Counterintuitive Ingredients to a Career and a Life Well-Lived with Max Salk


We all have at least one strange combination of foods that we love to eat. In most cases, we’re probably too ashamed to admit that we like to veg out on chocolate and popcorn every once in a while or that we like peanut butter on our hamburgers. Still, unexpected combinations can often create fantastic results. And that doesn’t just apply to food. Max Salk, who works in finance in New York City, travels frequently, volunteers for the Navy SEAL Foundation, loves Chicago-based sports teams, and pursues a landscape photography hobby on the side, has plenty of seemingly counterintuitive ingredients all mixed together in his life and career.

And by all accounts, these ingredients add up to the recipe for a well-lived life and career for Max Salk. But of course, just as peanut butter on a hamburger patty isn’t for everyone, neither is landscape photography, finance, travel, and volunteering. But that doesn’t mean everyone else can’t find their combination of counterintuitive ingredients to form a recipe for their own well-lived life and career. In this article, we’ll be taking a look at Max Salk’s career, his hobbies and interests, and how he spends his free time volunteering, traveling, or just relaxing. 

The point here is to show you that there’s truly no one correct path to living your life and living it well. Rather, it’s about finding the things you love to do and the people you love to spend time with and figuring out how to fit as much of that all together into your everyday life without losing balance. As you read, focus on that—how it all fits together—rather than getting too caught up in precise details. That way, you can gain a deeper understanding of the concepts you can apply that will help you find and combine the right ingredients in a way that suits your desires, needs, weaknesses, and strengths.  

Charting a Path: Finance and Landscape Photography

Having multiple choices in your career is a luxury that should not be taken for granted. Those with less opportunity are often forced into taking whatever job they can to make ends meet and don’t have time to consider what they actually want to do. Still, that doesn’t mean choosing your career path is easy. With so many options comes the pressure to make the right choice. Many young people struggle with this decision and sometimes it overwhelms them into making no decision at all. When Max Salk was asked in a recent interview what he’d tell his younger self, he said: “The world is full of opportunities, and there is no one path to success or satisfaction in almost anything in life. Find something you love doing, and pursue it relentlessly. If it doesn’t work out, try something else.”

In this way, Salk prioritizes action, especially when the path forward is not necessarily clear. For example, Salk had always been interested in analyzing things through a historical context and when he began to follow the markets more closely in college, he developed an interest in finance. As you can see, Salk didn’t know that he wanted to work in finance with certainty until college. However, rather than hemming and hawing as to whether or not finance was the right field for him, he went for it, and learned along the way about his likes and dislikes. 

Salk took a similar path toward his pursuit of landscape photography as a hobby. And by no means was it a straight path. His initial inspiration to start taking photographs came when he was studying abroad in the Netherlands. At the time, he enjoyed taking photographs, but never considered it as a serious pursuit. In the Netherlands, he woke up one morning and decided to go for an early morning walk and brought his camera along with him. As he walked along, he took photographs of the fog coming in over the ships in the harbor he was walking around. The scene of the fog hanging low over the masts of dozens of ships struck him in a way other photographs he’d taken hadn’t. When he arrived home to Chicago he hung up some of the pictures for fun so he could share them with visitors to his place. From then on, anytime Salk traveled, he brought his camera with him. And when he came home from his travels, he had more photographs to frame. Eventually, Salk decided to host his work on his website to showcase his photographs and share them with a greater audience. With that, the beginning of Max Salk Photography was born.

In both cases, Salk nurtured the interests he already had—travel and history—into two ingredients that underpin his current life. For those starting their career out this is a lesson to heed Salk’s advice to his younger self. That is, because there is no one path, there are no easy answers when it comes to deciding what you want to do with your career and life. It’s a combination of trial and error and introspection that you’ll need to go through to find the right answers. As unsatisfying an answer as that may seem when you’re trying to find out which ventures you want to commit your time to, it is the reality of the situation. To deal with that reality, the best path forward is to do something rather than searching for a clear answer that does not exist. Instead, go for a walk, feed your interests, or take a job, even if you’re not 100 percent certain about it. As Salk suggested to his younger self, “If it doesn’t work out, try something else.” Just because you make one choice doesn’t mean you can’t change course after. When you’re young, the priority should be to gain information about many potential paths so you can make the best decision possible but you can’t gain information without acting first.

Striking a Balance and Giving Back: The Navy SEAL Foundation 

Max Salk supports The Navy SEAL Foundation because of its mission which is stated on its website as follows: “The Navy SEAL Foundation provides immediate and ongoing support and assistance to the Naval Special Warfare community and its families.” To accomplish that mission, the foundation does work throughout the United States to raise money to help support the naval special forces and their families. Each of these areas of support is designed to help Navy SEALs and their families navigate the most difficult things about being a Navy SEAL, or a family member of a Navy Seal. 

For Max Salk, and the many others who support the Navy SEAL Foundation, this is critically important. After all, these people (and their families) make incredible sacrifices both with their time and their emotional and physical well-being to help keep their country and the rest of the world safe from those who would do harm. 

