When Inner and Outer World Become One

En strålende dag i vinterfjellet
Artists and creative people frequently talk about the experience of losing themselves in the work at hand, being fully in tune with the process, with the heighten sense of being completely focused, being in flow—often emerging hours later as if having been in a trance. I know this from myself, and I also know that whenever I emerge from such a trance like state of mind after having worked hard during a photo session, I have been able to capture some great images. I can’t say which picture is going to stand out at the point of capture—as some photographers immediately are able to—but I know that within the batch of photos from the shoot there is bound to be some goods one. This trance like state of mind, in flow, when I lose myself, is for me the ultimate level of creativity, when everything can happen and I am not bound by my own preconceived ideas or thoughts.

I often compare this with being in a tunnel, where all kinds of unpredictable things can happen. I have now idea what happens in there before I finally emerge onto the other side of the tunnel. I wrote about this in the post “Tunnel Vision” quite some time ago. And it does resemble some of the ideas I wrote about the contemplative approach to photography in the post “Different Perspective” not long ago, in which I stated that contemplative photography in essence is about how to fully connect with the visual richness of our ordinary, daily experience.

There is a duality to this process. It’s two worlds coming together – the outside world and our inner world. We perceive and react to what we see, and then bring our inner self and spirit into the equation, almost as if in a dialectic process. In this very concentrated process we focus deeply on a single task, and at the same time something opens, deepens and widens. We are fully absorbed and present to the activity and the moment, to the exclusion of other elements and influences in our lives. But we are also equally attentive to ourselves; our responses, our impulses, and our creative interaction with the medium.

The late and great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson has aptly described photographic seeing as having one eye turned outward and one eye turned inward. When the two images converge, that’s the moment for capturing the photograph. In his acclaimed book “The Decisive Moment” he writes: I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between the two worlds – the one inside of us and the one outside of us. As a result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.

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Let Go of Comparison

One thing that kills our creativity is this constant urge to compare ourselves with others. We look at those who experience success in our field of work or are doing similar things as we are—with envy. We look at the masters who have developed their skills over a lifetime and feel that in comparison our attempts completely suck. And opposite; we might even be terrified to stand out from the crowd.

It so easy to be sucked into a downward spiral of “feeling not good enough”. Then we lose steam and get discouraged. And even if you aren’t completely dispirited, just the fact that this kind of comparison makes you insecure about your own creative skills, causes you to not be the best you could be. Instead of focusing on your work and feeling good about what you produce, you get sidetracked worrying about what other people might think.

In worst of all cases, someone might think that he or she lack creativity completely. Everyone acknowledge that certain skills, like playing the piano, take years of training. But a common misperception is that you are either good at something or not at all, particularly when it comes to creative expressions. Just think about how many who blatantly state that they cannot draw, they don’t have the talent, and yet have never put in the energy and time it takes to become skilled at it. Remember? As kids we could all draw.

I believe every single one of us have inherent creative capacity. It’s just that too many decide they don’t, without even trying. The main culprit for this: They compare themselves of today with those who are better, not with whom they can become.

Creativity has many elements that work together to push our imagination and desire into new directions. As such, there are many ways in which we can encourage creativity. One way to embrace creativity is to let go of comparison. If you are concerned about conforming or about how you measure up to other’s success, you won’t perform the risk taking and trailblazing inherent in the creative process.

Take skiing, which is something I know well, since I have done it all my life. Most of us accept that when we are learning a new sport like skiing, we will fall down, and other skiers on the slope will see us with our faces planted in the snow. But when it comes to creative work, we tend to freeze up. And not just when we are novices. With people who are skilled in something, perfectionism can be every bit as crippling as a lack of confidence in nonskilled.

Since I am writing about skiing, take myself: Although I am a pretty skilled skier, I still hate skiing under lifts or chairs. Others might see me fall or do something stupid! I know it’s dim, isn’t it, but even if I know, it’s hard to defuse this internal reaction.

