The Best Career Advice I Ever Received

When I was a junior in college, I decided to respond to a wall post – a real wall, not Facebook – from a wedding photographer who was looking for an assistant. I was a summer away from my study abroad experience and needed any extra money I could muster up in the months before my trip. “How hard can it be?” I thought. “I love weddings!”

I got the job without an interview; apparently, calling to say I was interested was the only qualification I needed. That should have been my first warning. My second warning: there was no salary. Instead, I would keep half of the “tips.” My defense for what seems obvious now, is that I was 20 years old and, as I mentioned, I liked weddings. Too bad there wasn’t a post for hanging out on the beach, because I really liked doing that. So, my first career advice is to be leery of anyone who hires you for being able to read an ad and for dialing the phone, and, of course, you should care about money; but this isn’t the best career advice I learned – I’ll get to that later. Now back to my marvelous job.

I’m sure you’ve never put any thought into what a wedding photographer’s assistant does, but my job was to basically assist the photographer in what is the most important day of the bride’s life. A day, I should point out, that the bride is not quite herself. And, what is my role? To follow her around with a lamp that could burn a hole through her head – or worse, her veil – at any given moment if I breathe the wrong way.

I should add that I started doing this during a time when wedding photojournalism was becoming the trend, which meant that everything and anything the bride did was worth photographing. This would include her waking up and eating Corn Flakes, picking up the phone, washing her face, etc. Therefore, even though the wedding ceremony was scheduled for 4 p.m., I would, in fact, need to show up closer to 4 a.m. to start the documentation of this special day; this being about the same time that my last wedding ended. And the price for all this dedication? Half of the day’s tip.

So, the first thing I learned was that wedding photography is very expensive and people don’t want to pay extra for something that they are already spending a small fortune on. Since I was paid on tips, this was not good news for me. I remember one wedding getting a $10 tip (after splitting it half way) for a 12-hour day, which translated into $0.83 an hour. Disillusioned and tired, I told the photographer that I couldn’t do it anymore; I made no money and couldn’t listen to another night of the Macarena. And, that’s when he gave me the best advice that made up for all the stinky pay up to that point. He said that I was expecting to get paid tips for doing my job, but they already paid for that; instead, I would get tips for all the extra things I did that were not a part of their expectations or a part of my “job.”

For the next few weddings, I stopped thinking of my role as the “photographer’s assistant,” but as part of the wedding party. This meant that for one wedding I ran out to pick up amenities for the bride’s mother; another time I helped a bridesmaid with her dress; I got water for the groom’s father; helped his grandmother to the restroom. And, do you know what happened? I started to make some money. We were averaging tips above $400 and even double that a few times. I still had a very specific responsibility and had to do that right (otherwise, my photographer would have fired me), but, in addition, I had to provide value way above what was contracted and expected.

I haven’t taken a picture of a wedding since college and don’t like weddings all that much anymore, but I learned a priceless lesson that summer. Doing your job is not enough. People expect you to do your job. What will set you apart and warrant people to throw extra money at you, or a promotion, or praise is doing the stuff that is not your job. You still need to perform your job well, but if you want to stand out, find the opportunities to provide value. The opportunities will always be there if you’re paying attention.

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