This post is by Michael Johnston from The Online Photographer
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[Note: Some of you won't like this, and that's cool—we all own our own photography. It just means this post isn't for you, that's all. Don't sweat it—even excellent treatments can't be good for every patient.]
Here's the big idea:
You should not only concentrate on your Top Five categories, but also actively avoid the other twenty.
The idea comes from "The Oracle of Omaha," renowned
investor Warren Buffett. The story (which I first got wind of in the book Grit) is that one day Mr. Buffett was talking to his pilot, Mike Flint, about Mike's career goals. First, Buffett asked Flint to list 25 of his goals in life. Next, he asked him to think about it for a while and then circle the top five.
Obviously, you'd work hard on your top five.
But what, Buffett asked, about the other twenty?
James Clear, who heard the story secondhand and wrote about it*, tells it this way:
"Flint replied, 'Well, the top five are my primary focus, but the other twenty come in a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.'
"To which Buffett replied, 'No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top five.'"
The concept is simple. The other day, I used fashion photography and macro shots of insects as two genres of photography furthest from my own interests—I don't care about them at all. I've taken exactly one fashion shot in my life and zero closeups of insects. But what that means is that fashion and bugs aren't distractions for me; they're not the things standing in the way of my accomplishing anything. The things that are preventing me from accomplishing what I want to are things I like to shoot and enjoy shooting…just not enough to put them in my Top Five.
My observation over many years is that photographers, for some reason, hate being limited. We all really do like to think we can do everything. Again and again I see this in the work, and hear it in the statements, of photographers of all levels. I even worked up a private little name for it in my own mind—"token genres." Pictures we take which are outside of the mainstream of our work, but which we made just because we had the opportunity to do so and because we wanted to show the world we could. We must think this shows our range and adaptability—when what it probably actually says to the world is, "I'm all over the place and don't really have much of a clue what I'm best at."
I wrote about something similar many years ago when I suggested that you should never have just one wedding shot in your portfolio. The reasoning was that anyone not looking for a wedding photographer couldn't care less if you once shot at a wedding, and anyone looking for a wedding photographer wants someone who specializes in weddings—who's passionate about and committed to photographing them—and that would mean someone showing a portfolio that's exclusively of weddings. Having no wedding shots in your portfolio is fine. Having a portfolio full of wedding work is also fine. Anything in between doesn't do you any good. Nobody's going to hire a photographer to do their wedding based on one photograph. One wedding picture in a portfolio is just taking up space.
Whether you're a professional, an aspiring pro, an artist, an aspiring artist, or an advanced amateur or committed enthusiast, it's just a fact that although you might conceive of yourself as a jack of all trades who can "do anything," you simply cannot do everything well. And when prioritizing, it's not hard to give up the things we don't care about anyway. What's hard for us to give up are all those things we kind of like and enjoy and have spent some time doing—and are a bit proud of ourselves for, if we're honest—but that fall outside of our Top Five. Those are the things, according to Warren Buffett, that are sapping attention, time, energy, and effort from our central interests, our best skills, and what we most want to do. Those are our distractions. They're what are holding us back. They're what we must avoid…painful though it may be.
By the way, I don't think this means we can't still shoot anything at all…if it's in front of us and it's easy. It just means we should recognize distractions for what they are, and that we shouldn't expend time, effort, and energy on those distractions.
I have more to say about this, but I don't want to dictate the conversation too much. So I'll wait till tomorrow or Saturday to continue. I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts in the meantime.
*There are numerous accounts of the story online, but James Clear says he heard it from his friend Scott Dinsmore who got it directly from Mike Flint.
Original contents copyright 2018 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
David Brown: "I’ve had a similar approach to life but I only circled the top three, not five."
Jeremy: "This is not only an excellent photography-related advice, I think it’s also an excellent way to deal with all things in life. Following a famous quote (attributed to Goethe, but likely not coming from him): 'Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back—concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.' And your exercise just drives the point that we can never really commit to 'everything.'"
Mike replies: I managed to find it—the quote is by W(illiam) H(utchison) Murray, a mountaineer, from his book The Scottish Himalayan Expedition published in 1951. It is misattributed to Goethe because Murray quotes a translation of Goethe at the end of it.Wikipedia's version is different from yours, so I'll quote it as they have it:
… but when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money—booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence.
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!
Joseph Holmes: "Another take on this idea: I got to be a judge in two different national photo competitions, and believe me, the entries that were easiest to quickly reject were the ones where the photographer was trying to show versatility. As soon as a photographer's series contained both black and white and color, or a portrait and landscape, or macro and anything else, boom—next entry. Versatility ranked down there at zero for our criteria. What we loved to see was a series of photos that all clearly came from the same vision. That meant that some of the best series we judged contained images that were all pretty similar. That's not a drawback, it's a plus. That's the question I now know to ask myself. Do all of the photos in a particular series of mine look like they came from the same photographer? (Even better: do they all look like they could only have been shot by me?)"
Edwin Lopez: "In 1977 and 1978 I worked on the House Select Committee on Assassinations investigating the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Louis Stokes was the Chair of that Committee. On a luncheon date with him, he told me the story of his being elected to Congress and his meetings with Sam Rayburn upon being elected. At his first meeting with Rayburn, Rayburn asked him to make a list of the 25 issues most important to him. At the next week's meeting, Rayburn looked at the list and asked him to prioritize the 25. Louis Stokes dutifully did so. Rayburn told him it was good list and then said now, next week tell me which of these issues you consider life and death. The next week Louis Stokes came back with three biggies. At that point Rayburn told him that he should be ready to compromise on numbers 25–4. When he got to the big three, he should be ready to leave Congress as the last three issues were life and death ones.
"I've never forgotten this conversation."
[A different] Mike: "I think the realities of time have perhaps forced me to do this subconsciously (there are only so many hours in a day, only so many chances to shoot). Even as I was making my list, I was looking at many of the topics and thinking, 'Well, sure, I took that picture, but it's not really a subject area I actively seek.' Having a camera with you most or all of the time means you have opportunities to take pictures more often than not. But for me, those top items on my list are certainly more fun and interesting to pursue.
"Your wedding example is a good one; I've been asked in the past to shoot weddings for friends and I've turned them down, explaining that I shoot the way I shoot and it's probably not going to be in step with what they want for wedding photos."
Mike J. replies: Reminds me of Ted Orland's old joke: 'When your friends finally realize you are a true artist, committed to making sensitive and meaningful images, they will ask you to photograph their wedding.'
John Krumm: "I did the exercise. I probably won't concentrate only on the first five categories, which are all family related, but one thing became clear. No more landscapes and nature shots without people! They make up the majority of my shooting, and I value them the least."
Mike replies: So that's something good come of this, right there. In fact, one might sum up this whole post as "don't waste too much time on the things you value the least."
John: "There are many ways to manipulate these kinds of exercises by playing word games. Personally, unless you’re a pro and your best bet is specializing, I don’t see the point in limiting myself based on what I currently think. If you had asked me five years ago if I ever would take up bird photography, I’d call you delusional for even suggesting it. Now it’s my main interest and that’s because I kept an open mind."
Mike replies: "Change of mind is not inconsistency," quoth Cicero. Of course, he got his head chopped off, so should we listen to him?
Seriously, I don't see why this is incompatible with keeping an open mind. It has to do with focus and concentration, which sounds like exactly how you're approaching bird photography.
Dan Khong: "'Twas a good exercise. Now I know I am good at shooting people."