When we look back on our childhood educations, it’s remarkable how much time we’ve invested learning information that we’ve subsequently never applied. Some would argue that the higher purpose of school is not to learn information but rather to learn how to learn. However, there’s one pervasive lesson that both school and society have so deeply and so insidiously ingrained into our collective psyche, we’re largely unaware of its profound counter-creative impact on our lives. This one belief single-handedly curtails our creativity and inhibits innovation.
So what is this limiting belief?
The illusion that there is a right way and a wrong way… and the associated pain and humiliation whenever we “get it wrong.” Not wanting to suffer such ridicule, we quickly and instinctively learn to go through life avoiding “mistakes.”
Yet, it is through “mistakes” that we learn. When a toddler attempts to take his or her first steps only to stumble and fall down, we don’t tell them they’re useless and that they should give up trying. No. We encourage them to stand up and take another step. But as adults, when we make a mistake, we’re quick to condemn ourselves as failures. Worse still, we confuse the word failure as a noun, not the verb that it is. It’s no wonder then why so many are frightened to step outside their comfort zones. The fear of failure and of being labelled a failure paralyzes millions from pursuing their passions. After all, the only way to avoid failure is to say nothing, do nothing and be nothing.
A much more resourceful mindset is to view failure not as our undertaker but as our teacher. In fact, I contend we should make the word “mistake” redundant in our vocabulary and instead use the word “feedback” in its place. Because it lacks all the negative connotations and emotional energy associated with “failure,” the word “feedback” opens our minds to the valuable lessons revealed in the consequences of our actions. And this applies just as much to photography as it does to every other aspect of our lives.
Up until this time last year, I had never shot with a digital camera. My 20 plus years of photography were all shot with slide film. Unlike digital images, every time you depressed that shutter button shooting physical film, you were very conscious of the cost. Now, if you’re averse to making mistakes, the fact that your “mistakes” are costing you money could well stifle your creativity. Not wanting to risk “wasting” money, you would most likely stick to capturing images you were comfortable taking. Of course, the cost of this conservatism is stifled creative growth and expression. However, if you adopt an attitude of looking at your “mistakes” as feedback rather than failure, the fact that your “mistakes” are costing you money could very well accelerate your learning.
As a self-taught photographer, I attribute my “failures” as my greatest sources of inspiration. Because each frame was precious, every time I laid out my freshly developed film across my light-box, I agonized over every single frame before deciding whether to file or flame. Through this process of almost obsessive analysis, I sought to determine why an image failed and more importantly, how I could incorporate that same “failing” in my photography to enhance my results.
So that same unflattering shadow cast across someone’s face could bring an otherwise flat sand dune to life. That out of focus blur in the background could help accentuate a subject you want to draw attention to. That’s the power of feedback over failure. It nurtures a spirit of exploration and discovery which in turn fosters creativity.
Significantly, this process was performed several days after taking the respective images. However, in today’s digital world where we’re able to preview our results instantly, we’re tempted to judge our images on the spot. Of course, the irrefutable benefit of instant feedback is the opportunity to make immediate adjustments to improve our results. However, in the process of instantly and somewhat ruthlessly discarding our “failures,” we deny ourselves the opportunity to uncover nuggets of gold hidden in our rejects. And while I admit to being less than perfect at this, for the large part, I resist the temptation of trashing rejects on the spot. Through force of habit, I bring the vast majority of my shots into Lightroom and critically analyze them looking for hidden lessons before determining their individual fates. And through this process, I’ve gained invaluable insight into how my camera sees and subsequently how to tap its creative potential.
So just because our digital images effectively cost us nothing, that does not render our rejects worthless. Like the Great Pyramids, our rejects are overflowing with hidden treasures. You just need to go look for them.
So harness the freedom of digital to take risks. Experiment with different shooting strategies. Play with counterintuitive techniques. Deliberately break old habits. And if you scour your results with a healthy mindset of feedback over failure, you’ll be rewarded with a wealth of creative gems.