Wherever you fall on the artistic skill curve, half the battle is to resist judging yourself. For a photographer, if you can raise the camera without caring about others, your are halfway there. Take baby steps, as I wrote in me post Incremental Progress a couple of weeks ago. Walk up to that stranger on the street and just start taking photographs. Don’t think about what others might think. And show you photos to others without thinking what they may think. Then do it again. I think you’ll be surprised at how easy it can be as long as you take that first step—in whatever it is you don’t dare to do because you are afraid of what other may say. More so, you will be surprised how good it feels afterwards.

Remember what Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain.”

Throughout our lives, forces can push us toward or away from reaching our creative potential: a teacher’s compliment, a parent’s tolerance for tinkering, or an environment that welcomes new ideas. What matters most in the end, though, is this: your belief in your capacity to creative positive change and the courage to take action. Creativity, far from requiring rare gifts and skills, depends on what you believe what you can do with the talents and skills you already have. And you can develop and build on those skills, talents, and beliefs. After all, Hungarian essayist György Konrád once said, “Courage is only accumulation of small steps.”

Let me send you off with a last quote, this one by Nelson Mandela (and thanks to Through Rose Tinted Glasses that made me aware of it): “I learned that courage was not absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

So go out there and create, not fearlessly, but by conquering all those fears that comparison may raise. And most of all, conquer that urge to compare yourself with others.

Incremental Progress

Hardly anything is as inspirational for us as progress. We get fired up by progress. When you notice that you have personally developed or have accomplished something it boosts your confidence and moves you into an upward spiral of positive expansion.

As human beings, we are motivated by progress. It’s something we can all benefit from when we work creatively.

When you start out on a new creative project, whether it’s photography or any in other art form, it can be overwhelming to try to see the final outcome and figure out the way to get there. The solution is simple—kind of at least. Instead of aiming for the end result, take incremental steps, steps you feel you can easily overcome. Figure out a direction and start moving even if you don’t know how to get to the end. And then celebrate in-between objectives on the way to the final goal.

Take writing a novel. If you think you need to figure out the whole plot and the story line before writing, you will never get started. Yes, you may have an idea or a sketch of the plot, but you will never have all the details figured out beforehand. You just need to start writing the first sentence. And then the next. And so on. If you look to the end of the travel you are about to take on, you will most likely become discouraged before you even get going.

The same with starting a photo project. If you try to figure out all angles and all the images you need for the project beforehand, you end up frustrated and discouraged because you feel you can’t get a grip on what and how it will be. Put down a baseline draft and then start taking the first photo. And then continue, one photo by one photo.

Every so often when you do a bigger project, it’s a good idea to look back and see for yourself that you have actually moved and achieved something since you started. Gather records of what you have done, and make sure you celebrate intermediate objectives. Make a “Done Wall” where you gather up records of whatever achievements you have reach in your creative project.

We all need to see incremental progress in order to feel confident in our creative journeys. Proof of this idea can be found in the analogy of waiting in line. If you find yourself in a long line of people waiting to get into a concert or a restaurant as in the photo above, you will notice that everyone keeps inching forward every few minutes as the line makes its slow advance. But if one person immediately in front of you fails to move with the rest of the line, you will get frustrated. Even if you know that the person ahead of you will move to catch up with the line later on, you still get frustrated as you see the gap of space ahead growing.

Standing still and feeling no progress is difficult. You want to keep moving with the line in order to feel productive. The incremental movements with the line don’t get you there any faster, but they feel great and keep you willing to wait.

Just think about waiting in a line of backed up cars on the freeway. Standing still is very frustrating because you have no idea if the line beyond where you see, is actually moving. Even very slow moving is significantly better than no movement at all. It the same sensation as the one you get pushing the “Door Close”-button in an elevator, even though doing so may, in fact, do nothing (many of these buttons are disabled). Still, it is satisfying to feel that you are making progress.

