I feel terrible that I forgot where I got this, but Jessica Ivins’s “My Advice for Becoming a UX Designer” is great advice for almost any creative pursuit. Photographer? Graphic designer? Writer? Sculptor? It all applies.
Do you have the aptitude? Join a community. Learn more. Get great advice. Make more stuff.
Looking at that list, it’s good advice for any career or hobby.
My family took a trip to the Jackson County Fair a few weeks ago, as we do every year. It’s something we look forward to each year: the food, the animals, the people watching. All the lights and sounds and colors make for great photo opportunities. It’s a lot of fun.
Each year, in the 4H pavilion, the fair hosts contests – everything from antiques to crops to artwork. Last year, I entered some photos for the first time, and did pretty well. This year, I opted not to, just because the deadline passed and I had other things going on.
Looking through all the entries this year, it struck me: There were a ton of great photos, and I hadn’t heard of any of the photographers.
As much as we may follow other photographers that we like, and check out exhibitions of nationally-known artists, there’s a ton of great work being made right in your own community, by people you’ve never met. You may work with one of these folks. Or they may make you coffee. Or they pick up your trash.
They work just as hard as you do, find great scenery like you do, struggle with creativity and energy just like you, and wonder about getting their work seen – as we all do. They’re all out there hustling, trying to find their photographic voice, and entering a little county fair competition to get some confirmation of their vision.
We struggle so much with marketing, and self promotion, and creative struggles. Meanwhile, our neighbors are out there making stuff, and entering it into a competition to earn a few bucks and a ribbon.
Maybe they have something to teach you (or vice versa). Maybe you should look them up and go make something together.
I’d take an old Macintosh, either from eBay or an e-waste drive, plug it in, fire it up, and fix whatever was wrong.
I’d add RAM, or install a new PRAM battery. I’d clean out the vents and get the gunk off the keyboard. Make sure the mouse worked. Install the latest version of the operating system. Try out a different hard drive.
This went on for three or four years. Take a random Friday night, put on The Verve Pipe’s Villains, grab a six pack, and tinker. And then I’d write about it.
I loved it.
And then I walked away.
In its place, I picked up a new hobby, and slowly let the former one slip into the past, like Saturday morning cartoons or homecoming dances.
This happens to lots of us. Often, several times during our lives. Maybe we outgrow our hobbies after a while, or situations change in life. We get married, start families, switch jobs. Our priorities change.
I used to feel bad about leaving my Mac hobby behind. I still love tinkering, and I still play with my old PowerMac and Newtons.
But just like I left behind playing Magic: The Gathering, and staying up late trying to beat Super Mario Bros. 3, I switched gears.
It’s okay to try on new things, and leave old things behind. Maybe photography won’t be “my thing” forever, and that’s fine, too.
For a long time, I used disposable cameras and point and shoots to do my photography. It wasn’t quite a hobby yet, but I used those two tools to do a lot of shooting – particularly on cross-country road trips.
But then something flipped, and I wanted to take photography seriously. I had the drive, and the intent, so I saved up money and bought my first DSLR in 2010. I saw it as an investment in a new hobby.
I get the sense that many people buying entry-level DSLRs are buying the “fancy” camera to take “better” photos.
Don’t buy a fancy camera unless you have the patience and time to do it right.
For most people, a smartphone camera is all they ever need. Point and shoots are great, and affordable.
Buying a DSLR or mirrorless camera is like buying a pet: it needs feeding, care, to be taken for a walk, etc.
If you are among those who simply love to shoot for the sake of shooting and do it for the love of exploring the world through a few sculpted pieces of glass without the need to justify that simple joy then by all means carry on…keep in mind that sometimes the love of the art is more than enough.
People have asked me over the years if I’d like to do photography full time and my answer has always been no. Part of working as a professional photographer means that you may end up having to shoot things that are not your passion.
I totally agree. Photography is a hobby. Getting paid is nice, but I’m always nervous it’ll take the fun out of one of my passions.
I’m an amateur soccer player, an amateur cook, an amateur skier, designer, racecar driver, and flyfisherman. And I’m happy to be an amateur at all of those things. Actually I LOVE being an amateur at all of those things – it allows me to dabble, make a ton of mistakes, goof around, drop the ball, not care when something else might be distracting me etc.
Being an amateur at those things means I can be comfortable. It’s safe. There is no fear of success or failure.
There was a time when I could hear a song on the radio, pick up my guitar, and strum it out until I got the hang of the song’s chord progression or riff.
In high school, after I picked up my first guitar for $100, I could sit for hours and learn my favorite songs. Over time, I built up a competency for guitar playing. No, I couldn’t hammer out solos like my friends. I didn’t have a knack for songcraft, either. But I had enough skill to play what I wanted to play, and to learn something I heard and liked.
I like to think I still have that skill set. Like riding the proverbial bike, from time to time I pick up my acoustic guitar and everything comes back to me. The time I spent in high school was an investment that pays off every time I play.
My guitar playing came to mind during Merlin Mann’s 37-minute-long video on expertise and fake self-help. Mr. Mann learned that there are several levels of expertise, ranging from novice to expert, and your placement on the gradient is proportional to the time and attention you place on whatever it is you’re studying.
A novice, the thinking goes, starts out knowing nothing, and learns by doing exactly what they’re told. Learn the basics. Simple enough.
My journalism professor, Dr. Dennis Renner, said that “rules are made for smart people to break.” That little maxim always stuck with me because it makes so much sense. Learn the basics before you go sprinting off to change to world. You have to know something before you can’t start messing around. You don’t get smart until you move past the novice level.
So the expert and the master, as Mann labels a sixth level, are free to break the rules because they know the rules inside and out. They know the rules so deeply and personally that the rules fade into habit.
It’s the step above novice, what Dreyfus calls “advanced beginner,” that has me thinking.
For years now, I’ve dabbled in many things and have become an expert of none. It’s the Renaissance Man Syndrome: know a little about a bunch of stuff, enough to talk intelligently during dinner hour conversations, but not enough to go out and change the world. Or get anything practical done. Just knowing is different from actually doing.
Take graphic design. I’ve been doing design work for almost seven years now, from my first design class in college, yet I wouldn’t call myself anything next to an expert. I know enough to get my job done, to dabble in freelance projects, and that’s it. Mostly, I think it’s because I never developed a strong enough foundation. No art training and little design sense handicap me, and prevent me from developing my craft to an expert level.
Writing, however, is something I know deep and well. My whole life, I’ve studied grammar and story telling and expository writing. It made English an obvious bachelor’s degree choice, and helped journalism come naturally to me. Writing isn’t easy. But I know enough to do well, help others, and critique bad writing when I see it. This comes from years of doing writing.
As Merlin says, every writing book on Earth has one shared piece of advice: sit in a chair and write. That’s the only way to get better.
Well, that and pick up a goddamn book now and again.
But besides writing, I don’t have a particular skill I can call my own. Sure, I can fix a computer – but I get the knowledge to do that from online searches and a bit of history. And yeah, I can take a decent photograph – but that comes from seeing how others have done it, not from any particular depth of knowledge.
I respect men and women who can work on cars so much. They have to know a vehicle deep and well or it doesn’t get fixed. It’s a skill I’d love to pick up (and it has me researching some ways to do just that).
Mann argues that so much of our knowledge about a particular subject doesn’t get much deeper than a Wikipedia search and a few how-to articles. We become beginners at something and never really advance beyond that. It’d be like Michaelangelo putting tracing paper over a painting he saw and transferring it the Sistine Chapel. From afar, it might look nice, but up close – well, anyone could do that.
That little bit of knowledge makes us arrogant. We end up thinking we know more than we actually know.
Renaissance Men and Women of old, especially some of our founders like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, knew a great deal about many things. They were deep and wide. Their lives were dedicated to learning and thinking, and – in all fairness – few of us have time for that today.
Instead, we take up hobbies and learn a lot about one or two subjects. But knowing something deeply doesn’t simply affect what we do in our free time. It also affects our prospects for employment and advancement.
And shucks, it makes us interesting people. Deeply interesting. Like, magazines-or-NPR-will-interview-you-for-your-expertise interesting.
That’s not for everyone. Some people (and you know them well) are comfortable with a mile wide and an inch deep. I respect that, and it’s naive to think that everyone will become an expert in something.
But man, wouldn’t it be great if we had more people who knew what the hell they were talking about when they open their mouth?
Wouldn’t it be cool if more of us moved past the “advanced beginner” stage?