CHASE JARVIS

ENTREPRENEURSHIP, SKATEBOARD CULTURE, FINDING YOUR VOICE.

Debbie:
Chase, it seems like entrepreneurship is something that you were born with. As a kid, you used to go to your local golf course, fish golf balls out of the lakes, and sell them back to the golfers in between holes, in addition to selling lemonade. What, how, and why?

Chase:
Sometimes it was the same ball that they would hit in the water. I would go get it and sell it back to them for five bucks on the next hole.

Debbie:
The people that owned the golf course felt that you were cutting into their business, but because you were doing such a good job at this, they hired you to run the Pro Shop one day a week.

Chase:
How do you know this about me? This is freaky. Neither of my parents are entrepreneurs, so I don’t know what gene in me was turned on by the idea of connecting with others and building something. I also had a car wash business where I would wash all the cars in the neighborhood to save up money to buy Super 8 film.

Debbie:
You also have an interesting fondness for crows.

Chase:
You have done your research. I think crows get a bad rap because they make a lot of noise, and they’re scavengers. I love grit. That’s one of my favorite character traits. Crows are the grittiest bird, and they’re brilliant. They can remember a face for 10 years. A friend of mine did a TED talk about teaching a crow to use a vending machine. If you throw something at a crow, it will remember you, and it will also communicate to the other birds that you’re not a cool person.

Debbie:
What is so intriguing to you about grit?

Chase:
It’s our ability to push through things. It makes the impossible possible. There’s a Nietzsche quote: “No artist tolerates reality.” If we took the world around us as it was prescribed, then nothing would grow and nothing would change. I got a healthy dose of grit from my grandmother. She was a single mother and waited tables and worked in a bar to put her daughters through school. I remember observing how she ran her household; I had a deep appreciation for what she had made when I realized it was in the face of a pretty hard run. In my own life, I grew up very confused. I was a creative person, but the creative kids were weird, and as an eight-year-old, all you want to do is fit in. I was also a gifted athlete, so I ended up running toward that. It was easier to fit in, and it was only through skateboard culture many years later that I was able to understand that you could fuse those two things. I went to college on a soccer scholarship.

Debbie:
But you studied philosophy.

Chase:
I studied philosophy and I was on the Olympic development team for soccer, but it was skateboard culture that put those two things together. In skateboard culture, grit is a core value. Concrete’s very hard—and you learn tricks in the face of more than a skinned knee. The skateboard community has consistently shown its ability to create such a DIY culture. That is what helped me grow and evolve and find myself.

Debbie:
You grew up in middle class Seattle. Your dad was a police officer and your mom worked at a biotech company. As you mentioned, you made Super 8 films as a kid. What kind of films was young Chase Jarvis making back then?

Chase:
Swashbuckling films. Sword-fighting films. We would cut out cardboard to make props. It turns out the stunt life of cardboard is not long, but we realized that if we wrapped these cardboard swords in aluminum foil, they would last a bit longer, and they would be shiny at the same time. It was with those props that we started making our first films. I think I was six years old when we made our first film. We saved up money, bought the camera, bought the film, and hired one of my co-star’s brothers to record us. The film we made was called Sons of Zorro. There was a bad guy, and the bad guy stabbed me. It was very cliché. We screened the film and we bought candy for 25 cents and sold it for 50 cents. It was a sold-out show.

Debbie:
You were making money doing this as a young kid. Very entrepreneurial.

Chase:
What has often been seen as in conflict—art and commerce, entrepreneur or artist—to me is all making. Whether you’re creating a piece of art that’s hung in museums, or a business, there’s a creative underpinning. They’re often difficult to reconcile, though, like individual relationships are difficult to reconcile if you have one point of view and your partner has another.

Debbie:
You mentioned that being artistic back in junior high school and high school made you feel weird. Was your effort to be athletic a way to overcompensate for that?

