Reality Check - The Road To Mastery isn't always pretty / by Christian Webb

Give it to ya straight! 

I think it’s important to choose your mentors / instructors wisely these days.  Besides making sure to find professionals who are actually qualified to teach you something,  it’s vital that they truly commit to your learning by giving nothing less than 100% truth.

I’ve been hard at times on a few friends, fellow photographers looking to learn and get better.  Not mean or malicious and never discouraging, but always real and always to the point.  It’s not always received well by those who don’t actually know me.  But those who do know me, know that my toughness truly comes from a place of caring and wanting others to achieve success.  I don’t bullshit people or sugar coat my assessments and approach to teaching.  I’m not the “politically correct” dude who will kiss your ass and give “positive feedback” just to keep one happy and not hurt feelings.   I think it’s terribly irresponsible to do that just as it’s ridiculous to treat everyone as if “they’re a winner” no matter what.  Especially when you get to a point where others are looking up to you and you take on a mentor type of role.   This doesn’t mean getting down on anyone and making them feel as if they CAN’T do something.  I’m just really to the point when it comes to letting them know what it’ll take to get better.   If a photographer is asking me questions and wanting to learn,  I’m always going to give them my time, advice and guidance.  However,  if they’re not putting in the time themselves to get better and are not passionate about what it takes to advance….at some point I let them know:

If you want to do this…HERE’S WHAT YOU GOTTA DO and THIS is the ONLY way to get better!”  

 I think it’s important to encourage, support, show love and be as giving as possible with people when it comes to teaching others.  However, I find it more important to truly be honest with them and never short change their learning by worrying about whether they can handle truth.  Nine out of ten times,  those who can ‘t handle it will run and accuse you of being too hard when in reality, they’re just not strong enough to face real challenges.   I’ve always believed that the strongest types of people will always gravitate toward people stronger while the weaker types will always avoid and resent those stronger than them.  To get stronger, to get better,  people HAVE to work with, surround themselves with people better and stronger than themselves and they have to find people who will always keep it real with them.   Finding a few friends to support your efforts and kiss your ass no matter what you do, is not the way to make sure you’re actually improving and really getting good at what you do.  Claiming that your friends, family and your clients all think you're a photography genius doesn't actually make it so.  You gotta check the sources.  You have to get realistic appraisals and feedback on your work from qualified and respected professionals who will give it to you straight.   Or, you can tell yourself whatever you need to tell yourself in efforts to discredit those trying to keep it "real" with you and make yourself feel better.  You can look at those keeping it "real" with you as being the bad guys when in reality, they're the best ones to help you get to the next level.  But, I find that it's easier for most to avoid the truth and reject any attempts to burst their bubbles. That act can go on publicly and on social media, but all alone, truth sets in and the reality of their skill set will plague their minds.  Now, for some people, this is good. It's motivating and empowering.  But for some, it just causes them to be miserable. 

A photographer that owns lights and barely knows how to use them, has a decent dslr and hardly knows it's settings,  has little understanding or skill with post production and standard programs like PS and LR,  has limited understanding of photography in general and yet...has a studio and sells themselves as a professional photographer.......well........this is a person that needs a serious reality check.  Do I think it's cool to "make fun of" or not encourage them? No. But I think sometimes these are the types to put themselves in the situation for ridicule specifically because of their attitude and inability to let go of their pride and to accept truth and reality.   They actually get defensive and lash out at those who they know are way more professional than they are.  It's as if they their only remedy to feel better is to tell themselves that they're great and keep themselves surrounded by folks who will help to empower their inflated and often fictional assessment of their skills.   This doesn't help them in the least and at some point, reality will catch up.  At the end of the day,  you kind of have to let those type do what they do and wish them well.  

That said,  I just want to share the following passage from Robert Greene’s book MASTERY.  It pretty much sums up my thoughts on the subject and most certainly does a better job:

To reach mastery requires some toughness and a constant connection to reality.  As an apprentice, it can be hard for us to challenge ourselves on our own in the proper way and to get a clear sense of our own weaknesses.   The times that we live in makes this even harder.   Developing discipline through challenging situations and perhaps suffering along the way are no longer values that are promoted in our culture.  People are increasingly reluctant to tell each other the truth about themselves, their weaknesses, their inadequacies, and flaws in their work.  Even the self help books designed to set us straight tend to be soft and flattering telling us what we want to hear, that we are basically “good” and can get what we want by following a few simple steps. It seems abusive or damaging to people’s self esteem to offer them stern, realistic criticism, to set them tasks that will make them aware of how far they have to go.   In fact, this indulgence and fear of hurting people’s feelings is far more abusive in the long run.  It makes it hard for people to gauge where they are or to develop self-discipline.  It makes them unsuited to the rigors of the journey to mastery.  It weakens people’s will.  Masters are those who by nature have suffered to get where they are.   They have experienced endless criticism of their work, doubts about their progress, and setbacks along the way. They know deep in their bones what is required to get to the creative phase and beyond.   As mentors, they alone can gauge the extent of our progress, the weaknesses in our character, the ordeals we must go through to advance.  In this day and age you must get the sharpest dose of reality that is possible from your mentor. You must go in search of it and welcome it.  If possible, choose a mentor who is known for supplying this form of tough love.  If they shy away from giving it, force them to hold up the mirror that will reflect you as you are.  Get them to give you the proper challenges that will reveal your strength and weaknesses and allow you to gain as much feedback as possible.  No matter how hard it may be to take.  Accustom yourself to criticism.  Confidence is important, but if it is not based on a realistic appraisal of who you are, it is mere grandiosity and smugness.  Through the realistic feedback of your mentor you will eventually develop a confidence that is much more substantial and worth possessing.