31,562. According to my primary photo editing software (Apple’s Photos for Mac) that’s how many photos I took in 2017. That’s an average of 86 photos every single day but that mean masks a huge range and there are very few “average” days. When I’m traveling I take closer to 300 photos in a typical day. On a regular day here in Saigon I might take just 5-10.
During the roughly 12 years that I’ve had an advanced camera and consciously tried to improve my photography, I’ve spent some time thinking about how we get good at things in life. Photography, cooking, making music, our jobs etc. – with any practical skill, how do we steadily improve from absolutely no ability to the peak level of competence we are able to achieve?
During the many years that I’ve lived abroad, this topic often comes up when I find myself in conversations with non-native English speakers who want to improve their ability in the language. What I always tell them is that to improve their English what they need to do is actually practice speaking English as much as possible, as often as possible, for instance by making friends with native English speakers or joining an English conversation group. This seems so obvious but in my experience it’s typical for them to believe that the solution is another English course. “But I can’t speak with foreigners until I learn more English in a course”, they’ll typically say. (Of course, the irony is that they’re getting through an actual conversation with a foreigner as they say this.) “Nope, you can’t speak English more than you do because you don’t speak more than you do. What you need is more practice, not another expensive class,” I reply. I think this misconception that what’s needed is another course or book is partly created by the clever people who market these things.
More importantly though, I think that excessive studying and other types of preparation are often used as a sort of covert procrastination strategy, putting off the real work without feeling like we’re doing that. These preparatory activities are often easier to do than the hard work of actually doing something. They make us feel like we’re making progress when the reality is that once we’ve achieved a basic level of knowledge, we’d make more progress by just plunging in to the messier, but more effective, work of practicing and failing and practicing some more. To take the learning English as a foreign language example, it’s easy to sign up for yet another language course. It’s much harder to go out and make foreign friends or get into free flowing conversations in a foreign language.
I know I’ve certainly done this sort of thing. Looking back on all the papers I wrote in university and graduate school, I spent way too much time doing research, note taking, outlining and other types of preparation. I generally received good feedback on my written work, but the papers would have gotten done much faster and would have been even better had I spent a lot more time on actual writing and rewriting and less time preparing.
In graduate school, I had the opportunity to take a course on Japanese history from the renowned Japanese historian John Dower while he was writing a work what went on to win the Pulitzer Prize (Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II). I’ll never forget advice he gave to us students in the context of getting us started on our own term papers, “My book gets written when I sit down at my computer and write. Period.”
With this blog, I do spend about five minutes in the beginning making a really brief bullet point outline as a sort of rough map for my idea. And while writing, I will do a quick google search here and there to look something up, but I’ve really become aware that virtually the only thing that matters in how much I write and how good I feel about the content is how much time I spend actually writing and rewriting.
I think that in university and graduate school I worried that I’d write a bad draft if I didn’t prepare enough, and that a weak first draft would mean a weak final paper. One of the insights I’ve had writing this blog for nearly two years now is that, for me at least, bad first drafts are almost unavoidable. There are some posts where I hate my first draft so much that I walk away from my computer in a state of shame and think about taking up a new hobby. But what makes those bad first drafts better is not more research, note taking or outlining. They become better by spending more time rewriting. Word Press counts the number of revisions each post went through and I’ve noticed that perhaps the single biggest factor in how happy I am with a post is how many revisions I was able to do before publishing it.
With every practical life skill (speaking in our native language or in foreign ones, cooking, building rockets) I think we mostly improve by doing that thing over and over and over, and improving a little bit each time. Taking courses, reading books and other types of academic learning, while helpful with many skills, are secondary to actual practice.
Highly technical fields like medicine or engineering, which have profound implications for public health and safety, are of course exceptions where practitioners can’t dive in after gaining a basic level of knowledge. With fields like these long academic study and practical training is naturally required, but here too I think peak excellence is achieved only by lots of practice. Even if they graduated from the top medical school, who wouldn’t be nervous as a new doctor’s first patient?
With more practical, everyday skills like cooking or photography, there may be little or no need for academic training at all. Of course, no one’s going to die if I take a bad photo. No buildings will collapse either. That’s a good thing because I’ve taken a lot of them!
With an advanced camera, there are some technical things to learn but a single good book on the subject is sufficient. Even with professional cameras, the primary way to improve is to take lots and lots of photos. With a highly practical skill like photography (or cooking or speaking a foreign language), reading all of the best books is useless without practice. (In fact it’s less than useless because excessive reading and study is being done instead of actually taking photos, cooking meals or practicing the foreign language.)
With my own efforts to improve my photography, this idea of awareness I come back to again and again in this blog is really helpful as well. More and more over time I’ll look at photos I’ve taken and ask myself what are their strong and weak points. On Instagram and 500px (a more professionally oriented social network for photography), I follow lots of people who are better photographers than I am and I learn a lot by doing the same thing with their photos as well. Self-awareness, of our strengths and weaknesses, is valuable in learning other skills as well, as it is in life more generally).
I’m rarely satisfied with my own photographs, and that hunger to be better gets me out there taking even more photos (31,562 in a single year!). But when I look at the earliest of the photos in my archive, I realize I have made some strides. And those improvements have almost nothing to do with the reading I’ve done to learn the basic technical concepts or even with the huge advances in camera technology over that time. They’ve come through taking well over 100,000 photos, and through introspection and self-awareness of what works and what doesn’t.
Here are my favorite photos from the last four months in Saigon. All photos were taken within a 20 minute walk from my apartment.