“I wasn’t even intending to take that picture.”

That’s what Devin Allen, 26, said about the photo he took that wound up on the cover of TIME magazine. The city of Baltimore was caught in a zeitgeist of peaceful protests, police brutality, and riots, and Allen was an amateur photographer just trying to document the moment.

Except he was looking in the wrong direction.

“I actually had my back to all that,” Allen told the audience at Baltimore’s Creative Mornings meetup, where he’d been asked to discuss his work.

“And then I turned around…”

Right Place, Right Skills, Right Time

Let’s talk about business for a second.

Or life. (Most of the same rules apply.)

If you want to build a business, you probably spend a lot of time thinking about theory, strategy and process. That’s because it’s easy to think about success; it’s a lot harder to take action, and it’s even more difficult to take successful actions.


Because long-term success is rare.

Long-term success is the end result of a million smart, resourceful, resilient choices we make along the way. It’s the result of not giving up when we make mistakes. And it’s the result of mixing talent with passion with the right people, at the right times, in the right places.

Lots of variables, right?

And for every smart choice we make, there are a dozen bad choices waiting to trip us up, set us back, and rob of us our will to keep trying.

Screw up enough in a relationship and you may break up…

… but you can learn from it.

Screw up enough in business and you may give up…

… but you can always start over.

Screw up enough in life, though, and you may not get another chance.

“People think Baltimore is ‘The Wire’? It’s worse.”

Devin Allen is 26, but he’s already buried 20 of his friends. He says his best friends died back-to-back, one night after another. Why? Drugs. Streets. In Baltimore, a guy like Devin is more likely to end up a casualty than a cover photographer.

But Devin Allen wanted a better ending.

“Why did you decide to become a photographer?”

“I had a daughter. And I wanted to leave her something that would last.”

You’ve Gotta Start Somewhere

Devin Allen is an “amateur” photographer. He never went to school to learn how to take a “proper” photograph. He never studied the business of self-promotion, or networking, or media rights management.

“How did you learn to become a photographer?”

“YouTube. And trial and error.”

You don’t have to be an expert at what you love. You just have to love doing it, and you have to throw yourself into it with the kind of abandon that seems reckless to anyone who isn’t you.

“My mom was texting me when she realized I was out at the protests. ‘Come home now!,'” Allen says. “I show her that TIME cover, and I’m like, ‘You’re glad I didn’t come home now, right?'”

If you want to build something that doesn’t exist, you have to be willing to do all the hard parts yourself. You need the courage to take risks — and the resilience to recover from failure. You have to learn from your mistakes. And you have to be a mix of fearless, crazy, dedicated, humble, and hopeful.

It’s not an easy balance to strike. But every win counts.

Devin Allen’s camera is a Fuji with built-in WiFi. When he took the photo that would launch his career, he automatically uploaded it to his Twitter and Instagram feeds, just like he’d done for hundreds of photos before.

“And like immediately, there was a cop in my face: ‘Move!’ But he helped me get out of the way. After that, I stayed out and I just kept shooting.”

It wasn’t until Allen got home that he realized his photo had been retweeted over 500 times, and counting.

“I was like, ‘What?’ And then Fusion Magazine called, and then the BBC… and I was like, ‘Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat?'”

How to Turn a Victory Into a Success

Let’s say you’re a videoblogger who’s posted dozens of webisodes to YouTube. Maybe your videos get a few hundred views apiece, on average.

Then, one day, one of your videos skyrockets to 100,000 views.

Does that suddenly make you a web video expert?

No. It means you got lucky.


… but it also means you got something right.

The truth is, you probably have no idea why that one video became so popular.  It could have been…

  • The title
  • The description
  • The thumbnail image
  • A keyword within the title or description
  • A suddenly-relevant tag
  • Getting mentioned by a powerful influencer
  • Cross-posting to a highly-trafficked blog
  • A complete and total accident
  • Something else entirely

If you don’t know why it happened, all you can do is guess. And if your next video is back to getting a few hundred views, then you guessed wrong.

So guess again.

If you have one victory under your belt, you don’t yet have a winning system.

Victory means something worked.  Success means your system works.

But they both mean you have talent — so build on it.

You Don’t Have to Know Where You’re Going. You Just Have to Know Where You Don’t Want to Be.

Success looks inevitable once you’re there. But as anyone who’s ever succeeded will tell you, the route changes a thousand times along the way — and you have to be nimble enough to change with it.

For Devin Allen, becoming a statistic wasn’t an option. He figured that out long before he ever picked up a camera. He saw the kind of life his friends had chosen, and he knew he wanted something different.

“I changed,” he says. “I didn’t want to be that. I even dress more like an artist now. And sometimes I catch hell for it. People I know see my outfit and they’re like, ‘Man, what’s all this?'”

“And I just show ’em TIME Magazine.”

When he’s not taking photos, Allen works with the autistic and the intellectually challenged. That’s his night job. Creating positive change is something he does daily.

“Before all this,” Allen says, “I was going to move to New York. But I have faith in Baltimore again. I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying.”

Allen wants to teach photography to kids, so they can grow up with the power to tell their own stories.

“People keep asking me, ‘where’s all that TIME magazine money?’ It’s not about the money. It’s about saving the next child.”

“You’re gonna make mistakes, but you’ve gotta find yourself. People give up too early. You’re not gonna find yourself at 21.”

“We’re all photographers now. Keep taking those selfies. You’ll figure it out.”

You’ve just gotta start somewhere.


1 Comment

12 Tough Truths | Justin Kownacki · July 30, 2015 at 11:50 am

[…] How to Succeed While Actually Trying […]

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.