Don’t Give a Damn!

A week ago, I photographed and did an interesting and inspiring interview with an artist, actor and acrobat. She said something that made me think. In many ways, simple and yet so relevant for anyone engaged in creative work.

Some years ago while she was rehearsing for a movie shooting, the director of the movie told her: “You are too much of a good girl, doing what you are told. Loosen up and don’t give a damn!” She followed his advice and suddenly her creative career took a giant boost.

I think in my younger days I was too much of a good boy, too. I did what I was told. Creatively I certainly didn’t draw outside the lines. I follow the “rules” and did what I was supposed to do. Although nobody gave me the same advice as this artist I interviewed got, slowly by slowly as my creative self matured, I started to care less and less about doing the “right” thing. Instead, I have become more like a rooky, creatively speaking (not necessarily in my interaction with other people).

I think we all need to be less nice or good and rather let loose and don’t think so much about what is the right thing to do. When we start to don’t give a damn, we enter into a different mindset, our creative thinking changes, we see differently and begin to discover new ways of expressing ourselves. Our creative voice will take a boost when we loosen up, if nothing else, because we start to create and do things differently from everybody else. Giving ourselves permission to don’t give a damn will be the first step towards a distinctive way of seeing and expressing ourselves.

Thus being bad isn’t always bad. On the contrary, we need to be a little more bad—and please understand me right when I say so. There is a Swedish saying that goes like this: “Nice girls come to heaven, bad girls can come as far as they like”. Unnecessary to say, it goes for both girls and boys.

On a different note, some of you may have noticed I have been absent from the blog sphere the last week or so. It’s just been extremely busy times and I haven’t had a chance to engage in social medias. However, I hope to be back now that summer on this part of the hemisphere is approaching and life may start to become a little less busy.

Advertisements

Slow Seeing

For a photographer being able to see is an indispensable quality. Anybody can see, one might point out, but the fact is, it requires more than merely taking in the world through the eyes to see beyond the obvious, to become observant and consciously register what is going on in front of your eyes. The fact is that we lose our ability to see—in the finest and broadest sense—that is using all your senses, your intellect, and your emotions. As we grow from birth, we learn to objectify everything we see. The result is that we rather quickly stop being able to see with our conscious mind. When we have objectified or catalogued something, we stop seeing it—really seeing it—because we think we unconsciously know what we see.

This is a survival mechanism in order for our brains not having to deal with every sensory input as if it was a first encounter. It makes us stop seeing the familiar. However, as photographers, who want to make engaging images, we must recognize the value of the familiar.

This need to categorize, to understand the world, is an inherent part of being human. When I reach out and touch a cup, the moment my hands makes contact is pure touch, the sensation is unprocessed. But within milliseconds my mind needs to identify the object, and so the mind kicks into gear. Once we have identified the cup, the process of perception stops, and all other aspects of the cup is lost to us. We tacitly believe that when we have gotten a name for something, we know it. And once we know it, we stop noticing its qualities.

This objectification, categorization and intellectualisation is a very human approach. Animals have a much more direct way of perception. A spider for example, feels the universe through its legs, which touch the key strand of its web. It knows when it’s raining, or when food is available. It doesn’t think to itself, “that is not a fly on the web. That is rain.” Yet it knows. The spider doesn’t deliberate about what kind of fly it would like to eat or criticize the rain for trying to deceive it. A spider just does what it does, effortlessly and spontaneously.

How then can we train ourselves to start seeing again—seeing the world as it really is, not only as we think it is? It would be handy, wouldn’t it, if we were able take a red pill, as in the movie Matrix, and suddenly see the world as it is. Early on in the movie, the protagonist gets the choice between taking a red pill or a blue pill. If he chooses the blue pill, he will stay in the constructed world he has been deceived to believe in, but if he chooses the red pill, the deception will fall apart and he will see the world for what it really is.

Since we don’t have such a red pill, how can we start seeing beyond what our minds have made up for us? The first step to start seeing for real again is simply to slow down. Slowing ourselves and our minds down allow us to observe the world more deeply, and to shift our brains to examine more clearly those depths. It makes us see really, what it is we’re trying to photograph.

