Photos in this article are from my time in Michigan in 2013.
In life I have a certain strategy: I set very low (or no) expectations for myself and try my personal best.
I know often people say you should always set your ambitions and expectations high– but I find several faults with this strategy:
First of all, if you don’t need your expectations– you are disappointed. This disappointment may lead you to not pursuing other projects (knowing that you might fail).
Secondly, even if you reach your self-imposed expectations, it isn’t that rewarding. You simply shrug and say to yourself: “Oh I achieved this goal–but I expected it of myself.” Then you set the next expectation and simply move on.
Advantages of having no (or low) expectations
What I think is the great advantage of having no expectations of yourself (or very low expectations) is twofold:
1. You are never disappointed
If you have very low expectations of yourself (or even better–no expectations of yourself), you will never be disappointed. Why is that? Well, if you don’t meet your expectations, you didn’t expect to do so in the first place. Furthermore if you actually achieve more than your initial expectation you are happy– because of the low bar you set yourself up in the first place.
2. There is less pressure
Another great advantage of having low or no goals is that there is less pressure in your everyday life. We have enough pressures from expectations from others– in terms of how much money we earn, how much power and prestige we have, what car we drive, what smartphone we own, where we live or the square footage of our homes, how popular we are, and how good partners or parents we are.
For the majority of us (myself included)– street photography is our passion and hobby. We often put too much pressure on ourselves to become popular and well-known, but aren’t we simply supposed to be shooting in the streets because we enjoy it? I often find if you put more pressure on yourself– we tend to enjoy it less.
Low expectations vs no expectations
So the next topic I wanted to tackle was the idea of having low expectations versus no expectations.
I feel that both of these strategies work well. I personally like to set low expectations of myself (to at least give me some sort of direction). The more ideal strategy however is to set no expectations of yourself (because you will truly never be disappointed or have pressure on yourself).
With low expectations, I give myself somewhat vague goals like publishing a book, having an exhibition, writing articles for my blog, videos for YouTube, etc. I set low expectations on myself by telling myself that they don’t need to be revolutionary, perfect, or the world’s best. I just try the best that I can personally achieve– and that is the most I expect out of myself.
With setting no expectations for yourself might cause you to become really lazy and not do anything at all. However this depends on the person. If you embrace a “Zen” or “Taoist” mentality– you don’t set goals for yourself or have expectations, but you can still work hard at your task.
Expectations in photography
Below are some goals and expectations I used to set for myself in photography:
- I wanted to become famous and have exhibitions all around the world.
- I wanted to have my photography admired by many people.
- I wanted a large and strong social media following.
- I wanted every single photo I posted to have “at least” 100 likes/favorites.
- I wanted to own a Leica camera.
- I wanted to travel the world and photograph big cities.
- I wanted to make photography my full-time profession.
Funny enough, I have achieved (most of) those goals above. I felt that once I met these expectations and goals of myself– it would bring me enduring happiness and satisfaction.
However once I checked off every accomplishment off the list, the happiness and joy was fleeting. The “buzz” lasted a few days, but then I felt that I needed to “one up” myself– by setting even higher goals and expectations for myself.
My experiences with expectations for myself in photography is that I should simply be satisfied with what I have at the moment.
For example, I wouldn’t say that I am any “happier” now having over 300+ Favorites on my Flickr photos than I had 30+ favorites on my photos. The same goes– having 40,000+ followers on Facebook hasn’t made me any happier than having 400+ followers on Facebook. Even though I appreciate my Leica camera, frankly once I got used to it, it didn’t make me any happier than when I had my Canon 350D.
Can you achieve greatness without having high expectations?
I think one of the biggest arguments against the idea of setting high expectations for yourself is the idea that by setting low expectations of yourself– you will simply be satisfied with mediocrity.
I would contest. I think you can still create great work, without putting the pressure of high expectations on yourself. I think if you are passionate about anything (let’s say street photography)
that your natural inclination would be to go out and shoot obsessively, and aim to create great work.
Therefore I don’t think that being “artistic” can or should be forced. If you don’t have a burning passion and desire to create great photography– perhaps your true passion in life isn’t photography– but something else. And that is totally fine, we don’t have to dedicate ourselves 100% to photography. We can just pursue photography as a hobby, and for fun.
On having low expectations when shooting on the streets
I think with street photography, to get a great photo is extremely difficult (and very uncertain).
For example, there may be days where we go out and take lots of great photos. Other times we may go out for a month or two and not get any good photos at all. Even worse, we could go an entire year (or even longer) without getting what we consider a good photograph.
In street photography the only two things we can really control is where we stand and when we hit the shutter. Other than that, we can’t control how people look, what clothes they are wearing, how the light looks, what the background is, etc. Therefore although half of making a great photograph is skill, the other half is luck.
So when you are out shooting on the streets, don’t expect to take any good photos. Rather, simply enjoy the experience of being on the streets. When you are out and about, grab a nice coffee or sandwich. Talk to strangers on the street and get to know them. Enjoy the slow pace of your walking, and enjoy the sights you experience. Don’t become disappointed if you go a long time without taking any good photos.
Most of the great street photographers I know personally say they might get one good photograph a year. I would say that is about the same with me too.
So set yourself a low and reasonable goal: to get one good photograph a year. Work hard towards that goal, but don’t be disappointed along the way.
Whenever I am testing out my ideas or speaking outloud– I always confide in my girlfriend Cindy (who is a lot smarter than me, and also has differing opinions to me).
Cindy personally sets herself high expectations of herself to give her direction and purpose in life. However if she doesn’t reach them, she doesn’t necessarily become disappointed in herself. She simply continues to strive harder toward the expectations she imposes on herself.
I feel that is fine too– to have high expectations or goals for yourself, without feeling anxiety, pressure, or disappointment.
Personally at the end of the day, I think we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves when it comes to photography, art, or our lives. We should always strive to do our personal best, but if we miss the mark of perfection or being “the best”– I think we should be fine with that.
Photography is our passion and we are all amateurs– meaning we do it for the love of it (not necessarily that we don’t have skill).
Therefore if you ever find yourself disappointed in your photography, don’t fret. Learn to find solace and satisfaction with your personal best. Not all of us are as artistically inclined as one another. If we were only 5 feet tall, we could probably never make it to the NBA– but we could strive to be the best basketball player we could personally be.
So in 2014, even though I suggested some “street photography new year’s resolutions”
use it more as a simple guideline or blueprint, to give you new ideas and inspirations. If you don’t stick with your resolution, simply switch it around ditch it, and pursue what stimulates you and makes you satisfied.
What do you think about setting high (or low) expectations for yourself in photography (or life?) Share your comments and thoughts in the comments below.