Musings on Photography

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Posted in art is a verb, process by Paul Butzi on May 7, 2010

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From Terry Teachout’s About Last Night:

“It is the immemorial dream of the talentless that a sufficient devotion to doctrine will produce art.”

David Mamet, Theatre

I like Mamet’s work a lot, both stage and screen. But I disagree with this statement for a couple of reasons. Or maybe I agree with it but think it means something different from what a lot of folks think it means.

I’m a big believer in Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, which he explains in his book Outliers. Simply put, the rule is that in order to get really good at something, you have to put in about 10,000 hours working at it. It doesn’t much matter what the something is: playing guitar, or making photos, or writing novels, I suppose. Ten thousand hours. Sounds like a lot, but if you spent 10 hours a day on something, you’d tick over the 10,000 hour mark in under three years. That’s a nontrivial effort, surely, but it’s by no means impossible.

I suspect that what people call ‘talent’ is actually one of two things:

  1. ‘Undeveloped talent’ – what people show when they’re quite young – is an interest in a subject that might be sufficiently strong to carry them over the 10,000 hour mark in their pursuit of that subject.
  2. ‘developed talent’ – what people are usually talking about when they say ‘Oh, she’s so talented’ – is more a recognition that they’ve climbed over the 10,000 hour mark.

So I read that Mamet quote, and I’m thinking a lot of people read it as “If you haven’t got talent, forget about it”. But what Mamet is actually saying is that if you haven’t got talent, no amount of blindly following the rules will produce art. And, yes, I agree that this is probably true, if by ‘Art’ you mean ‘Art that will be viewed with widespread acclaim’.

I guess my point would be that if you’re putting in your 10,000 hours to get good at something artistic (photography, or playwriting, or playing violin, or chainsaw sculpture), you’re engaging in artmaking. It may be that what you crank out won’t win widespread acclaim, at least not until you’ve paid your dues and put in the 10k hours. But your experience – what really matters in the personal sense – is still that you’re making art.

And that doesn’t magically change when you hit 10,000 hours. You struggle with things after 2 hours. You still struggle with things at 1000 hours, although they’re probably different things. And you struggle with things at 20,000 hours, too, because the struggle is part of the process. You don’t wake up one morning and think “Oh, now I’ve paid my dues, and I’m on the gravy train! From here on, making art is as easy as breathing.” Oh, no, life isn’t like that.

Are there inherent differences in ability? Sure. Lance Armstrong is a genetic freak; he can perform at an aerobic level higher than the highest I can achieve, and his heart rate will be lower than mine is when I’m strolling down my driveway. No amount of training is going to make me able to compete with Lance Armstrong. The same is true in any field of endeavor – music, or mathematics, or weightlifting. Some folks just have more inherent ability than others.

It’s easy to look at Mozart and Da Vinci and Carravagio, Newton and Einstein and Liebniz, and say “Oh, well, their achievements all happened because of their inherent ability.” But this doesn’t really help much, because it’s utterly unhelpful in deciding how to arrange your own actions and your own life.

Maybe you’ll never write plays like Mamet, or make sculptures like Michelangelo. But you probably won’t know that for sure until you’ve put in a substantial fraction of Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.

11 Responses

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  1. Gordon McGregor said, on May 7, 2010 at 8:56 am

    I think the harder part in all that 10,000 hours stuff is how you nurture and maintain the sort of passion that can drive you for 3 years at 10 hours a day, or 30 years at 1 hour a day or whatever it takes to keep you pushing.

    Motivation is a funny old game.

  2. Paul Butzi said, on May 7, 2010 at 9:27 am

    Motivation is a funny old game.

    Yep. I have no deep insight, here. Just a lot of very shallow insights.

    But it seems abundantly clear to me that if you don’t have some inner compulsion, you’ll never make it to 10,000.

    About my only observation is that people generally don’t accomplish great things by making great big steps. The accomplish great things by making lots of small steps.

    One quotation on this I’m fond of is Neil Gaiman’s observation on how to write a novel: “Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat”.

  3. Juha Haataja said, on May 7, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Also, does it matter where you get, if the journey keeps you engaged? One step, second step, …

  4. doonster said, on May 7, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    I read that quote slightly differently in light of the 10,000h. “Devotion to doctrine” being the rigid adherence to one set of rules, methods etc. the important bit about the 10,000h that most miss is the structured improvement that is just as important: learning by mistakes, the personal feedback process.
    this, I think, is why too many confuse experience with competence (something I fight costantly in the engineering world).

