Looking for Some Inspiration

Hi, Dr. Ellen. I came across your website when I was looking for some inspiration with some photography work and I found your site extremely inspirational. I’m only 20 but I have just recently applied to university to do either ‘Wildlife photography’ or ‘Marine and Natural History Photography’. I really want to do either of these degrees but I feel that confidence will be my biggest set back. For some reason I seem to shy away from showing my true potential and I find it hard to learn things quickly. For example I’m still trying to get my head around F-stops and shutter speeds. I was wondering if you had any advice? I spent the whole night just reading through your website and it makes so much sense and I also learned a lot too.

Many thanks! Debra from England.

Debra, confidence comes from repeated successes that accumulate over time. These successes can come in many forms from many directions, such as:

-success in friendships
-success in jobs or careers
-success in parenting
-success in your chosen avocation
-success in participatory roles in your community
-success in school, in terms of an accumulated knowledge base not just grades
-success in love relationships

Failures undermine confidence and can come from many different directions; but it is the accumulated failures that count, just as the accumulated successes are also what count. An individual failure here or there is of no real consequence. Indeed, some of the most important scientific discoveries have come from inherent mistakes in experimental conception or design. Humans make mistakes. And humans fail at times, too. But from my perspective it is the pattern that evolves out of the direction in life that one chooses to follow.

‘Learning’ is actually related to confidence: anxious, depressed, or distracted students learn less well than relaxed, happy, outgoing students that are better able to focus their energy and attention on the learning environment. 

An anxious student may be extremely capable and intelligent, but the anxiety overwhelms and drowns out capability and clear thinking. An anxious student is anxious for a variety of diverse reasons but the anxiety [tends] to flow from serious personal, familial relationship issues – problematic parent/child relationships, alcohol or drug problems, mental illness in family members, physical abuse issues, neglect, sometimes poverty – the list goes on.

As for learning ‘quickly’ or not, we learn quickly when we are drawn to the material we are trying to learn. Many bright students suffer in learning environments that are boring, distracting, incompetent, and basic rather than enriched – again the list goes on. If you love planes, for example, you will quickly learn everything you can about planes and flying, even about the complex mathematics of aerodynamics!

If you hate to cook, the best chef in the world will not inspire you. If you hate geometry, the typical athletic coach assigned to teach geometry will fail to engage you for two important reasons: one, he doesn’t want to be there either and, two, your head is elsewhere.

You need to follow your heart.

Cape Hatteras Seashore

We bear some responsibility for what happens to us

We learn best by doing. Too many academic environments crowd students into inadequate classrooms that inhibit free movement and open dialogue amongst students and between the professor and students. Such environments fail to engage all but the most inspired students and very little real learning occurs.

Our responsibility as a student at any level of the academe is to seek out teachers/professors we like and enjoy, and to seek out the courses that turn us on. The world is full of nice, boring, over-weight, not-very-knowledgeable teachers and we should learn to avoid them. I always tell students to talk to each other, find out who likes which teachers and why, even go sit in on their classes and observe them in action. But talk – find out what you need to know – do your own homework – and go to the learning environment knowing the things that turn you on and even why they turn you on. THEN POINT YOURSELF IN THOSE DIRECTIONS ACADEMICALLY.

The trouble with undergraduate programs in general is that they ask students to proclaim a major prematurely. Part of the joy of being in undergraduate programs at the University is to be able to sample many different fields of study and experiment with them.

I don’t like undergraduate programs that are too narrow, such as accounting or engineering or psychology or teaching or – music – whatever course of study that keeps the undergraduate student too narrowly focused.

Undergraduate school is the time to be as expansive as possible!

In the process of being so narrowly focused as an undergraduate, the student is exposed to the arts and the humanities but only in the most basic way. Too much attention is given to the nuts and bolts of a future profession. But undergraduate school is an enviable time of preparation for LIFE. The student has left home for the first time, he or she is exploring real relationships for the first time, they are learning to think big thoughts like never before, and they are beginning to think about how they want to spend the rest of their life. Oh, and they are also learning how to think for themselves for probably the very first time.

Careers vs preparation for life

Most schools describe their undergraduate programs in terms of preparation for a CAREER but students bring to the plate far more complex needs than that.

Careers come in due time as a person moves from one job to another, until a kind of theme emerges where he or she comes to realize that they have definite preferences for one field of endeavor over another; or that they enjoy certain kinds of jobs more than others. Careers, then, reflect an accumulation of successes in a specific disciplinary direction.

The photography courses you have applied for, I hope they are [in addition to] a regular undergraduate or Bachelor of Arts program where photography is not the exclusive focus. One of the things that makes a nature photographer excellent is that, first and foremost, they know all about nature, they have studied nature, they perferrably even have a degree in one of the natural sciences, and they are an avid reader with excellent research skills.

A ‘technically good’ nature photographer who lacks this natural history background pales by comparison.

I advise students to go to the largest school you can afford, and take the broadest courses you possibly can take and still meet the undergraduate requirements. Many students accomplish this by taking courses above and beyond the minimum number of required courses to get their degree.

Photography, you see, is really a way of being in the world. It shouldn’t be a COURSE OF STUDY but, rather, a way of life – a way of ‘seeing’ and communicating with others. Expertise in the art of photography flows out of expertise in the art of living. An artist consumes life and then expresses life in some preferred mode so that others might understand better who they are.

I know of a woman from the turn of the century who was an unmarried woman artist who painted and traveled the world as a painter. She lived her passion. She dared to be different. She painted because it brought her great joy. She painted what she saw. She also joined up with like-minded spirits whose self-proclaimed artist network encouraged them all and stirred their collective passions.

You can find out more about Artist Carrie Hill at  http://www.artistcarriehill.com. Then go out and search the web for other such examples of passionate career building!

But whatever you do at age 20, don’t be worried. The best times of your life are still to come! ENJOY!

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