Is talent really overrated? How the best can teach us to be better

As Geoff Colven explains it, there’s nothing natural about Tiger Woods’ ability to play golf or Mozart’s ability to compose music. And nothing that should prevent you from achieving the same status with your photography.

I’m working my way through Colven’s book, Talent is Overrated, and pondering how his premise might apply to photographers. Colven says that by understanding how a few people became great, anyone can become better. Seems plausible, but how?

Deliberate practice

The key to getting better is through deliberate practice. This means first identifying specific skills you need to master. You need to look for skills that are just outside of your reach. This is your Learning Zone. You don’t want to target skills you have already mastered – your Comfort Zone. You also don’t want to reach for goals that are too hard — your Panic Zone. Sounds like a Goldilocks prescription, but once you have found that sweet spot, the work begins.

How do you practice?

Use your Learning Zone to push beyond your current limitations. Is getting correct exposure giving you trouble? Go find challenging lighting conditions, and photograph those conditions regularly. Take that skill or principle and work it until you have achieved mastery. The point is not just repetition but to challenge yourself in the process.

Get feedback from an expert

Feedback is an important part of the mix. This is where you might expect the gratuitous plug, but I’m resisting. There are so many places you can learn — blogs and podcasts, classes or coaching. You know how you learn best. The key is to tap into the experience of an expert and expand your knowledge base. As you learn more, you will find yourself subconsciously incorporating new skills into your workflow.

Your personal critiques

Every picture you admire represents a learning opportunity. Take a few minutes and give it your own personal critique. What do you like about it? What captures your attention? Where do your eyes go first? Why did the photographer light it the way she did? What composition tools did he use? What is the mood or story captured? How can you create a similar or different effect? 

Pictures you don’t like also have the same learning opportunity. What doesn’t work for you? Why? Build that feedback into your next shooting session.

It can be intense, but keep it fun

This is where I might part with Colven’s findings. He says when you are engaging in deliberate practice, it’s not fun. Maybe if you are learning to fly the space shuttle, but if you are improving your photography, why not? We chose this hobby because of an interest or passion. Tap into that, and make it fun. Make your subjects something you know and enjoy. Give yourself a fun assignment. Rather than saying ‘this week I have to work on lighting every day,’ say ‘this week, I’m shooting a special NatGeo assignment on lighting around the Nation’s Capital.’  

Project 365 or even Project 52

Consider your own Project 365 — picture a day challenge. This is a great opportunity to get yourself into the deliberate practice mode. Project 52, or a picture a week, also motivates you to keep shooting and hold yourself accountable. 

Whatever tools you use, I’m hoping we can all make the commitment to engage in more deliberate practice. Maybe by the end of the year, we will all be Tiger Woods photography, anyway.


You can find Geoff Colven’s Talent is Overrated in the PhotoTour DC Amazon store. :-)