The last book I’ve read is ‘Bounce’ by Mathew Syed. The central idea of the book is that success is not determined by talent, but by practice – lots of practice if you want to be really good at anything.
10 000 hours of practice if you want to be world class – or if you want to put that in perspective, about 20 hours a week, for ten years.
This seems a very long time at first sight so I thought I’d see what others thought. I posted the following question on a number of facebook photography groups.
‘OK good people. A couple of questions that we’re considering for my photography class at school. Firstly, who are the really, really great photographers, and secondly, how long do you think it takes to be a world class photographer? Thanks.’
The intent was to see who people thought of as being truly great and then researching those photographers to see if they confirmed or refuted this 10 000 hour rule. The follow up question is designed to test the idea that people might think that this general rule, if proven, has specific exceptions.
Let’s start with a case study that includes photography, but has many other facets. Firstly I want to make a clear distinction. To be world class in anything is not the same as being really intelligent. Syed gives examples of chess Grand Masters; a sport which one perhaps would associate with intelligence, but Syed explains success in chess (or indeed anything) as something that could, under the right conditions be achievable by anyone of normal ability.
Intelligence is something different, and for my case study this distinction has to be recognised. When I was studying gifted children at university, the following analogy was used to describe intelligence, which I find useful.
Imagine everyone lived on the same street, but were ordered by IQ. Let’s call it Quotient Street. Everyone’s home reflected in some way their intellectual ability. The middlemost houses in the street were those of those of average intelligence. These houses are normal two or three bedroomed houses with all the normal facilities you might expect with suburbia; gardens, garages, access to local amenities. Generally, an OK, sort of place to live.
As you move further down Quotient Street, the houses might be a little larger, and further apart. As you travel along, the houses become more unique, and the gap between houses gets much, much bigger. Once you get into the very, very high house numbers, say the 99.99 centile, every house is different. Some are neat, others scruffy. Some houses have superfast broadband connection, others are full of ancient books, or even notebooks full of information on train spotting. The occupants of these houses may, or may not, be successful in terms of money, but they all incredibly bright. The houses, indeed the worlds these super bright people occupy, are not only very different from the three bedroomed semi of the median, but different from each other. They may tend to be more successful than the average, but intelligence alone is not a sufficient condition for being successful. You need something else. You need to work.
So, my case study concerns a young woman who is, at the time of writing, twenty four years old.
Her CV is impressive.
At age four she had a solo photographic exhibition and was featured in the national press.
At eight she qualified for the county swimming championships for the first time and also joined the National Association for Gifted Children.
At nine she joined Mensa.
At ten she was admitted to the National Academy for Gifted and Talent Youth. She also achieved the British Science Association’s Gold Crest Award, and had a paper on bat behaviour published by a local bat group.
By the time she left school she had seven AS levels and four A levels, had competed many times in swimming competitions at a high level and had won a number of awards in photography.
In her B.Sc. she was awarded a First class degree in a science subject.
A Merit in M.Sc. in geography was awarded a year later.
A year later, as part of her Phd, her first book is published on social policy.
But, in the rarefied atmosphere of the brightest five or six thousand in the entire UK population, ability alone is actually not enough.
Let’s consider this subject’s love of swimming. When she was in Year 8 at school, the girls (it was a single sex school) had swimming lessons. When it became apparent that there were eight or nine good swimmers in the year, the school formed a swimming team which had great success in local school competitions. However, when the girls went to competitions, they didn’t want to sit with their school mates. They moved around and sat with other children. They cheered on children from other schools and often celebrated the success of children they were competing against, rather than always supporting children from their own school.
What the children were doing was naturally reforming into their club identities. Yes, this child was from school A, but she was a member of club X. If another child from their school was in club Y, then she will support and encourage her club teammate rather than her school teammate.
By the time our subject had reached Year 8, she had been a member of the same swimming club for nine years. She’d already been training for an average of ten hours a week with that club. By the age of thirteen, she’d amassed over 4500 hours of training. When she left the club two years later, she’d built up a total of nearly 6000 hours of training. Pressure from exams and a persistent injury were the stated reasons for walking away from competitive swimming, but neither had she done enough work. A close friend made it to the national championships before quitting, but she had started earlier (three) and therefore had not only a year’s head-start, but would usually train for about three hours a week more than our subject, building up over 8000 hours of training before quitting at sixteen.
