have a few ideas up my sleeve! I will let you know eventually.” And smile.

24.  When on the road, trying to figure out what to do “with the rest of your life” is completely counterproductive. Instead ask, “what can I experience here over the next weeks that would benefit me and that I would enjoy? What would bring me bliss?” And think in weeks. My experience is life has a way of then unfolding in the right way, one event leading to the next and placing the right people and circumstances in your path. Trust in travel juju, or life juju. What comes will come one step at a time.

25.  The unknown is not as scary as it seems. Learn to embrace what it brings.

26. In scary times, grab your notebook and look back on all you’ve accomplished throughout your life. List your successes. Realize how far you’ve come along and pat yourself on the back that no matter what, you always make it.

27. Sometimes it will seem as if no one in your midst cares. But if you care, that’s all that counts because you alone are responsible for your life. So push forward, keep trying and it will happen.

28.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying your life day to day in your work – and not just on vacation. Imagine that! Work is supposed to be FUN – not drudgery. And it’s in no way capricious or “idealistic” to want that. Life is oh-so-short.

29.  You will realize that human relationships are what matter the most. You will miss them on the road and you will realize that they are there no matter what, especially when tough times happen. Just because they don’t necessarily support your “leap” does not mean they don’t care.

30.   The solution lies in you. Only you know what your true wishes and dreams are and learning to uncover them requires you to – yes, stop and listen to your heart. Tune out others’ voices and others’ cynicism. Let go of the “childhood” excuses. Go out and claim what is rightfully yours. If you don’t try, no one else will. And don’t ever let anyone tell you “you’re crazy!”

So go ahead, prepare, plan, leap… no matter how it all unfolds, just keep remembering that in the end everything will be all right.

Need more inspiration? Check out Chris Guillebeau at “The Art of Non-Conformity” or Christine Gilbert at “Almost Fearless.”  Just a couple of folks I came across at the start of my own transition, and who leaped and redesigned their lives to pursue their dreams.

Oh, and if you’re one of those few of us who did take a leap, feel free to share your tips with us here, I know I could still use more!


  1. Nicely said Lily….

    Life is an adventure, and for some, just the thought of stepping outside of the box is far to frightening and risky for them. Many need consistency and routine in life to be happy, others need to ‘walk to the beat of a different drummer’.

    My entrepreneurial spirit has given me the opportunity to try my hand at whatever interested me at the time, and I never hesitated to jump in with both feet. I was able to make a career and a comfortable living from taking risks, and after 25 years, I have something to offer and pass on to my children.

    That is not the lifestyle for everyone, but I for one applaud you in following YOUR dreams.

    Stay strong, don’t look back with regrets, and you will most definitely reap the personal rewards!

    Thanks for sharing and best wishes to you.


  2. Jackie, hats off to you!! I really admire folks like you who’ve not only pursued their own path but also managed to build something to pass on to the next generation. You are truly inspiring and thank you for your kind words and encouragement! I appreciate them very much!!

  3. This is a great post and speaks to me now as I contemplate changes, including leaving a six-figure “cushy” gig to travel and do some independent study.

    Always fearless, I’m now finding myself fearing what happens once I decide to return to the U.S. Thanks for the inspiration and for the tips. I love the one about listing successes as I now ask myself “What are my successes?”



  4. Thank you for this advice Lily. I am on the brink of leaving my job or going part time. All I want to do travel, write and videography. I admire your bravery. One day soon, I know I will have the courage.

  5. Wow this hits home! Thanks so much for the inspiration.

  6. I LOVED this blog and of course, it came at a divine time in my life. Thank you for the insight, as I am preparing for my big dream of being an American Ex-pat! I look forward to reading and seeing more of your work!!