There has been a concept in self-improvement that has been quietly growing for me, but one book I read in 2020 caused the eruption of the idea, and it has changed the way I approach photography, as well as every other area of my life.
Like many of us, I'd grown up with the notion that talent was fundamental to success, that some people are born with the talent for things and some aren't, that some had to work supremely hard to get where they got and some got a mystical pass for the lion's share of that journey. While there are undoubtedly differences in natural aptitude for given tasks and skills, putting too much weight on its influence over outcomes is detrimental. Well, after reading some books on the subject, I'd started to wonder if it wasn't just a detrimental view, but an incorrect one.
The way in which overvaluing talent is detrimental is mostly obvious: if you can blame any shortcomings on a lack of natural talent, you needn't push yourself. Similarly, if you credit talent for success, you thieve that person's rightful credit for hard work and perseverance. This applies to damn-near anything, but in photography, it is no less dangerous than sports or academia, for instance. If you consider the best photographers to simply have a naturally better eye and more talent, you are hamstringing your own growth.
The question raised by the reduction of stock in talent is how much of a role it does play and moreover, what is more important than talent for achieving success in any given field. Well, the former is difficult to answer, and of all I have read on the topic, there isn't much of an indication as to its power. However, the latter is much easier: hard work. Unpacking what constitutes hard work, or more importantly, effective hard work. is a little trickier. Either way, the replacement of natural gifts for hard work when looking at achievement was likely the best move in both utility and overall accuracy.
The Books That Formed the Basis
My interest in improvement began as a fascination with hyper-successful people, regardless of their field. I, like many people before me, was looking for a common thread that ran through all of the elite. What I found was a sort of relentlessness, a determination and obsession the person had for whatever they did. This led me to Angela Duckworth's book "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance," which examined these top performers in any area to see what they had about them. Though Duckworth's definition of "grit" appears accurate, I realized I was looking to get more granular; I wanted to know what exactly these people did that I could mimic. I wanted something actionable. This was, in many ways, "deliberate practice," where you consistently work on a skill, but with feedback, focus, and analysis.
As I kept reading on this subject, I began to notice commonalities, and a key one was so simple: effort. A lot of the people who had achieved "greatness," for want of a better word, in whatever it was they did, appeared to do more than almost anyone else. The polarizing Gary Vaynerchuk (particularly in "Crushing It") counseled being ubiquitous in your area; whenever anyone searches for what you do, wherever they search it, they need to find you. You need to be everywhere, and that takes a lot of work and persistence. He famously did more to forward his businesses than any competitor. One example is social media, in which he was posting multiple times per day on every platform he could join and still replying to every comment he got.
There were then other books that had work ethic as their chief concern, like Grant Cardone, who, in his book, "The 10X Rule," more or less prescribed doing 10 times the amount other people do. Though this book wasn't my favorite and I didn't find it overly interesting, it sparked a tinder that was ignited by the main book of this article. I had this vague notion that you could "brute force" your way to somewhere resembling the top of nearly any skill — that was, you could just work harder than everyone else and achieve more as a result. How plain and obvious!
With a little confirmation bias (that I did my best to keep in check), I started to notice this obsessive work ethic or "brute force," as I kept referring to it, in other books on the topic. "How Champions Think" by Dr. Bob Rotella is mainly focused on golf, but it also highlighted the relentless pursuit of improvement that many top golfers had. "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell is a book I've covered before, but its premise is centered around repeatedly doing smaller things until they build enough momentum to carry you forward on their own. This suddenly felt as if it was advising brute force by repetition. Finally, and more abstractly, the brilliant "Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything" studied mental athletes and took the author, Joshua Foer, from a guy with a poor memory to a competitor in the U.S. Memory Championship. There is a lot of nuance and cutting-edge research, but obsessive work ethic formed the backbone.
Though these six books (among a few others) had got me most of the way toward seeing work as the primary ingredient to improvement and success, it wasn't until one last book that I had a sudden switch in mindset. It wasn't just a switch in mindset towards photography either.
Talent Is Overrated and the Notion of Brute Force
"Talent is Overrated" is a book I would highly recommend reading if you have any interest in self-improvement, and I won't go into too much depth about what is covered in it. However, Geoff Colvin's work was coincidentally the culmination of the threads I had gathered on growth and aiming for greatness at any given skill. That is, consistent, deliberate practice is what will get you to where you want to be, and talent has very little to do with it. Colvin argues that many of the people that are considered to be prodigies or naturally gifted are almost always the result of the right kind of practice and an enormous amount of it.
One of the most famous examples of being a prodigy from birth — and one of Colvin's best counter-examples — is the musician Mozart. As just a child, Mozart was allegedly composing high-end music, but a lot more went into that than most realize. For example, his father was an accomplished music teacher and composer (who incidentally stopped composing when Mozart started) and began teaching him about music from when he was a baby. Mozart had tens of thousands of hours in guided learning of music from an accomplished teacher before he was even a teenager. So, what can a photographer take from this?