  5. Paul Parker said, on May 8, 2010 at 8:37 am

    I´ve got a hunch it´s got to be slightly easier playing the guitar for 10,000 hours than with photography. 10,000 hours to develop that creative eye and master the camera free from technical aspects whilst shooting and another 10,000 hours in the darkroom or photoshop to be a master printer, pretty steep hill. Incidentally don´t get me wrong, I totally believe in this 10,000 hour theory it´s total and utter common sense but photography must one of the most difficult of arts to master.

  6. Paul Butzi said, on May 8, 2010 at 9:41 am

    I´ve got a hunch it´s got to be slightly easier playing the guitar for 10,000 hours than with photography. 10,000 hours to develop that creative eye and master the camera free from technical aspects whilst shooting and another 10,000 hours in the darkroom or photoshop to be a master printer, pretty steep hill.

    Mmm, yes. Except I don’t think that image capture skills and image printing skills are independent, so I don’t think it’s double the work. More all of a piece, in my mind. I couldn’t make very good progress on the camera work part without doing printing, nor could I make progress on the printing part without constant camera work.

  7. Paul Parker said, on May 9, 2010 at 3:01 am

    Yes you´ve got a good point and far more useful and positive than my negative assessment of this subject. There is no doubt with my way of seeing it, I will totally fail at the 10,000 hours rule. The only thing is, I´m watching my wife sitting on our terrace painting a landscape from a photo of mine and basically from the beginning to the end all she is confronted with, is her paintbrushes, her oil paints, a blank canvas and her image. The nearest thing to this in photography must be a Polaroid. Anyway I´m going to take your positive view which is much more appropriate to attain a goal in life.
    “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
    Martin Luther King, Jr

  8. Rakesh Malik said, on May 11, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    I think the 10,000 hour rule also relates to the myth of talent.

    There was a discussion on one mailing list once, where someone was complaining about being overweight. Someone else asked, “Have you ever thought about losing weight?”

    Another answered, “We can’t ALL be athletes!”

    Clearly, that’s a cop out — using the myth of talent as an excuse to not put in the time and effort.

    (That’s also a cop out in another way, because losing weight doesn’t require being an athlete, but that’s a separate discussion.)

    It’s pretty amazing what you can do if you set your mind to it — and just as amazing how much you can hold yourself back if you let yourself or someone else tell you what you can’t do.

  9. Ed Richards said, on May 11, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    While I like Malcolm well enough, the 10k hours is from the early AI work on what makes an expert. It is also not just doing something for 10k hours, it is studying it, and consciously identifying mistakes, and learning from them. I have seen lots of folks do things for 10k hours and, to paraphrase a Randy Newman song lyric about my employer, start out dump and finish dumb.

    Maybe some part of talent is the ability to be detached enough to see mistakes in your own work. In medicine, for example, perhaps the most common cognitive error by physicians is not recognizing when things are not right, so they do not reevaluate the situation and their decisions. Most malpractice is not a single bad decision, but a chain of bad decisions and the malpractice is not recognizing the chain. (We are probably going to learn that is also how oil wells fail.)

  10. Anita Jesse said, on May 13, 2010 at 11:34 am

    “Are there inherent differences in ability? Sure.”

    I think that is the main thing that gets in the way of our sticking with the 10k hour goal: the fear that even if we invest the time, we will have to face the fact that we don’t have any talent. Some days it seems so much easier to give up in case we did get shortchanged in the talent department.

    It seems to me that it takes a certain brand of stubborness, faith, and curiousity to stay with something. Refusal to give up in the face of setbacks, blind faith that the work is worthwhile; but, perhaps most of all, sufficient curiousity to keep us fascinated by the discoveries we make along the way. A re-interpretation of the word failure helps a great deal—learning to experience each so-called “failure” as a valuable opportunity to gain new information.

    So far, I have seen no concrete signs that I qualify as talented. Perhaps, my abandonment of that illusion helps me continue the work. I can’t really fail. That frees me to settle in and relish every aspect of the learning process. So far, photography has, in a relatively short time, enriched my life in ways that I could never have imagined.

  11. Paul Parker said, on May 14, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    There must be a very powerful overiding passion within you to reach the 10,000 hour rule. Maybe it´s stubborness or you just can´t help keeping on as nothing else fulfills you in the same. You´ve got to enjoy yourself or there is no way you will ever reach it.
    Paul


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