The Art of Learning

As a professional photographer 28-years into a career, I have spent a good chunk of my life either learning or teaching. I have taught photography workshops of one kind or another for the last 20 years—mostly to give back to the community but also to diversify my income. During the pandemic, for most creatives everything stopped on March 11, 2020. And by stop, I mean nothing was going on at all workwise. Hence, like many of us, I looked to my hobbies to fill up that time waiting for the world to come back online. 

One of those hobbies I resurrected was playing the guitar. I have been dabbling in guitar since my early teens—and back in the day I used to perform live in front of fairly large crowds. Back then, I thought I knew how to play guitar at a decent level. As a pro photographer who normally travels six months or more per year for work, there isn’t a lot of time in between assignments to play an instrument. As a result, for the last 25 years I barely ever picked up my guitar. When I decided to pull the electric guitar out of the closet and start playing again there was a lot I had to remember and relearn. And this is where this article comes full circle. The last three years of relearning what I used to know and learning much more than I ever knew has been very insightful. Hang with me here. This will all come together in the end. 

As the graph below shows learning is a process of continuously trying and failing and eventually figuring out the details that lead to mastery. In terms of my photography, I would say I am off the chart shown below after 40 years of working on my craft as a photographer—long before I became a professional. There are still little things that I pick up and the learning will never end but for the most part I have learned eighty to ninety percent of what I really need to know to create the images I want both for myself and my clients. At this point it is more about going out and creating the images than it is about learning how to create them. 

But when it comes to guitar, I have realized that I am in the valley just beyond the first bump. Back when I was playing in a band in Austin, Texas I thought I knew what I was doing. I knew there was a lot I didn’t know but I didn’t worry about that. I wrote songs, performed them on occasion and had a lot of confidence—enough that I could perform solo (singing and playing) in front of a large audience. That experience in my early twenties has really helped me throughout my career when it comes to speaking to large groups of people about my photography. But when I picked up the instrument again in 2020, it felt like I had a long, long ways to go to get back to where I had been 25 years earlier. In fact, I had much further to go than that. 

After a year or so of playing and practicing guitar, sometime in 2021, I realized that I didn’t know much of anything back in my youth. I knew a good deal of the basics but there were a lot of holes in my knowledge and even more in my skills. Assignments in the photo world were still chaotic and since I had lots of time I started taking in-person lessons every week once the vaccines came out. That filled in a lot of holes in my knowledge and was very valuable. 

Above is an image illustrating what it feels like being in the valley between blind confidence and true understanding. Truly mastering anything in a long path paved with consistent effort.

I also started to make the classic mistakes that I see participants in my photo workshops make—namely thinking that better gear will make me a better guitarist. I started out just wanting to buy a new amplifier since my old Peavey amp (from the late 80s) was not so amazing. I purchased a new mid-tier Fender amp and was pretty blown away by how much better it sounded. Then I got the bug to get a new guitar—one that was different from my old Stratocaster. That new guitar was even more amazing and really got me thinking about how much better it would sound with some effects pedals. And then I went to the College of YouTube and literally watched thousands of videos about how to play guitar, studied up on all the different gear and also started intensively studying music theory. On and on it went. My obsessive nature kicked in. 

Two years later I own four guitar amps, five guitars, more effects pedals than I would like to admit and endless little gadgets to connect it all together and record myself here in my office. I completely succumbed to Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) and luckily did not go completely broke in the process. I have learned a lot. The electric guitar is a complicated beast these days in terms of the gear available and all the options. You can certainly get lost in the gear. More gear does not make you a better guitar player. It can certainly make your guitar sound better but it doesn’t improve how you play the instrument. The same holds true for photography, you can buy all the gear in the world and that won’t make you a better photographer. I have seen participants in my workshops roll in with a $100,000 medium format kit that made my own at the time look pedestrian. The image quality was technically amazing but the images themselves, while not bad, were not what I would call amazing. 

As shown above, I might have gone a bit overboard on the guitar gear in the last several years. But creating music, chasing various tones and learning must theory has been a total blast.

Trust me, this is a gear head of epic proportions writing this article. In the photo realm I have two giant closets in my office and a storage locker full of photography equipment. I pay a small fortune just to insure all of it every year. The amount of money I have spent on photo gear over the course of my career could have bought a house in this not so inexpensive city I live in. When I start a new hobby, it usually becomes an obsession and I dive in deep. I don’t go halfway when it comes to gear—especially climbing gear where your life is literally hanging on that equipment. Luckily, I at that point, post-GAS, I am trying to shave down the amount of guitar gear I own since it is not my profession—and less gear equals more time practicing and less time fussing with the gear. On the photography front, I am not sure I will ever shave that gear down, but it is my profession and I need to have all the odds and ends for whatever assignments come my way. 

What I have learned these last three years, that I am grateful for as it gives me insight into how to teach photography in my workshops, is that learning is difficult, and it is a rough road. Some concepts seem easy, and some are harder—it just depends on the person. Often those concepts that seem easy are much more nuanced than they seem at first and it is only months or years later you realize just how difficult it is to pull off the simple stuff well. Regardless, at first everything is hard. Learning and executing a new technique, whether it is a new guitar solo or learning how to use artificial lighting, is not easy if you have never done that before. The biggest hurdle for myself and for the participants in my workshop is embracing failure. Knowing you are going to fail, and rushing towards that failure, knowing that it is part of the learning process is key to getting better at anything. 

Mastering anything takes decades in my experience. Mastery is a long-term process—and it may never end. At this point I am just starting to get onto that second incline with my guitar skills. I am essentially at the base of the big never-ending mountain in that regard.  Years ago I thought I was nearing the summit, only to realize that it was just a small peak among many. I now know just how much more I have to learn and the uphill climb feels incredibly steep and unrelenting. I have literally decades of practice ahead of me before I can even call myself a decent guitarist. That was no different with my photography. It took decades of hard work and constant learning to get to where I am now and the learning never stops. 

Learning new things, and really learning to master a craft, is part of what makes life so interesting. It usually is accompanied by adventures of some sort or another—as when teaching photography workshops, we as a group have a few fun adventures along the way that makes the experience so much richer. Learning can be fun as well, given the right conditions and motivations. If I am being honest, playing guitar again helped get me through the pandemic and deal with the stress and lack of assignments. I am grateful for that. The insight I have gotten from learning guitar and music theory will certainly help me as I get back into teaching in-person workshops as well. 

For information on upcoming workshops visit the Workshops page on my blog.

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