Deliberate Practice, Brute Force, and How to Improve
Colvin's work solidified my notion that I had been setting goals and working on myself in quite the wrong way. If I wanted to take better portraits, I'd set the goal to "take the best portrait you've ever taken." While this isn't a terrible goal, as I would have to work out how to do it, becoming great at anything requires much more work than that sort of aim prescribes. What I ought to have done instead was set the goal to "take 1,000 portraits." This, in combination with analyses and feedback on the images, would lead to much better results. It appears that there truly is no substitute for practice, and for greatness, you need a lot of practice — almost obsessive levels.
While the 10,000-hour rule has been largely discounted, it aims in the right direction. With some honing as to what constitutes an hour of practice (deliberate as opposed to mindlessly repeating the same task), one is at least moving in the right direction of mastery. The best people in every field appear to share this relentless, unquenchable thirst for improvement. Stephen King writes at least 10 pages and does so every day, including his birthday. Kobe Bryant would arrive at practice first and leave last, and allegedly, in high school, when everyone else had gone home, he would shoot 400 more shots before he could leave. This mindset appears to be the best indicator of greatness, and it is as if the people we all see as the most talented operate on the assumption they have none, that they must do more than anyone else possibly can to be the best., that they can brute force their way to success.
If I had to condense my findings from the many books I've read on improvement and achieving greatness, it would be this: do more than anyone else and seek informed critique. I am nowhere near greatness in either of the two areas I want to achieve (photography and writing), but the way I approach the pursuit has changed entirely in the last year. Instead of aiming to write something worthy of reading, every week, I now write a minimum of 1,000 words per day, 365 days per year. Instead of vaguely working on videography and watching tutorials, I make sure a portion of every day is spent honing the skill and then reviewing my progress. Some of the joy of my crafts has been sacrificed, and that's a sacrifice only you can decide you are willing to make based on if you want to strive to be the best.
If you're not as good a photographer as you want to be, the chances are it has nothing to do with natural talent and everything to do with work ethic.
Totally agree, practice over talent every time...
I haven't read the books yet but your article already inspired me. Just signed up for Audible to listen to the last book you mentioned and it also gave me a kick to finish something I've been dragging out all day long! This article came at the right time when I needed to hear that :-)
I hope they help. It's definitely a time where any motivation is warmly welcomed, isn't it!
Thanks for this article. One of the few I have recently read to the end.
For me success is fixing anything (and everything) I can that distracts from the creative process whether that be in my photography or other areas otherwise I get hung up on problems not central to what I need to achieve.
That meant for me that I have basically redone everything todo with my frontend and backend workflow/shop/social since the first covid lockdown here in 3/2020.
I now am mentally a lot more chilled and look at the bigger picture without getting dragged down by the small things.
Concerning Social Media I have a streamlined setup here including a bespoke imageDB and plugins for each platform so the dumb heavy lifting is done automatically allowing me to interact on each platform longer with other profiles/users. Even so I have had to accept that without paying bots/influencers fake followers/likes/comments to increase presence you will not really increase your footprint in instagram etc. That for me was one step too far and something I have zero interest in doing (anyone on IG adding 5K followers per week is rigging the system and buying followers etc. unless and then only maybe they are a known celeb)
This is easily one of the most important, and truest articles I've seen on Fstoppers in a LONG time. Well done Robert.
Thanks, David. Really appreciate that.
I really appreciate this article and the effort that you expended to write it.
I agree with your premise completely - that so-called "natural talent" does not result in material success, and that hard work does result in that kind of success.
However, I have a slightly different take on this than you do .....
I believe that work ethic - one's propensity to work hard, or conversely, one's propensity to take it easy and not work hard - is pretty much fixed during early childhood. I believe that if someone doesn't have a particularly strong work ethic, there is nothing they can do to improve it. We are all "stuck" with whatever amount of work ethic we have. If someone has never worked all that consistently hard at things, then they will be unable to ever do so.
This is why New Year's resolutions do not work. Because if someone has never had the discipline and work ethic to do something, then there is no reason to think that they ever will have the work ethic and discipline to do that thing.
Talent is not something that we either have or don't have. Talent in any genre or for any task is something that is developed through work and practice. But work ethic is something that we either have or don't have, and no one has ever been able to increase their work ethic, not thru will power nor thru any other means.
A good post and I'll just say that my own experience tends to corroborate it. Just keep trying to get better and learn more - what else can we do?
Don't get hung up on 'inspiration' either. Remember that famous quote by Chuck Close? If not, just Google it - or read my blog post:
Excellent article. Always nice to get some additional recommendations to my book list. As a modern professional photographer, I sadly find myself tied to my workstation completing artwork way too much. But...this year, instead of listening to sports, music or even politics in the background, I signed up for Scribd and I've been enjoying listening to audiobooks instead. I've checked, and they don't have all of your list on there, but that's ok...it's nice to actually hold a book in your hands from time to time too.
Keep up the good work!