White Hot and Passionate: A Focus on the Process Not the Product

In many ways this is a companion piece to making things with meaning while at the same time was written as a kick in the pants for me – to have something to remind me that pursuing the things in life that seem to create their own energy to pull you forward is much better than chasing after something in a lackluster fashion. Anyway here goes…

Once you’ve found the thing or things that resonate with you and not only want to photograph but can’t help but photograph it seems like all issues with writers block, resistance or what have you should evaporate.

It doesn’t though does it? Here’s the deal, if you’re struggling with the resistance, writers block or whatever people are calling it this week you’re either working on the wrong thing – something that doesn’t raise you to the level of white hot and passionate and cause you to become an unstoppable force – or you’re thinking too much about the product, the audience and how will this thing that your pouring your soul into be recieved.

In both cases stop right now.

Stop working on things that you aren’t deeply commited to, that don’t pull you forward into action and more action. Time is short you need to put your energy, and I mean all of your energy, into those few things that you are truly passionate about.

I don’t think that there’s a place for audience while you’re creating the work. Shut out the chatter. In fact my experience is that if you’re truly working on the things that you’re passionate about you won’t have space to think about your audience.

You can figure out the role of audience later – in many ways this is a separate creative act. It’s called marketing.

Your goal initially is to make a lot of work and to do that as best as you’re able. Does this mean that everything that you make will be wonderful? Of course not. By cultivating a circle of friends that you trust to give you straightforward feedback on your work you can get a second and third opinions to help sort the wheat from the chaff after the fact. The more you make the better what you make will become. Keep at it, keep making. This is not a theoretical pursuit.

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Artist’s Communities vs Mastermind Groups

I continue to ruminate on the idea of artist’s communities and in particular what does it take to build and sustain an effective group. I was surprised to find relatviely little written on this topic until I asked, and answered for myself, the following questions:

  • What do you get out of it?
  • What do you contribute to the group?
  • What is the optimal size of such a group?

How would you answer these questions?

For me this kind of group would provide both support and accountability. It would provide me with access to experience that I currently don’t have, to feedback about current directions that I’m heading in and provide me with the impetus to keep going.

In addition to being generally supportive of others in the group I would imagine that in such a group everyone has overlapping skills but expertise in specific areas. Each member could as requested teach and share their unique expertise with the rest of the group to help all move forward.

I always feel as though if you are at dinner with a group of more than 6 you really only interact with your nearest neighbors anyway, ~ 5 others, so this is the right number for a dinner party for me and it feels about the right size to me for one of these artists groups.  Small enough to be able to really know the other people in the group.

After unpacking this for myself I realized that what I was describing was what is now commonly referred to as a ‘mastermind group’, something that most people trace back to Napoleon Hill’s book ‘Think and Grow Rich’. I read this book 15 years ago and had a quick skim through it again when I was writing this. The language is archaic, making it hard work to get through.

Hill was of course focused on how you can accumulate money and the mastermind group was a tool that would let you develop and vet your plans with a team of people that complemented your skills. Not quite what I had in mind. I was thinking more along the lines of ‘to help you develop mastery and achieve your goals‘.

The Power of Community

In more than a couple of portfolio reviews the folks that I was sat down with have asked me about my community.  Who are the people around you that are able to share in the trials and tribulations of creating work?  The people that can support you when you venture beyond what is safe and encourage you to go further.

What does your community look like?

Hopefully it will be diverse.  You will have the never ending cheerleaders who will support and encourage you regardless of what you’re doing.  You’ll have the people who will pick you up when you’re down.  The ones that know just what to say to penetrate the negative self-talk that many of us can slip into all too easily when we’re way outside of what we think we know is good.  Finally you’ll have the people who will give you straight forward and direct feedback.  Having a good balance of these groups in your life really helps.

As an aside are you like me and hear the whisper of the critic more clearly than the shout of the supporters?  I’m not sure why that is but it does seem to be a pattern repeated time and time again.

Having regular interactions with your community so that you all benefit is what makes communities work. Mostly you need to show up and participate.

I’m also finding that if you are to grow from those interactions you need to ask good questions.  Perhaps this is an obvious to you, but it hasn’t always been to me.  As I’ve grown more sophisticated as a photographer I wish that the questions that I’ve asked have also grown in sophistication but they haven’t.  All too often I look for approval – is this good? do you like it? Does that sound familiar?

Better questions lead to better answers which in turn allow you to move forward.  The simple question ‘Do you like it’? almost demands a simple yes or no answer. A more involved question such as ‘what do you think of when you see this image’ or ‘what could make this stronger’ requires more of the viewer and may well result in more informative feedback.  The associations that people may surprise you and suggest ways in which you can extend the work.

I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts on community – how to build community, how to sustain it for the long term and anything else you want to add to the conversation – add them in the comments section.

New York, New York!

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I was in New York recently – what an amazing place. More vibrant at 10.30 pm than 2 pm.

I’m thinking about community this week – who listens when you talk, supports you when you need to be supported, and kicks you in the pants when you need to be spurred on to be as good as you can be?

Minimalism – Digging In

Not being ready to be done with a minimalist approach to life I decided to dig into a few of my favorite resources and wanted to share those here.

Zen Habits – Leo Babauta share’s his thoughts on living a simple life, quite a challenge given that he has six kids! I find the story of his transformation to a simpler, more frugal way of living began in 2005 to be truly inspirational. Check it out here.

Becoming Minimalist – Here Josh Becker shares the ups and downs of his family’s journey to ‘rational minimalism’. This link is a good place to begin finding out about Josh.

The Minimalists – I’m relatively new to The Minimalists and have been enjoying reading about their 21 day journey into minimalism. Check out their recent presentation at TEDx in Whitefish where they discuss community, consumerism, and living a rich life below. Some of the answers in the Q&A video, also below, definitely gave me hope that I’m on the right path.

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.

Telling Your Story

I’ve been reading Ann Lamott’s guide to writing called ‘Bird by Bird’ over the last few days.  It’s an enjoyable read and like Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing’ has much food for thought for photographers.

One section describes an approach to getting unstuck that involves writing a letter that describes part of your character’s history, or part of your history.  I wonder how many times you’ve tried telling your story or the story of some significant event through photography when you’ve been stuck.  I know that I never have but it seems like something that’s well worth doing.

Some great examples of the use of photography for storytelling can be found on a new website called ‘Rear Curtain’.  The team managing the Rear Curtain site is looking for submissions found out more here.