The Curse of Good

Technology has helped us improve our creative output dramatically. It’s probably more obvious in photography than in any other creative endeavour. As a result, there are a lot more good photographers in the world. Good isn’t the big deal. Simply point and click. Yet, a few of the good photographers become truly great. Why is that?

Good is easy, but greatness is always hard. When I started out as a photographer, I wasn’t even good. Of course, that’s always how it is in the beginning. Back then, with manual and analogue film cameras, it was even harder to get started than today. Nevertheless, it didn’t take very long to become a pretty decent photographer, at least technically speaking. Getting beyond that level, though, is a much tougher travel—and still is today. Even these days with cameras that do all the thinking.

We all know it. It’s not the camera and it’s not their built-in ability to handle all the technical challenges that makes great photography. It’s still the photographer and his or her willingness to go beyond the obvious. The pursuit for great photography is a quest for hidden things. That’s why the best photographers are such a quirky bunch—like oddly equipped treasure hunters who get out into the world look for the magnificent. Leaving no rock unturned, they search high and low for the perfect shot. The result may still look like an easy accomplishment, but the truth is that effortless and deep photographs take decades of commitment to the craft.

When I teach photography, I am often asked for tricks that can make a student’s photographs better. The truth is, there aren’t any easy tricks that will quickly result in great photography. The curse of today’s technology is that it is fairly quickly to get good at it. That is literally the problem. It’s like inheriting money before you have learned the value of hard work.

Too much good too fast can distract us from a higher goal. When life is good, we stop trying so hard. That’s why so many of the great artists often started out starving. They weren’t only hungry for survival, their hunger infected their art. And, yes, I know it’s a cliché, but not completely. The American author Jim Collins distilled the curse of good in this way: “Good is the enemy of great”. He explained; “Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life”.

When we become good, we might not see it this way. We think to ourselves, how can this be a curse? Good feels nice. But good is not a stable spot. We might soon becoming dissatisfactory with the result, particularly when we see others climbing higher than us and thus demoting us. When good is good enough, it stops the creative flow. Not good enough is what drives growth. It’s when we feel that we can still become better that we pursue that next level. And then do it again. And again.

99 thoughts on “The Curse of Good

  1. True! I’m struggling with the curse of being good enough in photography. My companion in the arts puts her finger to the aching spot of my mediocrity every time, trying to make me see what’s hidden and what only a wary eye could see. “Not good enough!” – I remember my younger daughter, 7 years old at the time, trying to capture the movements of a horse in drawing. She loved horses and still does and their movements captured her interest. At 7, then, she’d scrap one sketch after the other, making a new try, muttering, “not good enough!” every time. She made hundreds. In discussing with art students in my years as a high-school teacher, I always tried to infuse them with this stubborn urge. It’s not really for perfection – I think – but, as you say, Otto, for what’s hidden beyond the obvious.

  2. Yes, and we each can bring different things to our craft, because we all ‘see’ differently….photography isn’t about the camera, it’s about our brains, and our personal sense of the world in front of us….

  3. Great post, Otto, the truth you discuss is powerful, and the quote from Collins is worth thinking about every now and then ~ “Good is the enemy of great.” In photography, and all aspects of life, it feels good to be “good” which makes striving for great that much more difficult. Continual hard work and consistently pushing to do a little more every day I suppose is the key – but that chair and a cold beer can look so inviting after a “good” day. Cheers to greatness, Otto, enjoy the week ahead.

  4. Too often I see professional work that I think is barely okay, let alone good. I think it makes all of society worse off because great work inspires others, spreading the pursuit of greatness. Excellent post Otto. Keep chasing the dream!

  5. To be really good in something one also carries a have load of responsability, which may the the other side of the medal! It has always been a pleasure, dear Otto, to read your posts and I would like to thank you.

  6. First thing I read this Monday morning and wrote two things down in my notebook. “Good is easy, but greatness is always hard.” “When good is good enough, it stops the creative flow.” Thank you for such a great post and reminder.

  7. Hmmm. I’m going to be the one person who may disagree, just a bit though. I think “great” is overrated. We all can’t be “great” at everything. If I could be a good photographer that would quite something!! When it comes to art, “great” is so subjective. I am a GREAT dancer. But so what. It means nothing unless my dance fulfills others in some way. I wrote a book that I think is GREAT. It came from my heart, it took years… so what. I understand what Collins is saying and I do agree mostly with your post. It’s made me think and consider–I love when that happens with my morning coffee. But artists need to work on thier craft without pressure of greatness or goodness. Be the best you can be. Perseverance. Commitment. And then, put it out there regardless of what others label it.