Chase:
Absolutely. I do not want to have regrets, but that’s my biggest regret—my lack of ability as a young person to overcome the feeling of wanting to fit in. We’ve all been vulnerable and realized that we were on the outside. I had all the upside of being a great athlete, but it felt in many ways like it came at a cost of what was a very important piece of who I was. Our ability to create is what separates us from different species.

Debbie:
What made you decide to study philosophy at San Diego State?

Chase:
We grew up very middle class. I was programmed that if you’re smart and hardworking, you’re a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant. Neither of my parents finished school, and the fact that I was an only child, the first person to go to school, and had a couple of other characteristics—I decided to be a doctor. I did all the premeds, all the prerequisites, and I hated it. I loved college because I was playing soccer and that was an important part of my life, but this other part was horrible. I was interested in reading, and in philosophical texts and Siddhartha. I found out that you could actually get a degree from doing those things. So I ran to that. I didn’t quit medical school—I did both that and a degree in philosophy. I was going to be a well-rounded doctor, a very philosophical, ethical doctor. Then I was going to be another kind of doctor, a PhD. Then I dropped out of that to become a photographer.

Debbie:
Immediately after you graduated college, your grandfather had a heart attack and died. You were gifted his cameras, and you put those cameras in a backpack and went and explored the world with your then girlfriend, who’s now your wife. What were you seeking?

Chase:
I was trying to make up for all those years that I jammed away the creative side that we all have. If you walk up to the front of a second-grade classroom and say, “Who wants to come draw me a picture?” every single one of those hands goes up. And then you try that again at fourth or fifth grade, and half as many go up. You know where this is going. The cameras gave me an opportunity to run toward that creative thing. I mentioned skate culture earlier: Photography, punk music, and spray paint —those are a huge element of skate culture, and I always noticed that when I was skateboarding there were usually photographers at the pool, or at the ramp, and I had never fully embraced that. I was trying to redeem lost time.

Debbie:
You said that philosophy helped you find yourself as a photographer in that it required you to be honest about your intentions.

Chase:
More than anything, philosophy is a tool for critical thinking. Philosophy taught me to apply intention, which is the foundation of art. If I spilled my bottle of water here and it was an accident, that’s not art. If I spilled it on purpose as a piece of performance, then it’s art. There’s this huge part of intention that I got from philosophy.

Debbie:
When you came back from the trip, you were still thinking about returning to school. You had taken your MCATs. You were thinking about your PhD. Then you quit all of that, and your first job after that experience was tuning skis for $10 an hour in a ski shop. You licensed your first photograph in 1994 for $500 and a pair of skis.

Chase:
When we moved to Steamboat, Colorado, after the Europe trip, I was passionate about living life and exploring. I was waiting tables and trying to ski a hundred days a year. When I applied myself again and added intention to the mix and decided that I wanted to take photographs, I was in one of the richest places in the world, metaphorically speaking. I was in the middle of Colorado with some of the best ski and snowboard athletes in the world. I had a camera and I could ski well, so I could go anywhere and do those things. If you pursue something you’re passionate about, you’re more likely to be good at it, so I put those two things together and I was able to make great photographs—in part because of teaching myself composition very painfully through traveling through Europe. That photo was the culmination of all these different pieces. I worked at a ski shop where I tuned the skis for the US ski team. I went to a ski manufacturer who was passing through and said, “I have this photograph.” He put me in touch with someone else and my first offer of $500 and a pair of skis to license that photograph was immediately accepted.

Debbie:
What made you decide to license it as opposed to sell it?

Chase:
The concept that I was creating something of value and that that could be licensed over and over. Part of the ethos of skate and surf culture is that what you make and what you do matters. I believed inherently that there was value in the work that I had created. I went skiing with my friends and got this picture that I sold for the equivalent of a hundred hours of my time. It was the act of pulling it off once that painted a picture for me that it was possible.

Debbie:
A few moments ago you said that you learned composition as you were traveling. How?

