As human beings, the emotional highs and lows that we experience can be truly staggering. Perhaps that’s especially true for artists and creatives; ping-pong balls stuck between the paddles of euphoric creativity and crippling self-doubt.
Make or break. Feast or famine. On the mountain or in the valley.
When you’re riding the wave, it’s easy to look back and see how the lessons you learned from being crushed by the ocean over and over again are what gave you the knowledge and strength to move forward. When you’re in the middle of it, spinning head-over-heels underwater, those lessons don’t feel as present in your mind.
If you find yourself flailing for the surface, get your head up and take a deep breath; you’ve got this, and you’re not alone!
Jeremy Cowart has summited a few creative (and life) mountains in his time. Once he arrives at the top, he decides the summit isn’t high enough and starts building a ladder into the sky. As an accomplished and unique commercial photographer, artist, author, speaker, teacher, inventor, hotelier, and dedicated family man, Jeremy is busy. He’s won awards, set industry standards, and proved some (seemingly impossible) things possible (more on this below). Admittedly, he has also fallen down the mountain a few times.
I’ll go ahead and spoil it for you by saying Jeremy doesn't have the magic answer to solve all of your problems. What he does have are some scrapes and bruises and the tenacity to look his fear and self-doubt in the eye and keep on climbing.
Looking for the magic answer myself, I asked him how he does it.
[Chris] So, I want to talk to you about balance. You’re a self-described ‘idea guy.’ You’ve always got a lot of things going on with a lot of moving parts. There’s your photography career, of course, but even aside from that, you’ve been working on The Purpose Hotel publically for a couple of years (and, I would bet, a lot longer behind the scenes).
[Jeremy] Yeah. definitely!
Family, four kids, career — How do you keep it all going?
I always say that balance is a ‘one day at a time’ thing. You have to just make the best decision with the week ahead. I wish there were some overall strategy, but other than choosing family first every chance you get, there’s really not. My wife is also a real estate agent and works full-time herself. Her schedule can tend to be like a doctor’s, where she has to up and go if a client wants to see a house. We have to [take it] one day at a time. Thankfully, we have support from grandparents (our parents) who live close by. They’re able to often help with the logistics.
I also say ‘no’ to a lot of things that I don’t think are ‘musts.’ For example, last week I spoke in Chattanooga, and there was a chance to go in the night before and go to their VIP event. When it came down to it, I really didn't have any interest in going; it would mean missing another day with my family to be with a bunch of random people and do a bunch of small-talk. Saying no to that meant I had another day at home. I just go in, speak and I’m out.
You have to make decisions with every new opportunity that comes up. You have to ask, “Does it demand that I be there?” “Does it demand my thought and focus?”
It’s the same with my multiple careers.
I feel like I currently have four careers: I’m building a hotel, I’m still shooting quite a bit, I’m still speaking quite a bit (which happened by accident), and I have a book that’s due to come out next April, so that's taken up a good amount of time. Getting the manuscript written, the back-and-forth with the publisher, and now we’re about to start the whole marketing plan for it. It’s going to be a very wild few months.
I’m also about to partner with a photo-education platform and will be teaching as well. I’m in the ‘calm before the storm.’ My life is about to get busier than ever. The last several months have been slower, so I’ve been able to take advantage of that and enjoy my family. It’s been nice.
So literally taking things as they come, one day at a time. Within that, do you have any personal mental or physical practices that keep you grounded and focused?
As far as routine, I feel like 2018 will be the year of me figuring out my health. I changed my diet this year and am trying to work out a lot more. The whole routine of eating cleaner, taking natural, good supplements, and working out, have all been a huge benefit to my routine. I’m just more focused and feeling better overall.
Other than that, I try to truly work and be present with my family as much as possible. I wish I were one of those super-detailed and structured people that has some inspiring routine, but I really don’t. When you have four kids, you’re just trying to survive sometimes and do the best you can!
I’ll bet! How has having four kids played into everything? They're also all pretty close in age, right?
Yes, fairly. The youngest is 6, and the oldest is 12. [Their ages are] 6, 7, 11, and 12. Ha! It’s always chaos! They’re all in sports, and I spend a lot of time at the local fields. I’m a total soccer dad! My kids obviously play a huge role. I’m working from home today so that we can decorate our house to throw a party for our daughter’s 11th birthday; a full slumber party for her and her friends. It’s going to be a big night!
