A Growth Mindset for Creatives - Paul Weeks

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Sep 5th, 2016

Gates of Dawn

The beauty of photography is that anything can happen. I’ve been on photo trips where nothing seems to go right, and it’s surprising that more aren’t like that because so many different things can (and often do) go wrong; gear fails, the weather sucks, cars break down, batteries die, you get lost, etc. There are so many things that come between the couch and a great photo. It’s mind-blowing. That’s why I’m constantly amazed at the new material put out by fellow photographers that I’ve come to admire. Getting the shot, let alone THE shot that may be shared around the world is a nearly impossible task. Most creative achievements I see online leave me wondering how many near misses came first.

It’s easy to look at successful people in any creative field and assume that they acquired their skill via natural gifts, or talent, or some sort of undefinable X factor. It would seem that they were just born with IT. Whatever IT is... an unfair advantage? Or more likely, perseverance through failure after failure. The thing that most don't realize is that successfully creative people tend to have the most failures. This is especially true in photography. I've personally gone through thousands of frames on a shoot, only to end up with a single image that I'm proud to share. To me, the difference between success and failure comes down to what was learned in the process. With a growth mindset, the only thing that matters is getting back out there, better prepared to succeed because of past failures. The alternative is giving up and staying at home on the couch. This same growth mindset philosophy can really be applied to any creative or non-creative endeavor. 

Photography has taught me a lot about patience. It really is the name of the game. Many successful photographers (and people in general) that I’ve met are also some of the most even-keeled folks I know. You almost have to be. There are outliers for sure, but being able to hold your composure and switch effortlessly to “Plan B” is an essential part of the creative process. It's important to keep moving forward at all times. Don’t get me wrong, planning is an essential skill, especially in photography. But, there’s only so much preparation one can do before the diminishing returns of anxiety set in. In my experience, anxiety kills creativity. When in a state of high anxiety I find that my thoughts are consumed with fears of repeating past failures, subsequently prohibiting the mind from operating in the present moment - the only place where creativity can exist.  Worrying about the past or future can bring the creative process to a grinding halt. This is ultimately detrimental to the creative process, clouding creative vision. Preparing to the extent that our expectations are set in stone will only make the path forward more difficult. Part of the growth mindset is being ready and willing to adapt to unexpected situations and prepared to fail before even setting out. The upshot of it all is that every once in a while we get really lucky. A sunrise explodes from behind a dark cloud, a sublime bank of wispy fog synthesizes out of thin air, a forgotten camera battery is found in the bottom of the bag… sometimes things just work out. The stars will (sometimes quite literally) align on occasion. These are the sweet moments that make everything OK. Sometimes we need this luck, because hey, it’s been a while and we’ve earned it. After getting up early and heading back out day after day, something wonderful is bound to happen!

It's easy to forget sometimes that things can and do occasionally go well. The caveman part of our brains has a short memory when it comes to positive experiences, while holding negative thoughts tight, never letting them go. This tendency is a relic of millennium past when remembering where you last spotted a pride of tigers was crucial to survival. It's time to use our higher level thinking to move forward. There is a way to win this battle with ourselves.

Here is how I propose we do it:

Constantly remember to cherish the good things, the lucky moments, life's surprise gifts. Practice embracing the negatives, learning from them, and quickly move on to the next challenge. Be ready to try again... this time a little smarter, a little more mentally flexible and unafraid to fail. If you can adopt a growth mindset and apply it to photography or any other aspect of life, anything is possible. The only real limit to our maximum potential is fear of failure. Improvement comes from having the will to absorb failures and keep attacking new opportunities with an open mind. And we will improve. Because tomorrow the person with a growth mindset will be creating something new and exciting, something a little better than yesterday, all while hoping to get a little luckier than they did today.

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