Feeling progress is an important part of the execution of a creative project. Too often, we tend to stop executing before we even get started. We may have plenty of creative ideas, but the hard part is putting them into life. If your natural tendency is to generate ideas rather than take action on existing ideas, then surrounding yourself with progress can help you focus. When you make incremental progress, celebrate it and feature it. Surround yourself with it.

An example is the latest eBook I have been working on for a while. Before starting out I only knew I wanted to write about how photographers can improve their ability to see so that they are better be able to find interesting and captivating subjects. I didn’t already have all the information or knowledge available. But I started with putting down a loose disposition of possible chapters. Then I started writing. And I kept reading books that could have relevance for my own book. I learned more and I added chapters to the disposition along the way. Then I wrote the chapters as they came to me. And I went back to already written chapters as I found more information that I needed to add. Now the text for the book is as good as done. Next is getting it proofread, and finally I have to figure out the layout, find relevant photos and put it all together. Slowly by slowly the project is moving forward, in incremental steps, in which each finished chapter has kept me going with whatever was left to do.

So if you are about to start on a bigger creative project—or would like to—don’t get discouraged by the long road ahead of you. Just start without thinking what lies ahead of you too much, but take one step at a time. And celebrate each mile you pass.

Vision is Beginning

Intent is what brings depth and significance to a photograph. In many ways you can say it’s the lifeline of the photograph—or any work of fine art for that matter. A photograph without intention behind it won’t convey any importance to the viewers either. It might be as beautiful as anything in the world, but we still won’t stay with it for more than a glimpse of time and we won’t remember it if it doesn’t reveal the photographer behind it. A writer without anything to say in his novel, a filmmaker without a story in her movie or a musician without passionate songs, aren’t going to spellbind their audience and will all soon be forgotten. In the end nobody is going to care about their work. So it is with photography and photographers. A photographer who has no intention with his or her photography will most likely bore the viewers—no matter how technical brilliant the work is or how beautiful the composition is. Intention is what brings uniqueness and substance to a photograph.

«Without intent we’re left with accidental photography, and while accidental photography may once in a while generate interesting photographs, it will not generally count as an act of expression any more than hoping that saying random words will result in a sentence that says something meaningful.» Those are the words of David duChemin taken from his eBook The Vision Driven Photographer.

For David duChemin intent is a way to focus on the why instead of the what in the photographic process. It’s all about being clear about why you shoot what you shoot. By having a clear intent you will better be able to express your vision. For David duChemin the photographic vision is just another word for the intent behind the photograph. Vision is everything—without it the final result is dead. duChemin is one of the contemporary photographers who has been most unambiguous about the need for intent in the photographic process—for the photographer to have a vision. He is probably also the one who has best been able to put words to the somewhat abstract idea of vision and the role it plays in photography. It’s not without reason he calls himself a vision driven photographer.

The photographer’s vision is where the photographic process begins—or where it should begin. Unfortunately most photographers—and I willingly admit that I am prone to the same thoughtlessness, too—don’t have a clear thought about their vision, they just never get beyond the technical part of photography or beyond seeing light or composition. «Before our photographs can say what we want them to, and in so-doing to look like we want them to, we need to understand what we want to say, and how we want to say it. That’s vision.» That’s another quote by duChemin.

In order to better understand the vague and abstract idea of vision, David duChemin splits it in two types. He talks about personal vision and photographic vision. The former is something everybody has although we are not always consciously aware of it. It’s our understanding of the world around us and ourselves. It’s what makes you vote for a certain party, it’s what makes to choose to do what you do, it’s what makes you pay attention to what you see, it’s what makes you photograph something and not something else. The personal vision is based on experience and learning, and it changes with time as it grows more depth with ageing. Photographic vision on the other hand is the link between our personal vision and the final photograph. It’s what makes you frame an image in a certain way, it’s what makes you choose a certain lens over another, it’s what makes you photograph from one angle or another. While personal vision is the how you see life, photographic vision is how you see life when the camera is put to the eye.

