Talent

Different view of aspen forest

Not everyone can do everything. When your parents told you you can be anything you want to be, they weren’t being entirely honest. Each of us is suited for some things and not for others. We each have certain gifts and talents. It is wired in to us.

I could never have been an NBA basketball player or an NFL football player. I don’t have the strength or physical traits or athletic skill – or the killer drive to succeed in sports – that is required. No amount of work on my part would have overcome the deficiencies i have.

Some things come easy

How do you know what your talents are? One way is to look around at your peers. You will probably find that some people struggle with things that seem easy to you. Many of us have trouble recognizing this. We think if we can do it then everybody else can, too.

Let me give one example. I am OK with math. I don’t love it, but I do it comfortably. A career in Engineering helped a lot, but there was also a natural inclination. They are related. You wouldn’t succeed in Engineering without being comfortable with math. It is frustrating to me to see people struggling to figure out simple things when it should be easy for them to calculate or even estimate an answer. I have trouble understanding that inability because I don’t have it.

But this is supposed to be about art. I find that composition and exposure come easy to me. Yes, I have studied for a very long time, but it always felt like it wasn’t a problem. I still enjoy reading about principles of perception, and leading lines, and contrast and using the frame, and exposing to the right and all the other “theory”. It is comfortable and familiar and valuable. I do not struggle a lot with this. When I see someone who seems unable to get it together, and who worries way too much about what camera settings to use, I’m afraid I just have to walk away. I can’t relate to their mystery.

Some things come hard

Being easy is not the measure of your talents, though. Some things we are capable of doing come hard. It can take a lot of work to develop the ability. I would go so far as saying that if it took hard work to develop that talent, that is better. You will appreciate it and value it more when you succeed. You will probably know it better because you had to work at it. Things that are easy are not very personally rewarding.

If you feel you have a talent for something, don’t give up. Not until you have spent a great deal of time and effort on it. Sometimes talent isn’t recognized until we reach a certain stage of life. Perhaps it has to build on other things or we have to get to a point of maturity to appreciate it.

One thing that came hard for me is giving myself permission to really experiment. To play far outside the norms and the conventional rules. I am getting better now. Hopefully I will continue to grow in that creative direction. I feel a pull that makes me think I should.

My background was very literal and hyper realistic. It was a struggle to break out of that. But I discovered I like the other side as well. Maybe more. Now I am comfortable with intentionally blurring things. I can composite images and play with more extreme colors. It seems the further I go off the normal path of photography the more I like it. Is this a talent? Hard to say. Maybe it is just a preference. I’m not sure where the line it.

At some point, though, we sometimes have to decide we were wishing for a talent we don’t really have. If we have done an honest job of trying and it is just not working, time to change direction. In the process we have learned something new about ourselves. I’ll mention this later, but I found that I have very little talent for drawing or painting. I had to abandon that.

Do you need talent?

Do you need talent to be an artist? A sensitive topic, and I will probably offend someone. My feeling is yes, you do. The mechanics, the rules and patterns can be learned by almost anyone. What is the difference between someone who can barely take a usable selfie and another person who makes what people recognize as very good art? I don’t know. It could be creativity, or knowing how to use the tools better, or natural skill. For lack of a better term I will call it talent. Something separates the very good from the rest.

But, and this is significant, I believe most people can learn to do a lot. You don’t have to be the best in the world to enjoy doing something. Get over thinking everything is a competition with 1 winner and everyone else a loser. Do what you can. Relax. Enjoy what you can do.

Study yourself

To grow, it is necessary to curate our talents like we would our art. We should evaluate and refine and seek to understand. It is a life-long process.

I see it as a past/present/future sequence. We must honestly evaluate where we have been and what talents we have discovered. We also need to realistically assess where we are now. Are we content with what we are doing? Do we feel we are making the most of what we have? And looking to the future helps us plan a path forward. Where do we want to go? What talents will it require? This obviously is wider in scope than just art. We are evaluating our life.

