Something we all go through as creatives is getting stuck in the dark hole that’s described as being ‘uninspired’.
Relating to photography, we’re talking not about the action of going out to shoot, but more about what and why you shoot. Although I have friends who are going through a trough right now, I also recently came out of this rut myself, but I’m back on track now with a fire that’s starting to burn brighter than ever and I wanted to share some thoughts my perspectives.
A couple of weeks after I came back from Hong Kong, I still had a hundred or so images in my quick collection – RAWs ready for processing I thought had a ‘little something’ to them. I realised they had been in my quick collection for weeks, and I kept glossing over them thinking “Yeah, I’ll do them later”, and opting to edit the new photos I had taken more recently or doing something else.
What I didn’t realise over the course of those weeks was that every time I decided to skip over editing those photos, I added a compounding layer of resentment to the work that I had done – starting to get frustrated at the photos I had taken. With every pass came more disdain.
I got ‘over’ my own images. I hated it.
I looked at my own work and my upper lip started to curl, my face started to crinkle. This sucks.
This mentality started surreptitiously trickling into my new shots too. They were kind of bland, uninspiring, they didn’t really have that much soul in them. At the time it really felt like I was just going out to shoot for the sake of shooting. Not for the experience, not for the fun, I just couldn’t be bothered.
When a passion starts to loose its flame, you should address it. But know that like anything else in life, your flame has peaks and it has troughs.
The real challenge is how to minimise how deep your trough goes and how long it goes on for, because no one can burn at 100% forever. Sooner or later your candle will die. And then you have to decide what to do. Replace it? Reshape it? Or let it just lay in a pool of wax?
What I wanted to know was why my candle was burning down so fast. Why did I suddenly feel the urge to throw all my work out the window, laptop in tow?
It’s all about comparison
I came to the conclusion that it ultimately boiled down to comparison.
Comparison of a lot of different things:
- Comparing my own social growth to others.
- Comparing my own numbers with someone else’s.
- Comparing the quality of my work with the perceived quality of someone else’s.
- Comparing where I was today with where I want to be.
- Comparing how I feel with my work now with how I wanted to feel about it in the future.
There are two sides to this coin.
On the positive side, it seems you can take any one of these points and spin them to aid you to driving positive action – Comparison as an aid to growth (we’ll come back to that in a little bit).
On the flip side, its far easier to become discontented with your life and your work when you compare what you think you lack against someone who has what you think you want to have.
For me, I have lofty goals and even loftier standards of the quality of my work. I’m really hard on myself (for better or for worse). And seeing the delta between my existing work and where I want to be got me pretty sick of my existing stuff. It was kinda shit.
As a side note: you might say that I shouldn’t be so doom and gloom. That I shouldn’t take it so seriously, or it should just be fun, ra ra ra. Fuck you. Pursuing passions with a whole heart is extremely important to me. It’s the essence of how I work as a human being. The blood, sweat, tears, laughs, loves, fun, stresses. The good and the bad. The whole spectrum is important. The whole heart.
Tangental rant aside, the point is that comparison comes from a focus of the lack of circumstance in your life. Too much spin, too much focus on the lack without turning it into a driving force for change leaves you with a void. It leaves you with a feeling that some things are just too hard, some changes are just too big, some problems are just too difficult to solve. You’ve identified where you want to go, but you didn’t set yourself a plan on how to get there.
It leaves you feeling uninspired. Unmotivated. Not just about taking action, but more importantly, you become complacent about refining and iterating on your internal beliefs and values that drive your flame, that give you the zest and willpower to do the thing you’re passionate about.
And that’s what it’s all about, really. When you execute on the things that are important to you; when your actions align with your internal values, a spark appears. The flame ignites.
Comparison fucks up your internal values. Comparison fucks up your beliefs. Using comparison without purpose is dangerous because it leads to misery, and misery loves company.
So the solution is pretty simple, right?
- Reframe the comparisons that are doing you more harm than good. Prune them down and only focus on a small handful at a time.
- Reassess or find beliefs and values that allow you to spark small and often.
Not useful: @superlitphotog is growing at 200 followers a day! I’m never going to do that! Useful: What are some useful things I can do that @superlitphotog is doing to get 200 followers a day? Let’s make a plan for that.
Not useful: @amazingtravelphotographernatgeo takes the most AMAZING photos. I’ll never be like that. Life sucks. Useful: What makes @amazingtravelphotographernatgeo’s photos so amazing? How can I learn from what they’ve done? How do they compose their images? What locations do they go to? How does their editing bring their images to life? What lessons are useful here?
Not useful: I’m so sick of my work. My work sucks. I hate the current photos I take. Useful: Force yourself into an internal recluse to reflect on why that is and write this blog post about it.
TLDR for this section; feeling sorry for yourself is okay for a little while, but stay there for too long and that hole becomes harder to get out of. Instead, focus on why you’re feeling like that and use it to drive constructive action.
The quality of your questions defines the quality of your life. Asking the right questions is important.
Spark small and often
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt about motivation is that it’s all about one thing:
Progress. Movement. Inertia. You as a human being need to feel rewarded or feel good about the things you’re doing. You’ll find that if you’re not getting enough wins on the board frequently enough – if you don’t feel good about your actions – you spend your time looking to your past or looking to compare yourself to others, but that’s a fools errand. There are no new wins to be found in either or those places.
However when you win small and win often, you build momentum. You feel good about those actions; you have a sense of purpose. The world aligns and you stop victimising yourself – shitty comparisons don’t get made. We start to gain confidence in ourselves.
This revolves around having a much larger, long term goal (a goal, not a wish or a want) that’s flexible, that guides you but doesn’t apply any pressure to your life. But more importantly, this goal needs to be split up into very very small micro actions that make you feel like you’re accomplishing something.
What happened to me was that I was sick of my Hong Kong photos. Sick of the way I take them, sick of the way I edited them, hell, I was even sick of the location in general. I wasn’t getting the daily/weekly wins I needed to feel good about those things.
So I bought a new lens. Haha. 😅
Now, I’m not saying that you need to go out and buy a new lens every time you feel uninspired (although if retail therapy is your thing, go right ahead, I’ll be right behind you), but this is actually a pretty typical solution for this problem we all face. My new 70-300mm lens is a focal length I have no idea about – and that’s the important part. It’s a catalyst for something new. Something that gives me a direction at a micro level to get wins on the board.
2 weeks later and I’ve gotten enough little sparks with focusing on new compositions, learning how to shoot at this range, and all the other little things associated with it and now I feel good about shooting again, I feel good about editing again. I’m excited to get out and shoot, and I’m excited to come home and edit.
I’m also starting to get into portraiture – another new realm for me. That’s exciting too and I can’t wait to focus on all the momentum I build in that category.
You might have heard that people do ‘personal projects’ all the time. They’re actually really important for a lot of different reasons, but one of the reasons why they’re so good is because they get wins on the board. You get to decide if its successful or not and you get to decide how many wins you get. No comparisons, just you, the action and the reward.
It’s this action of mixing things up, making you uncomfortable, learning something new; of focusing on things that can give you little sparks frequently. It’s this that helps you to focus forward and not get stuck in the comparative past.
Useful comparisons that drive action and little wins all the time.
Feel good about the things you’re doing.