Creative evangelist Chase Jarvis turned his back on medical school and a doctorate in philosophy and happened upon his true love: photography.

Wheat Field

Design Matters Live: Chase Jarvis

PHOTOGRAPHER / ENTREPRENEUR

2019

PHOTOGRAPHY / CREATIVELIVE / CREATIVITY / EDUCATION / SKIING / SNOWFALL / BASQUIAT / NEW YORK TIMES / IPHONE / BEST CAMERA / INSTAGRAM / CROWS / SAN DIEGO STATE UNIVERSITY / PHILOSOPHY / SKATEBOARDING

When I first met Chase Jarvis, I was the editor-in-chief of PRINT magazine, and Debbie was the magazine’s editorial and creative director. We were putting together a special issue on San Francisco’s designers, artists, activists, writers and makers, and Jarvis had offered up his CreativeLive studio for the weekend for a comically intense two-day photoshoot involving the likes of Jessica Hische, Liz Ogbu, Scott Dadich, Tim Ferriss, Clement Mok and … 66 amazing others.

It was, in a word, exhausting—and I wasn’t even clicking the shutter on the Hasselblad; that was John Keatley. I interviewed everyone we photographed, including Jarvis, who subsequently was interviewing a medley of our guests in a neighboring studio for his Chase Jarvis LIVE show. Seeing the indefatigable pace at which he worked—all within the CreativeLive HQ warehouse, an empire he had built from the ground up—was to witness Jarvis’ lifelong drive in action, and helped frame the many places his talent has taken him. Jarvis went from amateur snaps in ski bum towns to the forefront of professional extreme sports photography; he created a pioneering iPhone photo app; he’s shot celebrities; he’s interviewed hoards of the foremost minds in creativity; he co-founded CreativeLive, and has long been on a mission to democratize access to the arts via the innovative online platform.

And through it all, one gets the sense that he’s not just blowing smoke—he believes in the power of creativity. He believes in the work he produces, and what his work might help others produce. And over the years and through the woods, he has absorbed and distilled a medley of Jarvis-isms for creatives.

In chorus with this week’s special live episode of Design Matters, here are 26 such nuggets, alongside some biographical reflections that serve as pins in the map of his own journey.

—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief


“If you don’t write your own script, someone else will write it for you.”

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“My childhood was a very creative childhood. My parents would give me a block of wood and I'd go play in the backyard for hours. I sat at the adult table because there was no kid’s table.”

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“As far back as I can remember, I’ve been a lover of pictures. I had these junky disc and 8mm cine cameras. My interest in all that probably developed from an early realization, a near obsession with the idea that we could capture time, capture stories and moments with tools and a bit of film.”

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“My grandfather died two days before my college graduation, which was a terrible, terrible thing. He dropped dead of a heart attack. The silver lining in that was I got his cameras. I was gifted his cameras. It was this permission to go explore the world.”

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“I bailed on a career in professional soccer, I bailed on medical school and dropped out of a Ph.D. in philosophy to become a photographer. That obviously was very radical. … The reality is there aren’t a lot of parents running around telling their kids to be artists or to be creative.”

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“I also think my educational path points to an all-too-familiar pattern within our culture—one so widespread it’s become an epidemic. Namely, that degrees have become a metric for carrying ‘meaning’ for our parents, earning ‘approval’ of others. Frankly, that whole narrative is total B.S.

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“I had an incredibly supportive family and yet I still spent years of my life and tens of thousands of dollars chasing everyone else’s dream for what I was supposed to become rather than chasing my own. It was when I finally quit that path and pursued my own calling to become a photographer and an entrepreneur that I really felt alive. This perspective has been instrumental in my life ever since. It felt like waking up from a sleep state. This ‘aha’ moment suddenly helped me become aware and empowered.

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“The people I try and surround myself with, they know that intuition is the mechanism through which to book your own ticket.

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“I was literally breaking in—as in breaking and entering into the local community college to develop my film for free between the hours of 2 and 5 a.m. I was learning from books. It was very difficult to get meetings with other people who were the best in the craft because they didn’t want to divulge their secrets, and it was a very closed, limited mindset. So through hacking my way and figuring it out, literally taking a picture, writing down my exposure, taking another picture, writing down my exposure, such that when you get your film back, you could actually figure out what the F you were doing.”

