Modern human beings have existed for thousands of years. Yet, in just the past 100 years or so, from the invention of the steam engine to the internet and social media, life as a human has changed more than it has in the past few thousand years combined. We’re more efficient than ever. We’re more connected than anyone would have thought possible just thirty years ago. And we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what it all means for our long-term health and happiness.
All that makes it as important as ever to look to those who seem to maintain a sense of balance despite the topsy turvy nature of modern life. Those like the landscape photographer and businessman, Max Salk. Salk lives in New York City, so he is in no way physically isolated from the chaos of modern life. In fact, he’s essentially in one of modern life’s epicenters of change. While Silicon Valley is the poster child of modern technology in the United States, it’s New York City that still serves as a sort of cultural hub.
Yet Salk keeps it simple. He still uses an iPod. He doesn’t believe in chasing the next tech innovation unless he can see a tangible, positive effect on his life or business. And he doesn’t get so caught up in his own career that he fails to make time for his creative pursuits such as landscape photography, travel, and sports. In an increasingly unbalanced world, Max Salk has two feet firmly planted on the ground, which, as simple as it sounds, is something we can all aspire to.
So what’s the secret? Fortunately, Salk is an open book. In recent interviews, he has talked about the principles he’s lived by and continues to live by that keep him balanced, successful, and always ready to take on the next challenge. Using excerpts from those interviews, and a few real-life examples of people and companies that follow the same principles as Max Salk, this article will take an in-depth look at a few of the life and business-related rules we’d all be well-served to follow.
The Importance of Preparation
To Max Salk, it all starts with preparation, in big ways and little ways. An example of one of the little ways preparation pays off comes from one of Salk’s trips to the Netherlands. Salk was studying in the Netherlands at the time when he woke up to a foggy morning. He felt like a walk, but instead of mindlessly walking out the door, he brought his camera… just in case. On this walk, he snapped a few pictures of a harbor. Fast forward several years and the pictures Max Salk took on that walk still grace the front page of his photography website, Max Salk Photography. Thanks to a small act of preparation, Salk’s photography hobby was launched, and he (and his audience) has a record of the photos that inspired his pursuit of landscape photography.
But preparation can pay off in even bigger ways. So let’s take another example, this time in the business world of technology using IBM as an example, a company that was founded in 1911 in New York. At the time, the company began as a manufacturer and seller of time clocks, deli meat slicers, punch cards, commercial scales, and more. Today, the company sells software, hardware, and provides IT consulting services in a wide variety of technology applications. But what does IBM have to do with preparation?
Put simply, IBM has made preparation a central part of their core business strategy for each day, week, month and year of their more than one hundred year history. In fact, as of 2019, IBM has been the leading recipient of patents in the United States for the past 26 years. As the post announcing this impressive feat states “Our work in these areas, and others, began long before there were practical enterprise uses for the technology, and that spirit of research for the sake of discovery is what has propelled us to lead the field in patent grants for more than a quarter of a century.”
As much as the research is “for the sake of discovery” it’s also the way that IBM, despite existing in the most dynamic industry in the world, has not just stayed relevant but maintained its status as a leader in the world of technology by always being prepared for the future. This preparation has allowed the company, despite its massive size, to pivot multiple times as the world has changed. So in big and small ways, Max Salk and IBM show us that preparation is not just an idea, it’s a rule to live by in business and life.
Know How to Adjust on the Fly
In the same breath that Max Salk emphasizes the need to prepare, he also believes you must be comfortable with letting things unfold once the preparation part of your job is done. This might seem counterintuitive until you realize that when Salk talks about preparation, he’s not talking about trying to control every single possible outcome. After all, in anything you do, whether it has to do with your personal or business life, there will be factors that are completely out of your control. Some of those things will be unforeseeable so in the traditional sense, you can’t exactly prepare for them. And that’s what makes it so important to prepare in a way that allows you to make adjustments on the fly.
Salk’s practice with landscape photography actually presents an especially illustrative example of this concept in action. With photography, especially landscape photography, producing great work is not as simple as finding a dramatic landscape and snapping a picture. Unlike a studio, where you exert precise control over lighting and other factors before you take a photograph, nature is not always cooperative. Nature landscapes catch the sun or moonlight in a variety of ways, and photographers like Max Salk must know how to adjust their technique and angle. In some cases, landscape photographers will wait for hours on end for the light to hit the landscape in front of them in just right way to create a unique photograph. It’s this willingness to go out into the world prepared yet flexible and ready to adjust to changes that transcends just photography and has applications in business and life.
A business example of this principle in action is the rapid transformation that the streaming company, Netflix, underwent when the prevailing demand for film content changed from rentals to streaming. Originally, Netflix started as an Amazon-like version of Blockbuster, where you could order DVDs for rental online and have them mailed to your house. They further disrupted the movie rental model by turning their service into a subscription structure that allowed people to pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to DVDs with no late fees. Yet almost as soon as Netflix became the world leader in DVD rentals, essentially running Blockbuster out of business, they pivoted to streaming. They started focusing on building their capability to stream movies directly to their subscriber’s computers. This pivot cut into their thriving DVD rental business model, but in many ways, the leaders at Netflix didn’t really care. The future was streaming and though it may have hurt to let go of the core business model that had brought Netflix market dominance, they were ready to adjust on the fly to capitalize on a more promising opportunity.
