This post was originally shared in my Arcanum cohorts, but I thought you might enjoy it. Here in the Arcanum, we all level up. It’s a cornerstone in our foundation. This inalienable right of every person here is not some sort of “every one is a precious snowflake” idea wherein we all accept each other as we are and clot up in a massive group hug. Instead it’s a promise that if you engage in the collaborative movement toward the unlocking of awesomeness, you will indeed get better at being creative, making compelling art, and earning honest-to-god confidence that your work is worthy of your effort.
The challenge to leveling up is the process. You need to work. You need to do more than talk. Your action is creation and your creation is personal expression that should be coming from some place inside of you where your insecurity battles with your ego and your dreams slug it out with your fear of failure. To level up here, you must post your work. You gotta put it out there for all of these people to look at, to scrutinize, to judge. It’s a lot easier to keep your effort tucked into a pocket and spend your hours being pithy in the chat room. This might sting a bit to hear, but it’s a lot more fun and and a hell of a lot less threatening to whittle away the hours here talking about the latest gear or software or technique or whatever than it is to post something from your heart and engage each other in candid discussions about the effort.
One of the other cornerstones of this place is vulnerability. It takes some serious humility to look at your imperfect photos,(and let’s be clear…they are ALL imperfect), and see clearly the magic intertwined with the shit. It takes a courageous act of vulnerability to post that work in your cohort knowing your fellow apprentices will judge it against their work. Your master will judge it. People will talk. They might even smirk, point and smugly comment about how they’d do it better. We’re back in High School and you’re standing at your locker worried your clothes aren’t as cool as the threads the other kids are wearing. That your hair is pathetic. Your face has more zits than theirs. Can you relate? I’d bet we all can. Insecurity and fear lives in the hearts and minds of every single person. We are all worried about our zits.
Behind these scenes here in The Arcanum, there are hard-working people who spend quite a bit of time looking at the data and analyzing the who, what and why of how we are all making this work. Bar graphs and spreadsheets are employed. It’s serious work and much effort is being expended to level up our culture and refine our experience. We are working hard to find some awesomeness. In that effort, we can see that apprentices slow way down when they reach the levels where they are tasked with posting new work. Levels 5, 8, 11, 13, 15, 17 and 18 are gummed up with people who have lost momentum.
This makes sense as it takes time to get out there and make photos. Most of you aren’t working on The Arcanum full-time. There’s jobs, kids, school, vacations, illness, The Walking Dead, and other “distractions” that slow this New Work thing down. Those are real challenges, not excuses. No one in the Real World gets to float about with a camera doing whatever the hell they want. We need to shoehorn our creative time in between our commitments. I know for a fact that I am not going to be able to make photos if my kids are hungry, or if I have to work late. I’m often so damn tired that about all I have the energy for is watching Rick Grimes fight some walkers. This is the reality of our world, (not the Rick Grimes part, but the other stuff), but I don’t think these distractions from our creative efforts are what is really slowing people down in the New Work levels. I think people are afraid of failure.
I hear it from my apprentices, from other masters’ apprentices, and from myself: “I just don’t have anything I think is worth posting yet.” For many of us here, the times we spend with our cameras are the precious “me” times where we get to escape the Real World and relax. When these moments are fleeting and rushed, our creativity doesn’t have a chance to get traction. We shoot frames, but when we import them into Lightroom, the rows of boxes are empty of inspiration and devoid of meaning. We pushed some buttons and made some crap. It’s no wonder that these aren’t going to make it into the cohort community. You don’t even want to look at them, why would anyone else? I get it. I do it every damn week. It’s incredibly frustrating to eek out some time for your photography only to produce sludge. It is in these moments when you begin to generate ideas that you’ll get the new work done when you go on your next vacation, or when the weather gets better, or when the kids go off to college, or when you retire, or when you go on the workshop, or when you take that class, or when you finish that book, or when you get that new lens, or when you get those new plug-ins, or when you wake up and you are suddenly the photographer you always dreamed of being.
If you are waiting to post your Level 5/8/11/13/15/17 New Work because you want it to be great work you will might as well pull up a chair and sit down because you are in for a long wait. Greatness isn’t looking for you. Your creativity isn’t some magic cloud that is going to drift by so you can hop on. You need to get up early, stay up late, and push hard on the margins of what little time you have to be you and get out there and just KEEP SHOOTING. Forget perfection. Forget all of the rules you are supposed to check off every time you press the shutter button. Focus instead on the basics. Compose with courage, expose with purpose and process with passion. Boldly jump in and splash around until you find yourself swimming.
The true greats in photography don’t have access to some sort of mystical force. They are great because they kept at it. Their image libraries are crowded with crap too. The bold truth is they have more crap than you do. They also have more treasure. There is a crap-to-treasure ratio that every creative has. The ratio may never change, but if you produce more crap, that means you also produce more treasure. The trick is to not get bogged down in the crap. That zit on your forehead? It’s a small percentage of the surface area of that forehead. Why does it get all the attention?
The Arcanum should be a safe place for us to work. If we are committed to the values of vulnerability, creativity, collaboration and curiosity, then we must prove it by being all of those things in everything we do. If you are stuck at a New Work level and you are afraid of posting because your stuff isn’t as good as you’d like it to be, post it anyway. What ever level you are on is not the end of your journey. We are in an ever-expanding universe. If you think that you must attain some sort of mastery by level X, you really need to look up and see that the levels stretch off to infinity. At the risk of adding another metaphor to this discussion, I see The Arcanum as a very long hike and each day’s campsite is a level. As with any long hike, the journey isn’t in each day, but the accumulation of days. The Arcanum is a journey and you should endeavor to keep moving. Who knows what amazing adventure lies over the next pass?
Keep moving. Press on with curiosity and courage.
And quit waiting for perfection.