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Campobello Island, CA

Talent is one of those enigmas that seems to come up whenever we’re faced with our most difficult creative challenges. Do we have enough of it? Can it be cultivated or taught? Does it matter?

I like to think of talent as the acknowledgment that you possess the curiosity, motivation, and work ethic needed to become exceptional in a specific area. In other words, a skill you can learn and master. While there will always be more “talented” people around you, the reality is they also went through the same process of discovery and hard work to become as good as they are. Every time I’m awed by an artist in any medium, I’m never surprised to discover they worked at their craft for decades, if not a lifetime.

In his great book “The Little Book of Talent,” Daniel Coyle offers many tips and ideas to learn and potentially master a desired skill. The idea is not to become the “best” in the world, but rather to achieve a skill level you thought was entirely out of your reach.

One powerful idea is to find your “sweet spot” or what I prefer to call your discomfort zone. It’s the place where you’re right on the edge of your ability, where you learn best and fastest.

We can operate in three basic modes when practicing any skill, especially a creative one like photography. Here’s how Daniel describes each one in the book:

  • Comfort zone: Ease, effortlessness. You’re working, but not reaching or struggling.
  • Discomfort zone: Frustration, difficulty, alertness to errors. You’re fully engaged in an intense struggle—as if you’re stretching with all your might for a nearly unreachable goal, brushing it with your fingertips, then reaching again.
  • Survival zone: Confusion, desperation. You’re overmatched: scrambling, thrashing, and guessing. You guess right sometimes, but it’s mostly luck.

You want to be in the discomfort zone as often as possible.

That includes every aspect of your photography, from shooting in the field to editing in Lightroom. Sometimes you succeed, but mostly you fail. Failed attempts are as important as successes because we learn from our many mistakes. Failure doesn’t mean complete failure, but rather the awareness that it’s not quite what you’re after.

I always tell students on my workshops that if the images are coming too easily, they are not challenging themselves enough. Often that means they’re resisting my suggestions to get out of their comfort zone. I understand that, but I also know it’s not going to lead to significant improvement.

Here are a few ways to instantly get into your “discomfort zone.”

  1. On your next shoot leave all your lenses behind but one, and even better, choose it randomly.
  2. Tape a business or card or other heavy weight paper over your cameras LCD preview and spend an hour shooting this way. You’ll be amazed at how much more you “see,” how distracting the technology is.
  3. Buy and use prime lenses-this will drastically change your approach. Don’t want to buy? Rent a lens for a weekend from Lensrentals.
  4. Take a workshop – Of course this depends on the instructor, but my approach to workshops is to put each student into their discomfort zone as often as possible, period. I’m not interested in helping students make trophy shots. I want to influence the way students approach creative photography, and help explore their personal vision. It’s also the reason I teach, because it puts me in my discomfort zone every single time.

I practice each of these regularly, and I can tell you that operating in my discomfort zone has been the key to my growth as a landscape photographer, printmaker, and teacher. And I’m exploring new skills like drawing and painting. They all add to my creative “well” and help me express what I want to share.

Pursue and take advantage of your discomfort zone as often as possible. Yes it can be frustrating and scary, but it’s where the breakthroughs are, the edge of what you’re capable of. Keep that edge moving forward and you’ll surprise yourself in ways you never imagined.

I’ve been there, and I’m still there. It’s not easy, because the comfort zone is very seductive and enticing in today’s popularity driven world. I’ve been there too.

But your creative fire needs fuel, and that fuel is what you can “barely” do.

“One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.” – Albert Einstein

And if you want more ideas for developing your skills, be sure to check out the rest of Daniel Coyle’s book, highly recommended.

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This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. This essay is so right on! I see so many photographers now stuck in an HDR rut or applying iPhone apps or Lightroom presets. Every photo starts to look the same, but sure gets a lot of likes on Facebook. As usual, you inspire me to keep moving on my own path, even if it gets hard or you can’t see where it is going. Thanks. Debbie

  2. One of the turning point for me was turning off the auto preview on my DSLR. The auto preview on your LCD can often becomes a big distraction. It was definitely discomforting at first, but before long you’d begin to see more of whats in front of you, instead of whats on the LCD.

  3. Another extremely valuable, worth-printing-out-and-saving post, Robert. I sometimes recognize when I’m working on “automatic pilot” and then try to think outside the box instead. A scroll through any of the many photo-sharing sites out there will show you how much work all starts to look alike. It’s more rewarding to produce two or three “original” shots than dozens of cookie-cutter shots.

    1. Thanks Nancy, always appreciate your perspective. We all can get into auto mode, it serves a useful purpose at times, but we need to recognize when it becomes a hindrance. That’s the real challenge.

  4. Fantastic post, Robert. I love that you encourage people to be ok with experiencing discomfort – its the only way to grow in any arena. So much of our life is about avoiding discomfort/stretching/the unknown and that is the death knell for creativity.

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