Learning for Life

The creative process goes hand in hand with a willingness to learn. The day we decide we have learned enough, we stop developing our creativity. Vincent van Gogh began painting when he was twenty-nine years old. He did not have an abundance of natural ability at the start. Hand-eye coordination did not come easily for him. But he knew how to learn.

Those who accept that learning is a never-ending process develop an ability to grow beyond whatever talents they may have. Winston Churchill, considered to be one of the greatest orators of the twentieth century, was not born with a silver tongue. He began his career with pronounced speech impediments, and he could not speak extemporaneously. In order to compensate for these difficulties, he wrote all of his speeches and practiced delivering them before a mirror. Over years of practise and work, he continually learned.

As a photograph I naturally read as many photo books as I can get my hands on. It may be about Photoshop, it may be about other technical issues or—and that is more often the case—it may be photo books by other photographers, because nothing teaches me as much as looking at other photographer’s work. But my learning process doesn’t stop with pure photography related issues, even reading a novel may teach me something I can use in my creative process. I look at all kinds of artistic work, I listen to music, I search the web, and, not the least; I read a lot of books about creativity in itself. I also attend workshops and I teach workshops – which is just as much a learning process for me as for the students. I keep my eye open for any possibility to learn. Sometimes I get nothing out of whatever it is that I immerse myself into and sometimes I find a treasure of knowledge I can make use of.

The learning process may be filled with moments of failure, disappointments, and perhaps even embarrassment. Yet each failure can lead to greater competence when it becomes a basis for learning. It is only those who don’t believe in learning who assumes that failure is not a legitimate stage of development. They do not recognize that learning often means they may be «bad» before they get «good». To those willing to learn, perfect performance is not an issue; it’s all about the final results. Furthermore, this ability to create results is closely tied to learning and be willing to learn. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, the saying goes. One may add that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly until you can do it well.

We may all have various natural talents, but we can all learn and we can all grow. That’s why I think creativity is not connected to talent, but the willingness to learn. We all have creativity in us, as long as we are willing to look for it and learn so that we can express it.

79 thoughts on “Learning for Life

  1. I agree with you – and Sally said it so well. I took my last university points (I think…) only eight years ago, and I started studying there when I was 19. Add those years from school start at 7, and it makes a life long learning. Outside school and uni, all of us of course study other subjects. So, to my students who did not like My subjects ( especially Swedish Literature…) I would say like you say – you always learn something useful from everything. When you sit there on the party, even the Nobel Prize party…you can uphold any conversation with any of the nominees…
    The most boring persons are the ones who only can talk about one single subject.

  2. I think it’s pretty clear that you’re always searching for new ideas, and always curious. It’s a good way to approach the world, and any artist who isn’t learning, or isn’t interested in learning, must not be creating much that’s interesting anymore. Evolution is a good thing!

  3. You’re right, Otto. Once you stop learning, you find yourself stuck in that moment. Like a tree that is struck by lightening but is still standing. It has the same shape and form, but you sense immediately you see it that it is dead.
    But I’m not sure I agree with you about Van Gogh. It wasn’t only that his skills improved with time and practice. Van Gogh could have followed his colleagues, sold his paintings and not had to rely on his brother for money for food, paint and canvases. He had a vision and was able to push himself out of his comfort zone. unfortunately he wasn’t appreciated until after his death.

  4. I love your thoughts on this topic, Otto. Also, reading all the comments. I agree that lifelong learning is the key to creativity. I saw an exhibit this week of Fred Lyon’s work who is 93 and still photographing San Francisco. Incredible vision. And, his quote: “Indulge your curiosity. It’s the basis of creativity.” Perfect, isn’t it?

  5. I agree with you on this, it does come down to a willingness to learn. Also, I do find my photography is inspired by books I read, fiction and non-fiction, that are often not about photography at all but about some other aspect of life.

  6. I wish I could be a professional student. I’ve gone back to school 2x since I graduated with my undergraduate degree. I’d go back again if I could afford it! But, as you say, you can learn in all sorts of settings. This past weekend I went to a nighttime photo workshop a couple of hours away. Turned out to be a stormy weekend, with snow and sleet, and I got zero good photos, but I learned a lot. Now I need to make sure I work on the building blocks I got there. You’re right….I have a book on Lightroom that I need to read…and it sort of intimidates me. I need to just start.