To be realistic, I’m not talking about forcing myself into a lotus position and doing navel-gazing for days. I would probably need the rescue services to pry me out if I ever got folded up that way. The idea is that we need to be self-aware. We are the only one who really understands what we feel and like and what our goals actually are. I believe we should be intentional about our life.

Optimize your strengths

One of the big disservices of the corporate world is the annual review. We and our manager and maybe our peers are supposed to review what we have accomplished and assess our strengths and weaknesses. A lot of focus is on coming up with a plan to improve our weaknesses.

Sounds good, right? Sounds like the self-evaluation I recommended. What I finally figured out over the years is that it is a normalization process. The corporation is trying to make us interchangeable parts they can move around at will. This optimizes their goals, not mine.

It finally was clear that, if you are a top performer, you get rewarded for what you do excellently. You very seldom get down graded for your weaknesses. It became my goal to optimize my strengths. When my weaknesses were pointed out I could say, yep, that is a weakness, and be confident that it will not hold me back.

Relating this to art, it became clear to me early on that I had so little talent for drawing or painting that I would never be happy pursuing that. Also, I have a relatively short attention span for working on an image. I want to see results quickly. I did not want to spend weeks working on a single painting. But I was compelled to create art. Finding photography worked for me as the outlet that I needed . That became a whole world that was creatively satisfying and challenging. By following my strengths I can honestly consider myself an artist.

Our talents are our strengths. They make us unique. We should try to be very aware of them. We should cultivate them and be looking to develop new ones. I believe we all have a lot of potential. No one but you can really know you. Keep pushing yourself. Learn new things. Try new directions. Find those buried talents and bring them out. Be all you can be.

Failing

Walking in the rain

Most of us fear failing. We often avoid taking a risk because we don’t want to fail and feel bad about ourselves. This is a deep seated behavior that is hard for most of us to overcome. Fear of failing can paralyze us.

But I feel that, if you are an artist, you do not have the luxury of always playing it so safe you can never fail.

Fear failure?

Most of us fear failure in most things. Maybe almost as much as we fear public speaking.

Are you a perfectionist? Are your expectations so high that you cannot try new things for fear that you might not do a good job? Does even thinking about the possibility of failing give you rapid heart rate, chest tightness, trembling, dizziness, lightheadedness, sweating?

Or, sorry I’m getting very personal with myself now, are you afraid you are a fake? That you are not good enough or able to do what you profess to do?

Do not believe the labels other people want to put on you. They are quick to want to do it. Did you get rejected for that exhibit you applied for? It doesn’t mean you are a failure. Did a gallery reject you? They were just looking for something else. You can’t really be a failure unless you accept that you are.

Accept disappointment

Not getting the recognition or sales we are seeking hurts. Being rejected by the ones we seek approval from is painful and discouraging.

We have to have a core of confidence in our ability that will keep us going. Our belief in our self must be stronger that the negative messages we get from the outside. Otherwise we will either give up or we will believe that our art is not worthwhile the way we want to do it and we will change to try to become someone else’s idea of an artist. That is living a lie.

We must persist. There are very few true “overnight successes”. Here are some examples from authors. They seem to keep score more.

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter was rejected by 12 publishers.

John Grisham’s A Time to Kill was rejected by 16 publishers before he decided to get an agent. The agent eventually rejected him as well.

Chicken Soup for the Soul, by Jack Canfeld and Mark Victor Hansen, was rejected 140 times.

Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times.

These are just anecdotes, data points. Your mileage will vary. But isn’t it great that these people persisted despite what must have seemed like overwhelming failure?

Redefine

Perhaps your expectations are wrong. Maybe you won’t be the next Joe McNally. There are very few of them.

It could be time to change your metrics. Are you defining success as huge sales? Is success for you to be rock star-famous or published in National Geographic? Try looking at it in terms of the satisfaction you get from what you create. Whether you get fame or rejection, the inner evaluation of your art is your own.

