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Guest Post by Paul Nicklen | A Note To My Younger Self

copyright Paul Nicklen Photography
October 21, 2022

This is a guest post by WWSG exclusive speaker, Paul Nicklen, originally posted here.

I published my first post for Bulletin, With Thanks to the Cousteau Family, on July 1, 2021.

I wrote about how, while waiting impatiently for my study partner to show up in my university dorm room for a previously arranged study session, I flicked through TV channels on a tiny, old-fashioned TV set while I waited. Television was a foreign concept to me at the time, as I had only watched it a handful of times while growing up in Canada’s far north without even a radio or telephone.

Growing up in Northern Canada, my life was always about adventure.

Sports, news, and a forgettable sitcom flashed by before I happened onto a nature program. A pair of scuba divers were strapped into state-of-the-art scuba gear, peering through inky, black waters. I saw the unmistakable white patches of orcas emerge from the darkness. I was awestruck. What must it be like to stare into the eyes of this wonder of evolution?, I asked myself. What was Jacques Cousteau’s secret to capturing the imagination of an entire generation of TV viewers? How could I carry on his legacy of protecting our planet’s most vulnerable species?

Sailfish (Istiophorus albicans) are the most prized sport fish in the world but very little is known about their behavior underwater. At 6 feet long, sailfish are the fastest swimming fish in the world. However, more than their speed, with this assignment we discovered that they are an exceptional predator and use their morphological design to catch their favorite prey, sardines.

The fastest fish in the ocean, sailfish can reach speeds of 68 miles per hour. They are sought after by trophy fishers. I strive to create images that show people that creatures like this don’t belong on walls, or menus.

In that moment, I had an epiphany. That accident of timing would shape my life to come, though I could not have known it at the time.

That first Born Wild Bulletin post, 18 months ago, almost to the day, prompted a handful of likes and a few dozen comments.

Since then, over the weeks and months to come, more and more of you followed me as I shared tales of my encounters with orcas, coastal wolves, polar bears, and, more recently, a wayward walrus and the search for a legendary bowhead whale named Adlauluq.

One door closes, and another opens. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, has made the difficult decision to discontinue Bulletin. I will be continuing to share stories and experiences from the field in Field Notes.

In signing off, I want to share some thoughts from my recent convocation speech at the University of Victoria. In it, I wrote an imaginary letter to my former, younger self — 32 years’ worth of life lessons.

These are just some of the life lessons learned along the way, things that served me well over the years.

  • Imagine that one day you give a TED talk about the extraordinary life you have led. Ask yourself, What is going to be my legacy? What is your Ikigai … the confluence of what you are good at, what the world needs, what gets you paid, and, most of all, what you love to do. There, at that confluence, you will find your life’s purpose.

  • I urge you, first of all, to dream big. How much money you earn, what car you drive, the size of your house … none of those are going to get you invited to the TED main stage. And none of them matter — at all. Live a life full of purpose, passion, meaning, and will. What is your purpose? Ask yourself that every day. If your main goal in life is to be comfortable and not work too hard, then get ready for a life of mediocrity. With great risks come great achievements.

  • When you dream big, you will fail on occasion. It’s how you deal with those failures that separates you from the others. In the work I did as a photographer for National Geographic, I failed 98 percent of the time. When I was on assignment, I woke up in the morning and told myself: I will shoot an amazing image today for the most discerning magazine in the world. If I fail 100% of the time, I will soon be out of work. If I fail 95% of the time, I am crushing it.

Narwhal gather en masse at the Arctic Bay floe edge to eat cod in the spring. Photo’s taken in early July.

“A Gathering of Unicorns” took me six years to capture. Each failed attempt motivated me even more.

  • Failing is a part of life. Embrace it. Every time I fail, I get hungrier. Perseverance, patience, and purpose always trump rejection.

  • We all have voices in our heads that tell us that we are going to fail. The bigger the challenge, the louder those voices. You are not good enough. This was a mistake. What is the point in trying? For me, when those voices get too loud, I close my eyes and attach those voices to a fictional character and then walk each one of those characters to the edge of a cliff. It is a high cliff, with a fog bank at the bottom. I push those characters off the cliff, one by one, and down they go, disappearing into the fog and vanishing altogether.

  • Be nice, my mother always used to say. Be nice to everyone on the way up, as you will be sure to meet them again on the way down. The Inuit who I was fortunate to grow up with had a beautiful word… tooshoo. It means, I am incredibly happy for you, and I would be happy to experience the same one day. Jealousy is the kiss of death. Whenever you find yourself jealous of someone, be sure to compliment them, and your jealousy will soon disappear. Ask them about their road to success.

  • Above all, enjoy the journey. It is easy to get caught up in constantly charging ahead and never taking the time to look back. Celebrate your experiences, your family, and your achievements. At the end of the day, when you are on your deathbed, you will not be surrounded by money, magazine covers, and awards on the wall. You are going to be surrounded by friends, family, and memories. You will know that you made an impact. You left behind something that had meaning. Genuine meaning, and not the false trappings of empty fame and shiny baubles. Most of all, you left a legacy by giving back.

Many of my peers told me along the way how hard those early days must have been. I never saw it that way. For me, truthfully, it has been an incredible journey. To stand with those graduating students that day at the University of Victoria was, for me, an equally powerful and meaningful day on my journey.

While cadets taught me many lessons of the I carry with me today, I know that without good people supporting me, I wouldn’t have been able to experience many of the things that I have.

The journey is not over. If you have enjoyed and appreciated anything you have seen and read in these posts over the past months and years, do continue with me as I take the next step. The world is a fine place and worth fighting for, and I would like very much for you to join me on the journey to come.

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