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Humans of New York Creator on Why Success Isn’t Linear

And the moment he knew he’d struck a chord with people.

On the most recent episode of The Thrive Global Podcast with iHeartRadio, Brandon Stanton, creator of the viral photo-blog Humans of New York, told Thrive Global CEO and founder Arianna Huffington that he didn’t follow a “traditional” trajectory to success, and that “making it” for him meant finding just one true fan.

Stanton studied history in college and then worked for “two years very obsessively, basically trying to make money in the bond markets,” he told Huffington. “I always told myself, ‘Oh, I’m an artistic person. I’m going to make money first and then once I get security I’m gonna pivot and do something that I wanted to do.’” That pivot came a bit sooner than expected: “I got fired,” Stanton said. “I had no money saved up, and I wasn’t really any closer to pursuing something that was more self initiated or self motivated.”

But as is true in many areas of life, our fears can be a catalyst for change. “The thing I had feared more than anything else was losing that job,” he told Huffington. “And then suddenly when what I feared the most happened, when I lost it, suddenly all of that mind space and those thoughts I could direct toward, ‘What do I want to be doing?’ And so I started daydreaming for the first time in a long time.”

That daydreaming eventually (emphasis on eventually) led to Stanton creating his immensely successful project Humans of New York, featuring photos of real people on the streets of New York City with captions that often provide a poignant and personal glimpse into their lives. The project has found a global audience of tens of millions of people.

But while amassing that number of followers would mean “making it” to many people, for Stanton, making it was about finding one true fan. “This is not somebody who’s your cousin, your family, your friend telling you they like your work,” he said. “This isn’t somebody superficially connecting with your work and giving it a like. This is somebody that, because of the effort you put in behind the scenes, and when nobody was paying attention to get your art up to a certain level, connects with your work in a deep way and because of no social obligation to you.”

In the beginning, gaining just a few new followers each day was exciting, he said. “I remember doing the math. I was with my friend in Central Park. It was the night of the Super Moon,” he told Huffington. “I told him, in three years, I will have 10,000 Facebook fans. And that to me was success because, remember, I just wanted to find a way to make just enough money to photograph all day long.”

Actually, in three years he had around ten million followers. (And now, the Humans of New York Facebook page has 18 million fans.) But that didn’t change what “making it” meant to him. It rested on that first true fan. Reflecting on his success, Stanton said, “It wasn’t that I had this flash of inspiration that led to success. I just got out there and did what I wanted to do every single day, and had these hundreds of small evolutions that eventually led to something that became successful.”

To hear the full conversation, click here.

You can also listen to the Thrive Global Podcast internationally for free on iTunes and Stitcher.

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