Your personal vision is where it all starts. It’s what makes you choose to photograph something over something else. It’s the intent, which could be anything from wanting to show injustice in the world to declaring your love for something or someone. As a photographer you then move out into the world with your intent, and as you know, suddenly you see something that catches your attention. That’s the moment of perception. On the street you suddenly see a couple or an action that arouses your photographic interest. Even in the studio the same thing happens, but instead of moving around in the world until something catches your interest, you move the world around you and rearrange it until it feels right. While in that moment of perception, take a bit of time to reflect over the reason why you were stopped by whatever made you stop. Even if it was only light that seemed to arouse you interest, something made you choose this subject matter of that. This is paying conscious attention to your personal vision. Then continue to discern how you best can express this intention by photographic means available to you. This is the part where your photographic vision comes into play. Only then is it time to pull the trigger and continue the photographic process all the way to the final print, the manifestation of your vision.

This all seems like an elaborate process but as a matter of fact the more you get into the habit of paying attention to your vision, the faster the whole process will progress. From something catches you attention, till the camera has captured the subject, in reality it might only take a fraction of a second. The important part is being aware of your intent—or having a conscious vision. Unfortunately most photographers don’t. They see something without being aware of why the subject caught their attention and then start shooting right away. Of course their personal vision still made them react, but they just don’t know why or are not aware of it.

Do you have a clear intent when you are shooting? Are you a vision driven photographer? Or do you only arbitrarily take snap shots of whatever catches you interest?

Allow for Imperfections

If you were to choose between authenticity and perfect, what would it be? I bet for most of us, it would be the former. Who wants perfect when authentic feels real, inspiring and even more beautiful with its flaws, cracks and defects, than something that is perfect? Think about that for a moment. Relate the thought to your art, whether you photograph, paint, make music or whatever you do.

I know for myself I often seek to make the best I can do, I shoot around a subject to find the best angle, the best composition, the best light. I keep editing the images afterwards in Lightroom og Photoshop until I feel they are flawless. While instead I should allow for flaws and imperfections to bring out the authentic feeling from the outset. The Hollywood version of whatever we create is never going to be real, or even representative of what we stand for. As such, it won’t touch others as strongly as if we had allowed for flaws and imperfections in the creation.

Leonard Cohen once wrote, “Ring the bell that can still ring. There are cracks in everything. That’s how the light gets in”. Flaws are what makes us authentic and real, flaws are what make us shine, and authenticity trumps perfection every time. Those who ring cracked bells are the ones who make the biggest difference in our lives. They are the musicians who write the best songs, the artists who make the most meaningful art, the poets who write the strongest lines, and the people who make the best friends.

When all hell breaks lose, these people’s presence provides hope because they are real. Nobody wants to spend time with a perfect person when the world is falling apart. We want to be with people who understand. Rather than fix our brokenness, they reveal the light even in dark times. Not all cracks are bad; some are just wild edges where birds find refuge.

Think about again. When did you allow for flaws in your creative endeavours? Or at least accept them when they inevitably show up?

The American songwriter duo, Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, has allowed for imperfection to be part of their music. It came about when Linford’s father gave the couple some advice when they moved from the city to a farm: “Leave the edges wild”. It was a curious suggestion for someone who is new to rural life. Linford’s dad was a bird watcher, and he knew that if you make a farm too perfect, you won’t leave any space for the native birds. He said, “Leave the edges wild and let the birds have their hidden places for their untamed music.” Linford and Karin picked up that phrase and integrated the spirit of it into their work. The phrase became a metaphor for how they approached music and life. It wasn’t just about the birds, but about how to provide space for the cultivated and untamed aspects of life to thrive next to each other. If the neat rows of vegetables provided sustenance for the body, the wild edges would provide it for the souls.

