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Why trying to be the best eventually leads to failure . . . and how to avoid it.

6 Cups of Color - David Hayden Photographer
6 Cups of Color

"Being the best" is a lofty goal for sure but, in the end, self-defeating. The value, of course is that it keeps your eye on prize and gives you something to shoot for.

However, there are many problems with "being the best" as a goal. First, the criteria for success is not well defined. There is simply too much information missing form the goal.

For example:

  • best for whom specifically?

  • best in which genres?

  • best in which markets?

  • best compared to whom or what specifically?

  • how specifically best: in composition? in technical aspects? in postprocessing? in freezing action? in use of lighting?

  • and so on.

Too often lofty goals are not attainable and never sustainable.

Another problem with a goal like this is that it is simply not sustainable. For example, have you ever entered photographs in art shows or contests. Maybe you've earned 1st place or Best of Show. Maybe at the next show, you entered a picture you believed to be far superior and it did not place.

If you were really sensitive about such matters, you might have been ecstatic about your first place win, only to succumb to feelings of failure when your "better" picture failed to place.

Worst case scenario, you might have given the judges far too much credit for their appreciation of your fine art. Maybe you thought them biased or ignorant for their dismissal of your later submission.

So what is the solution?

A goal that is:

  1. worth achieving,

  2. sustainable, and

  3. might actually lead to being "the best" more often?

The goal is to continuously improve.

Measuring this goal is still subjective at its deepest level. But when looking back at pictures taken a month, year or decade ago do you see a pattern of improvement? If so, you have met your goal and by most measures improved. Often this may be reinforced by fellow creatives that comment on their perception of your improvement.

Note: A better picture is no more a measure of improvement than a bad picture is a sign of diminishing talent.

To determine continuous improvement evaluate your current body of work with previous bodies of work. While evaluating current vs. previous work, don't stop at just feeling the new work is better or worse. Make sure you know why you like some images better than others. Then you can set effective goals like:

  • I am going intentionally read and / or plan the use of highlights and shadow before I press the shutter.

  • I am going to pick one element of design and incorporate it into my images for a project. Then pick another element of design for the next project.

  • I am going to study photographs that move me and determine why they are so compelling then do projects to emulate those photographs.

  • I am going to find a worthy mentor to learn from who will motivate me to improve.

  • and so on.

The more you study what you like and dislike about your photographs, the more opportunity you have to improve. Identifying elements in any photograph that please or displease you sharpens your instincts so you can shoot with more intention and rely less on luck.

What about external feedback? Should you have others evaluate your work?

Definitely, there is great value in having others evaluate your work, but always take the feedback with a grain of salt. Without taking it personally, listen carefully to feedback people offer, then, ask yourself if you agree with what they are saying? If so, decide how use it. If not, save it, it might be relevant later.

Feedback from others is ALWAYS based on THEIR preferences and experience at a certain moment. Remember, someone's opinion is not necessarily more relevant than yours. Only you can define your style, your message or aesthetic. Use the external feedback to inform / improve your style, not define it.

You are the artist, embrace it. Continuously improve to become the very best YOU can be.

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