For a long time, something was missing in my life that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I had an enviable career with a prominent law firm, a loving wife, and a supportive network of family and friends — but I felt unfulfilled. It wasn’t until I began pursuing what truly inspired me that I realized how a sense of purpose has the power to transform your life.
A philosophy major in college, I opted for law school because I was unsure how to turn that scholarly passion into a career. I hoped I might fall in love with the law, or that my calling would eventually reveal itself.
I landed a job as an associate attorney at a Minneapolis firm. My career took off, complete with a big salary and luxurious perks. It likely appeared that I was doing well, but as time went on, I started to wonder if I was on the wrong path.
At the office, I recorded my time in six-minute increments so I could bill clients accurately. I frequently worked long hours managing my caseload, and when the days ended, I struggled to leave my work behind. I was always in my head and easily distracted — so I often wasn’t fully present for my wife, family, and friends.
In 2013 my wife, Jill, was offered a job in Seattle, and we decided to start a new chapter. As I always did with major decisions, I took the idea to my dad — my life coach and biggest cheerleader — and he was fully supportive. But rather than walking away from the law, I joined a small firm there, thinking a new environment might breathe new life into my career.
Alive in the Wilderness
Soon after our move, Jill’s uncle invited me to join him on a backcountry hike.
We drove east to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in the Central Cascade Range and parked at the trailhead. After a brief ascent, we reached a pair of shimmering lakes surrounded by towering mountains. I couldn’t believe how refreshing it felt to spend time moving my body outdoors. I felt more clearheaded than I had in months.
I became a weekend warrior. When those excursions weren’t enough, I started fitting in hikes before and after work, chasing the sunrise and sunset. I was gripped with mountain fever. My love for the outdoors was growing, and I was feeling stronger and fitter than ever.
I also began to explore another fairly new passion: photography. I’d been lucky to travel quite a bit when I was younger, and I’d frequently taken photos on those trips. But now, I found myself studying the light more seriously, searching for the perfect landscape shot.
At work, I couldn’t afford to waste even a moment, but photography was the opposite. Framing a shot and waiting for the right angle of light was meditative, and sharing my photos with others and offering them a moment of beauty was invigorating.
After years of going through the motions, I felt more present in my own life. I had finally found something that energized my mind, body, and spirit. It was changing how I viewed my place in the world. And then, things took a sad turn.
A Different View
In 2014, the year I turned 30, my father was diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer after being cancer-free for 10 years. His doctors attempted aggressive surgery, but ultimately we learned that the coming Christmas would be his last.
The news sent me into a tailspin. I couldn’t imagine a world without my dad’s guidance; he’d counseled me on every important choice I’d ever made. He’d been so happy when Jill and I decided to move to Washington, so enthusiastic about us taking this step together. I knew I was at a turning point in my life, and it was devastating to know that Dad wouldn’t be there to witness it.
In his last months, I cherished every moment we spent together. I shared more about my career struggles, and he encouraged me to follow my happiness, to keep breathing in the natural beauty around me and share it with others. “I live through that,” he said.
In early 2015 my father passed away. I tried to resume my routine, but a switch had been flipped inside me. Losing my dad made me stop and think about what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t want to give any more time to a day job I didn’t truly love.
Risk and Reward
I’ve always been level-headed and wasn’t one to make rash decisions. Even though I’d discovered a passion for photography and the outdoors, it wasn’t until my father’s passing that I started thinking I could make a living by pursuing it. My dad had left me with his greatest lesson: Life is too short to do anything less than what you love.
Still, I hesitated. Could I make a career out of photography? I’d be sacrificing a steady paycheck, health benefits, a secure future — the list went on. But I couldn’t deny how revitalized I felt after an engulfing climbing experience in the mountains.
I met with local freelance photographers, asking questions and trying to visualize myself in their place. They showed me there could be a life for someone on this path and offered a realistic picture of what the road could be like.
A few months later, after many discussions with Jill, I quit my job and embarked on a new career in freelance photography. At first, as I’d feared, my income was sparse. But the timing was fortuitous: We don’t have children and Jill was doing well in her own career. She completely supported my decision. She’d seen how my mental health had improved over the previous year, and we agreed that even if I tried and failed, the experience would be valuable.
It took time, but piece by piece, my new career began to take shape. Assignments came my way. Lugging my camera gear up mountain slopes and down forest paths, I took photos for travel bureaus, clothing companies, and magazines.
My new career has led me along rainy roads in Yosemite, through slot canyons in Utah, into valleys in northern Italy, and along the ridge of a volcano in Japan. It’s hardly felt like work. My happiness is the best reward.
This originally appeared as “The Bigger Picture” in the April 2018 print issue of Experience Life.