Maybe the failures are a necessary part of our growth and maturing. They can reinforce our will to succeed and our belief in our self. It is part of growing up as an artist.

Seek failure

I’m kidding, right? Who in their right mind would seek failure?

Well, when we put ourself out there, that is giving the world an opportunity to reject us. To consider us a failure. We have to do it, to persist, to accept that the rejection will come because we need to have our art seen.

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” – Sylvia Plath

We should embrace the rejections and failures as steps along the way. It is never fun or easy, but we need to get used to it. Keeping on trying even after rejections helps us overcome fear of failure. If we retreat into our shell and refuse to try anymore we will consider ourselves failures. We will believe that self-talk.

Plus, we learn from the experience.

Learn from failure

Whenever we are learning something challenging there is a time of testing ourselves to see if we are getting it. If we are studying math, we solve problems and take tests. If we are learning Karate we spar and go through testing to measure our proficiency. When we are learning music we are asked to do recitals to demonstrate our capability. The exercises develop our skill and the tests not only prove our ability, they develop our mental toughness.

If we never confront our fears we will never know what we are and what we are capable of. This is easier for some of us than others. It is pretty hard for me. I don’t like it. But I force myself to keep on. I may grumble and be in a bad mood for a while after getting a rejection, but I know I have to keep on.

Perhaps the real thing we are learning is how much we believe in our self. Do we consider our art worthwhile and worth the pain?

Being Different Is Hard

Find your own path

Yes, being different can be hard, especially for some of us. Some of us seek affirmation from other people. Some of us are sensitive and bruise easily when we are criticized. But when we put ourselves forward as an artist we accept the cost of being different.

Better to be the same?

If you are not different, you are – the same. Is that what you want? Do you want to be the same as everyone else? To me that sounds like a horrible thing.

But think about it. For you it might seem a good choice. If you are same your work is safe, inoffensive, comfortable. There will be less criticism if you follow the established norms and are recognizably like some popular artists. If your goal is to maximize “Likes” a quick route is to copy a popular style.

When you are starting out this might not be wrong. As a student you spend a lot of time studying from a teacher or learning about famous artist’s styles. Your work will be more imitative than original. I won’t tell you that is a bad thing. Sometimes we have to try out a lot of styles before we decide what is right for us.

My personal opinion is that if I stay there I have ceased growing as an artist.

You’re unique

Most of us are raised to believe we are special and unique. That we have a special point of view and creativity. As a general rule I believe this. Everyone is as unique as our fingerprints.

Most people, though, are afraid to step out of the pack, to express our uniqueness if it is different from our peers. Take almost any teenager. They are defiantly expressing their individuality and rebellion – by looking and acting exactly like their peers. Only a very small percentage of them have the courage to dress or act different.

I’m not picking on teenagers. Take any working professional or really, most adults. They follow the office dress code. They adapt to the culture of their group to blend in. If they deviate they will quickly be shamed back into conformity.

Some psychologists say as children we learn to be human by mirroring behavior we observe around us. But as we mature we are supposed to become independent. To think for ourselves and trust our judgment. But psychological studies for decades have shown that most people conform to their peer group, even when they know the group is wrong. Still, it is safer and more comfortable to most people to suppress their beliefs and go along with their group.

Different or dead

But readers of this blog are mostly people who consider themselves to be artists. We are using our inherent creativity to produce work in a hugely overcrowded marketplace. If we are the same as most other people we have no reason for viewers or clients to consider our work.

Now to some people this becomes a mandate to be as different as possible just for the sake of being different. I disagree with this. We’re not, or at least I’m not, going for shock value. I believe we should be trying to create the best art we know how to make – our own personal art. If we do that it will be our own unique style.

I’ve said before that your viewers will only look at your image for a few seconds. Our screen-oriented generation has trained us that images are ephemeral, transient, low value flickers going across the screen. We quickly pass on to the next one without much consideration. Except in 2 general cases: it is a great print or it is a unique, attention grabbing image. But I’m not discussing prints here.