Our lives are normally so busy and so packed that we don’t have time to see anymore. I certainly find myself too often running from one place to another, to get to a meeting or an appointment on time, or to catch a train or bus. I bet most of us do. By literally speeding up our lives, we don’t take the time to see the deeper levels of things and so, without meaning to, we become shallower observers. This is not a beneficial state of mind if you want to capture meaningful photos.

I notice it in myself particularly when I do street photography. In the beginning of a session, I run around searching for something, anything that is worth capturing. I am afraid I might miss a moment, I believe maybe around the corner is a better vantage point with more activity on the street. I end up shooting a lot of photos, but nothing worth keeping. It’s when I take a deep breath, slow down and decide to stay in one place, wait and let things happen in their own time and pace, that I slowly start to get images that might be worth keeping.

When we want to see with the intention of creating photographs we need to start getting out of this automated way of seeing, this subconscious registering through which we have trained ourselves to look at the world. We need to de-learn objectifying everything and re-learn to see everything with a pure and uncontaminated vision, everything as something unique and particular, almost as the child when she first learns to see.

Are You Lucky?

Vision comes from within. That is sometimes easy to forget when we who create, fight against bad luck. Because we have all fought and been discourage by lack of luck. I know I have, and I know all my creative peers, friends and colleagues have. Some get over it and some don’t.

Most of us believe that luck is random and arbitrary. But the fact is, we are all in position to channel good luck. Studies and stories of people how have turned the dime to their advantage, are many. We all have the ability to amplify or diminish how luck strikes us.

Study after study reveal that lucky people have a special quality about themselves and how they see the world. They are like metal detectors that are always turned on. One who has studied luck is Richard Wiseman, head of the psychology department at the University of Hertfordshire. According to him, lucky people generate their own good fortune by following four basic principles. They create and notice chance opportunities. They make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition. They create self-fulfilling prophecies via positive expectations. Finally, they adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.

This may all sound very good. However, when you stand in the middle of period when nothing seems to work out, it’s not easy to keep expecting things to change to the better. It’s much easier to give up. I know, I have been there myself. Some time ago, I had put in a lot of effort, money and time into preparing a project that everybody told me was going to be a success. I was selling the idea for the project to a big national institution in hope they would finance it, in fact they had asked me to propose the project. The people at the institution were all positive and made me feel like it was only a formality before the project would be accepted. But, when it came down to the final decision, my project was turned down. Instead, money was given to another project that seemed to have nothing about it at all. Later on, I heard that it came down to connections. The person behind the project that “won” knew the people on the board of the institution. It was a devastating blow to my self-esteem. I was about to give up.

When you are there, it’s not easy to be enthusiastic about anything. Nevertheless, enthusiasm is really what makes things change and creates luck. Enthusiasm is raw energy for life. It’s a powerful force. It draws luck like a magnet. When you do something out of passion and enthusiasm, out of yourself, things will start to change. You start to create luck and those self-fulfilling prophecies that Wiseman points to. Making luck happening is not about fate, really, it’s about finding your life’s call, or to put it less pretentious, to do what you love. If you take the chance on what you believe in, and don’t give up, good things will start to happen. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: “Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success”.

Your unique view of the world is your most valuable asset, regardless of what you do. “Don’t ask yourself what the world need. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs are people who come alive.” That’s according to the African-American author, Howard Thurman.

So maybe luck has less to do with chance and more to do with how we live? In the international best-selling book The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho crafts an allegorical narrative around this idea. The main character in the story, a young man named Santiago, works as a shepherd until he has a dream that awakens him to a deeper calling for his life. Fear holds him back from responding to the call, but the dream persists. Eventually, Santiago musters up the courage to follow the path for which he was meant. Leaving his comfortable life behind, he journeys into the unknown and is invigorated with the possibilities of this new path. Following his path seems to have some generative power, almost like a gift that fills him with strength, enthusiasm, and good luck.

Patiently Painting Walls


Each and everyone of us have a desire to become recognized for the artistic work we do—at least to some extent—whether we are professionals or amateurs; whether we are photographers—like me—or performing artists or something else; whether we are pure craftsmen (or -women) or genuine artists. We all want others to see, hear or feel our work, and we all want to be praised—at least that is what I think—for our artistic quality and originality. At the bottom of all this then lies the desire to become great artists—whatever that means.

