I’ve been thinking a lot about making mistakes recently. As I look around, it seems to me that the most common reaction to potential failure is avoidance. That inner monologue that says “I don’t know how, so it must be too hard.” I really hate that voice.
I remember feeling this way about a lot of things. Girls, mathematics, grammar, girls who were good at maths and grammar. All the usual suspects. As a kid, I remember being deathly afraid to ask questions about anything. I feared the embarrassment. I didn’t want to ask the shop lady if they had something that I couldn’t see behind the counter. I didn’t want to ask the burger guy where my order was after everyone else had been served. I didn’t want to go shopping for clothes in case someone saw me trying on something that looked stupid when I hadn’t realised it yet. The combinations of circumstance that could cause embarrassment from the horrific ordeal of clothes shopping along number enough to fill volumes of script alone.
This one time, at a trivia night with my dad, there was a question nobody was sure of, but dad had an unconvinced hunch. Although I didn’t know the answer, I was sure he was wrong and argued hard to not put it down, preferring to just leaving it blank. He ended up being right and that night, our team lost by one point. I still don’t think he’s forgiven me.
I never expected I had to know everything right away, or that anyone else thought this either. I just wanted to avoid the embarrassment of having people look at me when I did something stupid, or just avoid having people look at me at all. Everything is easier when you can fade into the background, when you can become one with the hue and pattern of the wallpaper of life. The problem is, wallpaper is tacky. I’m not really sure what that has to do with my point, but it is.
Fear is a paralyzing emotion. It grabs hold of your right around the middle and stops you doing the things you want to do. You know you want to do them. You daydream about doing them. You imagine what it would be like if everything went flawlessly, and as you gaze out into that world from behind the buff body and flawless everything that perfect-you has, you imagine victory.
Are you going give it a go? Don’t be silly, someone might see.
A Spoonful of Cement
Harden up, princess.
I used to get so sick of hearing people say “everyone makes mistakes.” I didn’t care how true it was. The problem with sayings like that is that unless they come from the hot girl you just made a fool of yourself in front of by forgetting to do up your fly, they don’t help. And hot girls never say it, they just laugh like everybody else.
The thing is, and I’m pretty sure this isn’t news to anyone, but you’re going to make mistakes. You can’t avoid it, at some point you will make them, and when you do you are going to turn you a brighter shade of red than that stuff in fast food sachets that claims to have some molecular resemblance to Tomato Sauce or Ketchup.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many mistakes I make every single day. It would astound you and cost me stupendous amounts of money for therapy and quite possibly my job. As I get older, something I’ve noticed is that my attitude towards making mistakes has slowly started to change. Where I used to experience paralysis from the fear of embarrassment, these days I care less. It seems to me that failure is just like everything else, the more I do it, the more I become desensitized to it.
This isn’t a general rule. Making a mistake cooking doesn’t desensitize me to making amateur grammar errors. The things have to be related. I purchased a coffee machine recently. I’ve made some pretty average coffees since. However, a funny thing happened. When I started to pay attention to the various steps in the process (like coarseness of the grind, tamping pressure and the effect this has on the water pressure while pulling a shot), I forgot about the mistakes. Well, I didn’t forget that I made a mistake, I just forgot that it was embarrassing. At some point in the process I stopped thinking “yuck!” and started thinking “oh, so that’s what happens when I burn the milk so bad it practically needs a medivac”.
Unleash The Inner Scientist
Around the 20th coffee, something occurred to me from my perch on the ceiling. At some point in the process I stopped being discouraged by making bad coffee and started to be inquisitive. I started experimenting, and as any college sophomore will tell you, experimentation is GREAT!
I found this process genuinely fascinating. Although that probably does say something embarrassing about the amount of excitement in my life, it also carries a much more valuable lesson for you all. I had somehow been liberated from the shame and disappointment and failure of making a mistake by… making more mistakes!
I was awash in a sea of bitter, over extracted, burnt failure and loving it. I finally knew why science geeks didn’t need to get girls. Who needs girls when you’re having this much fun! Chocolate, SOMEONE GET ME SOME DUSTING CHOCOLATE!!
All through this process I was slowly getting better. The change came when I started to pay attention to how one thing affected another. How some action caused a particular reaction, and how far I could push that before it changed to something else entirely. The key here is that I was paying attention, I was distracted from deficiency by diligence. Ever since this episode, I keep coming back to one particular thought:
The only genuine mistake you can make is to not learn from your mistakes.
I could have continued to make average coffees with my expensive new toy like I’m sure most people do. However, with a little effort, attention, focus and analysis of failure, I could do better. I could make decidedly slightly-above-average coffee. Obama was right. Yes we can.
You Still Take Photos, Right?
This site is meant to focus on an interest in photography, so how exactly does this post relate? More than anything, photography to me is about exploration. Lighting, expression, framing, directing focus, exposure, animation, movement, lack of movement, colour and so much more. There is a lifetime of learning in each individual area, and even more to learn in the gray zones where everything overlaps. You’re going to take some horrendous photos, and when you do, you’re going to want to burn the card until every bit that contributed to the horror lies smoldering in a black heap of nothingness.
Don’t just write off bad shots as a waste. Look at them and know why they didn’t work. Then, when you’ve figured out the main reason why, pretend it didn’t exist and imagine the shot the way you wanted it. You might see more in that image than it just being out of focus; and when you see more, you learn more.
You’re not going to take that “Portfolio Shot” every time to flip the shutter. You’re not going to take one every 100 times you try. You’re just going to have to keep snapping and learn to pay attention to what you’re doing. You know those bad photos you have in your library, the ones that “didn’t work”? That’s where the gold is. They are where the lessons are. You can’t take the shots you want without taking the ones you don’t want. Once you’ve turned those mistakes into experiences, you’re going to be ready when you find the shot you’re looking for.
Go make your mistakes.
Update #1: I just saw this post by Chase Jarvis on advice he provides when asked what is the key ingredient to making good photos, or even art generally. His advice? Make a lot of it. This is sort of along a similar theme to what I’m taking about here. Step through the fear and mistakes. Don’t just repeat things. Pay attention, make more, learn more.
Update #2: This seems to be the topic do jour. Joe McNally today posted a blog called… Mistakes. When similar advice starts to come not just from a Hobo like me, but from top-class photographers, you know it must be good.