When people see one of your images it needs to grab them, stop them from scrolling to the next. It needs to offer them something fresh that intrigues them. It will create value in their minds by being different. Maybe it it too obvious, but you won’t be different if you spend your energy trying to be like everyone else.

It takes courage

Being different can be lonely and depressing. We get criticism, or worse, we are ignored. We are often shunned by the critics and the gatekeepers. These gatekeepers are usually not looking for real creativity. They are looking at a minor variations to whatever established school of thought they follow.

Being an artist takes courage and an independent streak. And the ability to shake off the criticism and rejection and keep going. It doesn’t stop hurting when we are rejected. But as we grow, we develop more confidence in our ability and worth.

When we are criticized we need to ask our self if there is validity to the objection. If so, we can process it try to learn something. Either way, we go on. If we are rejected try to look at the context. Maybe our work doesn’t fit the venue or the taste of the curator. That doesn’t mean we are bad or our work is worthless. Keep going.

Being a creative is a path that requires true courage. Courage is firmness of the mind or will. We can’t let the yapping dogs sidetrack us.

It’s the crazy ones who are remembered

Monet, Picasso, Dalí, Dorothea Lange, Stieglitz, the list goes on and on. The ones who were different but who pushed away the criticism and kept going. We remember them. We do not remember the critics or many of the established figures who these artists were told they should be like.

If we are criticized that doesn’t mean we have greatness in us. We may be fooling ourselves. That question is up to us to decide. Us personally, not the critics. If we decide they are wrong and we are right it seems we owe it to ourselves to keep going. To push through. Otherwise whatever we have within us will never be seen.

I’ll end with a quote from Steve Jobs. This was the voice-over for a famous Apple commercial.

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

A Balance

Airplane landing over water, moon

Being an artist is a balancing act. There are many dimensions that must balance against each other. Get too far off in the weeds in any dimension and you risk losing the path you are seeking. This time I will discuss the balance between egotism and self doubt.

Egotism

Egotism is the sense of being self-important. It is arrogance. It is being focused on yourself and thinking, for instance, that your opinion is more important than others.

Who would want to be such a person? Well, an artist does.

He doesn’t seek to be arrogant, but it is a necessary component of the creative struggle. An artist has to feel he has something to say. That he has a point of view that is unique and worthwhile. And you feel compelled to share your vision with other people.

You have to believe you have the right, even duty, to grab people and say “look at this!” Because you are bringing something fresh and new into the world that people should see. If you are not bringing something new, then why are you wasting your time? But you are, so you should shout about it.

Your art is the best art you know how to make. You believe it is worthwhile. Therefore you should be a little pushy and arrogant. Egotistical, within bounds..

Self doubt

On the other hand, most artists are plagued with self doubt. There is always the voice whispering (shouting?) in our ear. Telling us we are not good enough. We aren’t doing anything new or creative. No one would want to see our work. What the critics say is right – we’re not really an artist.

Because of that self doubt we shrink back. We don’t shoot those extreme or controversial images. We don’t push our work to galleries or contests. Aren’t we quick to believe the worst about ourselves and equally quick to believe that everyone else knows more than us?

That little voice thinks it is doing us a favor by trying to keep us from making a fool of ourselves. To keep us from being hurt. But the reality is we can’t be an artist unless we are willing to be a fool. We will be hurt and rejected and told by the “experts” that we are not good enough.

It is up to our egotism to balance that and help us push on despite criticism and disappointment.

The intersection

Where egotism and self doubt balance is where I believe most artists live. You need both.

Egotism gives us the confidence to believe in ourselves. Self doubt makes us evaluate ourselves more objectively and see if we need to improve. We need both.

If they are not in a healthy tension we can go off track. Unchecked egotism can be self destructive. We can delude ourselves into believing everything we conceive is wonderful and a benefit to the world. Unchecked self doubt will cripple us and shut us down from ever risking anything.

