A Hobby To Stay Sane for Entrepreneurs

When I was first in touch with Thys van der Merwe, a self-employed computer programmer based in Richards Bay, on the northeast coast of South Africa, he mentioned off-handedly that he had a website. “It’s probably not of much interest to your work,?he said. “It is focused on my biggest hobby which is photography—my way of staying sane in the self-employment environment.?

Thys takes pictures of wildlife and landscapes of South Africa during weekends. His hobby reflects a serious commitment, an artistic sensibility and, one suspects, heroic patience in waiting for the perfect shot.

“To me,?says Thys, “photography, like computer programming, is an art form that is bound by certain rules. It is different enough to help me escape the stresses of self-employment by moving my mind to a different level of creativity, but it still has enough touch with reality for me to be aware of the constraints of technology and the medium I am using. It puts your mind on a level not present in a work environment.?

When he decides to make a photograph, Thys says, he feels as if the world takes on the quality of a dream that he wants to recreate in the picture. “Whether it works in the end as a ‘winning shot?is irrelevant,?he says. “It has helped me, for a short time, to look at the world in a different way and see things I would normally have passed by.?

He finds this different vision not only when he is out in the bush taking the photographs, but also when he gets home and processes and selects them.

“I’m going through a very tough patch right now, with a deadline looming and software bugs making life difficult,?Thys reports. “I have about 60 rolls of film still lying unframed in a box. For the last two weeks, I have spent at least an hour before I go to bed examining and framing slides. When I am under pressure, it is like a little escape to look forward to every day. It calms me down and relaxes my mind completely.?

Thys has always been dedicated to outdoor sports, as a competitive hang-glider, rock climber and scuba diver. He says he decided to drop those risky activities and concentrate on photography in 1994, once he opted to take on the responsibilities of self-employment. But, he adds, the outdoor, physical quality of nature photography is an important part of what engrosses him, and it provides a strong contrast to the abstract, sedentary task of computer programming.

Moreover, during a time when many other highly trained white South Africans have been leaving the country, Thys has felt a desire to immerse himself in the landscape of his native land. His photographs have encouraged him to do so. “The photography is more about getting into the bush,?he says, “than it is about snapping the shutter.?

Photography played a role in his recent move from the bustling Johannesburg–Pretoria region, where he was able to get many high-paid assignments, to Richards Bay, where jobs are fewer and the pay not quite as high, but which is closer to the places where he enjoys taking photographs.

“I think that regularly taking on more work than can be handled in a normal working day is one of the pitfalls of self-employment,?Thys says. He took a few days off in Richards Bay to decide whether he could handle some high-stress assignments he was being offered, and that’s when he heard of the possibility of getting work there.

His wife Ester, with whom he takes the photographs, approved of the move, and she became a entrepreneur as well, running a paging and communications equipment company that she and Thys bought. Thus the photography, in addition to providing him with an artistic and emotional outlet, also induced the couple to change where and how they live.

Thys is not, then, making a strict separation between his avocation as a photographer and his paying work as a programmer. Both of these are part of his life, and his desire to do photography has helped shape his recent career moves.


James Chan, Ph.D., is president of Asia Marketing and Management (AMM), a Philadelphia-based consultancy specialized in advising U.S. firms on exporting American-made products and services to China and forging business relationships there. Since he founded his practice in 1983, James Chan has advised more than 100 U.S. companies in expanding their businesses in Asia. To view his background online, go to AsiaMarketingManagement.com.&n...

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