Ha! Well, hopefully, you’ll be able to get a nap in before then! There’s part of your mission statement on the opening page of your website. What is that exact quote?
My mission is “to explore the intersection of creativity and empathy.”
I love that. It’s always resonated with me. How did you discover that as your mission?
Hold on. I’m saying goodbye to my wife.
[she peaks into the video chat] “Hiiii!!!”
The mission statement was kind of a realization from looking back at my projects. I realized that I really love to use creativity in times of need. We will always need hands to rebuild. We will always need to raise money, and we will always need big organizations. In a time when technology is changing [quickly], we need inventors and ‘idea people’ to think of new ways to help, new ways to respond and solve problems. I think that Elon Musk is a great example of that. He’s like, “Let’s just go rebuild and redesign Puerto Rico’s electrical grid!” I think that we need that level of thinking. So, on a much smaller scale, I love to be able to think that way on behalf of others. Being a photographer, in my Gatlinburg project, I used drones to show emotion. It was a tricky thing to do, to show emotion from a drone perspective, but I love to think really differently. When something bad happens, I want to figure out how I can help the situation in a new way that no one has seen before so that it can get more eyeballs and hopefully end up helping in a big way.
That’s awesome, and it seems to work! I remember seeing that what you did in Gatlinburg was immediately picked up by the media and spread around. It’s fantastic to see art taking a vital role in the progression of humanity and helping to solve problems!
Can you elaborate on the book that you have coming out, or is that still kind of hush-hush?
I can! It’s called, “I’m Possible: Jumping Into Fear and Discovering a Life of Purpose.”
It comes out next Spring. I’m super excited about that! It’s basically a book version of my video (under the same name) that went viral. That’s also what kind of launched a speaking career for me.
I remember that video! What role has fear played for you in your trajectory as an artist and entrepreneur?
Oh! It’s just—gosh! It’s been a HUGE part of my life and career, even to this day. I always laugh when people say, “Hey, how did you conquer fear and get over your insecurities?”
I never did. I think that being a professional is just accepting that [fear is] part of what you’re signing up for. It’s always there. It’s ever-present. It’s like my little buddy in the passenger seat. Fear, insecurity, and doubt. The voices in your head. They just never go away. I’ve just learned to accept them for what they are; part of the process.
What about goal-setting for you? How do you approach that mindset?
Man. I don’t know, other than having ideas and trying to execute them; I look at those things as my goals. [For example,] The Purpose Hotel. My goal is for the hotel to open, be a success, and [allow me to] be able to do all the things that I want it to do. That’s my goal. Obviously, within that crazy goal are a lot of miniature goals; like securing the land, investors, and hotel management. You know, goals along the way to the big goal. That dream is still audacious and long-term and has kind of taken over all of my focus and energy. It is actually hard to have goals outside of that because it’s pretty all-consuming.
That is a huge project! Even me saying that is an understatement. I can’t even imagine. The first time that you had that thought did you just immediately dismiss it as ludicrous?
Funny enough, I actually pursued it right away. I started sharing the idea like crazy to try to figure out where to go. I found this guy that owned hotels, and we were moving forward, but very quickly, I realized that he was NOT the right fit. He was very egocentric and was taking credit for the idea of the concept. I got spooked by him, and then (after that) I just surrendered to the fear of the whole thing. I was like “What am I doing? Who just goes and builds a hotel? Especially a freelance photographer! How could you even begin to build and turn this 100 million dollar project?” It all just seemed so ridiculous. It took me three years to come out of that.
Many of us may look at any large idea like that or even something that feels really large in our mind, and often not even know what that first step would be. Do you have a first step for when you don’t know the first step?
You have to find the “peanut butter.”
As creatives, we’re jelly. We’re the messy substance that is unpredictable. We’re all over the place. We have to find that totally different person, the peanut butter, that can stick things together.
My business partner is my extreme, extreme opposite in every way. The way we talk, the way we dress, the way we think, everything. We are total opposites, but at the same time, we share the same morals. We have to be aligned in our mission, but the way we each do and approach things is just night and day different. Especially with big ideas, I think there’s just a certain level of execution that I don’t think creatives usually have built into them. We tend to be the visionary and idea people. Another way to put it is to say that we’re the ‘What’ and the ‘Why,’ but we’re not the ‘How.’ We have to find somebody who can be the ‘How.’ Someone that enjoys being the ‘How’ and wants to be the ‘How.’ My partner has really been the genius behind figuring out how to do this.