On the other hand, a healthy amount of egotism keeps us moving forward, creating new work, experimenting, believing that we are doing something useful. Balancing that with a certain amount of self doubt will temper us. It will make us question and evaluate things but not be enough to paralyze us.

Like many things in life, being mature and creative means being able to manage the tension of competing and contradictory ideas. We have to use our core values and faith and life experience to understand the inherent contradictions and still deal with them. Without going crazy.

It’s about balance.

What’s Right

Food to be given to needy

Dewitt Jones often makes the point that the mantra of the National Geographic is “celebrate what’s right in the world”. He even has a TED talk about it. At this point in history focusing on what’s right seems like a great idea.

National Geographic

Ah, National Geographic. What a great institution with an excellent brand image. How many of us suspect our parent’s houses are held up mainly by the stacks of yellow magazines in the basement? If you are old enough you remember eagerly claiming your time to read each issue cover to cover when it arrived. The photography was amazing and the photographers were idols to us aspiring artists.

I suspect Mr. Jones is right that one reason for it’s success is that it was positive, uplifting, showing the good side of places and issues. That seems so foreign in today’s world. It is expected now to show how bad everything is. To show the dark and depressing and gloomy side of every issue. Where are you when we need you, National Geographic?

Some things are depressing

It is absolutely true that there is disease, poverty, instability, pollution, economic uncertainty and political division all around. But does that need to be what we’re focused on? Is it really healthy and helpful? If we just moan about it without doing anything doesn’t that just make us more depressed?

Dr. Martin Luther King said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” I believe this to be a very true statement.

When we focus all our attention on how bad things are then everything seems bad. The attitude pervades our life, polluting all we see. That is a choice.

Art, too?

Doesn’t it seem that art, too, suffers from darkness and hate these days? There is a lot of dark, empty art. Like many artists seem caught up in depression and can only create brooding, depressing work. Does it have to be ugly now days to be art? Why?

And we are told that everything has to support a social cause, otherwise it is not worthwhile. Who says? There are a lot of great causes, and a lot of bad ones. What you choose to support is your decision. But art should transcend the cause. Art should be art independent of the social or cultural context. If you are trying to produce art mainly in service to a cause, it might be propaganda. I am passionate about some causes, but they only indirectly influence my art.

Can anything be done?

Is the world too far gone to change? Does an individual have any power to effect things?

I can’t change the world. I can only change me. The world is made up of individuals and each of us can make our own decisions about our values and behavior. Are you restricted to doing certain things or believing certain ways because your Facebook crowd says so? Break free. Are you going to hate everyone who doesn’t believe in your cause because a powerful influence leader says to? Run away.

Be yourself. Make your own decisions.

The sources of information we follow have a huge influence on our life. I won’t get into an argument about “fake news”, but a safe starting point is to believe that most everything you hear is wrong, or at least biased. So listen to many viewpoints and make your own decision. Be a grownup. That builds personal integrity.

If the information you follow is talking about how terrible events or people are but not offering practical and positive solutions to improve things, they are just spreading fear and division. We have enough of that. Stand up for yourself. Go your own way. It doesn’t matter how famous or respected they are.

And art?

This blog is supposed to be about art. Being an artist exposes our beliefs and outlooks to the world. What has yours been looking like lately? What do you respond to? Writing about his WW2 years in Nazi Paris, Picasso said the artist “is a political being, constantly aware of the heart-breaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image.”

I suggest we practice being positive and encouraging. Both in our art and our lives. Not just responding to what happens but consciously shaping our response. Being positive is not a Pollyanna, head-in-the-sand avoidance of the pain that is around. It is an effort to make what we touch better. To make people around us better and more able to cope with life. And to make ourself better.

What do you love? What do you consider good and beautiful? Show it in your art. Help people see something uplifting. Bring joy, not sorrow.

Maybe National Geographic had the right idea. Maybe focusing on what is right with the world would do a lot more good than harm.

Be an individual. Be an artist. Don’t be afraid to follow your own values and beliefs. Try to be a positive influence on everyone who sees your work.