How long should you stay where you are?

It amazes me that someone could stay at the same place for decades. How do you do it? I would love to have done that. In every new job I’ve entered, I started out thinking that was it, that’s where I’d be for the rest of my life, starting when I joined the Air Force right out of high school - well, except for the job at the White House, since that job was connected to the term of the President.

As it turned out, the longest I’ve stayed in one situation was a little more than five years. The shortest was two years - the short term precipitated by the purchase of the company I worked for by a low-life corporation that largely stripped the visual element from its publications. 

There must be a certain comfort in staying at one place for a long time that comes from familiarity, certainty, predictability. There’s also the notion of watching a place change. (I thought about saying evolve, but evolution presumes that things change for the better.) As you stay put, new people take charge and change priorities; new coworkers introduce different dynamics that can be a joy or pitiful. And there you sit, in the same seat, watching, engaging, immersing, stepping back, judging, enjoying, hating things/loving things as they progress.

And then there’s the certain energy that comes from changing situations more regularly, like the energy that comes from a new relationship. It’s exhilarating to enter the new. And scary and challenging. The new forces us to approach things in ways we haven’t, it challenges what we’ve done.

But only embracing the new robs you of the value of the tried and true. Without tradition and experience in a setting, you can be left with figuring out simply how to make things work.

Where is the balance between staying where you are and forging something new? If you’re just starting in the business the answer to that question is easier than at any other stage.

I’ve always advised people in their first or second situation to stay with it for at least three years. The first year, everything is new, you’re learning every day and that’s both exciting and daunting. The second year, you start to connect dots and produce work and craft relationships and understand things that build on the first year. The third year is the test year. Can you build further on what you’ve done. This is the year where the best work usually happens, such that it allows you to move on to something that appears to be better, if you choose.

The longer you stay in a situation, the more difficult it is to leave, the more effort it takes to uproot and leave behind the comfort of familiarity. It’s also more likely that you’ll convince yourself that things aren’t so bad the longer you’ve been somewhere, or you’ve set up defense mechanisms to shield yourself from the mediocrity. A lot of people just clock in and out after about five years in a setting. They don’t do bad work but it’s not what they’re capable of either. Work is a job, not a calling, so why bother putting yourself out more than is necessary?

Figuring out whether the situation you’re in is acceptable is one side of this equation. The other is knowing whether you’re part of the problem. Have you pulled back so far that you’re the one that prevents good work from happening? It’s easy to blame the system, the setting, others. Maybe you’re the problem.

So before leaving a setting, you have to decide if you’ve done all you can to make it work. Have you grown your own photography in the past year? Are you making pictures now that you wouldn’t have a year ago, have you pitched ideas or approached new clients in new ways in the past year, have you done all you can to make things work well? Are you valued for what you contribute?

If you can say that you’ve tried everything possible, then maybe it is time to move on. Or, if you’ve essentially given up, then do those around you and the profession in general a favor and leave, get out, please. Take your cheery personality and greet customers at Walmart. There are scores of people in line behind you waiting to do a better job. Give them a chance.

A third choice would be to put up with the negative, make the most of the positive and persevere in the hope that the situation will change for the better. That probably describes most people's situations.

If you’re ambivalent, which is pretty likely, then do something to move yourself one way or the other. Inaction is the enemy; any step is a step forward.

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