What constitutes expertise, whether it’s photography or anything else in life? If you do a quick Google search, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve essentially got two options: to read three books, or to spend ten thousand hours. Wait a minute, that can’t be right…
The “three books” scenario is a simplification of an idea popularized by Timothy Ferriss in The Four Hour Workweek. The somewhat longer version goes like this: You join a couple of trade organizations, read three bestsellers on your topic, give a free seminar at the nearest university and a couple more at big companies, write a couple of articles for trade organizations (maybe even the same ones you’ve joined), and then sign on with a service that journalists use if they’re looking for a service to quote for their articles.
Doesn’t sound too bad, right? If you’re diligent (and a quick reader and writer), the whole process outlined above could probably be taken care of in about fifteen hours’ worth of work.
Here’s where that falls apart: let’s start with the books, since everything else probably stems from that (you want to be able to carry on a somewhat intelligent conversation with the people at ye olde trade organization, after all). With that as a starting point, I’m already a potential expert in any number of things, from the Spanish Civil War to Zen Buddhism, cooking, humor, architecture, philosophy, and the poetry of W. H. Auden, to say nothing of photography. So I find, say, a group of fellow Auden enthusiasts. Since the most likely place for that is the English department of your average university, I’ll sign up there and it ought to be a short step from that to giving a free seminar in Auden. Damn, I’m good! It won’t be long, obviously, before I’ve got Charlie Rose, the MLA, and the Associated Press burning up my phone, to say nothing of journalists and scholars wanting to partake of my expertise for the sake of their eager readers.
It isn’t rocket science, and certainly doesn’t take a PhD in Twentieth Century Poetry, to see that Ferriss’s idea is laughable on the face of it. So what’s the alternative? Well, the alternative’s also been popularized, thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, wherein he suggests that to become an expert in something — and not just any expert, mind you, we’re talking about you being the Mozart or Jordan of that thing — you need to devote about ten thousand hours to it. That’s just four hours a day. Every day. For seven years. Or eight hours a day every day for three and a half years. Or you could go on some kind of amphetamine bender and not sleep at all, and you could “knock it out” at something like 24 hours a day for a year and change, and then promptly drop dead of exhaustion and malnutrition.
Let’s step back, take a deep breath, and consider a couple of things for a minute.
First let’s think about what these books are about, and what they’re for. Ferriss is neither the first, nor last, person to come up with his own little “system.” Thing is, Ferriss is talking mostly about “information products,” which is a polite marketing term for putting as little information in as large and glittery a package as you can, and getting people to buy it. When you’re interested merely in commoditizing information for people who’ll probably skim something once and then move on to the next shiny object/package, Ferriss’s formula, his three books’ worth of information, probably is quite enough.
Gladwell, for his part, wrote his book to talk about people who stand head and shoulders over the rest, and how they got there. The book’s called Outliers for a reason; these people are abnormal. In a good way, granted, but there’s nothing average about them. If you’re looking to be the Lance Armstrong of photography, then ten thousand hours isn’t an unreasonable amount of time to spend on your craft, but it rather begs the question of where that leaves the rest of us.
The short answer is to find a middle ground. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous quotation, from which this site takes its name (“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”) is probably a good place to start. That’s not to say that you’ll be an expert after the first ten thousand, or even the ten thousand after. However, if you’re not seeking to become some kind of photographic ubermensch, or to simply turn out commoditized crap, it does represent a happy medium. It sidesteps the “expertise” issue, to be sure, but it also allows us to comfortably and realistically master the medium while still accomodating the rest of our day-to-day lives. That, I think, might be more useful than the shortcut of a handful of books, or the headaches that come with aiming for thousands of hours. As an added bonus, it also allows us to cultivate a mindset that allows that photography isn’t something with a clearly defined endpoint; it can instead be a life’s work… one day at a time.
Postscript: There’s a different, and interesting, take on the ten thousand hour rule on Chris Anderson’s blog The Long Tail, which you can read here: http://www.longtail.com/the_long_tail/2008/12/do-something-ne.html
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