As stated previously in regard to career choices, there is no such thing as a single, correct path. Similarly, when it comes to giving back, there is no such thing as one way to do it. You can give back by helping friends, family, or strangers on the street; it doesn’t necessarily have to be organized. But as part of being a balanced individual and a valuable contributor to society, it’s important to give back in some ways. And it’s not just for the people that your generosity helps. It’s also for you. 

In fact, according to the Mental Health Foundation, doing good things for other people can help improve your physical and mental health too. According to them, “When you help others, it promotes positive physiological changes in the brain associated with happiness. These rushes are often followed by longer periods of calm and can eventually lead to better wellbeing. Helping others improves social support, encourages more physically active lifestyles, distracts us from our own problems, allows us to engage in a meaningful activity, and improves our self-esteem and competence.”

To get yourself started with giving back to your community, you can look at Max Salk’s work with the Navy SEAL Foundation for inspiration or you can follow the advice of the Mental Health Foundation. They suggest doing something you enjoy, keeping others in mind, and avoiding the temptation to overdo it when you first start volunteering.

Step Away Every Once in a While

There’s a Spanish proverb that says, “cada cabeza es un mundo.” Translated to English, it means “each mind is a world onto itself.” In other words, despite the fact that we all live in the same society, we all have different ways of thinking that are very personal to ourselves. But if we’re aware that we all have a tendency to only see the world through our own view, we can seek out ways to broaden that view. One way to see the world through the eyes of others is through travel, which Max Salk does quite often. In recent years, Salk has traveled to Italy, Canada, Utah, Arizona, Thailand, Laos, and Alaska. Every single one of these places—in one way or another—brought Salk out of the routine world of New York City that he’s used to.  

Beyond the rest and relaxation that these trips have provided to Max Salk over the years, they’ve also helped to take him out of his mental comfort zone. And though that may seem trite, it’s critical for Salk. To be sure, travel is not the only way to broaden your perspective. But understanding when and more importantly, how, you can step away from your daily routine is critical for everyone. 

Stepping away can help you solve problems both personal and professional that seem impossible to solve up close. In essence, it’s the same concept we all naturally employ in our everyday lives. For example, you may be trying to solve a particularly difficult problem at work for hours on end until you’re forced to leave the problem for a meeting or other obligation. Then, when you return to the problem the next morning, it often quickly becomes clear what the solution to that problem was. But again, though Max Salk uses travel to get away from time to time, his other interests and creative pursuits contribute to his ability to put some distance between professional and personal problems as well.

The same concept of getting away physically applies mentally which is why Max Salk’s combination of unique interests and hobbies actually works to his advantage. Rather than distracting him from his work, Salk’s varied interests allow his mind to work subconsciously because he’s always on to something new: volunteering with The SEAL Foundation, taking photographs, or traveling. Whatever it is, Salk is creating mental space from his everyday workload which allows him to come back to those problems with innovative solutions.

Knowing When to Apply the Heat

You can give two equally skilled chefs the same ingredients and receive vastly different dishes based on where, how, and when those chefs prepare and tend to those ingredients. They can roast some ingredients in the oven, sauté others in a frying pan, and flame broil the rest. When they combine everything together, it becomes something different altogether. Max Salk, though he is not much of a chef, does know how to prepare and tend to certain ingredients of his life.

In a recent interview, Max Salk was asked, “What is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do.” To this he responded: “I try to prepare in detail whenever I have to present something. People may not know what you are doing every minute of every day, but they will form impressions of your work product based on how and what you present to them.”

Max Salk works in the world of finance but, as a concept, this recommendation to prepare in detail whenever you have to present something goes beyond Salk’s career. The important concept to takeaway is that there are moments in your career and your life that have an outsized impact on the rest of your life and career. After all, in the real world, you’re never going to be constantly watched over by the people who are judging you. For this reason, when he does get a chance to be seen by his superiors and interact with them, Salk knows that these encounters are a critical time for him to show what he’s been doing and the value he’s bringing. 

Whether you work in finance or as an artist, you’ll be faced with turning points every once in a while. Because these turning points will have such a significant influence on where you end up in your career (or life), it makes sense to commit more of your mental resources to ensuring that you are ready for these turning points. In other words, you have to know when to turn on the burners.

Keep on Discovering

In the same interview referenced in the previous section, Salk highlighted how it is important to remain open to new ideas and let processes and ideas evolve, “Planning and preparation are critical, but can only take you so far. Once you actually start working on or drafting something, the process and idea can evolve into something even better.”

By remaining open to new ideas, even when you prepare in detail, you allow yourself to—as Salk said—evolve “into something even better.” This openness to rediscovery is the “magic” ingredient in the recipe we’ve outlined above. An openness to discovery is what allows you to simultaneously evaluate your own interests and think about your ideal career path while also being willing to simply go out and try things to find out what you truly enjoy. An openness to discovery is also what allows you to find out what you personally need to do to feel balance in your life. Whether that’s volunteering for an organization, doing random acts of kindness, traveling the world or taking photographs is ultimately up to you to discover. But for that discovery to happen it needs a clear path to show itself to you, so be sure to remain open to it