Chris Burkard on Creativity: Five Things We Learned
At the end of August 2022, I headed to Stockholm to interview the great Chris Burkard in front of an audience at Scandinavian Photo in Stockholm.
The resulting conversation was a masterclass in creativity and finding your voice from the most influential visual artist in the outdoors.
Read on for my five takeaways from our conversation - and click here to listen to our full conversation.
1. Find your subject
Last month, while I was going through the entries to the Db Fund, it struck me that a large number of entries were tied to specific destinations. As in: some entrants were using the Fund as an excuse to try and get to places they really, REALLY want to visit.
So I decided to do an experiment, and see which destinations cropped up again and again. Lofoten in Norway and the Philippines had respectable showings. But in the lead as the location at the top of the Fund bucket list was, by a mile, Iceland.
And it would be no exaggeration to say that the person most responsible for shaping this perception of Iceland as THE number one adventure destination on the planet is Chris Burkard.
So it was fascinating hearing Chris speak about his relationship to a land and people he clearly cares about deeply: particularly the way it has deepened over time, and informed his craft when it comes to creativity.
The first thing to note is that Chris has put a lot of time into his relationship with Iceland. By his own estimate, he’s visited the country an astonishing 65 times since 2007. He’s basically dedicated a huge amount of time to exploring and understanding a place that has become such an increasing object of fascination for him.
For Chris, this single-minded dedication to understanding this land, culture and people is what gives his work its depth and purpose.
On one level, as he explained, it’s been a cumulative process that has, bit by bit, given him the confidence, skills and understanding to undertake the ambitious and involving explorations he undertakes today, such as his recent epic overland bikepcking trip.
But another level, it has also provided him with the experiences, and emotional and spiritual underpinning, that gives his work such resonance and power.
After all, as he explained, his take on on a location or subject is necessarily going to be much deeper and more emotionally involving than somebody who hops on a plane, heads to the spot they’ve seen on instagram, and hopes to replicate the same effect, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey style.
The lesson? Find a subject you’re passionate about, and immerse yourself in it. It could be a landscape. It could be something like action sports, as it was for me.
Whatever it is, the key is to find something you find spiritually, creatively and existentially nourishing. Only then do you give yourself the opportunity to create work or real depth and emotional consistency.
2. Learn to balance the competing demands of commerce and creativity
It can be tempting to imagine that somebody like Burkard spends his time leaping around volcanoes and bikepacking his way across the Icelandic interior.
The reality is very different.
A quick look at his schedule around the time of our trip to Stockholm proves the point. Chris had flown in from Iceland and few days before, where he’d just finished two projects: an assignment for National Geographic, and the aforementioned cross-country bikepacking trip across the country’s interior.
In Sweden, he’d met up with sponsors POC to work on product development, before taking part in a lengthy gravel race. Then he’d headed to Stockholm, for meetings with sponsor Db about his new product range, and to participate in our live talk. From there, he was heading back to Iceland, and then home to see family and ‘fill his well’ (more of which later).
From what I could gather, this was a pretty typical schedule for Chris. And it represents the reality for most successful creative people, who have all found a way of balancing the competing demands of commerce and creativity. (Indeed, Chris’s take on this, and approach to the short period of time we spent together, really reminded me of other high-achievers I’ve had on the show, like David Carson and Stacey Peralta).
Identifying where this creative/commercial midpoint is situated will be different for everybody. For some, artistic integrity take precedence above all else. Others merrily say yes to everything comes their way.
But most people approach it in the same way Chris does, by striking the balance, and using the commercial stuff to pay the bill, and give them a platform to explore their real passions.
As he told me when I asked him define his relationship with the commercial and creative, “It’s good to put food on the table”.
3. Take time to ‘fill your well’
One of the reasons I enjoyed my conversation with Chris so much is that it came at a good time for me personally, as I explained in Housekeeping Corner at the end of the episode.
