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There are a lot of mediocre photographers in the world. I'm sure a lot of them wish they could be better. I'll tell you the mistake that's keeping them stuck in mediocrity.
Remember when you were a kid and someone told you that you can be anything that you want to be? If you're a parent, you may have even told your children the same thing. It's true, too. Countless people have overcome amazing odds to become something great.
Now flash forward a few years. What do we tell people who want to do something that is different, unique, or special in some way? We tell them to behave. Get back in line. Be a team player. You have to go along to get along. These are some of the phrases we use to crush the dreams of those children we once tried to inspire.
Do you know what's really sad about this message? Most people follow it. They get back in line. They put more emphasis on being liked than on being good. They ignore the talent within them for fear of upsetting someone who doesn't have that same gift. Most people live a life of mediocrity because it's easier than going against the grain to achieve their potential.
The Path with Mediocrity
Think back to those kids who were told they could be anything. Imagine there was a little boy who said,
When I grow up, I'm going to become a mediocre dentist in Chicago.
Now picture a little girl in Texas who said,
Mommy, when I grow up I want to be a bitchy housewife just like you!
This may sound like a skit on Saturday Night Live, but people really do grow up to fill these roles and many other boring roles that never amount to anything. After a while, that emptiness turns to bitterness. Instead of being the child with dreams, they become the person who tells others what they can't do.
Get back in line. Be part of the team. Don't hurt anyone's feelings. You have to behave. You have to go along to get along.
The Photography Village
For many of us, our journey through photography is not unlike growing up. We start off with a lot of emotional responses. Everything is new and exciting. We're happy if we create any photograph, even if it's the equivalent of poop in a diaper. We don't know how to control anything, so we're guided by only by our emotions. We're either happy or pissed off.
People are social animals, so we like congregating with others who share our likes and dislikes. We form a village and share our photographic journey. We invent games out of our photography. Here I am in front of a castle. Here I am in front of a mountain. Here's a picture I took – do you know where I took it? Show me all of your pictures with the color Red. That sort of shit.
A visitor comes by and shows us how they do things in their village. Some of us are impressed, others look upon the stranger with suspicion and distrust. Then there are a few people who look at things a bit differently. They're inquisitive and ask the visitor how he did what he does and he shares. That gets some people thinking. Maybe there's more to the world than they've seen in their own little village, so they explore.
Here's the key to becoming more than a mediocre photographer. It's that curiosity and willingness to learn, to grow. You have to want to become more than you are.
The other people in your village may object. They continue to play games with their photos, but you want to learn more. You want to learn how to make better photos using new techniques. Since you can't learn from the people in your village, you start visiting other villages. They teach you how to use external lighting, to use motion or time-lapse.
You're so excited and you want to take this knowledge back to your village. Now that you've learned that there's more to photography than playing childish games, you think it would be fun to do these new things with your old friends.
Some may join you. Unfortunately, most won't. They feel threatened because they never left the village. They're content playing games and never progressing beyond their status as a mediocre photographer.
For a while, you go along. You start throwing your new photos into the games, but you sense resentment. When someone asks a question and you give an answer, the other villagers revolt. That's not the way we do things here! You're being disruptive. You need to fit in with everyone else.
The Big Decision
This is the moment that will define your future. Are you going to grow or remain a mediocre photographer? With very few exceptions, people don't break out because of natural talent. They break out because their own desire and commitment is greater than their need to fit into the same mold as everyone else.
It's not easy. That's why most people remain mediocre. They give in to peer pressure and hold back. Many of us admire stars in different fields, but we'd never do what they did to make it there. We'd never make the sacrifices necessary to move beyond mediocrity.
Don't underestimate peer pressure. There's a strong urge to avoid a confrontation that's built into many people. When that urge overcomes the desire to break out of the pack, you commit yourself to be mediocre at whatever you do. The child who was told “You can be anything” dies under the pressure of the group who never did anything but go along with the pack. Once they become submissive, we tell them they're a “good boy” or “good girl.” Don't rock the boat.
There's a certain truth that unfolds after you visit a few villages.
One village's chief is another village's idiot.
How To Avoid Being a Mediocre Photographer
After a bit of pain, it becomes obvious that it's time to move to another village. You have nothing in common with the folks who live in the village of mediocre photographers. In their eyes, you're a heretic. In your eyes, they're like the children of Neverland who just won't grow up. If you don't leave, they'll kick you out. In a way, that's natural.
Don't fall into the trap of believing that anyone is holding you back. The choice is entirely yours. You can go along with the group and stay at their level, or you can move ahead with your own path. Just know that you're going to ruffle some feathers and may have to look for another group that's at a higher level.
Rule #1: You Can't Please Everyone
Peer pressure is strong, but it's also a path to failure. That's ancient wisdom dating back to this parable from Aesop's Fables.
A Man and his son were once going with their Donkey to market. As they were walking along by its side a countryman passed them and said: “You fools, what is a Donkey for but to ride upon?”
So the Man put the Boy on the Donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said: “See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides.”
So the Man ordered his Boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn't gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: “Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along.”
Well, the Man didn't know what to do, but at last he took his Boy up before him on the Donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The Man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The men said: “Aren't you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor donkey of yours and your hulking son?”
The Man and Boy got off and tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the donkey's feet to it, and raised the pole and the donkey to their shoulders. They went along amid the laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge, when the Donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the Boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle the Donkey fell over the bridge, and his fore-feet being tied together he was drowned.
“That will teach you,” said an old man who had followed them:
“Try to please everyone and you can kiss your ass goodbye.”
Don't try to be a photographer who does everything. Pick what you like and leave the rest to someone else. Narrow your focus. Specialize. Become the photographer who is known for something unique.
That doesn't mean you have to limit yourself to high-end weddings or quarter horse finals. You could be known for your color photography, the travel photographer who makes people want to go where you've been, the blogger who helps them learn, or just because of your unique personality. Find your “one thing” and do it the best you can.
When you start specializing, you're going to find people who love you and others who hate on you. It's going to happen. Don't let yourself get too distracted by either. Concentrate on your journey and the rest will unfold as it should.
Rule #2: Don't Worry About Being the Best
Do you know how many people make it to being #1 in their field? One! There's not a lot of room at the top. You may be the one to make it there, but you don't have to be the best photographer in the world. In fact, there's no such title.
Be your own best. Every day. Look at what you're doing and strive for ways to make it better. Every great person I've ever met is in a constant state of self-evaluation. Most of them aren't making huge changes. Instead, they concentrate on little details that need improvement.
Don't worry about making mistakes along the way. We all do. Everyone. Mistakes are how we learn and grow. The person who never makes a mistake isn't trying hard enough.
Look at your own photos and determine what you don't like about them. Then figure out how to fix that problem. Don't blame your gear or technology. You can't buy your way to better photos (unless you're a sports photographer, because that stuff gets expensive). The key to your success isn't the gear you buy, but in how you apply your knowledge of the gear and mastery of storytelling.
I really enjoy spending time with photographers that are better than I am. It's an opportunity to crawl inside their brain and learn something I didn't know. In turn, that helps me move to a nicer village.
Rule #3: Hang Out In The Village That Encourages You
The choice to grow is yours, but you can make it easier on yourself. Hang out with people who want to see you succeed. It doesn't matter if they're teachers or fans. What matters is in their heart. If you bring out the worst in them, or they bring out the worst in you, then it's time to move.
I've learned that you can't push anyone to grow. It's cool to want to come back to your old village and share what you've learned, but it's up to each person to decide if they're going to accept you or fight you.
That's how you tell which ones are village idiots and mediocre photographers.