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Confidence is one of those things that is easy to understand, yet so elusive and difficult to put into practice. Where do we draw the line between confidence and arrogance for instance? Is confidence a state of mind or a point along the experiences of life?
I believe confidence is essential in photography and in every creative endeavor. It holds the key to pushing beyond your self-imposed limits and mental barriers, and opens the door to new and exciting possibilities. As a musician and landscape photographer, it has played a key role in my ability to see beyond fear, ambiguity, and what I thought was truly possible.
I’m still learning to be confident every single day, including the fear I have right now to publish this post. But I do know from experience that without risk, my confidence will never grow. While there are lots of great perspectives on confidence that I suggest you seek out, here are some personal thoughts and observations gleaned from years of struggle, hardship, and hard-earned experience.
What is Confidence?
“If you hear a voice within you say “you cannot paint,” then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.” –Vincent Van Gogh
First, let’s start with a definition of what confidence is. From wikipedia, “Confidence is generally described as a state of being certain either that a hypothesis or prediction is correct or that a chosen course of action is the best or most effective. Self-confidence is having confidence in oneself.”
Confidence for me is the ability to face the possibility of failure with trust in your abilities, your determination, and your will to succeed. It is an acceptance of yourself for who you are, and not for what or how others think you should be. This last point is critical, because there is so much pressure these days to meet expectations of what’s trendy, or popular, or to compete with others.
As artists, we often need to stand alone, outside perceived expectations about our work and artistic goals. This is hard, especially when we’re looking for validation for our work from those close to us.
Will this always lead to success? Of course not, but it will lead to examining your self limiting thoughts and beliefs about what’s truly possible when you accept your strengths. I’ve always had a strong relationship with self-confidence because it’s been a major component of my life as far back as I can remember. In fact, it’s the only way I’ve been able to keep moving forward in the face of difficult challenges and obstacles, both internal and external.
Personal Turning Points
”If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence, you have won even before you have started.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero
When I first told my Dad I was applying to the Berklee College of Music, his first words were, “…remember there are lots of talented, starving musicians performing in the subway every day. Have you thought about that?” I grew up in NYC, so I was intimately familiar with the picture he was painting for me. In fact, I walked by many such musicians almost every day on my way to and from school.
While I may not have understood or appreciated my Dad’s response at the time, I never held it against him. But it did force me to think about what I really wanted, and that was scary. Luckily for me, I had a mentor who helped me realize I could and should pursue my passion. I was fortunate and will be forever grateful to him for helping me push past my fears.
Having a mentor is key to building confidence.
My first semester at Berklee was a trial of confidence, mentally and emotionally. My confidence had grown steadily during high school and the years after graduation, finding regular work in a local recording studio. I got paid little, but learned the ropes and paid my dues. I learned how to balance confidence and humility, and that got me to the next gig, and so on, eventually deciding to risk all and commit to a music school.
But as I walked past Berklee’s practice rooms, and attended a few student recitals, I came to the stark and humbling realization that I was no where near as talented or determined as I thought I was. I quickly realized that there was only one way to move forward—on sheer will and determination alone. My skills were not up to par, and I even doubted whether I had the raw talent, whatever that actually was.
I needed to develop one thing above all others, self-confidence. Without that, I knew I didn’t have a chance. Even if I couldn’t see what success looked like, it’s all I could rely on.
Now let me make one clarification. Confidence alone is not what I’m referring to. I’m talking about the confidence in my determination to work hard, to be disciplined, to persevere. And more than that, the confidence to know if I was fooling myself. That is not something you learn overnight, and in fact it took me quite a few years to understand what that really meant. There’s a time to continue, and a time to give up. Knowing the difference is not always easy, but listening to your instincts is a good place to start.
So with that as a backdrop, let me share some of what I learned about confidence and how you might increase your confidence in your photography or other areas of your life.
An article I read recently(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stephenie-zamora/meaning-of-confidenceb3727675.html) on confidence really resonated with me. The author, Stephanie Zamora, stated that confidence comes down to one simple idea: owning it.
“When you’re ‘owning it,’ it means that you’re totally and completely at peace with who you are in every moment, interaction and experience. You make no apologies for being awkward, nervous, excited, loud, soft spoken or other… you’re just you.”
And I agree 100%. In photography, you face the scary prospect of sharing your work with others, getting feedback, and possibly confidence killing criticism as well.
But photography is not a competition, and you should never think of it in terms of how your work compares to others. When you “own it,” it means you photograph what inspires you, what you find interesting, in a way that reflects your preferences, not what’s popular or trendy. Feedback is important, but it’s not valuable when it attacks your confidence.
Learning to accept criticism is never easy, and often leads to more questions than answers. But your confidence does grow as you become comfortable with yourself and your work, even if it isn’t quite where you’d like it to be. That’s why when I critique student images, I rarely point out what’s wrong, but rather what’s right about the image, regardless of how insignificant. That’s something to build on, something to find confidence in, to move forward instead of backwards.
How confidence makes us stronger
“As is our confidence, so is our capacity.” — William Hazlitt
There’s no question that confidence can make us stronger during those times when we doubt ourselves. As a photographer, doubt and insecurity can often leave me feeling less than confident. In fact, I struggle with this more than I care to admit. All of the great photography online today doesn’t make that any easier.
But learning to have confidence in your perspective, your way of seeing, your unique vantage point is something worth contemplating. The fact is that no one else sees, or thinks, or feels the way you do, and that fact alone can instill confidence that you have something that belongs to you and no one else. That makes each of us distinct and unique. It makes our vision worth sharing regardless of how many like it or not.