    Artists do enough self-loathing and suffering as it is. The last thing I want to do is add a layer of needing to be great, whatever that really means.

    If you mean to continue to progress, learn, innovate and create ART, then we’re on the same page. But other than that, being great or just good is truly subjective.

    1. I actually don’t think we disagree. It’s more about how we use the word great. You said very well yourself, be the best you can be. Exactly. I for one, don’t want to put any creative person under pressure or to make anyone compare themselves with others. It’s all about not be comfortable with “only” good, stopping before you are the best you can be. No self-loathing.

  8. It is so true what you write here Otto. But hasn’t it always been like that? As soon as our bellies are full each day, we hardly feel the need to go further. Great painters, writers… they all had been suffering.

  9. I think you should not try to ‘be good/better/best; but you should try to ‘be yourself’. Then photography can be a way of figuring out who you are…; what your beauty is; what your fascinations are; what your fears are.. Every photo that tells something about yourself, is always a good one!

    1. I can agree with you as you write here that every artist should be her- or himself. But we should not stop before we have exhausted ourselves in the creative endeavour. And then still keep going for more. That’s my point. 🙂

      1. I think we are not so far away from each other. I think the ‘Great ones’, are great because they are ‘themselves’. They go their own way, without any concessions or compromises. You used the word ‘quirky’ for that. And quirky people often don’t make a lot of friends; that’s where the loneliness and the suffering comes in; but still they stay on the track of their life. May be Vivian Maier is a fine example. Nanny and non-conformist; but going out with her camera because she had to; that was her way to express ‘herself’. And I truly believe that that is what touches other people: if you dare to show yourself.. And I agree with you that one should never stop; but in my opinion that’s impossible, because you never know who you are completely. So, I think that hunting ‘a good photo’ in a technical, or stylish, or fashionable, or commercial way, is keeping you away from what really matters: You. Maybe every photography course should start with the question: ‘Who are you and what in this big world around you has something to say to you’.

  10. “like oddly equipped treasure hunters who get out into the world look for the magnificent” — though I don’t consider myself a photographer, this is how I feel when taking photos.

  11. I like your perspective that “good is not a stable spot.” There should always be a reach for more in a creative effort, I think. Otherwise I’d probably not find the pursuit interesting. It’s hard for me to imagine that you were never good, though, Otto. Even in the very beginning! I’ll have to just believe you anyway. 🙂

  12. It’s funny… I have always said I am good at almost anything I do.,. but I’m not great at anything. And I am not trying to be cocky. It just is what it is. The trouble with this, though, is it is difficult to choose one thing to work on to make ourselves better than good…

  13. Brilliant observations, Otto. I made a living as a “good” photographer for many years but I never crossed over into greatness. I witnessed a handful of my colleagues capture greatness in their careers. Hard work, perseverance and an unwillingness to settle got them there. I am in awe of their work on a regular basis.

  14. Thank you for helping us all think more deeply about our craft. I know a lot of people who consider themselves ‘photographers’ and feel some are not aware of what they don’t yet know. Perhaps this allows for complacency at being good enough? And, it is hard to explain the spirit of the ‘artist’ and true self-expression. Having always been interested in photography and taking photo classes in art school I only became serious about it as my fine art medium around 1999. I find that the more I photograph the more difficult it becomes. I am always trying to top what I consider my best work. I’m always looking to make images that aren’t just good but something I am excited about. I love that I can always relate to your very thought-provoling posts!

    1. Isn’t that how it is with all knowledge? The more we know, the more we know we don’t know, and thus the better we can become. I believe there is no limit to how far we can take ourselves, and that makes the creative life so interesting. Thank you for the lovely encouragement, Denise.

  15. yes, everybody and their dog are good photographers now, the switch to digital was hard on me that way, esp when G+ came out and everybody was showing their pics, getting ooohs and aaaahs… it was then that i decided to be a BAD photographer lol out of sheer irritation!

      1. Thank you, Otto… well it’s good in that it kept me going… i truly did get depressed about the whole durned world being photographers now lol i’m not even sure why

  16. “The pursuit for great photography is a quest for hidden things.” My thought exactly – especially where street photography is concerned :). I appreciate you stopping by my blog from time to time to have a look at my work. As always, it’s a work in progress – cheers to you!