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“I’m a hard-working culture junkie who knows that it’s the greatest time in history to be a photographer or creative. It’s the first time in the history of the world that creatives are also distributors. And that’s very profound if you think that up until recent history, permission was required for us to be able to share work at any sort of scale. We had to get permission from galleries, from ad agencies or photo editors to be able to have our work out there. And now anybody with access to a computer can show their work in 200 countries around the world.”

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“It’s fair to say that I would not be where I am now without the internet. I think the same can be said for nearly every successful artist these days, whether you’re talking Ai Weiwei or Macklemore or everything in between. The democratization of creativity enabled by online tools and the ability to reach millions with the touch of a button has surely changed the trajectory of creativity forever.”

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“I have very few regrets because it’s a policy of mine to chase down anything that might become one.”

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“Stuck in a cubicle? Not living your dream? Whatever you’re doing on the side of your ‘real’ job, whatever you’re doing with your free time—that’s what your soul is angling for in your next gig, job, career, life. So how do you make that dream career come true if you’re already in a full-time gig? It’s all about nights and weekends. If you want it badly enough, you’ll find the time.”

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“Focus on being world class at something that you’re deeply passionate about because it’s just going to get hard. Once it gets hard, you have to care deeply about it if you want to push through. That’s going to keep a lot of other people out.”

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“Create, share, repeat. The secret weapon to succeeding (in whatever way ‘success’ means to you) as a photographer is to create personal work. Follow what fascinates and inspires you. Make something real and then share it with the world. This is the most brutally simple recipe for standing out, for making your mark. But there’s a catch: This work has to be all you. It can’t be a project you undertake to please others or an idea that you tried to fit into a recognizable mold. Get weird, get your hands dirty, chase your very own heart. It’s in creating from there that your work has the chance of turning out solid gold.”

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“Let’s say I finish a job and instead of buying a new couch or a new car with the money, I put that into a personal project. I’m going to be able to create a cool body of work that is going to make me feel alive and bring the most out of me creatively. And that work will be responsible for me getting my next job, maybe getting a cooler job, and having my personal brand equity and my personal value as a creative be higher than the last job that I did. … I would advocate that throwing money at personal projects is in many ways a stepping stone or a ladder to growth and evolution.”

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“There is no recipe for a great picture. It is this challenge that keeps me interested in doing what I do.”

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“Just do something creative every day. When you sprinkle chocolate sprinkles on your cappuccino, do it in a pattern. … Be mindful of being creative.”

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“Creativity is the new literacy. Whether you’re taking pictures, building a business, managing a hedge fund, there’s a ton of creativity involved. Art is but a subset of creativity.”

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“Craig Swanson and I founded CreativeLive based on our shared belief that the world deserves—and needs—access to new models of education, as well as a community of peers and collaborators. Moreover, the future of work, life, community, technology, family, everything, will be driven by creativity. The sad reality was that when we looked around, the status quo education and work structures not only traditionally excluded, but even punished, creativity—the very thing that unites us all and drives us forward.”

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“The best thing for me to do is forget about my need for inspiration and go out and live a little more. Get uncomfortable. Live some other art. Travel. Walk the earth and get into adventures. … For me, getting inspired is ultimately about forgetting about looking for inspiration, because in that mode, you’re always judging. And when you’re judging, you’re not nearly as open to some inspiration that might crack you upside the head. Escape and engage.”

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“Life is about human connections, not photography. Photography is simply a means to express ourselves, and if we’ve got nothing to express and no one to share it with in a way that touches others, it’s pointless.”

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“Devour popular culture. Consuming the works of others inspires me. And it’s not just museums and the ‘establishment.’ I devour magazines, books, street art, performances, music, etc. All things that make me think critically (and whimsically) about the world. Inspiration can come from anywhere.”

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“Moderate expectations. Make it a habit not to judge yourself on your creative output. Sometimes your creativity is on fire. Great news. Other times, it’s not. It’s hard sometimes when you make art in a professional commercial capacity because you’re paid to be ‘on,’ but you’ll save yourself a lot of grief if you make it a habit to be cool to your psyche when your creative mojo isn’t firing on all pistons.”

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“We’re living in a world that is more photographic than ever before, and we’re never going back.”
 

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman