Doing it Right vs Doing the Right Thing
Preface: I will be synonymously using ‘we,’ ‘I,’ and ‘you’ throughout this week’s edition of 2m2s, switching back and forth between my own personal thoughts, and those same thoughts observed in students and the photography community at large. Please ignore my lack of correct and inconsistent grammar in this particular edition.
In many ways I miss being a beginner photographer. I crave that beginner’s mindset. The mindset of discovery. Getting excited about creating something I’ve never created before. When we’re in the beginning of our journey as a photographer we learn how to “do things right.” How to correctly expose for the highlights, how to correctly compose, how to correctly (and technically) use a flash. And, it’s all very exciting, albeit slightly intimidating at first. But that first time you nail a silhouette is damn exciting.
After we surpass ‘beginner,’ we get into the ‘intermediate’ slump. Most people don’t get past this stage. They also don’t realize that they’re in it. Seth Godin refers to it as “The Dip.” In this stage we’ve learnt all the tips and tricks and we’re no longer getting excited about the novelty of what we’re making. So, we take a few workshops to try and get our creative juices flowing again. We search for that excitement we felt as a beginner. Because without that excitement, it just feels blah. It feels like we’ve lost our passion.
For wedding photographers, in particular I see this happening at about the five-year mark time and time and time again. It’s almost like being a wedding photographer has an expiry date. We’ve passed our peak performance date. We become jaded. We start to roll our eyes at things like silhouettes. Something that at one point excited us.
This is the point at which I hear photographers (including myself) say things like, “I gotta reinvent myself.” “I need to find my passion again.” “I’m in a creative slump.”
If you’re anything like me, you try and fix the problem by doing the same things, but harder. Instead of just a silhouette, I am going to triple reflect it, in a wine glass, while back-flashing it. And, this will momentarily bring me some relief from my discomfort. It’s like I am compulsively seeking comfort in the results.
This paragraph from Martha’s Beck’s latest book, “The Way of Integrity,” summarizes the problem succinctly and with a bit of humour:
My friend Sonia once came up with some useful advice for men who would like to improve their performance in the bedroom. “Here’s a hint,” she said. “If whatever you’re doing isn’t working, don’t do it harder.”
Here’s the problem. Once we surpass being a beginner, we have to also surpass the mindset of doing things right. It’s very hard to get past this mindset, especially in the world of photography, where it’s often all about the end product we deliver and share with the world (thanks Instagram). Photography is all about doing things right, better, and harder. Or is it?
What if instead we focused on doing the right things? The same two words, but different order, and as a result, an entirely different meaning.
Doing things right hinges on the assumption that there is a right way to do things. It’s based on finite results. It’s based on scarcity. It’s based on a correct outcome.
Doing the right things, on the other hand, hinges on the process, NOT the result. Doing the right things leads to infinite results. But, here’s the scary part, the results may be infinite, but they’re uncertain, and uncertainty is scary.
Ironically, doing the right things, for me, was all about disassociating myself entirely from the practice of wedding photography. I felt HUGE relief when I accepted that I actually dislike wedding photography in the traditional sense of the concept. I tried to mask it for years with positive thinking. Paradoxically, the acceptance of my negative feelings towards wedding photography brought freedom and WAY better work.
Doing things right is doing what we’re supposed to do (yuck) according to society. It’s prescribed by culture (in our case wedding magazines, blogs, etc.). Doing the right thing, on the other hand, is focusing on a process that makes sense to you, your values, and your true self. The result? In the words of Martha Beck, “It liberates your vastly intelligent true nature to see reality as it is, not as your culture taught you to see it.”
Just because I miss the excitement of my beginnings in photography does not mean I should go back to it. I can enjoy that stage of the journey from afar, up head on the path, looking back, and admire the view.
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