Jun 302017
 

From the Green River in May 2016, but representative of how I feel today. Photo courtesy Guy Tal.

I’ve been a little tired.

Yes, you’ve read that correctly. Those words actually came out my mouth…and now that I’ve slept for three days straight, I can explain!

As of this past Monday, I’ve completed a six-month term as the interim Executive Director with the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA) following the conclusion of our 90th annual conference in Duluth, Minnesota. Juggling three businesses—OWAA and two of my own, CMS Photography and Analemma Press—during this time sometimes made me feel like I was testing the outer limits of “you can sleep when you’re dead!”

But I wouldn’t change a thing. Although my time at the helm at OWAA has come to an end, I can safely say that the organization has changed my life for the better twice now. Here’s how:

When I walked out of my unfulfilling corporate America job at Intel Corporation in February 2007, I had asked many of my photography mentors (many who had been in the outdoor photography industry for 30 or more years) what it would take to be successful as a freelance. The overwhelming feedback I received was that I would never make it as a full-time landscape photographer for two reasons: one, the photography industry had changed so much (the digital revolution had just begun) that opportunities to make a living were rapidly diminishing; and two, as a woman, I would never cut it being alone for extended periods of time in the wild.

Despite the latter being exactly what I loved to do, having five semesters of college-level photography instruction, and experiencing enough success in both the fine art and editorial outlets with outdoor photography to quit a six-figure salary, I listened to them. When I left my corporate job on February 28, 2007, I photographed everything but nature photography (and weddings…No. Just no.) I focused on shooting jewelry, trucks, yards, food, products, architecture, senior portraits, soccer, and golf (I didn’t know anything about golf!) for various commercial clients.

I made a lot of money, but after each shoot, I came home bummed out. I wasn’t having much fun, and I asked myself, “Is this really what I left Intel for?”

My phone rang in 2009. On the other line was an enthusiastic man I had never met. He introduced himself as Jim Smith. He explained he had received my name as a possible speaker for his local photography club and asked me if I would be interested in presenting an educational presentation with his members. I eagerly agreed to do so in early 2010.

After my presentation, Jim invited me to speak again. This time though, it was for an organization he was a member of and found helpful in his own profitable outdoor photography business. He also handed me a piece of paper and said, “I think you’d really like this group. You should apply.” Jim handed me an application to OWAA with his signature already on the “Sponsor” line.

I didn’t heed his advice right away. After all, the outdoors was not factoring much into my photography business at that time. I wanted it to! A few months ahead of my speaking engagement at their annual conference in June in Rochester, Minnesota, I decided, “What the hell?”

I walked into the event and saw over 400 outdoor communicators totally rocking the industry in every way—writing, photography, TV, video, books, newspapers, cartoons, you name it. I naively thought, “If they can do it, why can’t I?!”

I subsequently returned home to Arizona with an extra pep in my step and dropped all my commercial clients except one (who was a friend from my time at Intel) to focus entirely on what I loved, photographing the Great Outdoors. I pursued new editorial outlets, calendar companies, etc. I didn’t previously know about or had access to. I also left conference with crazy ideas on how to publish my own books. To be an author had been a pipe-dream for me since senior year in college. I could have never imagined having three books to my name (plus six more in the hopper!) after starting my own publishing company—Analemma Press.

Game-changer #1: I became a true outdoor photographer and writer–and publisher!–thanks to OWAA.

Fast forward five years…Jim sadly passed away in January 2015. Then, my life took an unexpected left-hand turn in April 2015 when my husband (and best friend for 22 years) and I decided to mutually separate—two weeks before our 14th wedding anniversary and four weeks before my 40th birthday. To help with sorting out the devastation and chaos, I had this wild idea to stand-up paddleboard the 141-mile length of Lake Powell in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on the Utah-Arizona border. My mom and I embarked on that journey in late November 2015 but ran into an unpredicted windstorm four days into a 14-day trip, which led to an unexpected rescue and conclusion of a trip.

In the year that followed, I learned many things, including that I was not a photographer who liked to write, but rather a writer who liked to photograph—perhaps a seemingly small distinction to the outside world, but a major shift for me and my priorities. I learned more about letting go, happiness, and as the title of the book I started writing about my Lake Powell trip and life indicates, simply how to go with the flow. In reliving the memories of the separation and Lake Powell paddle trip, though, I still noodled on many things like what I was doing with my life, how I wanted to live, and what I wanted to be when (if) I grew up.

Then, in late November 2016, I received a call from Brett Prettyman, OWAA’s President, suggesting the current OWAA executive director (ED) had unexpectedly turned in his resignation. (I serve as OWAA’s Secretary, and thus the Executive Committee where these types of matters are discussed.) He mentioned the idea of possibly hiring an interim ED, requested I think of good candidates for the position, and hung up.

