Good to Great

Good to Great

There are people in this world that spend their entire life trying to get better at something they’re plainly mediocre at or even things they’re bad at doing. In fact, society has built institutions around the concept of “be better at what you are bad at; work on your weaknesses”. Haven’t we have all heard this sermon before?

I am here to say, baloney!

I used to live this way. I remember growing up and hearing voices, teachers, and other significant people in my life telling me to focus on my weaknesses and become a well-rounded person. What I’m advocating now is not a sweeping concept that applies across the board. Certainly there are areas we need to work on in our lives. For instance, when it comes to personality and disposition, I think we all need to work on our weak areas and become better people. If you are a bad father or mother, then you need to work at being a better one. My point is that when it comes to talent and shall we say “gifts” and in this case photography, I think we need to look at things in a different way.

The good Lord has numbered my days here on this earth and I don’t have the time to spend working on areas of weakness. Sounds bizarre I know, almost heretical. I truly believe my time is better spent on focusing on my strengths. That’s not to say I cannot learn something new, but at some point I need to decide if that new thing is worth pursuing or should be put aside. I want to be truly great at a few things. I have no desire to be mediocre at many–a “jack of all trades, but a master of none.”

In a world full of “not quite” and “almost”, there is a cry of “No! We want more than that”–a demand for people who stand out and who excel. People and organizations that spend a lot of money on an idea or project, call out for those who are the best. I want to answer that call. In the short time I have on this earth, I want to spend it bringing my really good up to really great and my really great up to awesome.

The world only needs one Steve McCurry or David duChemin. Be the best you can be at being you and in whatever you can excel. Be great at expressing your vision and your voice.

It’s hard enough for me to just be really great at being me. I know I’ll never be a great writer and I wouldn’t want to become one at the expense of being a really great photographer. Recently I started to build in support for my writing by hiring a proofreader and editor. I know my limits. I know what I am good at and that’s where I want to put my efforts. To borrow a phrase, I want to spend my time going from good to great!

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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.

22 Comments

  1. Paul Dymond

    Great post Matt. I could not agree more. It’s scary to turn down work in this economy but if you don’t feel like it’s feeding your soul, and you’d do a fantastic job at it, then your time is better spent doing a self-assignment or looking for better clients. Not as easy as it sounds though.

    Reply
  2. Dru

    Love this post! Thank you, something we often lose sight of is that being a Jack of All Trades might help with keeping the house working but even then you’d better know when to call in the plumber! Going from good to great takes a clarity of vision and a goal. Perfect time of year to be thinking about them!

    Reply
    • Matt Brandon

      I love it. The funny thing is my wife agrees with all this, but she still wants me to fix the leaky faucet. I keep telling her, its not my strength. She just says, “Make it your strength and go fix the sink!” Sometimes we have no choice but to work in our weakness.

      Reply
  3. sabrina

    A few months ago I wrote a blog post where I spoke about this same notion. If you don’t mind I’ll just quote what I wrote here.

    “Conventional wisdom says that to be better, we need to work on our weaknesses so that they are no longer our weaknesses. Everything I’ve experienced in working with people has told me otherwise. I’ve worked with management teams where no amount of coaching has helped them except in cases where the person had a high degree of self-awareness. In fact it was a prerequisite for their personal change and growth. What is interesting is that when they figure out what their weaknesses are, they don’t spend time trying to fix them. Instead they find ways to manage their weaknesses and to do this they invariably use their strengths.”

    I think you’ve made the right choice and taken a step forward in living your true purpose: making amazing images to help change the world.

    Reply
    • Thomas Schmidt

      It’s amazing – if also upsetting sometimes – how little self-aware a lot of people are, and how little they’re able to step back and take stock of their own skills, aspirations and possibilities. That young humans do have to learn this is one thing, but that so many adults actually haven’t learnt to not just stomp their feet and yell “But I do want!” is an entirely different thing. This is one of the things that makes it so annoying to work with a lot of people from a field of singular skill focuses where real excellence is hard to come by, but a lot of people aspire – and believe – to be great, just because “it can be done”, but where they’re simply lacking the basic talent to be great.
      Wanting is not the point of developing skills, but doing, and psychologically being able to is. Wanting in itself is just not creative.

      You make a good point there, Sabrina, with calling it “managing weaknesses”, but there’s also the point where managing them will take up so much of one’s strengths that the actual product of work will never be achieved. That’s the point where we should just step back from the issue completely, and try to entirely avoid having to use these weaknesses.

      Reply
      • sabrina

        I think we are in agreement here Thomas. Managing something doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to do it yourself. Working with others as Matt is doing here, is a way to manage an area that’s not a strength.

        Reply
    • Matt Brandon

      Sabrina and Thomas – I think the use of the word “manage” here is perfect. When we manage something we control the amount of time given to it or if we even use it at all. By managing our own abilities and talents we become much more sought after. Now, not just our craft/talent is valued but as someone that knows and manages my own limits, we become a valued asset to the company or client. BTW – Much of this comes from a book I read many years back by Tom Rath called “Strengths Finder”.

      Reply
      • Thomas Schmidt

        Will look that book up. – And I just realized I posted a comment just now basicly saying what you said here. Damnit 😛

        Reply
  4. Thomas Schmidt

    I will admit that it’s hard to actually understand this, to take a step back and look at things form different angles. As you pointed out, Matt, we’ve been told to focus on our weaknesses for all our lives, and it’s been suggested that we can go anywhere if only we try.