I love that, and I love that quote, “find the peanut butter.”
Yeah, it’s funny, but it’s definitely an accurate analogy!
On a more personal level, just to Jeremy Cowart as an individual, what are you just so hyped about? What makes you glow right now?
Oddly enough I feel like 2018 has been my least hyped year in a long time. Typically, I’m very motivated and driven and always doing stuff and have fun projects to talk about. I mean, the hotel is fun to talk about. That aside, it’s just been the least productive year of my career. I get frustrated because the hotel is such a long, long, long journey, and I am not a patient person. It’s been difficult to be still and wait for this to unfold. There are even times that I’m second-guessing myself and doubting things.
Meanwhile, everybody else is doing interesting things, blowing up with projects, and it can be easy to get into a comparison mode (if I’m not careful) and start asking myself if I’m doing the right thing. I’ve gone as far as to kind of put a pause on my photo career so that the hotel can take the center [of my] attention. It has not been an easy journey to figure out what that looks like. It’s actually been a pretty hard year. I know good years are ahead and I’ll get there.
I’m hyped about the hotel. I don’t even think about it as a hotel; It’s not that I have a passion for the hotel industry. The reason that I like this concept is that it’s really all of the things that I love combined into one! It’s photography, interior design, architecture. It’s technology and non-profit, it’s community, it’s food and beverage, it’s fitness, it’s health. It is everything under the literal roof of the hotel. I [also] get to combine the talents of so many of my friends, non-profit founders, CEO's, and people that I’ve known for a long time. I don’t think that anything could be more exciting. Frankly, it’s beyond exciting! I feel like this is why I was born, and this is why I’m here; to pursue this vision and execute this idea. In spite of that, it can still be very grueling and difficult. It’s a very very long journey.
To be able to finally find something that encompasses everything— Wow! That’s huge! That’s amazing!
Having found yourself now with all of this experience, riding along with fear and facing it, what advice might you give to other creatives?
I’d have to go back to the fear. You’re never gonna have it all together. You’re never gonna beat fear. You have to learn that the grind is part of it. You can’t compare yourself. I know we all do it, but living in comparison is a dead-end road. You have to put your head down and put the work in. If you do good work, then people will find you. It’s not about Instagram or social media. It’s just about focusing on the work, and if the work is really amazing, then a lot of things will work themselves out.
You’ve been doing a lot of non-commercial portraits in your studio in Franklin. I think I saw you just launched another round of that. Tell me more about that.
It’s one of the things that I do when my schedule opens up and allows for it. I enjoy it because they’re so quick and easy and I can control how they’re edited and which ones are released. There are so many things about commercial photography that just kind of bums me out. When you’re doing personal work, you can control everything. It’s kind of like getting paid to do personal work, essentially.
It’s always exciting to see another round of those come out!
And one final question just for kicks: What is one weird or interesting fact about you?
I’d say the fact that I was a child professional backup singer. Haha! I did that for about ten years and was in a kids group. I grew up in the studio and ended up on a lot of records. Even now, I can read sheet music and pretty much nail it on the first try. It was like a career before careers. Then I hit puberty, and that career tanked. Haha!
That’s a fun thing that most people do not know about me.
To say that I did not find this interview personally insightful would be a lie. This interview confirmed, once again, that you can do all the hacks, follow all the secret formulas, buy the best gear, and read all the books, but nothing will ever outdo steadfastness, integrity, hard work, dedication and the bravery to face your fear and your self.
As Jeremy said himself, “I know the good years are ahead, and I’ll get there.” And so will you.
If you’re tired, push one more day. And another. And another if you have to. Also, remember to enjoy the journey, even when it’s tough! You’re never as alone as you might feel; I promise. If you’d like to try to prove me wrong, email me; I believe in you. We believe in you, and we’ve got your back!
I’m Chris Daniels. I’m a portrait photographer and writer, based in Seattle by way of Atlanta, Nashville, and Los Angeles.
If you ever want to speak to me about my writing, art, the best tequila, or if you just want to say hello, reach out to me at Chris@chrisdanielsphoto.com