Leaving the edges wild is a great mantra for any creative pursuit. Life can become so pasteurized and predictable that there isn’t any space left for mystery or surprise. Wild edges create a zone for the unfinished and untamed to thrive. Einstein once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” and it’s true. Think of your favourite song, book, movie, or romantic love—you can only explain it so far, and there is always an intangible and incomprehensible element that resonates within.

The most beautiful, most wonderful, and most magnificent push past the barriers of our limited minds. Where reason falls shorts, art steps in. Art is the mystery that awakens and stirs our soul and helps us stop being so caught up in the chaos of our small lives. To do so, though, it must be authentic. And authentic comes with flaws and imperfections.

Flaws can be beautiful if we can learn to embrace them for what they are. The creative process is not perfect, but is inherently flawed. And creativity flows the fastest when we strive to create great things but leave some openness for the fringe. Creativity grows best when it has plenty of space to breathe. So leave the edges wild and let your untamed and hidden spirit grow. Allow for flaws and imperfections.

The Contradiction of Creating


Some days I can’t get going. I know I have a deadline tomorrow, but I still can’t push myself to start editing the pictures. Or, in another setting, I am travelling in a new country, and I just can’t get myself out on the streets to photograph. Or I need to write an article – or a new post for this blog – but I can’t get myself to do it.

Some days I just can’t get going.

It all comes down to fears, insecurities or doubts. It’s the big contradiction of the creating process. On the one hand it’s the joy I feel when I am creating, on the other hand it’s this big obstacle inside of me which sometimes makes it impossible to get there. This resistance is something all creatives have to fight. It’s part of the creative process, the dark side one may say. But as strange as it might sound, it’s also a necessary part of being creative. Only by overcoming the fears, insecurities or doubts inside of us, are we able to reach our full creative potentials. It’s like entering a cold stream after a long hike. It doesn’t make you feel good until you have submerged your body into the water. But then it’s like rejuvenation.

Adventures don’t begin until you get into the forest. That first step in an act of faith.
Mickey Heart, drummer in Greateful Dead.

The fact is, creativity requires faith. We are heading down a road we don’t know where it will take us. Thus this faith we need to have requires us to relinquish control. That is frightening, and we resist it. We throw up roadblocks on our path in order to maintain an illusion of control. This resistance to our creativity is a form of self-destruction. To overcome it, having a regular practice is a must, whether it’s journal writing, sketching freely, taking photographs casually and spontaneously, or tilling our garden without an eye to the result. The energy is in the effort.

Don’t fear mistakes – there are none.
Miles Davis.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.
Albert Einstein.

What we fear the most is the very thing that we are called to confront and work with. Where we find fear, where we feel the most inadequate, is where the energy resides, where great potential hides, waiting to emerge into the full light of day. Once we begin, and move vigorously in the direction of our aim, a joyful moment comes when fear and resistance move into the background and become part of our experience, but not the dominating feature. Our bliss then often emerges from behind this dark, smoky wall of fear.

It is one of the paradoxes of the creative process that it is both immensely challenging and demanding and, at the same time, the source of real joy and true satisfaction.
David Ulrich in The Widening Stream.

Training the imagination


It is the imagination that makes an artist capable of going beyond anything he or she has learned about the craft and from others in the field. It’s the imagination that makes the artist create something new in his or her own work; a new idea, a new approach, a new point of view, a new effect, a personal style. A person may read all the right books on the craft, attend lectures, go to school, and yet still not be able to do anything but copy from what he or she has learn. But we all have imagination and creativity latent in ourselves and it’s possible for all to bring out and develop that potential.

A good way to train one’s imaginative faculties is through mental exercises: try to imagine different ways of doing the same thing, different ways of rendering the same subject, different applications of means and technique. When confronted with an artistic problem we may try to visualize how the subject would appear from a different point of view – for instance in photography from higher up, from lower down, from the side, from the rear. Or how would it appear if the subject would be taken farther away with a telephoto lens? What would happen if a wide-angel lens were used? What about a different type of illumination?

