human potential, photography

grit & a quarter of a million failures


In November 2011, we purchased our first DSLR camera. Since then, I have taken several hundred thousand digital images, and I have deleted significantly more than I have kept. Going through the set of images I have taken so far this week, I see that my average keep is about one out of every 12-15.  (That’s not even close to batting .300.) Approximately 92-94 out of every one hundred images that I take never make it to my “to be considered” file. And, out of those that do, only about one in three ever gets posted. I won’t do the math to figure out what that batting average would be, but it’s pretty low.

Years ago, I heard the quote from Michael Jordan – the one that talks about the 9000 shots he missed, the hundreds of games he lost, and the dozens of times he was trusted with the game-winning shot – and missed. I remember watching some of the Chicago Bulls’ games and marveling at the athleticism, the grace, and yes, the beauty with which Jordan played. He made it look so easy – as if it all just flowed naturally from who he was. He must have been “born with it,” right? I think something within us wants to believe that’s the case. If people are simply “born with it,” it lets us off the hook. They were just lucky – and we weren’t.

But then if we return to his quote, we are forced to realize that it wasn’t simply a matter of his being lucky. Yes, perhaps he did have some innate talent that he was just “born with.” But…without the 9000 shots missed, the many lost games, and the last-second disappointments, would he have become the basketball great that we all knew?

I have a friend who is an amazing pianist.  Watching and listening to him play is mesmerizing. He doesn’t look at the keys, and his fingers flow effortlessly over the piano. When I played years ago, I had to keep looking down at the keyboard to be sure I was playing the right notes. When I told him that, he flippantly (he has a bit of a sarcastic streak in him) said, “Why? The keys aren’t going to move.” He told me about playing the piano as a young child. He loved it. Really loved it. After school, he would come home and practice until dinner, and after dinner, he would play for another couple of hours. Every day.

Several hours a day – every day.

Huh. I took nine years of piano lessons, but I’m almost certain I never – or rarely – logged more than an hour a day. A half hour was about my max – and I definitely did not practice every day. Some weeks, the only practice I did was in the half hour before my weekly lesson.

Do I wish I could play the way my friend plays? Absolutely. Was I willing to put in the hours of work necessary to get there? Nope. I didn’t have the same passion and purpose.

Angela Duckworth, author of the book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (find her TEDtalk here), has spent years studying the how and why behind people who succeed greatly and those who don’t. Those who push through to completion and those who give up. She has studied West Point cadets as well as National Spelling Bee finalists and winners. She has talked with urban school students and Olympic champions – always pursuing the question “Why?” Why do some make it while others of similar talent, skill, and IQ don’t? If success were solely based on characteristics like talent, skill, or IQ, why is there such a disparity of success between people who, by all measures, seem to have similar attributes? Why do some stick with it while others give up?

Her eventual answer? Grit.

Here’s how Duckworth describes it:

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

In other words, grit is making mistakes, learning from them, and always continuing to move forward. It is sticking with something even when challenges and obstacles come along because the goal is so compelling to you. Grit is a belief in a growth mindset – that is, believing that intelligence, skills, and talent are not static but can be developed with effort, strategies, and feedback. Grit is a belief that hard work and effort can and do play a significant role in the outcome of our situations. Grit is a willingness to keep at something for the long haul without giving up. Grit is about having such a passion and sensing such a purpose for what you are doing that you will absolutely not give up.

Some people seem to have a lot of it – and others not so much.

If you’re curious, Duckworth has a free, short, online “test” you can take, The Grit Scale, to see how gritty you are. Of course, I was hoping to see I had a high grittiness score, and…well? I didn’t. After some reflection, this doesn’t surprise me. I’ve changed jobs a lot. I’m enthusiastic about starting new projects, but I don’t always follow them all the way to completion before something else catches my attention. (You can ask my husband about this, and he’ll confirm it. We often joke about the degree to which my attention is diverted: “Ooooh, look! Something shiny!”) However, because I do believe in a growth mindset, I’m determined to put some effort into becoming grittier as I move forward.

Which brings me back to my journey as a photographer and the lessons that I could learn from the process. Photography is an area where I can claim a bit of grit. As mentioned earlier, it’s likely that I have taken well over 250,000 digital photographs in the past five and a half years. Of those quarter of a million images, I have probably deleted over 90%. And only a fraction of that 10% of images has ever actually seen the light of day. It’s strange, though, for reasons I don’t completely understand, I’ve never looked at any of those images as worthless “failures.” Each and every one has been a stepping stone. Each and every photograph has taught me something.

In the beginning, it was often a case of my looking at the back of my camera after a shot, and seeing that it was completely black. Oops. Guess I underexposed. If the back were completely white? Oops. Guess I overexposed. Would these images be considered “failures”? Unless I had had the intention to create abstract imagery of a starless, moonless, lightless night or a polar bear in a blizzard (which I didn’t), absolutely. But in the end, though they may have been “failures,” they were not lacking in value. These “failures” taught me what I didn’t want. They taught me what didn’t work – and also what might work. In gaining clarity of what I did not want, I also gained clarity and direction to move toward what I did want. Though the all-black and all-white images on the back of my camera are quite rare these days, I still examine each and every photograph I take to see if the image has arrived yet, or far more likely, is still on its way.

I’ve often said that I would like to live my non-photographic life more like I pursue photography – seeing each mistake, failure, or imperfection not as something to try to avoid, hide, or be ashamed of, but instead simply as a stepping stone, a lesson to be learned. Being more willing to try new things and experiment. Taking chances even if I’m uncertain of the outcome. Not being frustrated when I can’t do something the first time I try. It’s definitely a work in progress. A lot of life’s challenges aren’t deleted quite as easily as a digital file is, but I’m working on it.

What are the things that you would really like to do? What are the ideas sitting in the back of your mind that beckon you to keep moving toward them? What have you given up on taken a break from that you truly would like to pick up again? What passions and purposes inspire you so much that you would continue to do them no matter what obstacles you encounter? Where would you like to have more grit?

Duckworth says:

“[Grit] rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve the future.” 

Our own efforts can improve the future. There’s something satisfying in that. It moves us from a place of powerlessness to one of authentic power. A place where we realize – and believe – that we can make a difference. It doesn’t end with the first shot missed – or the 9000th. It doesn’t end with the first wrongly played note – or the 600th. It doesn’t end with the first deleted image or the 250,000th. It simply doesn’t end – not if we continue learning and improving as we pursue our purpose with passion – and a little bit of grit.