Mindset: Can Skill Alone Bring Success?

Mindset: Can Skill Alone Bring Success?

At this point in our lives, the majority of us have come to understand our capabilities and our limitations. If we were never good at sports, we have come to accept this as truth. If we are great at math, we have likely received this "gift" and possibly moved into a career field where we can maximize the ease of which numbers have come to us. As photographers, you have the "eye" for it, or you don't. Are these established beliefs, based likely on past evidence in reality, or are they limitations we have placed upon ourselves?

mindset - noun - the traditional set of attitudes held by someone.

Over 30 years ago, Carol Dweck became interested in her students' attitude towards failure. In her book, "Mindset," she argues that there are two mindsets: fixed and growth. These two mindsets tend to view the world very differently, particularly in the domains of skill, challenges, effort, feedback, and setbacks. Nearly every online forum or social media discussion related to the field of photography outlines the groupthink we have fallen into about these domains. Jump onto a Facebook discussion group related to photography and ask the question, "Would you say you were born with artistic ability or did you develop it?" Then watch the responses as they relate to mindset. Those with a fixed mindset tend to believe that skill is something you are born with and that you are born with a particular amount of it. So in our field, you were born with an artistic eye, you are talented, or you are not. If you got the "talent gene" you likely are "super talented," finding yourself at the top of the field, or you didn't get so lucky, and you are grinding away trying to be noticed and successful. Those with a growth mindset look at skill as the product of hard work and something that can always be improved upon, not limited or capped.

Challenges

If you have been in the photography field for very long, likely you have seen the person who was uber successful in your market and then faded away into another story of the perils of self-employed photographers struggling in the modern world. Often these types of cautionary tales can be broken down and explained through how this person responded to the evolving market. When you have found success, the natural thing to do is to stick to what works; change equals challenge. A fixed mindset individual sees a challenge as something to be avoided, if they were to take on the challenge and not do well, it would reveal (in their mind) that they lacked skill all along. A fixed mindset tends to give up easily when things don't work out the way they think it should. When the market changed those previously successful people avoided the challenge and faded into history. On the other hand, a growth mindset sees challenges as something one should embrace, an opportunity to push one's self and grow. Growth mindset individuals tend to be more persistent.

Effort

Related to challenges, the next domain mentioned above, effort dictates how you push. If you believe you are naturally talented in your field, you are gifted; you likely see effort as unnecessary. After all, things in this field have always come easily to you. Effort is for those who are not naturally good enough to compete. These are the thoughts of those with a fixed mindset. A growth mindset individual knows that effort is essential, lest they become stagnant. Effort is a needed component toward reaching craft mastery.

Feedback

The Internet age certainly changed the game for all photographers. It gave us a vehicle to get our work out among the masses, to expand our reach globally. With this came something that many of us never counted on: feedback. How you respond to feedback says volumes about your mindset. Granted there are those online who just seek to burn the world down, trolling left and right, to sow chaos wherever they can. I am not talking about the feedback you get from these types. Growth mindset individuals tend to see feedback as useful. They pick out the information and use it to learn, identifying areas in which they can improve. Fixed mindsets tend to go on the defensive, often resulting in personal attacks against those who gave feedback. They often take constructive criticism personally.

Setbacks

Lastly, how do you handle the setbacks in your life? The fixed mindset tends to look at setbacks as opportunities to blame others or blame the field. "There are too many fauxtogs today killing the marketplace." A fixed mindset individual gets easily discouraged when they fail, or things don't go as they should. Contrary to that the growth mindset person sees setbacks as a wake-up call to work harder or to try a different strategy. They learn from failures and employ new ideas. A setback isn't failing, it is only learning that new ideas are needed.

I believe, and neuroscience tends to agree, that we are born mostly a blank cognitive slate. We acquire our knowledge, skills, abilities, and "talents" as we grow and put effort toward practices in our chosen fields. Those who believe otherwise often find themselves struggling to keep up with, and always comparing themselves against, those who have found success. The way we think about these various domains tends to drive us more toward the success or failure route than our current skill level. An excellent example of this in action, in our field, is Clay Cook. Follow him online or meet him in person and this becomes abundantly clear in a very short period. Cook experiments more than any photographer I have observed, consistently challenging himself to grow. Provide constructive feedback, and he will likely listen and consider it. Put a mountain in front of him (literally), and he is likely to see it as an opportunity.

With people like Cook, we tend only to see the success they have achieved. Especially in this field, we only see the photos they are making today as examples of how "talented" they are. Roll back the clock a few years, and for those that are bold enough to show you their previous work, you will see that this was not always the case. You might have seen the iceberg picture as a representation of success. The tip of the iceberg, the part above water is what we see, but below the surface, what we don't see, is all the persistence, failure, dedication, hard work, healthy habits, sacrifice, and disappointment that led to the success we see. To accept this success as the product of raw "talent" is to dismiss all of those things, to dismiss the hard work the individual put into becoming what they are today. To accept the opposite not only shows us their efforts but outlines the road we must follow to reach successes of our own.

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3 Comments

Very interesting article David. I believe that a person can be more likely to be good at a certain thing because of a lot of factors (family, influence, stimulation) but in order to master that, you need effort, hard work and always predisposed to learn something new.
Greetings!!

David Parish's picture

Hard work is the key to development. Enduring passion for its pursuit is essential. Glad you enjoyed the read.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Great article and so true. My mindset and insane positivity have propelled me further than any gear or talent. Be so positive they mistake it for delusion lol.