Chase:
The same way we all learn, right? Repetition, comparison, imitation. These are all foundations of learning.

Debbie:
How did you find your voice?

Chase:
I hadn’t yet found my voice. You can only get that through repetition. I was able to make photographs that looked like the photographs in the art books that I was reading at the time. I was deeply inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Robert Rauschenberg because there was a meta layer to what they were doing. They were making art about art. Warhol was taking things off the supermarket shelves and putting them into museums, and Basquiat was taking things off the walls of New York and putting them in galleries. I was wildly disconnected from good or bad because I was more into making. Remember, this was a long time ago. We’d shoot a roll of film and then get it developed when we’d save up enough money. We would eat beans and tuna fish for a week to be able to take the extra money to develop film, and that was the way I learned. It was very painful, very slow, so you end up paying close attention. It was also very inspirational to be in Europe, in a culture that valued art and creativity to a degree that the US didn’t, in my mind.

Debbie:
Eleven years ago, you were caught in an avalanche in Alaska while working on a campaign for a major brand, and you got hit with enough snow to fill five to ten football fields with about 50 feet of snow. You managed to escape, but that experience shook you to the core. How did it change you and how did you escape?

Chase:
The mountain cracked behind me, and it was about 300 feet long, and I was about 10 feet deep, and I was sliding down an 1,800-foot near-vertical face. I was skiing places that hadn’t been skied before with the best skiers in the world, and I had extensive avalanche training. But when you ski and snowboard for a living, you are in the mountains at the most dangerous times, so it becomes a numbers game. When you’re caught in something of that magnitude, you’re basically a goner. If you’ve ever had a near-death experience, time slows down. I could write a 20-page book about the 20 seconds that I was in what’s called “the white room,” though it’s actually not white. It’s very black because you’re rolling down the hill at about 50 miles an hour with chunks of snow the size of Volkswagens, along with a billion BBs, which is all this little snow.
I managed to survive. But it was serious. I thought that I was doing my life’s work. I had left the culture and the world that everybody else wanted for me and found my own path as a creator. After that moment, I was transformed. I remember the night that it happened, laying in bed sleepless, thinking, “You’re so focused on living this life that you’ve proudly carved out for yourself, and yet, how many lives are you affecting for the better?”
As independent artists. in order to make a living and a life doing what you love, you have to stomp out your own space. Otherwise there’s a lot of people who will take that space, because we’re all very competitive.
I realized that I needed to do something that transcended me as an independent artist, but also embraced the ability for people to do what they love for a living. I was going to try and inspire other people to A, pursue their passions, B, understand that there's a creator in all of us, and C, that you could put those two things together to live a life that you would aspire to.

Debbie:
You were involved in this amazing multimedia storytelling project, “Snowfall,” in The New York Times, about a fatal avalanche in Washington State. It won a Pulitzer. What was that like?

Chase:
To be involved in a project of that magnitude—which took about 80 people and millions of dollars to create—did two things for me. One of the victims was one of my dear friends, so it was a way of processing that. I had almost died in an avalanche not long before that, and it still haunts me. So to lose one of my dearest friends in that way, to know what he went through in the moment of his death, and then to be asked to contribute to the project was a beautiful full circle. It also inspired the hell out of me because I could see where all of this was going. It showed me the power of an image to be a part of something that has a tech underpinning and could be seen and experienced at scale. It was an incredible project to be part of but to be clear, there were people who spent months and months working on it and researching. I just had pictures of my friend Chris, and I had lived a lot of my young life at that ski area where this horrible tragedy happened.

Debbie:
You have a story on your blog titled, “My Biggest Failure: The Story I Was Too Ashamed To Tell.” Tell us about that story that you were too ashamed to tell.