Let’s consider the same person’s photography. She had her first exhibition at four years of age, and by the time she left school had won a number of national competitions. At the gallery where her first work was shown, the curator was stopped by a gentleman who criticised the work on show. He claimed to be able to do better, so why had his request for gallery space been turned down. ‘Well, you’re not four years old’, was the rather obvious response. And that’s the key. Our subject was not, and children generally are not, compared to adults. They’re compared against other children of the same age. Maybe, the work on show was not of the same standard as a seasoned adult camera club member of many years standing, but compared to the average four year old, it was great!
What our four year old case study subject had, was something that is common of all child ‘prodigies’; adults in her life driving her towards a desired outcome. The question that naturally arises is that of freedom of choice. Is the child a willing participant in this process?
For those who ‘make it’ the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Syed cites a number of examples where the most successful later in life, were the keenest to work hard. This makes absolute sense. If you do not want to do the work, you will not be as successful as someone who does want to do the work.
The obvious objection to this practice theory of success goes something like this.
I drive for about 10 hours a week – or 500 hours a year. If I’ve been driving for thirty years, will have accumulated 15 000 hours of driving. I must be really, really good at driving. (I am!)
Actually, in driving as so many other things, more does not lead to better. When I was learning to drive I concentrated on driving. When I’m driving through Glasgow (which I do once every two or three years) I concentrate on driving. When I’m driving to work, though; well that’s a different matter.
Again, from my university studies, I recall reading that a child gifted in maths needs only three successful attempts for a mathematical technique to become embedded in their ‘normal’ practice. I find that learning a new route in the car is similar. For the first three journeys I really focus of the task, learning the road layouts and the best lane positioning. From that point on, I’m on autopilot, listening to music, daydreaming or my mind focussed on another task entirely.
If the journey takes an hour and I drive the journey a hundred times, that is not a hundred hours practice. It’s only the three hours I spent learning the route, then I stop getting any better. If, for some reason I chose a particularly bad route, then I’m doomed to repeat the same mistakes until chance or someone else puts me back onto a better route.
It doesn’t take long to reach a level on competence that most people are content with. They may dream of being better, being the best, being a world beater, but dreaming will not lead to achievement unless it is backed by purposeful actions. In the arena of photography, many people who consider themselves to be good photographers are never tested on that assumption. They are content with the applause of their peers and the ubiquitous ‘likes’ of social media.
So far, then, with the children who have gone on to great success in various fields, the pattern seems to be built on the driven ambition of parents and a joy in practice by the child. Combine that with inspired coaching or teaching and we’re on the track to outstanding achievement.
Earlier today (as I write this) I was teaching a thirteen year old maths. She goes to what is generally regarded to be a good school in an affluent area. However, the school is situated in a county where grammar schools exist, and her school is not a grammar school. At the age of 10, this girl took a test to decide her secondary school, and in her eyes (and those of her parents) she failed. She comes to me as a child lacking confidence in her ability, but from a background that absolutely wants the best educational outcome for her.
The comedian, Mark Thomas is of the opinion that the difference between middle class parents and working class parents is one of attitude. Middle class parents want, he suggests, their children to have all the privileges and advantages that come with their class. Essentially, they want (expect) their children to do as well as they did. Thomas argues that working class parents want their children to do better than their parents.
My maths student comes from such a family. Lacking much in the way of educational success themselves, they are desperate that their child will do better at school. Thinking that their daughter lacks confidence in a school where she can effectively pass her time on auto pilot, they decided to send her to me for an hour a week on Saturday mornings.
Today we covered solving quadratics by formula, converting recurring decimals to fractions and started surds. All the exam questions that followed were answered correctly – all were A grade GCSE questions, and all were achieved independently after practicing each type only three times.
This girl was considered average in her school (according to her most last school report), but has recently shown accelerated progress across all subjects. At the age of thirteen, she has learnt the power of practice. Practice accompanied by feedback.
‘What’s the next step?’