That’s all fine, as long as it doesn’t become the motivation in itself for what we do. And it’s all fine if this desire doesn’t make us impatient and give up because we feel we get nowhere. I am not going to talk about what is success or not, or what it means to be a great artists or not, but I think we all hope for a certain development, artistically, and for our artistic reputation as well. I certainly know how frustrating it can be when you feel you have an idea or a great vision, but aren’t able to manifest it through your craft, simply because your craft isn’t developed enough. It takes time to understand the underlying rules of your craft or how to bring your creativity to life, it takes time to develop your artistry to a level where you feel comfortably able to express your vision. It might be a frustrating time of development, but just remember that’s how it’s been for all artists, even the greatest of all times.

There is no instant or fast success with creativity. It takes time. And that is part of what makes some artists so expressive, they let time work to their advantage. It’s also part of what makes being an artist so fulfilling; you never stop learning or improving—that is if you don’t make yourself stop.

Artistic development is like painting a house. When you start out you know you have hours—or more like days—of work ahead you. You keep at because you know that’s the only way it will get painted. You long for the day when it’s all done, but just because you aren’t able to do more than half a wall one day, you don’t give up, and you don’t give up even though you know you will have to give the house three coats of paint. You know that one day the house will be shining beautifully and newly painted. So it is with art and the artists. If you only know that your work won’t be shining from the first day, you will not give, up, but have an incentive to keep developing, to keep working. In reality it never stops. Just like painting. Because, of course, next year it’s the garage, and then the deck, and then the cabin by the sea, and before you know it, you are back painting that house again. It just never stops. And so it is with art. It never stops. You never stop developing as an artists, and isn’t that really what makes creative work so exciting?

You could say, I don’t like painting houses, so I hire someone to do it. Fine, no problem. But would you rather start buying art instead of making it yourself? You know what the really good thing about the cycle of painting your properties is? Next time around you are so much better and proficient than the previous time. And so it is with creativity and artistic work. In the end the development in itself is the reward for those of us who seek to express ourselves creatively or artistically.

Creative Collaboration


One of the things being a photograph that I often find limiting, is the fact that I usually work by myself. Limiting is actually not the right word, since being out on my own forces me to focus and use all of myself in the interaction with the world I photograph. It actually gives me strength. So I guess it’s more about the joy of working together with somebody else that I often miss when I work alone for too long. And also the different experience it involves.

It is really a great experience to work creatively together. You push each other further than you would maybe do alone. You inspire each other. You find new solutions together. And more than anything it’s simply fun. Or as Corwin Hiebert writes in his e-book Your Creative Mix – Growing Your Photography Business through Creativity and Collaboration: «The creative process, as chaotic as it can be at times, is a beautiful thing when the hard work involves an experience we can truly share. […] Together we can spur each other on to create more, and do more».

Creating together is a wonderful example of a dialectic method. The idea of the dialectic method is an old theory going all the way back to Ancient Greece, in which you put a thesis and an antithesis up against each other, and the combined solution between the two not only makes for a compromise, but creates something that is better than the thesis or the antithesis alone, what in the theory is called the synthesis.

Theory away, collaboration is truly inspiring and can be done on many levels. My good colleague and friend Sven Creutzmann, who is an eminent as well as awarded photographer, and I have over the past many years and from time to time been photographing together side by side on more personal related projects. In doing so we push each other further, we encourage each other, we enjoy the time together being focused on the shooting, and despite the fact that one would think that we might end up with pictures looking similarly, the collaboration spurs our separate creative visions and results in quite different pictures even at occasions when we stand side by side. Finally when working together like this, the help and encouragement we give each other in the editing process and even how to photoshop the pictures, is almost worth the whole process in itself.

The collaboration between Sven and me has also lead to various photo workshops we teach together. This is really collaboration as intimate as it can possible be. We develop the programs and classes in tight partnership, we teach the workshops together and of course we get to spend a lot of time socially together. As a matter of fact we have two workshops up in the air this year, both in Cuba. One takes place in the beginning of May and is the workshop Street Photography in Cuba that Sven and I have run for many years. New this year, is the workshop In the Footsteps of Che and Fidel in November. This is still in the planning, but will be a two weeks photo tour where we travel to the important, historical places of the Cuban revolution. This workshop will take the participants to areas not travelled a lot and will be quite an adventure.