    Certainly there is a good point to trying, and to putting effort into whatever we do, but the most important thing in what you say is that we all have our strengths and weaknesses condensed down to a few talents and a lot of mediocre half-skills. We can work with that if it comes to making food, to writing birthday cards, to gardening or singing our favourite songs in the shower stall.

    When we go professional with something, though, or even only aspire to make an impact with specific skills, we all should step back and admit to ourselves that we do likely not have all the great talents we’d wish for. Yes, we can develop, and yes, we can certainly become good, or even great, by training. But we can’t do everything we want to, or everything we’re fascinated by.

    Thanks for the post, for me personally it’s important to be reminded of this from time to time.

    Reply
    • Matt Brandon

      Some good points here Thomas. I think what I wrote is important for a self-employed photographer, but in many ways even more important for employers/management. If I manage people – any people, but especially creatives, and force them to do a job they are capable but not necessarily great at, I will get the work done. But that is it. I will have unhappy employees and mediocre product and a very depressing work space. So, the problem is convincing management of this. Fortunately there are more and more managers that understand this.

      Reply
      • Thomas Schmidt

        No need to be humble here, Matt, I’d suggest this blog post to a lot of my former colleagues in the boatbuilding world as well, not only to photographers. We all need to understand that we’ve got certain core talents – and that this is where we should concentrate on performing well, and furthering them. In my experience the best thing about putting together a team of boatbuilders for a specific project is to select experts for different areas, and see them perform marvelous tasks there. The best thing is when this furthers their involvement with the product, and even makes them proud and happy.

        Reply
  5. Eli R.

    This made me smile. My grades from school were either top notch or just on the edge of flunking.
    To me this also have something to do with age. Being old enough to make my own decisions. Still glad they forced me through some of the basic stuff when I was younger though 🙂

    Reply
    • Matt Brandon

      Eli – I agree completely. I think young people still in school can not/should not be expected to just work on what they are good at. Quite frankly, they just don’t have enough life experience to know what they are good at or not. My daughter is a really good photographer, but it is too soon for her to focus on just that. She might very well be great at something else, too soon to tell. Besides, she would never make it on her talent alone. She needs the well rounded education that school gives. But, at some point she will need to go for it.

      Reply
    • Thomas Schmidt

      Eli, guess there’s the really basic things we’re all to learn, and without learning some sorts of things first we will certainly never find out what our talents are and where we can (more or less easily) improve, and where we should rather let other people take over. Plus I’m a huge fan of a very broad education, which doesn’t mean that we need to push our professional – or hobbyist – aspirations into all these directions at once.

      Reply
  6. Chris Plante

    I agree with you, Matt. On a professional level ALWAYS concentrate on your strengths and outsource, if you can, your weakness. Besides, it frees up more time to focus on your strength. Your strength is what people hire you on. I don’t think any ad agency would be hiring McCurry or DuChemin for a commercial shoot. That is not their area of strength.

    I could pose this question:

    What is the most important area of strength needed to be a successful photographer?
    -your images?
    -your marketing?
    -your management?
    -your personality?

    Reply
  7. Sandy

    For those of us in the corporate world, there’s actually a very good book called “Now, Discover Your Strengths” which focuses completely on this subject. Mitigate those things that you’re not so good at, but really focus and excel at the handful of things you’re great at.

    Reply
    • Matt Brandon

      Sandy – I made a mistake below in a comment to Sabrina. I stated that much of this post came from a book I read many years back by Tom Rath called “Strengths Finder”. I was wrong. After reading your comment I went back to my bookshelf and pulled the book and saw it was in fact “Now, Discover Your Strengths” by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton. Thank you for jogging my memory and next time I won’t rely on memory and the net so much and I will get up out of my seat and go 8ft to my bookcase and read!

      Reply
  8. Paul

    This brings to mind a short story…

    HARRISON BERGERON by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

    “THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.”

    The story tells of a future time when everyone’s good qualities are hidden or hampered so no one is better than anyone else at anything. So too, by concentrating on those skills at which we fall short, we lower our expectations of success until we are all equal. Mediocre, but equal.

    In researching I keep fiding quotes from the movie “The Incredibles” In this movie like Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” people with great abilities are kept from excelling. In one moment the father says of the school system “They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity.” and later the son remarks that the statement “Everyone is Special” really means that no one is.

    It is good to test your limits and try new things. But, if Sisyphus had the option of choosing another task rather than watch the bolder roll down the hill every time he would choose something like bowling. Roll the ball, knock stuff down. That would have been a thrill for him.

    Reply
    • Matt Brandon

      Paul – What ever we do, lets not have someone be better at something than someone else! Lets live in a world where “everyone is a pony and we eat rainbows and poop butterflies.”

      Reply
  9. Rowan Sims

    Well put, Matt. Mediocrity has been my lifelong curse, thanks mostly to having far too many passions and not enough discipline to develop them into specialties. I am THE Jack Of All Trades! Thanks for the encouragement to focus on developing one or two and becoming the best I can be at those things. Great post, as always.

    Reply
  10. Magda @Destination WorlD

    Thanks for this post. It’s very motivational. You are 100% right. Life is short and we should spend it doing things we want to do 🙂

    Reply

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