The Greatest Mindset Shift I've Had as a Photographer

The Greatest Mindset Shift I've Had as a Photographer

Self-improvement is paramount to success and a well-rounded, happy life, at least in my eyes. I am always looking for ways I can change for the better and learn, but the older I get, the more I realize that one change mattered more than most.

While I find it largely inexplicable, Pareto's Principle appears to apply to most areas of my life. For the unfamiliar, Pareto's Principle is — roughly put — that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. That is, for example, 80% of your rewards will come from 20% of your work. It isn't always true for my businesses, and this kind of thinking can send you into unwanted stagnation and a reticence to try new things, but you might be surprised just how applicable to your life it is.

When I look at changes I have made to how I operate based on what I have learned, most have had an impact to some degree. However, there is one simplistic alteration to how I approach everything and its impact has been significant. I won't bury the lede — I'll put the mindset shift in the subheading below — but this article will explore why it's a philosophy you ought to adopt if you haven't already.

Failing Is Almost Always More Valuable Than Not Trying

There is a common thread with creatives — very common in fact. It is this bizarre blend of perfectionism and anxiety, where you will accept nothing less than perfect, but as a result, are terrified of falling short. It is a crippling concoction at times that leads to an unwillingness to start. Fear of failure isn't exclusive to creatives, but we are a strange breed, and it is most certainly more common than many other professions. This fear of failure is only paralyzing, however, when it is paired with perfectionism.

Society looks at perfectionism through favorable goggles. It is usually seen as the hallmark of the industrious, ideal employee, but I believe that to seldom be the case. While perfectionists are generally more conscientious — and that is a good thing — they're also more risk-averse and reluctant to challenge themselves. I have seen this regularly with creatives and am guilty of it myself. The desire — or more likely, the expectancy — of only the very best at all times is a heavy cross to bear. In the early days of my career, I was extremely hesitant to take on shoots where I felt underqualified. There seemed to be a steady procession of opportunities that gave me anxiety and filled me with self-doubt. "I can't do that," "what if I'm not good enough," and "I'll expose myself as some sort of fraud," goes the self-talk. I truly can't remember which shoot was the first that I took on despite those toxic words floating around my mind, but I realized afterward that the rewards and satisfaction upon its conclusion was phenomenal.

This article isn't, however, about fearing failure and then succeeding per se (though that is what will usually happen, I assure you), but instead about avoiding putting yourself into situations where you can fail. The world is obsessed with perfect records, win streaks, and flawless careers, but that is white noise. Nobody who has ever achieved anything significant has done so without wading through failures — they can't. To do great things — and I mean that in both local and global terms — you must push past the comfortable and into the unknown.

This isn't to say that a fear of failure is irrational, or that failure doesn't hurt, or that you ought not to care if you fail. Rather, as far as I can tell, the best rewards — the ones worth having — are gated behind the opportunities where you have the fear of failure, the anxiety, the self-doubt.

The Rewards of Failure

The term "failure" is all too broad and is synonymous with absolute catastrophe. This plays into the hands of the pessimistic defeatist that is coiled at the back of the creative's mind — imagined horrors of being called a fraud and a career in ruins. I am sure this has happened, but the likelihood of it happening to someone with a fear of failure is slim, of that I'm sure. As the old adage goes, if you think you're going mad, you probably aren't. That is, a truly mad person wouldn't be compos mentis enough to reasonably assess they're going mad. The conscientious creative is far too worried about disappointing someone and making large mistakes to really fail so tremendously that it is a complete and mortifying failure.

This isn't to claim that failures won't happen — they will — but do not be fooled into thinking they're rarer than dog eggs just by how little they are discussed. Every photographer I know in this business has failures under their belt; a few even talk about them. I have a couple and I can't lie to you, they still haunt me, but so they should, as that leads to growth. One failure of mine was for a client who wanted a lot in a very short amount of time (incidentally, my two go-to failures if I fancy torturing myself follow the exact same lead-up of high demand and low time, to an almost unrealistic degree). Much of the work required was unchartered territory for me, and while I informed the client of that, I also made it clear I could do the work. The issue arose when I started hitting unexpected speed bumps left and right, and despite working every hour I could keep myself awake, it was not enough. Some of the work I had done was fantastic, but the work out of my comfort zone had been a mixed bag of success and failure. The client discussed working together again in the future, but I wasn't going to hold my breath.

There's no use in mincing my words here: I was devastated. I felt like a con artist who had been caught out, an arrogant person who overstated their abilities. In retrospect, there were a lot of mitigating circumstances and the client did admit a fair amount of fault too, but I did not do myself justice, and my new client and I parted ways. But, that's where the story ends. Nothing actually changed. The streets weren't lined with cackling accusers, and my life and career continued. It wasn't a career-ending disaster, and I'd go as far as to say if that client and I had never met, I'd have still continued in the same way, still acquiring new clients at the same pace I did.

The failure was worth the risk and for a few reasons. Firstly, I have a sadistic appreciation for extremely demanding clients. You typically learn the most and improve the most when you have to perform at your very best. Secondly, the failure really wasn't as bad as I had imagined it might be. There are cases in which failures have been awful, I'm sure, but they're rare, and I have to reiterate here: everybody fails. I'm not interested in "outing" any of my fellow professionals, but I have heard some horror stories of far greater failures, and still, they march on with successful careers in the industry. The sort of failure you concoct in your mind and before a shoot that pushes you and the consequent fallout after it is more or less never going to happen.

Conclusion and TLDR

I will keep this succinct, and for those of you who have scrolled straight to this, firstly, how dare you, but secondly, these are the takeaways: failure is common, and the sort of failure you imagine is borderline unheard of. In failure, however, you learn far more than you ever could in success, and so not only are the best rewards hiding behind failure and therefore worth the risk, but the bonus of learning hard lessons rounds out the risk versus reward nicely in favor of the latter.

To summarize the first section, I will just reiterate the most important part: this isn't to say that a fear of failure is irrational, or that failure doesn't hurt, or that you ought not to care if you fail. Rather, as far as I can tell, the best rewards — the ones worth having — are gated behind the opportunities where you have the fear of failure, the anxiety, the self-doubt.

Rob Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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