To be really good at something takes time and effort. Trying to be really good at many things takes some multiplier of time and effort. How much of a multiplier? Well really it depends on how unfocused we are. How many roads are we seeking to navigate?
Take photography. Building knowledge with not only our gear but how we react to our increasingly complex environment takes focused time and experience. The more our efforts are diluted by variables we introduce, the longer and steeper the learning curve we carve for ourselves to reach our goals. It will take much longer to be really good at any one thing if we’re distracted trying to be good at many.
I’m as guilty as anyone. I find it hard to stay focused. I see great work from photographers I admire both from the past and present. Inevitably, I seek out something to explain why they’re able to produce consistently striking images. Typically that something leans to the technical side. What camera and lens are they using to give the results I like? What we miss is what’s behind the scenes? How many crap images did it take before they shared that really good one? How many were deleted or ignored? Getting really good at something takes a lot of work and focus. What we don’t see from the work of those we admire is the effort they’ve put in to their art and how focused they are on their craft. Those that consistently share great images typically have a foundation of effort and focus that makes them stand out. They’ve also made lots of mistakes along the way and learned from the experience. They likely still make mistakes, it’s just that they don’t broadcast them, they know what qualifies as good and what they should leave behind in their archive or trash. In fact, the more focused the experience, the higher the bar for something to be judged as good or worthy in the artist’s portfolio. If you’ve been a photographer for a while, you’ve likely experienced the same, what was exciting for you a few years ago seems cliche now. Look back on your photo library and see the progress you’ve made over time.
The point is, that progress can be accelerated by staying true to your gear and as much as possible minimizing the variables in the gear you use. Get to know your equipment so well that using it is second and third nature, whatever that is. You don’t even have to think much as you capture life in front of you, it just happens. You know the result to expect from your settings without looking at your LCD. For film shooters, you minimize your variables by focusing on a small population of film types, perhaps only one for black and white and one for color. You know that film, you know how it reacts to light and processing as tightly as you know the camera and lens you’re using. Also, take time to think about what road you will choose. What are your goals, where do you want to end up and how will your work represent you. It requires thought and introspection. To quote the oft quoted Yogi Berra, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” In other words make a decision and go with it till you reach your final destination, don’t muddle around at the fork in the road forever.
By not muddling at the intersection or being diverted up and down different paths, its inevitable that we reach our chosen destination faster when we’re focused on limited goals through a narrow set of tools. Also find someone you trust, that will give you honest feedback when you need it. Share your goals with them, tell them where you’re headed. Seek their feedback, then through your corrective repetition, your skills and experience will stay productively focused on the narrow road you’ve chosen.
How long does it take to be really good? Who would know? I can’t answer that, maybe you have an idea. It’s going to depend on where and what you see as your destination. I think that your potential is unlimited even by taking a narrow road to success. There are plenty of forks still left after you reach your first or what you initially thought to be your final destination. What I do believe is that your knowledge, experience and expertise will form much more quickly if you stay limited in your focus and true to your dreams. Find what you love and pursue it passionately, just keep it monogamous.