Creative collaboration is so stimulating and so inspiring; I can only recommend it to everyone involved in the creative process. Of course it’s not limited to photography, but holds value for any creative outlet or artistic expression. To quote Corwin Hiebert one more time: « A successful collaboration provides credibility, it gives you an opportunity to gain experience, it expands your knowledge base, widens your sphere of influence, deepens your relationships, and gives you a real-world resume. But one of the most important takeaways from a collaboration is that it promotes your work ethic».

Building a Creative Fire


The creative process is like building a wood fire. You have to build it over several stages, start small, and slowly make it grow. And you need to attend it, unattended it will die. On the other hand a good fire – and a good creative process – does not need obsessive attention, just a bit of awareness every so often.

Fire building is a wonderful analogy for the creative process. When you build a fire, you are taking actions toward a result. The circumstances are constantly changing, but these are distinct stages of development, from preparation to maturity. The type of actions you take in the beginning stages would not be suitable in the later stages, and vice versa. Also the initial stages have a big influence on how the later stages develop. If you don’t prepare the fire well from the beginning, it will later be difficult to keep it burning.

There is something primal and vital, while at the same time elegant, timeless, and almost scientific about building fires, just as there is with the creative process. Building and tending a fire requires a blend of human skill and knowledge.

Basically there are four stages in fire building. In the kindling stage, you ignite small amounts of highly flammable material, such as newspaper or twigs. Soon you will need to bring the fire to the next stage; otherwise the flame will quickly burn itself out. In the structuring stage, you begin to establish form to the fire. You build a little tower with larger sticks around the burning kindle. In the building stage you then add small logs and make sure to place them so that air will be sucked into the fire. Finally, during the tending stage, you every so often place new logs on the others. These will burn easily because of the already established fire and the build-up of glowing coal from the previous sticks and logs.

Creating also has a kindling stage. Easily taken steps add energy and lead to more involved steps. Smaller acts lead to larger acts in creating, just as in fire building. If you have not used proper kindling, the fire will be hard to light. If you do not take easy beginning steps, the creation will be harder to make. If, once you have ignited the kindling, you place a big log right in the middle of the small fire; the fire will go out before the log will be able to burn. The same happens in the creative process. Too often people want big results too fast. But if the supportive structure is not in place, the fire of the creative process will go out, too.

One of the wonders in a good fire is the amount of space there is in the structure. Logs do not fill the centre; air does. Although you cannot see the air, this invisible force is a major component in the success of the fire. In the creative processes there are many invisible forces, too. Like the interaction between the conscious and the subconscious mind, the tapping into the creative well or inspiration.

When building a fire, if you use too much wood, the fire will go out. If you use too little wood, the fire will go out. If you use wood that does not burn well, the fire will be harder to get going and might go out. A good fire feeds on itself. A good creative process does this as well. Energy is generated by what has gone before. In the creative process, conscious choice, actions, learning, adjusting, an intuitive sense of timing and «lucky accidents» can combine in just the right proportions. It is true of both fire building and creating that you begin to get a «feel» for it after a while.

Talent Doesn’t Matter

It’s hard to accept that talent hardly matters. I know—particularly if you thought you were benefiting from a special talent yourself. We have become ingrained with the idea, not the least from media, which likes to push the idea of superhuman talents far beyond any reasonable credibility, if for no other reason than because it sells. Be as it may, numerous contemporary studies do indicate that talent has been overly overrated for too long.

As I wrote in last week’s post, Matthew Syed in his book Bounce refutes the, in my view, outdated idea of special talent being necessary to excel it in sports, business, school, arts or any other endeavour that requires more skill-sets than we all are in possession of. The illusion of talent arises because we only see a tiny proportion of the work that goes into the construction of virtuosity. If we were to examine the incalculable hours of practice, the thousands of baby steps taken by world-class performers to get to the top, the skills would no longer seem quite so mystical, or so inborn. That’s exactly what Syed does in his book; he deconstruct all the work some of the world’s biggest “talents” have had to put into becoming the success they have become, whether it’s Tiger Woods or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The belief in talent is not the least a natural derivation from a Darwinian believe-system. I certainly don’t oppose Darwinism and won’t discredit the fact that, at least part of the variation in ability in young people in everything from math to football is determined by generic inheritance. Some start out better than others do, there is no denying that. But, the key point revealed by the science of expertise is that the relevance of these initial differences melts away as the number of hours devoted to practice escalates. And why is that? Because over time, and with the right kind of practice, we change so much in ourselves. It’s not just the body that changes but also the anatomy of the brain. The region of the brain responsible for controlling fingers in young piano players, for example, is far larger than the rest of us. But pianists were not born with this, it grew in proportion to the years of training. Similarly, the area of the brain governing spatial navigation in taxi drivers is way above average—but it developed with time on the job.