‘Working out the square root.’
‘Sixty five’. (reaching for the calculator.)
‘Stop. Work it out. What number is it close too, that we know the answer?’
‘Sixty four is a square number, so the answer will be about eight.’
‘Is that a question?’
‘No, it’s going to be about 8.1.’
‘Try it on the calculator now.’
‘You’re correct to one decimal place. Well done. What if the calculator had said something different?’
‘Then I’ve either worked it out wrong in my head, or I’ve pressed the wrong buttons.’
‘What do you do then?’
‘Do it again to see where the mistake is.’
‘Brilliant. Good work. Really, good work. Let’s move on to the next step.’
If she has no effective mechanism for internal feedback her progress will be slower.
This girl thinks I’m teaching her maths. Her parents think I’m trying to make her more confident. I hope I’m laying the foundations of future success. The attitude she is learning, that of checking and reflecting, may be the most useful thing she learns from me. What I emphasis, and say several times each session is ‘work’. It is her work that brings success.
This is a different type of feedback than photographers are used to. Invitations for CC (Constructive Criticism) on social media are open invitations to attack by internet trolls, or in some ways worse, ‘helpful’ criticism from people who know little about photography.
The problem in eliciting feedback from the internet community is that everyone feels entitled to an opinion. Of course, this is where I started this piece, by asking facebook groups for opinions. I’m not asking for judgements on the artistic or photographic quality of my own work, however. I’m also in total agreement with the words of the writer Harlen Ellison when he said, ‘You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.’ I’m also aware that from the middle of Quotient Street you can turn left as well right. Photography is a mixed ability activity.
In ‘Bounce’, Syed describes the months of practice required to understand a particular shot, and the internal feedback it developed to understand why shots went wrong. What my maths student is learning is to check for sense. From what she knows, does the solution she has come up with make sense? From that, we lead to transfer. Can she use what she knows to, not only check her answer, but to move on to something that she previously did not know? She has not built up the necessary practice to see the best solution immediately, but is beginning to be able to apply tests to her solution to check the answer against things she has already learnt.
In photographic terms, when something goes wrong, does the photographer have the experience to identify the problem and then correct it? Faced with a novel situation, does s/he have the ability to move to a new level of understanding based upon accumulated knowledge and experience.
Turning to who are the very best photographers, the world beaters, truly world class performers, the list was full of famous names, all of whom learnt their craft in earlier times where the skill-set of a photographer included extensive darkroom experience and the ability to lift heavy weights.
Two names though, emerged from the modern digital age, and were mentioned by a number of respondents to my initial facebook question.
The first name is Lara Jade, a 28 year old British born commercial and fashion photographer who is based in New York.
Here’s what a fellow British photographer said in early 2016, ‘(To) Watch people like … Lara Jade … grow is a daunting prospect. It’s hard not to self blame when you see people grow at such an increasing rate, do all the things you want to do yet make it look so easy. It seems so effortless for them, but I seem to get in the mud whenever I try and just live day to day.’
Lara makes it look easy, and has achieved noticeable success at a relatively early age. Dig a little deeper and you find a young woman who took up photography at 14 and started her own photography business at 17. Being comfortable on the other side of the camera and being extremely photogenic has probably opened a few doors closed to the above quoted photographer, but Lara Jade’s story is one of a body of committed hard work built up over a number of years.
The other contemporary name is Damien Lovegrove. As he is on my facebook friend list I put the question to him directly.
Damien, I’ve been asking people their views on the truly great photographers. Of current photographers, yours was one of the few names that came up. Would you mind answering a few questions for my students?
Thank you Ian, I’d be very happy to answer some questions. – flattered.
Brilliant. If you don’t mind, I’ll tell you the context after you answer. Knowing, can change the answers!
No problem, that’s fine with me.
Just three questions, but many, many thanks.
- How old were you when you became interested in photography?
- How long did it take to gain any form of recognition?
- What do you think are the key components of your success?
- I was 19 (back in 1984) when I first got the bug for photography. I had got an audition/ interview for a job at the BBC as a video cameraman and on my application form I had said I was interested in photography. They asked me to bring my portfolio to the interview. I had just 3 days to create a portfolio from scratch including printing it in a home bathroom darkroom. They were the first pictures I had taken and I loved it. I have never lost the passion for photography.
