How? It’s the Best Question

I was invited to join a few friends for lunch with a famous National Geographic photographer. I was late. Late enough that drinks had been ordered and menu selections made.

As I introduced myself to the photographer, I could tell he was not happy.

He was angry and disgusted by my behavior and clearly did not want to let me get away with the clear rudeness of my making everyone else wait for me. He went on a semi-civil, slow-speed rant. He talked about how he fired any assistants who ever showed up late. He continued on, detailing the consequences in his profession of being late, the criticality of time and timeliness. There is only one moment, he said, when the daybreak cracks and your lens has to be there ready. No exceptions.

He called me out for my rudeness and, chastened, I listened to him. And, of course, the whole group had to listen to him, as well. He clearly wanted to make a point. I’m thinking, okay Universe, I get it; thanks for sending the messenger. At the same time, do we really need to subject the others at the table to the on-going berate-athon?

Then when he was done, he turned from me and chatted lightly with the other lunchers. He specifically talked to each person at the table, except not to me. No, he didn’t start his career as a photographer. He initially studied accounting or engineering or some such.

Why? I thought. Why did he become a professional photographer instead? What would cause that shift? Why would someone do that? He was going off fairly successfully in one direction, and then took a completely different course. Why was he different? Why did he make that decision? Are we all missing our true calling because we stick with Plan A? I wanted to know, but the guy clearly did not care to talk with me.

I started to ask him anyway, ‘Why did you change to photography?” Then I remembered something that I had recently learned. Questions that begin with ‘why’ make people feel they have to justify their reasons. Getting asked ‘why’ they did something puts that person on the defensive. The last thing I need to do here, I thought, is piss this guy off some more and again make all my lunch mates suffer.

Start your questions with ‘how,’ I remembered.

“How did you decide to go with photography full time?” I asked.

The guy turned to look at me and he began to answer. He spoke directly to me and talked for an hour, telling his story to me. It was as if he had forgotten everyone else at the table. He could not share enough of his journey, the sacrifices or the triumphs.

I learned so much that day. I learned firsthand the amazing power of How. How turned disdain to connection in one syllable. And yes, I learned how much time means to a photographer. And I learned, in some ways, we are all photographers.

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