And then think about this: It takes generation after generations for humans to adapt the genetic composition to new environmental conditions. How would it be possible for natural selection to change genes for kids growing up today and make some of them excel in computer gaming? A generation ago, nobody even knew about computer gaming. Two generations ago, computers hardly existed.

Yes, it would be anti-Darwinian to deny the existence of talent, defined in terms of the initial skills we inherit from our parents. However, it is in no way anti-Darwinian to deny the importance of talent. Given the adaptability of the human body and brain, it turns out that pretty much all healthy individuals can accumulate the knowledge that creates excellence, regardless of where they started out from. The evidence also tells us that we learn at pretty similar rates, at least on the long term. Certainly, there is no shortcut to excellence.

It takes a lot of work to excel in any field. Studies of grand masters of chess, top golfers of the world and top scientists—just to mention a few areas that have been studied—show that ten years is the magic number for the attainment of excellence. In the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of five books, he points out that most top performers practice around one thousand hours per year, so he re-describes the ten-years rule as the ten-thousand-hour rule (as some comments in my previous post about talent already pointed out). This is the minimum time necessary for the acquisition of expertise in any complex task. Ten thousand hours is a lot of devoted time. It means practicing around three hours every day—for ten years. Most people are not willing to pay this price, but it’s what it takes.

However, it’s not only the quantity of training that matters, but also the quality. A study conducted at a music academy in Berlin shows that top performing violinists had not practiced more hours than the lesser violinists had. The top performers had pushed themselves harder for longer. The others had not. That was the crucial difference. Anders Ericsson, a leading psychologist at Florida State University, calls it deliberate practice, to distinguish it from what most of us get up to. In Bounce Syed calls it purposeful practice because this training of aspiring champions have a specific and never-changing purpose: Progress. Every second of every minute of every hour, the goal is to extend one’s mind and body, to push oneself beyond the outer limits of one’s capacity, to engage so deeply in the task that one leaves the training session, literally, a changed person.

Purposeful practice is about striving for what is just out of reach and not quite making it; it is about grappling with tasks beyond current limitations and falling short again and again. Excellence is about stepping outside of comfort zone, training with a spirit of endeavour, and accepting the inevitability of trials and tribulations. Progress is built, in effect, upon the foundations of necessary failure.

This can be translated directly to us who perform in the arts. If we do the same kind of work time and again, we will be good at this, but we will not otherwise improve. If we want to become better photographers or better painters or better writes, yes, we must do the work, but we must also step out of the comfort zone—all the time. Same with exercising. I run and exercise quite a bit. Sometimes I get frustrated because my shape doesn’t seem to improve. Every so often, I run a marathon. When I do, I always want to improve my personal best. It rarely happens, though, and if so only marginally. For me to improve, I need to train harder than I already do, and if I want to keep improving, this is a never-ending upward spiral. I am just not willing to do so and have finally accepted this conclusion.

There is more to excel in any task than training enough and training right. It’s also about mindset, of course. Otherwise, you won’t be able to put in the 10.000 hours and keep pushing yourself out of comfort zone. Yes, clocking up thousands of hours of purposeful practice ultimately determines how far we make it along the path of excellence. However, it’s only those who care about the destination, those who are motivated enough, who are ever going to get there. There a ways to sustain the motivation, for instance through encouragement and through internalized belief. This will have to wait to another post, though, as it could be a book on its own. I just wanted to mention that there are more to the equation than enough and right exercise. Talent hardly matters, though.

I have written these posts about how we tend to overrate talent, not because I think we should all strive for excellence. For me it’s just important to know that I can get as far as I want to by my own will and willingness to go the necessary distance. My talent or lack of it is not going to be hindering me. As Syed writes: “The talent myth is not just widespread but it is also powerfully destructive, robbing individuals of the motivation of change.” I encourage you to take this to heart, and just do whatever you feel like doing—and enjoy the journey.

