Photography and the Growth Mindset

Here is the result of moving my tripod while the shutter was still open
Here is the result of moving my tripod while the shutter was still open

For the past 10 weeks I have been studying the “Principles of Learning” as a part of my masters degree in education. This course was particularly interesting as it talked about a lot of interesting issues on how students learn and how the brain acquires new information. While reading a number of extremely interesting books for this course, Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” book stood out to me. Particularly with regards to photography.

In the book, Dweck theorizes that there are 2 mindsets a “fixed mindset” and a  “growth mindset” and that the growth mindset usually leads to greater achievement. When I looked at these two mindsets while focussing on photography, it gave me some useful insight into what may be a sticking point for some people. Certainly for myself it brought up a number of issues.


The Fixed Mindset

The fixed mindset for a photographer relates to how they approach talent, failure and their progression. A photographer with a fixed mindset feels that success if often determined by the kind of camera they have. While we all drool over the latest cameras to hit the market, a fixed mindset photographer views a camera as an identity. Think of it like saying “I have a Canon 5DSR, so that makes me a professional photographer” and thus, they feel better about themselves and their photography.

This identity also carries over into the film world as well. I find that those people who clearly focus on the type of camera that they have use it as form of self identity. They use a film camera to set themselves apart from the generation of photographers only using digital. We may not always go to these extremes but you do see a lot of these types of people within the photography community.

9975763735_453882a311_cThe fixed mindset really comes up when people view their photographs as well. On the surface they may produce great work and show it in many places but deep down they know that they are safe. Their image and self identity rest on how many likes they get or how many positive comments they receive. So they will usually only post to places where they feel that they will get positive recognition for their work with little risk of criticism. A short “critiques are welcome” maybe added but in all honesty the fixed mindset photographer knows that they have a great shot and not too many people well step up and rip it apart.

The fixed mindset photographer also is one that is usually good at one style and is minimally trained. This may seem like a good thing but the problem is that there is no growth in an ever changing industry like photography. While many photographers have stuck with the tried and true classic forms of photography,  they have worked decades to get there. A new photographer or even a relatively established one, has to keep growing in order to stay relevant and fresh.

So when new styles and techniques come out, many fixed mindset photographers will disregard them as garbage or cliche. Quite often they will be the most vocal about how awful or trendy this new form of photography is. This in many ways is a vocalization of insecurity or overconfidence. While there is much to be said about perfecting style and sticking to it, you can severely limit yourself by not experimenting on the side as well.

Finally, the fixed mindset photographer may give up on things easily if the right recognition is not received. This may even include photography itself. You will find that many photographers who fail to keep a blog or site updated may doing so out of fear or perfectionism. They want the recognition but because the product is so closely aligned with their personality they fail to produce anything until it is perfect. This state of perfection may never really come.


The Growth Mindset

The growth mindset is all about adjusting to failure and using it to grow. I believe it was Henri Cartier-Bresson that said “your first 10,000 photographs are your worst” and many people hold this to be true. The photographer with the growth mindset is learning for those first 10,000 blurry shots to find out how to take better shots. In contrast, the fixed mindset photographer may be devastated and think they are a failure if they are not taking the best shots all the time.

For the growth mindset, the world of digital photography is a great place because mistakes and experiments can be erased for free. However, I would recommend going through them and understanding why you made those mistakes. What was your aperture set at? Did you use a tripod?   could you have changed the angle to get a more balanced shot? As you go through, you can just delete the shots but taking time to reflect on those mistakes is what will allow you to grow.

Failure is a motivating part of the growth mindset and should be for more photographers. Jumping into different styles and just experimenting will benefit your craft in the long run. It doesn’t mean that you have to keep changing your style but it just means that you continue to learn and what you like can be incorporated into your style in time.

Think of a landscape photographer learning about lighting and using models. It may seem like two different worlds but that photographer could work that into their shots the next time they are shooting a landscape and somebody interesting steps into their frame. It may not be always useful but that added understanding of lighting and composition may also help with their own photographic style.

The growth mindset is all about learning. Dweck notes that “This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things that you can cultivate through your efforts” Just think about that for a second. Understand that your photographic skill is something that will grow in time if you put in the effort to learn and apply new skills. So for any skill to grow, you must first plant the seed of knowledge and put in the effort to nurture this skill until it is fully formed.

Often we find ourselves in hard times creatively. We are working our butts off and nothing is really happening. The fixed mindset in us may get jealous of those who are succeeding or become bitter and give up. However, learning to push ourselves through these hard times and develop ourselves and our craft despite the setbacks. Dweck says “The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset” For me personally, this an important point that she makes. Learning to stretch and push through is what could possibly help you separate yourself from all the other struggling photographers.

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How to Change your Mindset

While we all have elements of both mindsets in us, we certainly lean to either side. So how does one cultivate more of a growth mindset? For starters, don’t be so critical of yourself or your photography. If a shot or a shoot doesn’t work out, then just reflect back on what you learned from it. This reflection could come in the form of a journal or even meditation. It is just important that you reflect on what happened then try and figure out a way to improve.

Expect to fail

We often go out with the idea that we are going to get the best shots ever but sometimes that just does not happen. Once you get over the pain of failure you can begin to focus on what you are trying to do. I once heard about this from a book about investing. If you think of yourself on a tightrope between to buildings. You are hundreds of feet from the ground without a net. Would you be motivated to take chances? Probably not. Failure here is death.

However, if they same tightrope was just a foot off the ground over sandy beach, you’d probably attempt anything. After all, who cares if you fall? it actually probably is a lot more fun this way. Photography is the same. That delete button is amazing. If you didn’t get the shots that you want? DELETE. That’s it. Find out why the shot didn’t work and try again.


Learn and Experiment

As I said before as you learn, you will grow. The internet is a great thing and there are millions of places to learn something new everyday for free. So why not try something new? Again, if you fail who cares? However, the process that you went through to learn and test out something new will help you in the long run. the same goes for the people your shoot with. Learn from them! If you have a friend that does portraits, take the time to assist them. You never know when those skill mind come in handy.

Review and Reflect

One of the best things that I have does recently is go through my old photos and start deleting the failed shots. Not because I was ashamed of them but I wanted to free up space. However, I took the time to see what went wrong. What did I do wrong that I could have done better… then I delete them. This reflection process helps me break out of old habits and stop the recurring mistakes. You will be amazed at what you find and how much space you can clear by going back and deleting your old shots in this way.

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Final Thoughts

The bottom line is that you must continue to learn and to growth. As photographers we often get set in our ways and spend more time justifying why we shoot what we shoot rather than learning new and different ways to shoot. We must learn from our mistakes and strive to improve upon them. You could almost say that in order to grow we must welcome the challenge and enjoy our mistakes. Then and possibly, only then will our minds be free enough to focus on what really matters, the art of photography.

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