The result, of course, is that Netflix is one of the largest technology companies in the world today, so let that be a lesson that while preparation is important, it’s just as important to know how to and be willing to adjust to changing conditions.
Making Your Moment Count
At his job in New York City, Max Salk uses deep analyses of trends and numbers to make recommendations to his superiors and his colleagues. He spends most of his time analyzing data, thinking through scenarios, and making decisions about how and to whom he should present the information he has found and analyzed. Yet, for the most part, his colleagues and clients don’t see that hard work. All they see is the presentation Salk gives them when he makes his suggestions and recommendations. Because that’s all they really see, Salk goes to great lengths to ensure that his presentations are high-quality, informative, and effective. The reason he does this is because Salk recognizes the importance of making the most important moments count. Salk’s presentations may only take up a small proportion of the overall time he spends at work, but they have a huge impact on his success.
But this isn’t just restricted to Max Salk’s career in the business world. For example, in the sport of tennis, victory between closely matched competitors often comes down to a few points won or lost at various times during a match. You could consider these critical moments as turning points, and we all have them in one way or another. The important thing, then, is first to recognize and understand that these turning points exist and then to prepare for those critical moments accordingly. Going back to the tennis example, there are a few fairly common turning points in a tennis match. Often they occur at the beginning of a new set, after a particularly long game, or right after someone has taken the lead. Coaches, to help prepare their players for these turning points, like to create routines for their players.
The routines don’t have to be complicated; it could be as simple as bouncing the ball a certain number of times before serving or taking an extra moment to breath once the player has recognized a turning point. Put Max Salk’s lesson of making your moment count into practice by finding a routine to center yourself and prepare yourself in anticipation of an important turning point.
Pursue Your Passion Relentlessly
In a recent interview, when he was asked what he’d tell his younger self if given the chance, Max Salk said he’d tell himself, “The world is full of opportunities, and there is no one path to success or satisfaction in almost anything in life. Find something you love doing, and pursue it relentlessly. If it doesn’t work out, try something else. You’re young.”
Clearly, having launched his own photography website and Instagram page and having built a successful career for himself in New York City, Salk took his own advice and pursued his passion relentlessly. But it’s advice that many of us would do well to heed carefully. After all, there is really no counter to dogged persistence. So when you’re able to find something that you know you’d be happy to wake up every day and pursue with enthusiasm, you’ve found your single greatest competitive advantage. Because in any pursuit, whether it’s business-related or personal, the more time you can handle spending to complete that pursuit, the more likely that your competition will not be willing to spend the time and resources on that pursuit.
In other words, you’ll simply outlast others. And along the way, so long as you’re paying attention and learning, you’ll pick up skills, experience, and knowledge that the people who gave up before you can never attain. In the end, you’ll have surpassed everyone who didn’t have the passion to keep moving forward. Even better, you’ll have the knowledge and skills from traveling a path that very few people had the passion to go down.
Choose the Right Problems to Solve
Between his landscape photography website and Instagram page, his volunteering with the Navy SEAL Foundation, and his full-time career in New York City, Max Salk doesn’t have a lot of free time to go around. But after graduating from college and entering the workforce, he quickly realized how important it was for him to spend his time solving the right problem. On the same token, he came to realize that he shouldn’t just focus all his time on working but rather planning and thinking to figure out what tasks were most worthy of his time. For that reason, one of the principles Salk lives by is that you should be very careful about finding the right problems to solve.
For you, for Max Salk, and for your friends and family, the right problem to solve is different. There’s no one way to find it and unfortunately, in many cases, you’ll probably have to spend time solving the wrong problems before you figure out the right ones. The good news, though, is that by following Max Salk’s example, you can become more aware and cognizant of the fact that it’s just as important to work hard as it is to step back and ask yourself if that hard work is going towards something that’s going to have the maximum impact.
You can think back to Netflix as an example of this principle in action. When Netflix made the choice to invest the majority of their resources into streaming video, it wasn’t as if they didn’t have other problems to solve. At the time, Blockbuster was still very much a competitor and no one would have blamed them at the time if they’d chosen to focus their strategy and tactics around winning more market share from Blockbuster. But Netflix more or less ignored Blockbuster; instead, they solved a different problem. A problem that they correctly believed would, if solved, be far more worth their time than solving the Blockbuster problem.
As we all know, they turned out to be right. Blockbuster essentially disappeared as Netflix became the dominant market leader of streaming services. So by focusing on the problems associated with building their own streaming service, Netflix didn’t just eliminate Blockbuster, they became a global technology giant. Had they focused on the Blockbuster problem, they’d have been blind to the greater opportunities that were in front of them. As a result, someone else would’ve swooped in by offering streaming services while Netflix was fighting Blockbuster.
Bringing it All Together
Whatever you’re pursuing, business success, artistic or personal fulfillment, or a better relationship with the people and world around you, the rules Max Salk refers to in his interviews can act as a reliable sort of North Star. But as important as it is to remember these rules, it’s equally critical to avoid dwelling on the times when you lose sight of these principles and make mistakes. At times, just like the North Star is shrouded in darkness on a cloudy day, it will be difficult to know which way to go. But if you can stay calm, trust your preparation, and hold out until those guiding principles become clear again, you’ll end up where you want to be. Sometimes that might mean you’ll take a detour that leads you away from where you’re trying to go, but if you’re on a relentless pursuit of your passion, as Salk suggests, then you’ll get there eventually.