Let me end this rather too long post with my own experience starting out on a photographic career. Well, it’s actually before I even got started, professionally that is. In my teens, I really thought I had a talent for photography. I had won some prizes and I won a few photo competitions. However, just as with my exercising these days, at some point it stopped. My photography wasn’t going anywhere anymore, and I didn’t get the recognition I had started to get used to. What happened was, I had too much trust in talent, and didn’t put in the work. Thus, I stagnated. It was only after some years working professionally that my photography began develop again, simply because you cannot work professionally without doing a lot of work and you get pushed into situations that you have no control over. I didn’t know then what I know today. The moral: Don’t trust talent.

On a different note: When you read this, I have located myself to Park City, Utah, for the annual Sundance Film Festival. This week I will probably be seeing 20-something movies and be covering the festival. Unnecessary to say, it’s going to be work around the clock. But all fun and pure joy.

The first post about talented being overrated was published last week. Go to Don’t Trust Talent to read it.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon Eos 5D with a 24-104 mm lens and the zoom set at 24 mm. Shutter speed: 1/640 of a second. Aperture: f/13. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Don’t Trust Your Talent

I have always been a strong believer in talent being overrated. Over the recent holidays, I read a book that largely confirms my assumption. Yes, talent may set some limits to our abilities, for instance creatively—or for that matter and more specifically photographically, since that is the field I am working in and writing about in this blog—but I really think it’s only of marginal impediment. In particular when talking about creativity, I think it’s something everyone of us inherently possess, we just don’t use it to our full capacities. In growing out of childhood, the society, our peers and ourselves most often discourage our creative development, so much that we end up losing trust in our abilities. What may seem like a lack of creativity is never due to shortage of talent, as far as I see it.

The book I have read is Bounce, written by Matthew Syed, the British number-one table tennis player in the late 90’s, a two-time Olympian, today a columnist for The Times and a commentator for BBC. His book is challenging the prevailing idea that success—whether in sports, business, school, arts or whatever—is determined, in large part, by the skills we are born with. In doing so, Syed pulls on recent scientific studies from around the world on the subject and makes for a convincing argument (well, I guess he never had to convince me in the first place).

When we see—of if you could see—“natural talents” like Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, or for that matter Picasso or Mozart, in action, they seem to be in a different league than the rest of their equals—certainly compared to any of us regular mortal beings. What we forget and what we don’t see, is all the work they have put in to become extraordinarily good at what they do. Tiger Woods, for example, was considered a miracle golfer when he became the youngest ever winner of US Masters in 1997. Now, consider that Woods was given a golf club five days before his birthday, that by age two he had played his first round and that by five he had accumulated more hours of practise than most of us achieve in a lifetime. As Syed writes: “Far from being a golfer zapper with special powers that enabled him to circumvent practice, Woods is someone who embodies the rigour of practice.”

Practice is really what makes the difference. If you put in the work, you can excel in anything you want. Do you want to become a master photographer? It “only” takes some work, albeit a lot of hard, consistent and always pushing yourself kind of work. This much say, skills that are more based on pure physical strength may nevertheless have a component that is dependent on our heredity, such as for instance runners. However, not even the best runners in the world can compete at a top level without a lot of training. The genetic composition may have some saying, but medical science still haven’t found any “running gene”, which of course doesn’t mean it can’t exist.

For undertakings that are more complex, involving using more parts of our brain and body, Matthew Syed is adamant about how little talent matters. In achievements depending on fast reflexes, creativity, judging of multiple inputs and even intuition—without going into any definition of the word—we can only excel after hours and hours of hard work. Take a tennis player or a soccer player, he or she will not only have to be good a sending the ball over net or kicking a football and dribble, but he or she will have to be able to judge the movement of the opposition, weather conditions, the conditions of the field or the court and other variables. In many situations during a game he or she will have to make instant decisions. For instance a tennis player at the highest international level must be able to understand where the ball goes even before the opponent has hit the ball, judged upon how the opponent attacks the ball, being able to read even the smallest of muscle changes. This is not something that is God-given.

Syed calls it “combinatorial explosion”; tasks that requires a combinations of abilities and skill sets. As he writes in Bounce: “It is the rapid escalation in a number of variables in many real-life situations—included sports—that makes it impossible to sift the evidence before making a decision: it would take too long. Good decision making is about compressing the information load by decoding the meaning of patterns derived from experience. […] it must be lived and learned. It emerges through practice.”

