Knowing Versus Doing

Though he still doesn’t consider himself an expert photographer, Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York blog, which mainly revolves around the photographed portraits of his subjects – the personalities and characters from the streets of New York City – counts followers in the tens of millions. Given that his blog and social feed revolve around the many thousands of photographs he’s now taken, not to mention his million-plus selling book containing more of the same… How is it that Stanton doesn’t think his photography is “expert” level?

To paraphrase his words, it’s because he never studied photography as a subject. He just did it. And did it. And did it. Photograph after photograph after photograph, hour after hour, year after year – before he even stumbled upon the idea of interviewing his subjects and telling their stories. Before Humans of New York became the kind of anthropological study it is today, Stanton spent several years completely immersed in what he describes as an obsession. He was consumed by a compulsion to keep taking all those pictures.

Digital cameras allow you to take a lot of pictures, so with film not being a problem, he was able to select the pictures he liked from the swathes he’d captured. And over time he learned what it was about those pictures that was good. The thing that made them stand out from the rest. And as time passed, he was able to capture those pictures with less shots and more of a sense of exactly what it was he was looking for. As a result – he developed his own style of photography without spending any time studying the art, techniques or science of photography. And for that reason, still describes himself as “not much of a photographer.”

I think there’s an important lesson here. You don’t have to study. You just need to do.

If you can take your passion and turn it into an obsession, and if that obsession becomes a driving force that keeps you practicing your art, work or craft – then like Stanton, you’re going to end up putting in the kind of hours that lead to expertise. Putting in the hours means you get the experience, the muscle memory or instinct, and to some extent the knowledge that gets you where you need to be, without studying how it should be done. Or how other people have done it. And without potentially falling foul of survivorship bias.

That’s not an approach I’ve been inclined to take myself, historically. When I’ve found myself in a new role, one of the things I love to do is to read around it. To try and learn as much as I can about the thing I’m trying to achieve by learning how others have done it, or how others think it should be done. The problem with that approach is – learning isn’t the same as doing. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of knowing a lot without actually putting that knowledge into action. So, I’m coming around to thinking Brandon Stanton’s approach has something going for it.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to reach out via a comment or on the socials if anything resonates.


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