Are you on the Okay Plateau?

I am curious about how people learn, particularly why some people excel and whether they have an innate talent or is there something that they do that pushes them achieve more.

I was intrigued when I came across the video below from Joshua Foer in which he describes what he refers to as the ‘the okay plateau’ and suggests that avoiding this plateau is essential if you are to reach a level of mastery.

What is the okay plateau?

Foer describes the model developed by Paul Fitts and Michael that describes three phases of learning:

Cognitive – Identification and learning of the component parts of the skill being learned
Associative – practicing the skill and using feedback to improve performance
Autonomous – skill is developed and becomes second nature.

Once you reach the autonomous phase you run the risk of feeling that you are good enough, slowing any further improvement.

With photography it’s quite easy to reach the autonomous phase, to become fluent enough with the technical aspects of photography to make competent photographs. To move beyond this stage to make great photographs involves staying in the associative phase for as long as possible.

So how do you keep in the associative phase?

Engage deeply – spend time really looking at the images that you make, what you were trying to make and figure out how to close the gap. Spend time reviewing the work of the masters to make sure that you are familiar with the history of your field. Find a circle of trusted advisors that will give you sound feedback and push you further.

I’m coming to realize that while I may create my photographs alone being part of a community is important to keep me moving forward. If you don’t have a circle of friends to give you feedback how will you build one? I’d be interested in hearing you thoughts.

8 thoughts on “Are you on the Okay Plateau?

  1. I believe that techniques are as important to the artist/photographer as the skills anyone needs in any discipline so that they can perform their skill. Vision, either what you choose to photograph or what you choose to manipulate as you fashion your image from your mind’s eye, as well, is important. There have been some great blind painters, but they have had vision also, so I don’t mean just physical eyesight. Feedback is very important, especially when one feels stagnant, hollow, uninspired, I think. We are human……we need to know if anything is seen in what we are trying to communicate. It helps us try more to communicate and pushes us to describe better. I think it is just as important to hear from the everyday viewer as it is a trusted mentor. Communing with those with like interests only seems natural to me as we really are a species that it is natural to do so. We spend so much time alone creating, why not get some input? We do on other aspects of life.

    • Sounds like we agree! Photographers are a funny bunch – there’s a group that are very much into the gear and never get beyond the gear to really create and then there are the ‘artists’ who never really explore the full potential of their gear but know enough to do what they want to. The ideal that I’m trying for is to be so fluent with the technology that I no longer have to think about it but can be confident that I can realize the photograph I imagine. Feedback is interesting – in the portfolio reviews I’ve had recently I’ve been told not to listen to ‘them’ – the people who would have you create something for a specific market but to keep pushing forward with my own ideas. I found that interesting. Stephen King has interesting things to say about feedback from a close circle of trusted readers in his book ‘On Writing’.

      • I am a longtime fan of Stephen King and have read that book, also. I and probably you? are what he calls “constant reader”?
        …and I like what you wrote, here. Food for thought, always, Andy!

      • My relationship with Stephen King is funny – I’m not a big fan of horror and so had thought there was nothing there for me and yet I love The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption and a couple of others of his that I saw first as a film and then went and read the book. On writing is a great book that could easily be applied to any ‘creative’.

  2. There are some books that are a little too much horror and it blocks out the true message of what he is trying to say. He is still the best character study writer that I read. Might want to try “Delores Claiborne” the book, not the movie; because the movie is nothing like the book. He recommended a book he liked really well a few years back…”Edgar Sawtelle “. Magnificent read if you haven’t already read it.

    • Just ordered Edgar Sawtelle & Delores Claiborne. Those should soak up what’s left of my free time! Many thanks for the suggestions. Edgar Sawtelle was completely unknown to me, looking forward to it.

      Back to the books about the craft of writing – did you read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird? Makes an interesting contrast to ‘On writing’ but the same key themes are present.

      • No. I haven’tread hers. Thanks for the tip. For a long time, I took writing classes because I love to read. Not to be. I was horrible. I guess I’m just one of those who paints and tries to speak a thousand words in them once in awhile, Andy.

      • I was surprised to find that there are a number of these books on writing. Interesting to see what’s on the other side of the curtain. Speaking of which I’ve been enjoying seeing your paintings and the process behind them that you’ve described on your blog. I particularly like the canvas that you prepare as the foundation for the work. I’m interested in trying something similar with my photographs. As a start I was thinking of exploring some of the print making techniques described in the book ‘Digital Alchemy’ ( I’ll let you know how those experiments progress.

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