It's a slightly uncomfortable question when said directly, but it's one you ought to answer. If you want any significant improvement in your work, being happy just taking pictures isn't enough.
I, like most of you, fell into photography through curiosity and an enjoyment of the medium. I didn't dream it would become such a large part of my life, let alone my "calling." Rather accidentally, I had a healthy approach to my camera: I would take pictures, figure out what I didn't like, and try to not do that again. Running parallel to that mindset was the strand of curiosity that lured me behind the little black box in the first place: I would look at images that I thought were great and wonder: "how do I do that?" Then, I would try to figure it out either by bothering the photographer if that was an option, searching for guides or tutorials, or trial and error. This enabled me to improve and learn with consistency, that is, until I got to roughly where I thought "good" was.
After a while, you suffer diminishing returns. Your photos taken a year apart are not particularly different technically; that is, somebody else couldn't pick which was taken first based on the quality of the work. New pieces of equipment don't revolutionize your portfolio or shooting style, so you (hopefully) begin to part ways with G.A.S. You might even become a little jaded with low-level photography opportunities like local trips and zoos. I was still striving to improve, but not as actively as I once had. Then, a few years ago, I accidentally introduced myself two concepts that redirected my efforts. Both of these ideas came from the same book which I wholeheartedly recommend: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Lee Duckworth.
To put the idea concisely, you set yourself a goal, and then, you practice to reach it with informed and critical feedback. Rather than just repeating a set of actions over and over, reaping the minimal rewards of familiarity and accidental knowledge, you instead push yourself where you're weakest and intelligently evaluate your work and process every step of the way. This is hard, particularly at first, as you have to take hits you weren't taking before and spend almost no time reveling in the glory of an image or a successful shoot.
One of my first weaknesses I had identified on my commercial shoots was lighting; both my equipment and my manipulation of it were subpar and were the Achilles heel of my images. From then on, I worked out what I needed through proper research, and then practiced improving my command of the lights I had. I would take thousands of photos over the next year or so, adding extra lights, taking lights away, changing modifiers, using black-out material to absorb light, and so on.
The above is a good example. The first shot is from my maiden voyage into commercial photography for brands and quite possibly the first shot I took and edited for that purpose. The second shot is a couple of years later, which is a couple of years of deliberate practice later too. Believe it or not, the rough aim for both shots was the same: I wanted the watch to be the focal point through exposure as much as composition, and I wanted a light gradient (importantly, done in camera) on the watch face's glass. Had I, after completing that first shot, thought "that was fun and the images are ok," I would have likely still improved, but not to any meaningful degree over the time passed.
The second concept from Duckworth's book is the notion of a "flow state". Again, summarized in brief, a flow state is when somebody is performing a task at a high standard with such expertise, experience, and comfort that they are just enjoying what they're doing without much thought as to what they are doing. This concept has many names, I suspect, but most of us have felt it at some point — when you're just doing so well at something that your actions are mechanical and you're free to enjoy the ride. This ought to be a rough aim for all of us.
It's almost impossible for me to narrow down when the first time I entered a flow state with a camera in my hands was, but I can remember some of the early instances. There was one particular shoot with a seasoned model that I was nervous about. She was a pro and I had imposter syndrome. I had done ungodly amounts of research and Pinterest boards in preparation, but I felt unready and underequipped. However, after I took the first shot or two and saw the results on the back of the camera, I stopped thinking and just started direction and shooting as if I were channeling a real photographer somehow. Since then, I have entered a flow state on shoots multiple times — albeit, it's no certainty — and it's invigorating.
In essence, you want to be so comfortable and confident in what you do that it's possible for your self-talk (which, if you're like most creatives, is overwhelmingly critical) to go on mute and you to enter a zen-like state of photography goodness.
There's nothing wrong with taking a casual approach to photography and just enjoying the process. The chances are, you will improve over time or when you feel like learning a new technique. However, if your goal is to improve, you ought to set a standard you want to hit — a level of photography you think is great — and then deliberately practice the craft until you bridge the gap between your work and theirs. Scrutinize every image you take, have other, better photographers review your work, and identify weaknesses and areas to improve, deliberately working on each area with purpose.
Do you deliberately practice? Have you ever achieved flow state? Share your thoughts in the comments below.