What Syed is saying, is that in practices that require “combinatorial explosion”, our skills need to have been ingrained in our backbones. We need to be able to apply them reflexively without having to think consciously. To get to such a point takes thousands and thousands of hours of training. Take photography once again. If you are doing street photography, you need to react fast and get your settings right at first try. If you need to think about how to set the camera, how to compose, when to push the shutter button and so on, the subject will have long been gone. You really need to be able to handle your camera without having to think about it at all. Again, this is something that takes long practice. It’s nevertheless achievable—even at the highest level—for anyone who is willing to put in the work.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that being able to handle “combinatorial explosion” is not depending on some inherited talent. However, in Bounce Syed is referring to plenty of research that clearly shows that more than anything such proficiency is not a result of heredity but rather environment. I am not going to recount some of the studies; if you are interested I suggest you read Bounce. Of course there is more to excel in whatever endeavour you are engaging in than being able to handle “combinatorial explosion” and put in a lot of work, but let me stop for now. In next week’s post, I will take up the thread and reflect on other aspects of the dichotomy of talent vs. practice.

I will just like to add one thing: Think about how our understanding affects our mind sets. If we believe being able to become good at something depends on talent, what will happen when we fail a couple of times with our endeavour? Of course, we will give up, thinking there is no point in continuing since we don’t have the necessary talent. Rather, failing shows the opposite, that we are on the right track. As Matthew Syed says; to be able to get better at something we need to push ourselves close to what we can possibly handle. That means failing—a lot—before we get the hang of it.

Death by Perfection

Perfection. It’s a word often associated with high marks, implying you won’t let go before it’s just right. You always deliver top notch. People know they can trust you to make the best. It’s an attitude that shows you are a person having standards. Can’t go wrong if you strive for perfection…

Wait a minute.

Perfection or perfectionism could also mean that you take forever to get anything done, since nothing is good enough. If you are a perfectionist, maybe you aren’t getting much done at all, since there is always room for improvements. Maybe you don’t even try, because you know it’s not going to be perfect anyway.

I remember when I was younger I was living by the idea that it was better to do only three things and get them right from the start than trying a hundred things an maybe getting ten of them halfway right. In retrospect, I see that I was scared of not getting it right, rather than just trying out and see where it would lead. First time I jumped from a 10-meter diving board, I used the whole summer to build up courage to climb the tower. I wouldn’t let myself get up there and have to turn around not daring to do the jump. That would be too embarrassing. So, I used the summer to infuse mental strength in myself—and then did it. It did take the whole summer, though. And it seized my summer to such an extent that I couldn’t enjoy much else.

Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with fixing things. It has nothing to do with standards. Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It’s a loop—an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or photographing or making and to lose sight of the whole. Instead of creating freely and allowing errors to reveal themselves later as insights, we often get caught up in getting the details right. We correct our originality into a uniformity that lacks passion and spontaneity.

“Do not fear mistakes. There are none,” Miles David so correctly stated.

I know the feeling too well. I am out shooting an assignment for some magazine. I won’t let the editor down. I want to deliver perfect images. Instead, I stall my creativity because I am anxious about not being able to make those photos as good as I believe they should be—whatever that really means. I get more and more frustrated when I can’t get anything right or capture any photos that stands out. I keep digging myself deeper and deeper in expectations that just get higher and higher. There is no way out, at least not until I get so angry with myself and in pure frustration am able to let go of any pretentions.

The perfectionist processes and re-processes a photo. Keeps adding layers, keeps juggling settings, tries new filters, adds a detail here and another there. Darkens, brightens. Increase saturation. Decrease contrast. He or she never gets to finish processing the photo. In fact, if he or she would take a birds perspective he or she would see that the photo might just have been better from the start before all the excessive processing.

The perfectionist is never satisfied. The perfectionist never says, “This is pretty good. I think I’ll just move on.” To the perfectionist there is always room for improvements. The perfectionist calls this humility. In reality, it’s ego-centricity. It is pride that makes us want to write a perfect script, paint a perfect painting, take and process a perfect photo.

Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough—that we should try again. Don’t get me wrong. This is not an appeal to be sloppy with our creative outlet. We should do our best, but we shouldn’t keep striving for perfection. That may only lead us into a creative block or performance anxiety. Yes, we all want to become better at what we do, but getting better is a process not a finalized result. If you seek perfection, you seek an unattainable goal. As you get better so does your idea of perfection. The stake will always move outside of your reach since everything can always get better.