I’ve always had a lot of projects on the go, and I’ve always thrived on it. And this year, I’ve been saying yes to more things than ever. My company All Conditions Media has doubled in size, which means I now find myself managing and mentoring almost 20 people. At the same time, the podcast has also gone up a gear, which means I’m being asked to do more and more interesting things, whether that’s write columns for Pleasure Magazine, co-commentate at Natural Selection, give corporate talks for companies, or undertake quick missions like this Stockholm trip.
But as I’ve said yes to more things, I realised I’ve not been quite able to find the balance I usually can. I’ve noticed that the coping mechanisms I have in place - a perennial topic on the podcast - haven’t quite been serving me in the same way.
I began to realise that this is because I was relying on the intuition and judgment that had served me well during previous scenarios, but was now proving to be not quite fit for purpose.
All of which explains why I found the section of our conversation where Chris was talking about the importance of ‘filling your well’ to be so interesting. After all, here’s a man with a lifestyle and a work schedule which makes mine look positively monastic. And he has a family, too.
This is why, as Chris explained in response to a question from the audience, he sets such store by ‘filling his well’ - ie taking some time completely away from work to completely reset, both mentally and physically.
For Chris, this time away from the grind is none-negotiable, and the way he replenishes his creative and physical energies. Again, this is also something I have noticed among other successful people, who are careful to carve out precious recovery time away from the grind.
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4. Take the first step
The importance of ‘forward movement’ of any kind has rapidly become one of THE Looking Sideways cliches. For me, as I have written elsewhere, its pretty much the point of life, and is something that almost everybody I have interviewed on the podcast has in common. It’s what Yvon’s words at the beginning of every episode of Type 2 are about, and why life-hacker extraordinaire Rich Roll has ‘mood follows action’ as his mantra.
And it’s also why Chris’s first book The California Surf Project was so important to his career, and why he clearly looks back on it so fondly. As he’s said, the book “…basically changed my life and career. I was 19 at the time and had no clue a 50 day road trip would have such an impact”.
As he explained during our conversation, there was no goal or outcome in mind. Just a desire to move forward and make something happen.
Why is this so important? Because too often, people with amazing creative ideas are waiting for somebody to give them permission to carry them out. I remember once having lunch with a very successful friend of mine who wanted some advice about a project they wanted to do. The idea was fairly similar to Chris’s, as it happens, although based in the UK.
This friend of mine wanted to see if any of the brands I worked with would pay for the trip. My advice was to, instead, do it themselves - find a filmer or photographer who was keen on the idea, hit the road and start banging it out on YouTube and Insta.
My friend, used to having sponsors and team managers who would foot the bill for everything, looked at me as though I was insane. Five years later, as far I can see, that project has yet to get off the ground.
The point is this: don’t wait for permission. Find an idea that excites you, and that fits with your resources, and start today. As Chris’s experience shows, nobody else is going to do it for you.
5. Be careful where you seek validation
As somebody with four million Instagram, followers, Chris is pretty au fait with the vagaries of social media. And he had some fairly ruthless advice for a member of the audience who asked about finding confidence in a world where judgement is constant: be careful what you wish for.
After all, it can be tempting to seek validation in the ephemera of vanishing likes and algorithmic vagaries. But in doing so, you’re really setting yourself up for spiritual and existential failure because, as Chris pointed out, validation in that world really doesn’t mean anything.
Far better to find validation amid parameters you can control yourself, the most obvious of which is enjoyment of the process and outcomes of the work itself.
That way - creative cliche alert - the journey itself becomes the destination, and you can find validation in the incremental progress you can identify as you evolve and progress.
Of course, this is easier said than done. After all, every human seeks validation on some level. And, as I’ve written elsewhere, the act of creativity itself is really us raising our hand and asking the world to notice us.
But seeking validation in areas you can’t control, especially in the early years, is a dangerous thing for any creative. Far better, as Chris advises, to find validation on your own terms, and use this as fuel for your creative efforts.
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