- I shot stills on my days off from training as a cameraman and by 21 (1986) I was shooting for the Science Photo Library in London. Some of the shots I took then on a second-hand Hasselblad 500C are still selling today. However it wasn’t until 2002 that I became a well-known photographer. I was known then as a wedding photographer with a very successful brand image. 3. When I left the BBC I thought I could make it big as a commercial photographer but I struggled and ended up in a lot of debt. I picked myself up and got trained in business and changed career to wedding photography. I have changed career many times since and here are my reasons for success:
I learn from my mistakes and try harder next time
I leave each career at it’s peak.
I Stay inspired and keep my life exciting
Q3 additional info… Careers:
BBC lighting cameraman
Travel Photographer (Just starting this one)
Back in those days 1984-2001 we were all shooting on film. Practice was expensive but my career and photo library royalties gave me the revenue to shoot, shoot, shoot. I guess I shot 30 rolls of film each week during my 3 days off and I made pictures/ video for the BBC too.
Now I still shoot 1000 frames a week. If I don’t, I get rusty. I’ve always made progress through practice. It’s the same for sports people too I suppose.
So, Damien started in 1984 and felt he was recognised in 2002. Over that time he took thousands of photographs – with equipment that required a great deal of expertise to get the best out of. When I suggested to him that success equalled the amount of work you put in, Damien replied, ‘I think “Success comes from work” is a bit scary. Photography is fun, work is boring. I’ve never had a desk job or an ‘in’ tray. (scary) Most people I meet think I have it easy. Maybe they are right. I am so passionate about my photography that it never seems like work to me. If your students become as passionate about taking pictures as I am they will be self motivated, prolific and successful. Enthusiasm is the currency they will find easiest to trade with. Happy, exciting, motivated photographers often get the best jobs as the art directors and commissioners all want a slice of that energy pie. Just an observation.’
That of course makes a central part of my argument. When the Venus sisters served at an upturned baseball bat hour after hour, or when Beckham took free kick after free kick, on a deserted football pitch over and over again, they weren’t working, they were enjoying themselves.
If it’s work, if it’s ‘effort’, to do the hours, develop the experience, to hone your skills, then you may become competent, but never excellent, never a world beater.
We live in an information rich world and there is no excuse for not bothering to find out the things you need to know. The comedian Stephen Fry has suggested it’s like living in a world where gold coins litter the streets. How do you respond then to someone begging for money? Information, like wealth in Fry’s example, is all around you, you just need to make the effort to reach out for it.
Some (actually many) don’t seem to see the need to learn about their subject, but that learning isn’t nearly enough. You need to put in the work, you need the experience. If it seems like too much effort, fair enough, but don’t ever believe that you will be the best – at anything.
Perhaps the good news is that average people living at around half-way down Centile Street, can learn skills to a fairly competent level. Most photographers can take reasonable photos which others will like.
‘Oh , you’re so talented – that’s a lovely photo.’ Yes, it might be pleasing, but if it relies on technology you do not understand, and have little (or any) control over, then your ‘talent’ is mostly some (talented) technician’s programming.
Let’s go back to our case study. When our 24 year old Phd student was 8 years old, she had swimming lessons at school. The teacher told the class to sort themselves out into three groups. If they were really confident they were to go to the far end of the pool. If they were really nervous, they were to stay near the teacher, and if they were not sure they should go to the middle of the pool.
The children sorted themselves out and a voice from a swimming coach boomed out to our subject, ‘Why are you standing in the middle group. I saw you compete at the county championships last week?’
‘Yes, but I didn’t win anything’, was the reply.
Many of the ‘confident’ group had seen swimming on the TV and therefore thought it was easy, just as many learner photographers watch videos thinking that watching and doing are the same thing.
So, if you want to be really, really good at anything, be prepared to put in a huge amount of work. Not only that, you need to learn from people who can correct the mistakes you will inevitably make. You eventually need to develop a feedback system that will allow you to analyse and correct your own mistakes. Lastly, it has to be fun.