Ah, the new year. January opens so full of snow and cold, and that’s pretty terrible, but also so full of promise. We start all over with a new set of 365 days (366 this year), resolutions about how to spend them, and maybe even some plans on how to do that.
As a photographer, and I’m sure in any other field, I see so many articles on “How To Be A Better Photographer In 2016” or “10 Tips To Improve Your Photography in 2016” or “Make 2016 Your Best Year Ever.” I mean, these sorts of articles play all year long, but there does seem to be a big rush of them in January, right?

I don’t know if it’s the “American Dream”, or the “on-demand culture,” or “millenial entitlement” that drives this internet publishing frenzy (and real publishing in books like Fast Track Photographer and The $100 Startup), but something is. I’ll leave that to the social scientists figure out.

And you know what, I read those articles. I read those books. I would love to have a four hour work week (hell, even workday!). Somehow, and maybe this is just me, it never seems to work out quite like they say it will.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown writes about an experience giving a talk to a room full of business people. Before going on stage the event coordinator tells her “You’re not going to talk about the things that get in the way [of being joyful, e.g. shame]. You’re going to talk about the how-to part. People want how-to. … People want to be comfortable and joyful. That’s all. Keep it comfortable and joyful.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I know for me, there has never been a time where getting to joy, or getting to success, has ever been comfortable. It’s usually a period of excruciating emotional agony followed by a firm commitment to never do that again. A commitment I don’t usually keep.

Brené Brown ends that story writing:

We don’t want to be uncomfortable. We want a quick and dirty “how-to” for happiness….  Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to skip over the hard stuff, but it just doesn’t work. We don’t change, we don’t grow, and we don’t move forward without the work. If we really want to live a joyful, connected, and meaningful life, we must talk about things that get in the way.

That sounds pretty true to me. For life and every part of living we do. We have to do the hard work, and no tip like “use back button focus” is going to make much of a difference. But, as I ask my therapist every time I see her, “Okay, great. Now how do I do that?” Here’s my answer.

Some people really like lists. I like lists. I love being able to check something off and say “done!” In that spirit, here’s my advice on how to become a better photographer. Or writer. Or graphic designer. Or friend, or spouse, or parent. Whatever.

How to Be a Better (Whatever) in Five Steps

  1. Study the work of people you admire. There are thousands of years of history and there is no point and no glory in reinventing the wheel. Learning from the experience of other people is the best time-saver ever.
  2. Put what you’ve learned into practice. As much as I would like to say that it’s possible to become really good without ever actually doing anything, it just isn’t. Sometimes I have to remind myself to stop watching videos and actually make portraits, because that’s where the real improvement happens. In doing.
  3. Study the work you just did. It’s hard to look at your own work or your own behavior and ask “what can I do better?” Nobody wants to think they do things less than perfectly. But we do. We’re human, and imperfect, and expecting more than that is just a little bit crazy. (And it took months of therapy for me to accept that!)
  4. Identify specific changes and improvements you want to make. We all want to get better (at least, I hope so). But we can’t get better if that is our goal. We need to look specifically at small behaviors and try to improve them one by one. There’s no shortcut. But lots of little changes = big change.
  5. Repeat. Forever. Every time this cycle comes around, you’re going to learn new things about what you admire. You’re going to find new insights into your own practice. You’re going to find new things to work on. And when you compare yourself the you of the day before, the week before, they year before, you’ll be able to see how far you’ve come in your process of becoming a better… everything.