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Limits and Creativity

Limits and Creativity

Nikon SLR

    I want to tell you a story about two photographers.

    For a while now, I’ve been wanting to get more into photography, hoping eventually to buy a nice digital SLR camera. So I was quite thrilled when a photojournalist friend offered to give me some of her old film equipment to learn on. The camera, a Nikon FM2, is a fully manual model first introduced almost 30 years ago. It only uses a battery to run the light meter, and the battery on the one she gave me is burnt out — and I’ve been forbidden to replace it.

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    Her thinking is this: if I’m serious about learning how a camera works, I need to hone my skills and instincts so I get a feel for how to put together a good image. A more modern camera (like the later-model auto-focus Nikon she also doesn’t use anymore) wouldn’t teach me that; instead, it would teach me how to use the camera’s bells and whistles.

    I have another friend who is also a photographer, and I was excited to share with her the news of my new setup. She was more or less unimpressed until I told her what kind of camera it was, then she lit up. “Oh, that’s good — you’ll learn a lot from that!” Then we got to discussing her preference for Nikon cameras, and among other things she said she liked the black-and-white mode in Nikon’s best.

    “Really?” I asked. “Wouldn’t it be better to convert to black-and-white in Photoshop, where you have far more control over the process?”

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    I might have been asking the Pope about his sex life — the response was rather chilly. Photoshop, to her, was a substitute for skill. Learning to make the best use of what you have in your hands, that’s photography for her, not applying the near-limitless potential of an image program.

    Both of these photographers were telling me something interesting about not just photography but about… well, about life. They were telling me to stop resisting limits and embrace them as part of the process of creativity. Yes, the Nikon FM2 is a pretty limited camera — that’s what makes it a great learning tool (and, for that matter, it’s what makes it a model that’s remained popular over 3 decades of photographic advance, one that’s still found in many a pro’s toolkit). Yes, in-camera black-and-white is far more limiting than the vast possibilities unleashed by Photoshop — that’s what makes it an art. To embrace those limits and make something beautiful is to accomplish something extraordinary.

    I can’t help but think of those legendary million monkeys pounding away at a million typewriters. In all that flow of randomness, eventually a string of characters will emerge that tells the story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and his stunning descent into madness and eventually death. But it’s the labor of one man, William Shakespeare (or another man posing as Mr. S), scratching away with his goose-feather quill by the dim light of a beeswax candle, groping for the perfect words in the near-dark, that stuns us — one man working with all the limitations of his life and times, all the limitations of the medium and of his mind. That is what elevates a play like Hamlet to the level of art.

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    Aside from a lack of resources — who, after all, has a million monkey laying around and that kind of time to wait? — there are good reasons to oppose unboundedness, to reject a lack of limits. Creativity doesn’t stem from limitlessness. Over and over again, creative people not only challenge limits but seek them out — artists choose a limited palette to paint an image with, musicians strip a complicated arrangement down to voice and acoustic guitar, writers cut and cut and cut again to reach a thousand-word length, and my photographer friend willingly embraces the quirks of her camera’s black-and-white mode over the power of Photoshop.

    That’s the gift my photojournalist friend gave me: limits. She knew that for under $500 I could pick up a decent used digital SLR setup. But on a digital camera, it would be easy to just learn how to harness the power of the camera — to let it do my focusing, metering, white balancing, and everything else for me. I might learn good composition, but I wouldn’t learn photography.

    The education of an artist or craftsperson consists mainly in learning about limits; I would argue that their creative spark comes from embracing those limits. That’s good advice for the rest of us, who spend quite a bit of time bemoaning the limitations forced on us by our circumstances without even trying to understand them. My advice — or rather, my friends’ advice — is this: understand your limits, embrace them, and use them.

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    It’s what they’re there for.

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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