Chase:
That is a wicked question. Around 2004 or 2005, I’d started building a photography community online to learn and connect with others because the industry, similar to the design industry, was very closed. It was frowned upon to talk about your creative secrets, and I needed those secrets. I saw that information wanted to be free and move quickly because of the internet. I started telling stories and sharing videos about what it’s like to be a photographer. There was no such thing as behind-the-scenes videos at the time. I built a large following on Blogger—I had a million readers a month in 2005 or 2006. When the iPhone came out in 2007, and phones started having cameras, I saw that this was going to be massive. Images aren’t about dynamic range or megapixels, or the newest, greatest equipment; images are about stories and moments. I made an iPhone app, Best Camera, in 2009. It was the first iPhone app that allowed you to take a picture, add a cool filter, and then share it on social media. Heard of that before, haven’t you? It went on to be the app of the year in 2009 and turned my photography studio largely into an incubator. But there’s a twist.

Debbie:
There’s a twist?

Chase:
The twist is that this was a year and a half or two before Instagram. I had outsourced the development to a firm that will remain nameless unless you go read the blog post. Short story too long, we were way out in front of everybody and after about a year, the firm was not doing the things that they were supposed to in order to keep up the code. Then Instagram sold for a billion dollars. There’s a video of Robert Scoble asking Kevin Systrom, “Hey, isn’t this just a copy of Best Camera?” And he skillfully dodges the question. I don’t have anything against Kevin. I think Instagram is an amazing app. It’s transformed our culture. But I learned that if you can make a great idea once, you can make a great idea again, and that being first doesn’t entitle you to anything. That is my biggest failure from a business and a creator perspective. But I only feel stronger and smarter and more empathetic and open because of that experience. Can I have a slight divergence here? There are 7,106 languages in the world, and it would be impossible for any of us to learn even a hundred of those languages, to even be proficient enough to say, “I love you,” “Goodbye,” “I miss you.” And yet, when any one of us looks at a photo, we know it immediately, intuitively. I’ve learned to start thinking about my role in photography and my mission as a human to do anything that I can to unlock that—to help people understand photography’s universal language and that there’s a creator in all of us..

Debbie:
Tell us about CreativeLive.

Chase:
It is the world’s largest education platform for creators and entrepreneurs. It’s a lovely community where 10 million people come together and learn from the world’s best in photo, video, art and design, music and audio, crafting and making. Folks like Debbie Millman are on it on the entrepreneur side, as well as Richard Branson and Tim Ferriss and Arianna Huffington. It’s highly curated. Anyone in the world can come and participate in CreativeLive and watch for free while we’re making the content. We broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Debbie:
You’ve said that what you’re doing with CreativeLive is just the beginning, and the future of education isn’t about a four-year degree. What is the future of education?

Chase:
It’s largely self-directed. It’s largely digital. It’s not exclusively digital. In the CreativeLive world, we still have an in-person audience that flies in from all over the world to sit in the room so the teacher can have someone to teach to. The reality is that if our parents had one job, we will have five, and the next generation will have five—at the same time. The school system is based on the factory and the farm. Materials come in one end and we try and create a bunch of similar items that come out the other end. People go to school on a schedule that matches the seasons of the harvest. I don’t know too many people who are out in the fields in the summer.
In the future, we will learn so fast relative to any formal infrastructure that that infrastructure will not be able to evolve fast enough. Creativity is the new literacy. Literacy used to be reserved for aristocracy and the wealthy, and then people realized that if the rest of the world was taught literacy, things like infant mortality would go down. Before literacy, it was the Dark Ages. Afterwards, the printing press and the Enlightenment. Everything that’s around you, every chair, the floor that our feet are on, was designed by somebody with intention, probably no smarter than you or I. Creativity matters deeply. Creativity is the new literacy—and I’m aspiring to live up to that phrase in the work that I’m doing.

CHASE JARVIS TALKS WITH DEBBIE MILLMAN

RECORDED IN FRONT OF A LIVE AUDIENCE AT THE HOW DESIGN LIVE CONFERENCE IN MAY OF 2018.