“I took this in Kyrgyzstan,” says photographer Michael Seto. “My fellow travelers and I were taking a short break on the side of the road. The school bus carrying these girls broke down and they hit the road to get to school on time. I like it because the serendipity of luck underpins the design and decisive moment. I was in the right position with my camera, was able to run a few hundred yards ahead of them to frame out my car and their bus, and get this fun, expressive photo.

We in the business world have entered crunch time. It’s the second month of Q1 and we’re busy implementing plans. We might also be thinking of our New Year’s resolutions, which might include pursuing a passion or a new career. How are we doing on those promises to ourselves?

Please read on if this describes you:  Photographer and former Wall Street exec Michael Seto has set a great example.

Q. Michael, first things first. How did the Marines prepare you for life and work?

A. The Marine mindset is to accomplish the mission, no matter what. The Marine Corps, especially officer training, inculcates a determination and dedication to overcome any and all obstacles, which has served me well since then.

In the military, a lot of the things we did were dangerous — literally life-or-death. Combat is a zero-failure situation; they bury the person who came in second. Frankly, this gives you a perspective regarding problems or difficulties in non-military settings. Most problems on Wall Street or The Hill, while treated as urgent by colleagues, are not life-or-death.

In officer training at Quantico.
Michael Seto, left, in officer training at Quantico.

What did you like best about being a Marine?

Being a Marine is being paid to run around outdoors, camp out, work out, ride in helicopters, shoot weapons, and blow things up. It is exciting and exhilarating. For a young man, it is the ultimate macho, manly thing to do – a rush and challenge that people seek now through events like Tough Mudder.

The Marine Corps, or any elite organization, benefits from a self-selection process. You tend to be surrounded by like-minded individuals who want to be there, who believe in the mission, culture, and values of the organization, without being demagogues.

Caption Seto, second from right, fighting in Desert Storm, the 1991 conflict to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.
Captain Seto, second from right, fighting in Desert Storm, the 1991 conflict to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.

You’ve gone from the public sector to the private sector. How did you successfully make that transition?

The transition from Marines to Capitol Hill was more drastic than the transition to Wall Street. It takes a while to modify your mannerisms, such as calling everyone “sir” or “ma’am,” or softening the terseness of interpersonal communications – a tone often necessary in the military but which raises hackles in other settings.

As I mentioned earlier, the professionalism and mission focus of the military are perfectly suited to high-pressure careers like finance. In fact, a lot of Wall Street firms prefer former military personnel for that reason. I had a Navy SEAL and Air Force pilot in my group at Morgan Stanley.

Seto, left, with then-Congressman Leon Panetta (D-CA.)
Seto, left, with then-Congressman Leon Panetta (D-CA).

Between your time at Morgan and becoming a photographer, you traveled the world. What did that teach you about life, finding your passion, and your true self?

I took two years to backpack all seven continents and 46 countries. I’ve now been to 88 countries in total. Traveling allows you to see how other people live, and you realize that despite their exterior differences, they share all the same human characteristics as you. You realize there are many ways to live a happy and fulfilling life that do not require a suburban house, SUV, Costco, or private school.  Again, it’s about gaining a broader view of the world to lend perspective to one’s own life.

It was during my travels that I took a lot of photos and rediscovered my passion for photography. When I got back to New York, that’s when I decided to try to build a new career as a professional photographer.

Developing a passion for photography while traveling in Cambodia.
Developing a passion for photography while traveling in Cambodia.

How did you make the transition to a creative career? 

I never saw myself as a creative or intuitive person. I am a thinker not a feeler. It was more my fatigue of the Wall Street money culture and profits before all else that drove me to leave the business. Capitalism and compassion were mutually exclusive.

The rift grew inside me for a couple years till I found the courage to walk away. It wasn’t easy. They don’t call them golden handcuffs for nothing.

Making trades at Morgan Stanley.
Making trades at Morgan Stanley.

How have you adjusted from corporate life to a small-business owner?

The corporate world is plug-and-play. You sit in a job, a specific role, with specific tasks and objectives. Running a small business is much more ephemeral, other than making more money than you spend. You can set your own goals and your processes can be much more fluid. But the flip side is that a less-defined environment means you may muddle haphazardly through a more uncertain landscape, which is not easy for some people.

Exploring horizons in Bagan, an ancient city in modern Myanmar.
Exploring horizons in Bagan, an ancient city in modern Myanmar.

Tell us about your daily routine.

It starts with coffee and email, then setting priorities for the day. If I have a shoot, then it’s gear and production prep, if not, then it’s often editing a job from earlier. There is a lot of administrative work to complete, such as finances, invoicing and marketing. I tend to spend a lot of time in front of the computer.

Photographing Bill Clinton at a Clinton Global Initiative gathering.
Photographing Bill Clinton at a Clinton Global Initiative gathering.

Any advice for people who also working from home?

You need to work a defined schedule. You need to be disciplined and a self-starter. Minimizing distractions by setting up your work area as a separate space from your living space is crucial to getting work done. Be a hard-ass about carving out time for work and play, and don’t mix the two.

What advice can you share with other people who want to change careers?

Changing careers is a common experience in today’s job market. I believe there are basic personal and work behaviors that give one a chance to be successful at anything: be disciplined, be professional, be organized, be a self-starter, be a problem solver, and be client-focused.

And finally, go for it. Life truly is short. Don’t be afraid to take calculated risks.

Floating on The Ganges River, which flows through India and Bangladesh.
Floating through India and Bangladesh on the Ganges, regarded as sacred in Hindu tradition.

For more information, visit Michael’s website or email him at inquiries@michaelseto.com.


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