  7. I really do need to apply myself. My husband watches YouTube videos and has taught himself lots of technical things (he uses Sketch Up and CAD) but my brain seems to switch off when I try. More effort and determination needed. 🙂

  8. when i was in college, i used to say ‘i don’t like learning, i only like knowing’ haha… not very wise of me, tho i was still willing to go the the learning process coz the knowing was sooooo good lol

  9. I think what you have described, is the presence of an unquenchable curiosity, which drives you to continually explore and leave your mind open to new possibilities. Curiosity is an under rated quality.

  10. Otto, you describe how you read books in all kinds of areas, not just photography. I think that anyone in whatever arts or humanities field that has no interest in any subject outside their own field is going to be impoverished. Things cross-fertilize each other. As for art, recently I found a magazine called “Plein Air” with fascinating articles and reproductions of contemporary paintings. I bought it because my photography is tending more and more to want some sort of “painterly” look and I thought I could learn something or at least be inspired. It actually ended up making me wonder whether I’d ultimately try painting altogether.

    1. Why not give painting a try, if that’s where you seem to be heading. Besides, I think you are absolutely right that cross-fertilization across genres and fields will always be of a great benefit.

      1. I love that ‘cross fertilization’ concept, and it’s so true. Great post, Otto, and yes, if’s heartwarming to witness those who attempt something new – and find they love it. Long ago a retired doctor came to one of my summer classes, and he confessed, ‘I’ve never drawn or painted, but I’d like to try.’ He had I think three sets of corrective lenses, one was a monocle that he wore on his forehead, and another set of glasses hung from a ‘sling’ – and he practiced at home more than any of the other classmates — i should write a post about him one of these days! !

        He was a true joy – and it turned out that he went to high school with my mother!

        1. People like this doctor you had attending a summer class of yours are an inspiration for everybody else. They may not have painted or done whatever else in the creative realm, but their pure energy and joy is something we all can learn from.

  11. I agree with your views Otto. I suspect that, like me, you have found that teaching gives shape and meaning to what you have learned. Making things clear to others also clarifies your own thinking. It is also true that we learn from our students as well as from the ‘experts’.

    1. Yes, having to present my ideas in a clear way to students is part of the learning process. In addition students see the world differently than I do, and that is always a great inspiration for me to learn from.

  12. I think you have tapped into one of the most important pieces in life: learning. When we stop learning, we stop living – instead, we just plod along in life. Stuck in a boring rut until…it ends. But when we are creative, life has meaning and we experience it at a higher level. Same is true of photography, and as you say it all goes hand in hand with a willingness to learn. Always enjoy reading your philosophical take on photography (and life) Otto!

  13. I absolutely agree. It’s that fear of failure that keeps us from taking the risks needed to learn and grow. Also comparing ourselves to others can be a creativity-killer, too. Wonderful post!

  14. I completely agree with you, Otto.
    It is so important to continue learning throughout the course of one’s life.
    Thank you so much for another wonderful post.
    Have a great week ahead!

  15. When I began my blog, one of the most commonly shared bits of advice among bloggers was, “Write what you know.” I thought that advice was silly, and ignored it. Instead, I wrote about whatever it was that caught my interest, while doing whatever was necessary to learn about the subject — so that I could write about it in an informed and engaging way.

    Writing what I didn’t know allowed my curiosity free range, while giving me opportunity after opportunity to delve into new subjects. The pleasure of that learning has turned out to be one of the motivators that’s kept me at it for nearly a decade.

    1. It’s been the same for me with respect to creativity. When I started this blog many years ago, I didn’t know much about how creativity really works. But by dwelling into the subject, and not read a lot about, I have learn and grown creatively, too.

  16. Hello Otto, such a wonderful exploration of learning, creativity and practise.
    As a beautifully wise 93 year old friend said to me when I asked her thoughts on why she continues to read inspirational books, (not because she shouldn’t but more to find her thoughts on it) and she simply turned to me and said ‘well you never stop learning, so you?’ Enough said…
    Thank you for a well written, thoughtful post, Otto 💐✨✨

      1. Thank you Otto. She certainly works on her mind and her attitude every day. Lots of self talk and affirmations. I’ve learnt a lot from her from the passing of her beloved husband 2 years ago, in his 90’s himself.
        Have a lovely day 🌝

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