Was the Universe throwing me a possible answer to the questions I pondered? I needed to find out. Despite having 10 years of freelancing under my belt, I felt if I were ever to return to a desk job, this would be the one I’d pick.

I wrote Brett a lengthy email on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after hearing the news, starting with, “Soooooo I’ve given it a tremendous amount of thought since we talked (I even made up a spreadsheet about it!), and would like to formally throw my name in the hat for the interim ED position, should you decide to pursue it.  I do so with the possibility of me applying for the ED position next year.”

I was named the interim ED by the following Monday. After spending time with Tom Sadler (the resigning ED) in December to facilitate a smooth transition, I took the torch from him in January 2017 for 20 hours a week. I submitted my resume and cover letter for the permanent position.

While learning how to run a non-profit organization and enjoying the new experiences, something didn’t feel quite right. I seemed to have little time to write, photograph, and travel while trying to keep up with the demands of the different three jobs. I missed my wandering freelance life. So much so, that I withdrew my name (twice) from consideration for the permanent position—one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made.

To say I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to serve OWAA in this capacity would be an understatement. As I look back at the six-months, the experience presented “Game-changer #2″ by helping me put four exclamation points behind what OWAA helped me declare seven years ago in 2010:

  • I’m a freelance writer, photographer, author, publisher, speaker, teacher, and more!!!!
  • I’m a wanderer of the outdoors!!!!
  • I love to help people enjoy the Great Outdoors through workshops, books, and everything I do!!!!

I’ve now passed the torch to our new ED, Brandon Shuler. When I left Intel to become a free bird in 2007, I shared what has become one of my favorite quotes with my colleagues, which I feel is equally pertinent now as I start to flap my wings and fly back into the freelancing life once again:

“A ship in harbor is safe — but that is not what ships are built for.”
~John A. Shedd

No matter the journey you are on or may take, may you always possess the wisdom to know the difference between “safe” and “your true self,” to know in your heart what you are made of and for. And to have the strength and courage to sail your ship out of harbor when your soul calls to you to set sail.

Many thanks to the OWAA Board of Directors for their confidence and support in me, to staff members Jessica Seitz and Kelsey Dayton for showing me the ropes and keeping me in line, and to Tom, Brett, and Bill Powell for their help throughout the transition. Finally, I am eternally thankful to OWAA and it’s inspiring and encouraging members for changing my direction in outdoor communications not once, but twice, and for helping me become exactly what I’m built for. (And I just know my late friend Jim is laughing his head off about all this from above. I can hear his voice say, “You’re such a hoot” as he often told me.)

The sea of freedom calls…and it’s a big ocean out there teeming with so much life. Lots more adventures, workshops, books, and more ahead!  Because, as the saying goes, “You can sleep when you’re dead”…and remember, I’ve just woke up from sleeping for three days straight…

Time to set sail…time for new adventures!

  13 Responses to “Setting Sail Again”

  1. Great writing and insight, also love your photography!! and workshops!!. I was so scared to attend a workshop to pursue my love of the outdoors and photography. My retirement changed after meeting you and an amazing group of women thru Arizona Highways
    3 years ago in Sedona- Thankful you took the risk to leave corporate America- Welcome back!!.

    • Thanks Katie! I had no idea you were scared to take a workshop. Girl, you totally rocked it–and still do! In fact, you literally made our Sedona trip after that jeep ride…LMAO! ;) So excited to be able to adventure with you again soon in Acadia and hopefully more in the years ahead. Keep shooting!

  2. As expected, you made OWAA better during your time as interim ED. Thank you for your time as ED and thanks for all the other ways you make OWAA better. Smooth sailing my friend

  3. OWAA is better because of you!! You played a key role and the ship sails straight because you were willing to do the hard work. Sail on and enjoy!

    • Thanks much, Tom, I had some pretty massive shoes to fill after your departure. I’m so grateful for all your help in making the transition and for your continued support of OWAA. Cheers to you!

  4. Well, you are a bit of a hoot I used to tell students, right up ’til the day I retired, “If I ever figure out what I want to do when I grow up, I’ll go do it.” The anthesis of change is stagnation.

  5. Colleen, you keep demonstrating why you’re one of my favorite people. You have a lot of talents and you do a great job at all of them.

  6. Loved that you shared your personal journey. Inspirational!!!

  7. Colleen, I met you when you gave a speech at the APHW Symposium and knew immediately I wanted to learn more from you! I attended the Women’s Retreat in 2016 and enjoyed myself beyond belief and came back with renewed faith in my love for photography. Although I still struggle with being good enough to hang with the other photographers I still go for it because of your encouraging words!

    Looking forward to learning more from you, your workshops and books! Laurie

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