How Photographer Susan Portnoy Let Go of Fear and Turned Her Passion into a Profession

“My healing began when I finally let go.”

Susan Portnoy gave up a successful, stable career as a public relations executive to follow her passion. Two years later, Portnoy is now an award-winning travel photographer and founder of the travel site The Insatiable Traveler. She has traveled all over the world, taking photos that elicit wonder and awe. Her decision to leave her previous job wasn’t an easy one, but she says the reward was worth the challenge. Her work has inspired thousands of readers to embrace adventure and connect with the people and places they visit.

She opens up to Thrive sharing her inspiring journey of pursuing her dream career. 

TG: What gives you energy?

SP: Embarking on a new photographic challenge gives me a rush. It can be a destination, culture,  or species of wildlife; I’m energized by the prospect of a new story to tell through my images. 

Thrive Global: What is your time-saving trick for the morning?

Susan Portnoy: I write the emails I need to send in the morning the night before, and schedule them to go out first thing.

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone.  Does it sleep with you?

SP It’s a love-hate relationship. I have my phone with me a lot. When I’m home, I often put it in another room, so I don’t reach for it. I love gadgets and technology, but there’s no doubt my iPhone has become a crutch. I look to it when I’m anxious, bored, or have difficulty focusing, which is ironic since it further distracts me. It’s an easy out. Knowing this, I’ve been trying to reduce my screen time. I’m not always successful, but I have faith I’ll get there. 

TG: How do you deal with email?

SP: I respond pretty quickly. I don’t know how people don’t become overwhelmed with dozens of unopened or unanswered messages. 

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it? 

SP: It was a couple of years ago, before I changed professions. For over 20 years, I’d had a very successful career in PR and communications, both in-house and as a freelancer. For 90 percent of that time I absolutely loved it, but my enthusiasm was waning and PR was how I earned an income. I lived in New York City; it’s not cheap. How could I possibly think about stopping? 

During this time, my passion for photography blossomed (I’ve always loved travel), and I was generating some exciting opportunities. I’d started my blog and began contributing to a few publications, but the pay was minimal at best. I was torn. For a few years I juggled the two, knowing I wasn’t doing either justice. As a perfectionist, it was an untenable situation. When I was home, I dreamt of traveling. When I traveled, I was worried about servicing my clients. It was exhausting, and during it all, photography took a back seat.  

Two years ago, I’d allowed my roster to dwindle to a single client. I had had no enthusiasm to pitch for new ones. Then the business was acquired, the company no longer needed me, and I was without an income. Dutifully, I began to network for job and client opportunities, and with every new discussion, I felt engulfed by sadness. I was trapped. I realized PR was no longer for me, and it was terrifying. My work had always been my rock. I wanted to stop, but I believed I didn’t have a choice. 

It wasn’t long before I slid into a clinical depression. I was terrified I’d end up homeless, and I’d never be happy again. I was overreacting for sure, but it felt very real at the time. I became paralyzed, and the idea that I, Susan Portnoy, miss independence, was paralyzed sent me further into despair. It was a vicious cycle, and it felt permanent. I was failing my life, and I couldn’t dig myself out. 

My healing began when I finally let go — when I stopped obsessing over what I should do as a pragmatic adult (stay in PR), and realized I could do what I wanted (go after a career in photography and travel). I was able to get to that point because I had a good therapist, I went on medication to curb my anxiety and negativity, and in turn, I was able to view my prospects more objectively. I took the plunge, and here I am. I have a long way to go, but I’m tenacious.

TG: How do you prioritize when you have an overwhelming amount to do?

SP: I use the “Sausage Technique.” I learned it from a friend and former client, Kate White. At the time, she was editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine. She was answering the same question having to do with her high-profile, pressure-cooker of a position during a press interview. It stuck. 

Here’s what she said: Imagine a giant sausage in front of you, and you have to eat it. Sitting there as a whole, it looks unappetizing and impossible. But if you cut it into thin slices, it’s no longer daunting. I do that with work and keep on eating. 

TG: What advice would you give your younger self about reducing stress? 

SP: It’s going to be bumpy, but you’ll pull through. Don’t sweat the small stuff. 

TG: How do you reframe negative thinking? What brings you optimism?

SP: Inherently, I’m not a glass half full person. I wish I were, but in truth, reflexively, I think of the problems before the benefits. When I was younger, I used to look at the glass half full people and roll my eyes. It seemed very Pollyanna to me. I wanted to slap the preciousness out of them. My bad. They had it right. I’m not giddy with optimism now, but I try consciously to search for the bright side, and as one would expect, it makes life a lot easier. 

TG: Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve the way you connect with others. 

SP: I have an extended family of half-siblings: a brother and sister who are older, and a much younger little brother. We are the offspring of my father’s three marriages. Because of our age difference, we didn’t grow up in the same home except for the older two. In that respect, I was very much an only child day-to-day except when we were all together, which, as a whole, was infrequent. Recently, we’ve scheduled a monthly video chat (we all live in different states), so we don’t lose touch. Our routine is still in its infancy, but I’m glad we started. 

TG: Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve your focus. 

SP: I’m far from a pro at this, but I’m getting better. Every thirty or forty minutes of work, I give myself a five to ten-minute break to do whatever. I call a friend or surf the web, but when the break is over, it’s back to work. It’s another iteration of the Sausage Strategy. 

I also have daily and monthly goals on a sticky note on my computer. I never used to do that. I used to think it was unnecessary, but live and learn. It works. 

TG: What’s your evening routine that helps you unwind and go to sleep? 

SP: I go to bed early so I can unwind at a leisurely pace. I find a new episode of a favorite podcast and listen to it in bed with the lights off. I rarely make it to the end before I’m asleep. 

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