I’ve written before about ‘flow’, the idea that we find pastimes most enjoyable and rewarding when they meet certain criteria, one of which is a balance between our ability and the challenge we’re tackling.
This balance between ability and challenge can be difficult. We tackle a subject, and as we continue to work on photographing it, we come to grips (slowly, if you’re at all like me) with the challenges it holds for us. And then, as the sense of challenge drops off, we tend to feel less satisfaction, and so the project tends to drift to a stop. Or at least, that’s what I suspect happens to me.
We start out as beginners, and there’s a huge raft of challenges ahead of us. As we gain some mastery of what we’re doing, the raft of challenges diminishes, and the challenges become bigger and harder, and so we lose that balance that makes things rewarding.
The interesting thing from my point of view is that often a change gets thrown into the mix (or we can deliberately introduce a change), and suddenly everything becomes fresh again. We’re back to being a beginner, in a sense. Just as I was starting to feel like I had a bit of a handle on photographing the gardens around my home, the seasons changed, and I had a fresh challenge. Flowers wilted and disappeared, leaves fell, and I was left with barren branches. Just as I started to get a grip on bare branches, snow fell, and everything changed again. I’ve gone nearly full circle with the garden, and I expect that when the leaves start to emerge this coming spring, I’ll feel like a beginner again. And, surprisingly, this has kept my photo garden photography immensely rewarding. The photos might not amount to much, but I’m having a heck of a good time.
It would seem that constantly being set back to being a beginner would be frustrating. There’s no Elysian field where we can rest photographically, experiencing the reward of making great photographs but never feeling challenged. With every change of subject, sometimes with every frame, we’re back to being beginners. The good news is that the experience of reward doesn’t come from results, it comes from the process of tackling those challenges. That’s true whether it’s the first time we’ve ever made photographs, or we’ve got many tens of thousands of photographs in our portfolio. We feel a little thrill every time we push past our current limits. That little thrill is what keeps us coming back.
And the curious thing is that if we suddenly managed to expand our skills so that nothing is a challenge, then the reward we experience would be gone as well. Robert Browning wrote “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?” The curious thing is that unless our reach exceeds our grasp, we get no reward, and by my thinking, we’re not in Heaven. Heaven isn’t when there’s no challenge. Heaven is when we’re constantly being nudged to confront fresh challenges that are sized just right.
Dredging up that Browning quotation from the cluttered box of random stuff that’s stuffed into my head for no apparent reason, I was a little uncertain of the exact wording. So I consulted that great resource for such things, the www, and came up with another Browning quotation I’d never seen before:
The aim, if reached or not, makes great the life. Try to be Shakespeare, and leave the rest to fate!”
This Browning guy, I think he had a clue.