Instead of seeking perfection, accept that things are as they are. And rather do and risk failure, than wait until you know you can do it to perfection. You may never get started otherwise. And remember, failure is never failure if you look upon it as an opportunity to improve as I wrote in my post Weakness as Potential Strength more than a month ago.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a EOS 5D with a 24-105 mm lens set at 24 mm. It’s a double-exposure merged in Photoshop and then processed in both Lightroom and Photoshop.

Listen to the Creative Flow

The act of creating is closely related to the ability to listen. Listening to our unconscious mind, or listening to the muses, or listening to the creative power of the universe that we are part of, or listening to our inner artist—whatever you prefer to call it.

We create not in a vacuum or out of our little self. We create in an exchange with something bigger than ourselves. By listening to what is always flowing through us as an underground river of creativity, we are able form work of art that expresses a deeper truth or communicate a universal human experience. It doesn’t matter whether we photograph, write, dance, perform, paint or sculpture or express ourselves through other kinds of media, by listening we create with strokes of unknown potency as if we are vehicle for a creative power must stronger than ourselves.

I think we too often forget to listen. Because of that, we often end up with a writers block or aren’t able to break through a barrier of mental obstacles that holds our creative back. We yearn to create something unique or something that expresses who we are, and in so doing, we try to wrestle it out of our conscious self. That’s not how it works, though. We need to listen instead of speaking—figuratively speaking.

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron writes; “Art is not about thinking up. It’s about the opposite—getting something down. The directions are important here.”

If we are trying to think something up, we are striving to reach for something that’s just beyond our reach, “up there, in the stratosphere, where art lives,” as Cameron puts it. On the other hand, if we try to put something down, there is no strain. We are not doing, we are getting. Something outside of our conscious self is doing the doing. Instead of trying to invent, we are rather engaged in listening.

The great Michelangelo is said to have remarked that he released David from the marble block he found him in. “The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through,” said Jackson Pollack. If you have been in flow, you know the feeling, that whatever it is you are creating already exists in its entirety. Our job when creating is to listen for it, watch it with our mind’s eye, and write it down, photograph it, paint it, sculpture it.

I think it’s nowhere easier to understand this idea or concept than in photography. As photographers, we are not creating a new world to photograph (well, if you are not a studio photographer that is). We take what is, we see—or we listen, figuratively speaking—and transform what we discover in this process into a photograph. We often talk about “taking” a photograph, which I find to be a somewhat imprecise phrase. It implies that the photograph is our doing, rather than we see and received what is offered us. The American documentary photographer Charles Harbutt often said that he doesn’t take photographs, photographs take him. The New York photographer Jay Maisel has a similar approach. He doesn’t look for specific photographs. Rather, he’s open, perceptive, and ready for what comes to him unexpectedly.

The thing is, in the act of creating, we are more the conduit than the creator of what we express. The making of art is like dropping down in this underground river of creativity. It is as though all the stories, paintings, music, images, performances live just under the surface of our normal consciousness. Like this underground river, they flow through us as a stream of ideas that we can tap into. By listening.

I have a good friend of my, a colleague in photography, who is staging his photography meticulously. He is in full control most of the time, and don’t let anything be formed by coincidences. Yet, he often shoots his most brilliant imagery when for a split second he let go of the control.

When you learn to trust the process, you will see that inspiration—whatever that is or whatever word you want to use for it—will come to you. You will hear the dialogue you need, find the right light for your photo, discover your David in the clay or hear the right tones for your song.

We must learn to listen to the creative stream. The more we practise the better we become at it. In the beginning, it might be difficult to quiet the mental noise that we impose on ourselves. One way is for instance through free writing or through free photographing as I wrote in my post Free Shooting a couple of weeks ago. That is, to create without thinking, just letting go and flow with whatever comes to mind without trying to modify or reshape whatever comes to you as you think it ought to be. This way of creating you can do in all works of art.

Listening is imperative in the creative process. Like in the good conversation, the one with the ability to listen will learn, while the one, who only speaks, inevitably will keep repeating him- or herself.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken a Nikon FinePix E900 with the lens set at 28 mm (the equivalent of a 128 mm full frame). The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.