How confidence makes us more creative
”No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit.” – Ansel Adams
When you’re at ease with yourself, your strengths and limitations, you can approach photography with a greater and healthier willingness to take risks. And so much of moving forward and improving as a photographer involves taking risks.
Often it’s easy to fall into familiar patterns when the stakes are high. For example, you’re photographing in a new location, and suddenly beautiful light bathes the landscape in a way you’ve never seen before. Are you more likely to setup a composition with a familiar lens, focal length, and perspective, or try something totally new and unfamiliar? That might very well depend on how confident you are in your willingness to fail. That may happen, in fact it probably will, but it may also lead to a breakthrough in your vision and way of seeing. And that in turn builds more confidence, and leads to more creativity.
The willingness to accept yourself and the situation as it is helps prevent the stress over whether you’ve missed the “ultimate” shot. You can make your own luck; you just need to trust yourself and your instincts.
How confidence helps us help others
How often have I heard photographers proclaim proudly that they don’t give out their secrets. Whether that’s favorite locations, specific techniques, gear choices, or any other “secret” information that may jeopardize their position or reputation. But, in fact, many of the greatest photographers have also been the most generous with their time and willingness to help others. And this surely is a sign of confidence in who they are and what matters most to them
When you develop confidence, you appreciate the value that you can offer to others, and that improves your self-esteem. There’s no better feeling than when someone thanks you for helping them, or sharing some useful insight that is meaningful. I know this personally, and I can tell you it gives me so much confidence to know that I can, in fact, offer something of value to others. Without that sense of confidence, I would be afraid to give away my secrets in fear that I might not be able to discover others.
For example, I often take students to many of my favorite locations on a workshop and often see conditions I’ve never experienced on my own. Yet I know these opportunities will arise again, and the confidence in knowing that there’s always more to say, to photograph, and to share, keeps me inspired and motivated. As Mary Angelou says, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
And I believe that the more you help others, the more creative and confident you become.
Beware of over-confidence
Now it’s time to make a distinction between confidence and over-confidence, which can definitely be a bad thing. Over-confidence can lead to hubris and a large ego. This is where knowing the difference between what merits confidence and what doesn’t is so important.
In his great book Die Empty, Todd Henry says “Another sign of ego inflation is when you judge your work based on its relative perception rather than on its own merits. You’re mostly concerned about what the work says about you. When perception by others becomes your primary consideration, you are less likely to do the small things that nobody sees, but that ultimately determine the level of craftsmanship in your work. Your standard wavers, because it’s based on the relative standards of those who surround you. When esteem becomes your primary objective, your work will eventually suffer.”
In any creative act, having confidence means you’re willing to learn from past mistakes and stay open to new opportunities for learning. It means you don’t make excuses or try to blame circumstances or situations for a lack of success.
One way to avoid over confidence is to earn confidence, from yourself and from others. This means you’re showing up, doing the work, taking risks, and doing it from the perspective of humility and not self-centered pride.
Tips to Build Confidence
1. Get rid of negativity. First and foremost, learn to focus on what’s possible versus what’s not. In my Eight Principles of Photography, I talk about asking what’s right versus what’s wrong. By shifting your mindset and concentration on what’s right about any situation, it increases your confidence about the potential for you to succeed. Looking at what’s impossible does not build confidence, it limits your optimism.
Second, get as far away as possible from negative people in your life. I know this can be difficult and painful, but is so important to developing a positive and confident outlook on your life and goals. In my life, I know for sure it’s the people that pushed me to succeed and believed in me that had the greatest single impact on my success. That helped me build the confidence to contemplate bigger and riskier goals.
2. Seek out positive influences. Having a mentor to rely on for support, guidance, and positive reinforcement is critical to developing confidence. I was fortunate in that I had someone who was a mentor for me during my first semester at Berklee, and without that support, I would have probably quit. Even now I rely on a small but valuable group of friends to keep me motivated and accountable, and confident that I can succeed at whatever I set my mind on.
3. Take creative risks. Stop comparing yourself to others, and instead focus on what motivates you to take pictures. This brings you face to face with failure, but also with the real and powerful possibility of success. One can not exist without the other in any meaningful way. So what if the majority doesn’t like it? It only takes one person to have a deep connection with one of your photographs, which is way more valuable than 100 likes on Facebook or Flickr given in a flash of online activity without any real attention.
4. Cultivate mindfulness. Learning to observe negative thoughts and see them for what they are – just thoughts with no real basis in reality is one of the major benefits of meditation. Hearing that voice in your head saying “you can’t” without getting caught up in the emotions that follow really does instill at least the confidence that you see what’s holding you back. From there you can start to realize how to actually quiet that voice and act from a position of confidence instead of fear or lack of trust in oneself. My recent article on mindfulness is a great place to start.
5. Practice. There’s no better way to build confidence than to engage in the act of doing – making images, failing, making more and seeing improvement, growth, and building momentum. Success is a wonderful feeling that builds confidence faster and better than any other way of. But it’s not a free ride; it takes practice, and more practice. But it’s pure and powerful. Doing the Work is the only way forward when it comes to self-confidence.
Building confidence is a life long process, and often feels like every step forward is followed by two steps backward. But progress is made every time you give yourself permission to fail, and then try again. As I’ve often said, failure means you’re pushing yourself beyond what’s comfortable, and that’s what being creative is all about.
You should make pictures for yourself, showing others who you are and what you really care about. Opening ourselves up to criticism and rejection is not a pleasant experience, but having confidence that you are doing what matters to you is paramount to living a creative life.
Feedback, comments or questions? Please let me know – I’m always interested in other perspectives and opinions!