By investigating systematically every controllable factor which contributes to the appearance of the work of art, by patiently searching for other ways than the obvious one for solving a specific problem, by critically analyzing the result of these investigations, by making clever use of the possibilities inherent in the subject, the inventive artist creates the kind of work that makes less patient or less creative artists exclaim: Why didn’t I think of that? How could I overlook such possibilities! Haven’t we all experienced this feeling at some point? But don’t worry, though, don’t get discourage by other’s creative work, it’s all about training your imagination.

Another way to do so is exactly to study and analyse the work of other imaginative artists, much as the student artist learns by studying the work of the masters. I believe there is no artist who, in one way or another, has not been influenced by the thought and work by others. Such influences are necessary catalysts to the artistic growth and development of any creative personality. We are not talking about imitation, but influence.

How do you train your imagination? And keep it sharp every day?

Find Your Own Way

Do you confine yourself doing what you know your peers like or what is considered “good” photography? Do you show work to get positive feedback instead of giving the rest of the world your take on whatever it is you have photographed—or painted or written about or…? At least talking for myself, I know that is so easy to fall back on conformities and too easy to take the well-trodden path.

Some time ago, I came across a blog post by David duChemin, the Canadian photographer based out of Vancouver. He writes about a village in China called Dafen where thousands of painters make a living by making replicas of world famous paintings. They do this year in and year out, being very accomplished at it. If you can’t pay the millions it cost to get hold of a Picasso, you may get a copy by one of these very skilled painters in Dafen for a just a few dollars.

His point is that however good the paintings from Dafen may be, they are not art. They do not offer anything to the world except cheep copies of something that once did and still do create aw and admiration in the art world. The copies themselves do not. As skilful as these painters in Dafen are, nobody will ever become inspired by them, or boosted by them, or stimulated by them. Crafts in itself is not enough, an artists needs to put some of her or his soul into the creation to touch anyone else.

I know art is lofty and pretentious word, and if you are like me, you probably hesitate a little to call yourself an artists. But it still doesn’t change the point and it still doesn’t change fact that both you and I most likely are photographing—or painting, sculpturing, writing, making music or whatever you do—out of a desire to fulfil a creative desire.

In so doing we want to creating something that at best may touch others or at least be or some inspiration or maybe just result in a smile in another’s face. That is pretty close to art, in my opinion. However, according to duChemin, “if art is more than just technique and imitation, no matter how perfect that imitation, then it requires something more than years of practice. It requires us. It requires interpretation. It requires that we bring something of our own to the table, preferably something that means something to us, something that’s a part of us. It requires vulnerability and soul and thoughts of our own.”

We need to leave Dafen—figuratively speaking. We need to break out of conformity and what is considered the “right way”. Because there is no right way. There are no rules, and if you believe there are, then break those damn rules. Jump out of the stereotype and become yourself in the creative process. As duChemin says; you don’t want to spend your life imitating others, do you?

It takes one thing, though, and that is courage. It takes courage to be yourself. It takes courage to create on your own terms. In takes courage to stand out from the crowd and not be like everybody else. It takes courage to accept your own quirks and oddities. However, it’s from this place you will find your true, artistic expression. You art will grow deeper and become more authentic if you draw the artistic expression from your real self, the one that you sometimes, or most of the time, try to hide—as I wrote in my post Embrace Your Oddities some time ago.

As David duChemin writes in this post: “We’re all trying so damn hard to blend in that we have no chance at standing out. And that’s a shame, because if you just let your freak flag fly, you’d find it was that to which people were the most attracted. The real you. The messy you. The you who had the courage to leave Dafen and try it your way. Not to be different, but to be you. Imperfect, weird, intriguing, fantastically human you. That’s the kind of person who makes art, not copies: someone who is truly him or herself, not a copy of someone else.”