  17. Hallo Otto,
    sehr schöne post und toller Text, ich denke auch es gibt nicht die Tricks oder den Tipp um gute Fotos zu machen …schon gar nicht irgendwelche Kreativfilter und Superkameras…ich versuche seit 30 Jahren gute Bilder zu machen und auch noch als Berufsfotograf mein Geld damit zu verdienen…aber meine besten Bilder sind vielleicht 20 an der Zahl in dieser Zeit…das sind sie Motive an denen ich hänge und die für mich eine bestimmte emotionale Ebene haben…auch wenn das kaum ein anderer versteht…davon zehre ich und habe die Kraft die Jobfotografie gut durchzuhalten…
    Lieber Gruss, Jürgen ( und Danke für den tollen Blog, ich schaue sehr gerne vorbei !)

    1. Working creatively for others is always a fine balance and a matter of compromises. Unfortunately. All the more important to engage in personal work next to those jobs that brings money to the estate. I totally agree with you Jürgen. Thanks for the nice words about my blog.

  18. I guess that it’s like climbing high altitude Mountains, when in 1953 Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached Mount Everest, for the first time ever, but as of 2017
    4,833 different people have reached the summit of Everest.
    Of those people, 1,106 reached the summit more than once.
    8,306 Everest summits in total.

    I guess you have to find new challenges every time you achieve a goal.

    Great post Otto. 🙂

  19. This is so spot on, and it’s not just relegated to photography! Sometimes technology can make some of us lazier, settling for mediocrity instead of pushing us to do our best work. And that usually means years and years of doing what we love to do.

  20. That is a good point, Otto, but this also reminds me of a different saying that carries the opposite meaning (I think): Perfect is the enemy of good. Not all of us can be geniuses, and if that is what we expect, we set ourselves up for disappointment, if not despair!

    1. I don’t think the two sayings are in contradiction. I totally agree that perfect is the enemy of the good. Most of us certainly cannot be geniuses. But it’s not setting oneself up for disappointment to strive for better (no not perfection) and do as good as one is able.

  21. Your point is well made Otto. It reminded me of Kees van Aalst’s commemt: ‘A picture is ABOUT something, not OF something. You need to interpret your subject, not imitate it.’ Technology has made it easier for us to imitate. but that is not enough

  22. I’m reminded by a quote from Stephen King, “While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” In this context, I think there’s something innate about great photographers that good photographers may not be able to approach, except from time to time. But I do think we can become “good” photographers rather than simply the competent ones technology allows if we work at it.

    1. I am not sure if I agree with Stephen King, but then I don’t really know what makes for greatness. I certainly believe that anyone can improve, no matter the starting level. But you point I am a firm believer of, too, and that is we need to do the work. It does take a lot of effort to become better, but that is for me the whole point with my artistic endeavour.

  23. One must be what one is. If good is the best one can do, one must continue to do ones’ best. I don’t think artists set out to write or sculpt a great work of art. Greatness sometimes happens after years of practice and hard work. It’s not what one points at and shoots; it’s the vision in the mind behind the camera.

  24. In my work, I learned what I call the “Rule of Good Enough.” When varnishing, there comes a point where, no matter what you do to erase imperfections, a different imperfection will arise. So: when a job is 99% perfect, it’s time to move on rather than spending time trying to achieve100% perfection.

    I do the same thing with my writing and my photography, but I think it’s related to the point you’re making. When I know further efforts aren’t going to improve what I’ve done, I say, “That’s good enough.” But then I start anew, trying to make the next “good enough” even better than the last. Saying, “This is the best I can do, right now” doesn’t preclude saying “But next time I intend to do better!”

  25. Intressant och tankeväckande inlägg Otto. Själv tror jag det har ett värde att vila på sin egen nivå mellan varven.
    Höst går mot vinter här nu. Ha det allra bäst. 🙂

  26. A couple years ago, I was in a large group exhibition in which one of my co-exhibitors, a painter, was critical of those of us who exhibited photography. It was really something for me to hear being that I’m a fine and commercial art illustrator first, and a photographer second. I had to jump in and argue how trying to make, not simply take, an inspiring photograph is a lot harder that simply aiming, focusing and pressing a button on sophisticatedly manufactured equipment.

  27. Brilliant post, Otto. One of my favorite quotes is from Steve Jobs: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” Your words remind me of Job’s brave outlook on life. ❤️

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