Last autumn I read an article about putting a pole through the horse’s head, and the commentary left a minuscule (yet indelible) mark on my soul that eventually metastasized into my cerebrum. The takeaway: perhaps getting really really really ridiculously good at something isn’t actually a good thing.

Today’s society celebrates expertise. Expertise is an expected outcome of a consistent function; after all, 10,000 hours of consistently doing anything purportedly renders you the exemplar nonpareil in that field. Never mind that the complexities of the theory are frequently misrepresented, but pay close attention to the expectation of how everyone else perceives expertise. Thanks in part to the information superhighway, acknowledgment of expertise – particularly when it comes to art – is a function of perceived assertion from the masses. And in this day and age, everyone gets a vote.

So when we desire for others to accept us as “good at what we do,” we tend to do it in a way that aligns to expectations from others. We want the affirmation, the clients, and/or the social acceptance of doing it right. Personally I’ve seen this manifest in the creation of habits that eventually define our comfort zone. If you read Bligh’s blog post from last week, he tells you everything you need to know about expanding beyond your comfort zone. Ergo, consider this post the companion to his. What do you do when you need to change whilst still in your comfort zone?

You put a pole through the horse’s head. I will not summarize the entire Wired article – because that would be bush league, lazy, and I think you should read it – but I will describe the punch line. Edgar Degas painted a textbook perfect image of horses, except he stuck a pole in the foreground that obstructs your view of the primary subject. And he didn’t do it in a subtle way. It is a similar sensation to showing up at the concert and discovering an enormous structural column between your seat and the stage. It makes the experience unpleasant. As such, you can imagine the scintillating reaction from the art community at the time. 

Yet it is precisely that reaction that inhibits creative growth. I grew up in a photography world that celebrated uncluttered images, sweeping vistas, tack sharp detail throughout the frame, and heavy tripod use. Peers rewarded me emotionally for doing it just as I had been taught. I developed finely tuned habits of picking the perfect overlook, carefully framing a few items in the foreground for detail, planting the tripod legs, and waiting for the perfect light. My friends and family would be appropriately impressed, and I successfully ignored the fact that they’re morally obligated to be impressed.

Over the years I added other skills because I knew it was important to think outside the box and push the envelope and expand my horizons (I also became very good at Buzzword Bingo). I was stepping outside of my comfort zone and learning about strobes, HDR, and telephoto landscapes. But here’s the important distinction: I wasn’t changing my core habits that existed principally inside the box. Last December we spent Boxing Day at a yurt in northern Colorado, and after I had carb loaded with my third s’more, I went out in the -5˚F weather to take the requisite starry night photo. Mechanically I began to setup in the clearing with an unobstructed view and proper lighting from the nearly full moon, until I remembered I was doing it wrong. I was about to take photo I knew would turn out how I wanted it to because I’d already taken that photo, at least two dozen times. So instead I forced myself to do something that felt uncomfortable and wrong, and I ended up with one of my personal favorite images from 2014. To be fair, I ended up with a boatload of rubbish as well, but that is a hallmark of the experimentation process. Good habits are hard to break. 

William M. Rochfort Jr.
Partner @cavemancollective
Contributing Editor @backpackermag
Proprietor @twomillstones