Skills and craft are good and necessary to be able to express ourselves, just like you need to learn your mother tongue to be able to express yourself with words. But take it to the next level. When talking about photographing, don’t just show us where you have been or what something looks like. Show me why it so important for you that you actually took a photo of it.

If you haven’t visited David dChemin’s blog, I strongly recommend to do so. He is full of inspiration, encouragement and a well of poignant thoughts about photography and art. Start here then: Leaving Dafen (From Craft to Art).

Don’t Ever Give Up

It takes grit to pursue creativity. Being creative means fighting against all odds—most of all ourselves. However, the creative fight is less a battle for glory than a pursuit of personal spirit and finding a way to express it without fear. It’s not a gladiator’s brawl, but rather a solitary struggle with ourselves.

In previous post over the years I have used our playful relationship with water (at least before we grow too old) as a metaphor for creativity. Extending this metaphor, the creative fight is not Michael Phelps competing for Olympic gold but more like swimming to an inviting island off the coast somewhere. The Olympic Games are hyped up, and they are loud. When we swim to go somewhere, it’s discreet. We use ingenuity, agility and guts to accomplish our goal. Phelps swim against others, but swimming to reach that island is a fight within.

I think that we create with such a drive in mind. At least for me, I create for the sheer joy of making something for myself. Yes, I would like to get recognition, but that is not what is driving me. As when I have swum out to that island, there is great gratification to be had when I can enjoy the view from the island that I have earned.

The creative fight doesn’t gloat and it doesn’t crush. Yet the creative person isn’t some pushover that’s afraid of a difficult task.

One characteristic that makes someone a good swimmer is grit. Grit can be defined different ways. It can be thought of as tiny particles of crushed rock. Taking this perspective a bit further, the oyster reminds us that without grit, there is no pearl. Grit is a character that is a mixture of courage, resolve and strength. Like small granite rocks, grit is strength that won’t give up. Those who are gritty have a passion to pursue a goal over an extended amount of time. No one is born with grit. It’s grown into us through difficulties of life.

Earlier this year, I ran my head into a wall. Not literally, but in pursuit of a creative job. I was shooting an assignment for a magazine here in Norway. It was about a couple who had moved to an island to live off the grid, to support themselves as sheep farmers and of fisheries. They had been looking for a harmony missing in contemporary life—and had found their private Eden on the island. It was a fun assignment, offering plenty of creative possibilities. I didn’t have to swim to their island, but it still took some organizing to get there since there was only one regular boat transport a week. The shooting was really fun and I felt it went very well. However, when I got back and prepared to upload the photos, I discovered that the memory card was corrupted. It was a first for me, but nevertheless devastating.

I could have given up. Called the magazine and explained that I wasn’t able to deliver on time, knowing I would have to wait a week for the next regular boat to take me back to the island. Instead, I refused to give up. That evening I called all friends I knew had boats nearby the island and asked if anyone would be willing to take me back. One of the last on my list, agreed to do it. Early next morning I was back with the couple.

I don’t know if you have had to do a reshoot of something you thought went pretty good the first time. Mentally, it feels like having to clean up your own mess. Not fun and definitely not the best starting point for a creative quest. I pushed my worries and frustrations away, forcing myself to be present in the moment and not thinking at all about what I did the first time I visited the couple. It worked. In the end I think I returned with even better photos than the first time. The editor surely was pleased.

Grit isn’t easy to learn—there aren’t any classes offered in schools. Long time ago I asked a friend of mine who is a triathlon athlete if grit can be taught. He said: “The only way to learn grit is to get out there and get your ass kicked. You have to suffer and you have to fail.” My friend does Ironman triathlons. That is biking 181 km, running a full marathon of 42.2 km on top on swimming 3.9 km. He knows what he is talking about.

Grit isn’t something that you will find on an online course. It’s gained while in pursuit of something big. Grit requires belief that it can be done. It means don’t give up when the going gets tough.

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.