Street musicians in Lisbon, Portugal

The Golden Mean (in Defense of Mediocrity)

Auream quisquis mediocritatem
diligit, tutus caret obsoleti
sordibus tecti, caret invidenda
sobrius aula.

– Horace, Ode 2.10

(“Whoever values a golden mean is safely free from the squalor of a worn-out house, is soberly free from an envious palace.”)

If you are reading this article because you read the title and thought it might be about composition in photography, the Golden Mean, the Fibonacci spiral and all that crap, I am sorry to disappoint you. Today we’re talking about philosophy (and yes, I think the idea of the Golden Mean or Ratio as a compositional tool is a load of crap, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The reason I decided to write this article is because, as I woke up this morning, I found an email in my inbox. It had been sent by one of the members of my community in reply to another email, one that I send to all my members when they join, asking what they are struggling with in their photography.

This is what my friend Sarang wrote:

“What I’m struggling with right now is that I have started finding my work mediocre and the more I try I guess I’m producing even more mediocre images. Somehow I’m not getting satisfied with my images.

Any tips to overcome this?

Best regards,
Sarang”

I blame my classical studies, but the mention of mediocrity immediately conjures in my mind Horace’s Ode 2.10, from which I excerpted the above quote. To be honest, what Horace and his contemporaries meant by mediocritas should not be translated as mediocrity, but rather as mean, or moderation. The whole poem is an exhortation by Horace to his friend Licinius to be moderate in all things.

Art Nouveau jewelry shop window in Lisbon, Portugal

In today’s over-competitive world, the same word, mediocrity, has taken on a decidedly negative connotation. When we say something is mediocre, we mean it is not good, even worse than average.

In reality, on any scale by which we can measure the quality of what we produce, something that is of median quality is, by definition, better than 50% of the rest. Is that such a bad place to be? I don’t think so.

There are some photographers whose work I admire greatly. I am looking at my bookshelf right now and I can see books by Steve McCurry, Sebastião Salgado, Nick Brandt, Art Wolfe, and others. If I put my work besides theirs, I can’t help feeling that mine is so much inferior that the only word to define it is mediocre, in comparison.

There will always be someone whose work is so much better than ours, but here’s an important thing to remember: McCurry and Salgado and all the other masters weren’t born masters. McCurry wasn’t born with a picture of the Afghan Girl in his mind. What put him on the cover of National Geographic was not innate talent, but years and years of hard work, dedication and putting it all in.

“Two per cent is genius and ninety-eight per cent is hard work.” – Thomas A. Edison

In case it wasn’t already abundantly clear, I don’t subscribe to the myth of talent. I firmly believe everyone can be the next Steve McCurry, if they are prepared to put in all the work that is necessary to become one.

By the way, you can find Sarang’s portfolio at Prakruti Anukruti.

Seagulls, Lisbon, Portugal

So, my first advice to Sarang and to all the others who feel the same is the following: if you want to overcome your mediocrity, do more work. Study the work of the masters and practice deliberately. If it takes 10,000 hours to become proficient at anything, as Malcolm Gladwell says, then start rolling up your sleeves.

There are no shortcuts, but I can guarantee you that you will become better, if you don’t give up.

“I know that to paint the sea really well, you need to look at it every hour of every day in the same place, so that you can understand its way.” – Claude Monet

In the end, however, you will never be completely satisfied with whatever goal you have achieved, because dissatisfaction is part of human nature and is what drives us to reach even loftier goals.

Yellow tram in Lisbon, Portugal

Another piece of advice that I feel I should share is this:

Stop comparing your work to that of others.

Most of all, never ever compare your work to what you see posted online by those who rake in thousands of likes for each photo they post on Facebook or 500px. That is just a popularity contest and the factors that determine popularity have little or nothing to do with quality.

If you do and if you make your satisfaction depend on popularity, I can assure you that you will never be satisfied.

“I’ve been woken from enlightened man’s dream / Checkin’ Instagram comments to crowdsource my self esteem.” – Kanye West

In the end, I am not sure I can give much practical advice to Sarang, but rather a more philosophical one: appreciate what you have, do not compare yourself to others and every achievement will be more meaningful. I hope this helps.

Shining shoes on the streets of Lisbon, Portugal

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Comments 3

  1. I totally agree with, I do compare myself to other photographers but in the sense of being lazy compared to them, such as if I shot everyday like him I would no my camera better or if I had taken the energy to go there I to would have had the opportunities for subjects like that.

  2. Perfect timing on this article! I definitely felt a tad inadequate after seeing the professionals in action in Venice! And again after seeing all the phenomenal photos being posted on Facebook of all the great costumers. But I will say it is also an inspiration “up my game” and strive to achieve a higher level. I actually do think it’s healthy to not always be satisfied otherwise we get complacent. Lorraine spina.

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