How to Learn a New Skill

You all know I have a little obsession with photography. I have always been interested in it (I think I took my first photography class circa 1989), but never had much natural talent, so never spent a lot of time trying to improve. I’m risk averse and tend to focus on activities that come easily to me. It’s probably just a self-preservation thing: when I fail, I can fall back on the excuse that I really haven’t even tried that hard. But now that I have time to work on photography, I find myself thinking about little else. So I am going for it. Some people have made some close-to-nasty little comments, insinuating I’m not that good at it. Well, no shit! I’m still new to this. My skill is probably at the intermediate level, whatever that means. I’m not running a business, but I will have you know that plenty of people want to pay me. Not that it matters–I know many, many talented photographers who choose not to sell their work or charge for shoots. And I know plenty of photographers with, in my humble opinion, terrible taste who manage to earn a decent living through their photography.

Last weekend I met up with some other photographers in Addis to shoot landscapes. This was way, way outside my comfort zone. First of all, I’m not inspired by landscape photography. I enjoy stunning vistas as much as the next person, but I just don’t know how to shoot them so I usually don’t try. Another thing: these other photographers were complete strangers to me. I’d joined the Addis Photo Group months ago but have never been to an event, partly because I am usually too busy with the kids, but to be completely honest I felt like a fraud. Why would serious, experienced photographers want to waste their time with me, a non-artist? But that kind of self-deprecating talk is not at all useful. Everyone starts out somewhere. I love to train, coach and mentor others–I do it on an almost-weekly basis for students at my law school and college–so why wouldn’t others enjoy mentoring me? The outing turned out to be fun, and I met some really nice people. Now I am going to help moderate an online study group with some of the other Addis Photo Group members. See? You only get new opportunities to grow if you put yourself out there.

My dad sent me a link to Karen X. Cheng’s professional blog, where she discusses how she became a designer and dancer through self-study after getting home each day from work. It was inspiring to me, to learn about how someone could completely change careers without getting “proper” training. Not that I want to be a professional photographer–my weekends are sacred to me, and I would prefer not to spend my whole Saturdays photographing other people’s kids. But still, I feel strongly that developing my hobbies will help me figure out what it is I want to do. I have so many interests, I’m having trouble focusing on what to do next. There’s law, international development, librarianship, education, coaching, writing, photography, design, singing, human rights, social media, foreign languages, information policy, and marketing. (And I didn’t even mention the thing I’ve been doing professionally for the past 6 years: government grants and contracts management.) I used to worry about combining as many of my interests as possible so that I would have some semblance of a linear career path. But in my 30s, I am not as worried about that. My plan is to keep learning and adapting. If I’m lucky, I will have a few more decades to work. There’s no reason to feel limited by anything right now. Every couple of hours, I start to panic a little: what should I do next? Shouldn’t I take the next job I’m offered? Don’t I need a steady paycheck? It’s scary to get off whatever path you’ve been on. If your goal is to become a partner at a law firm, the chief procurement officer, or library director, then you know what you need to do. But when your goal is not a specific role within an organization, but rather a nebulous concept of the things you want to learn more about (and perhaps make into a business or two someday), I think the best thing you can do is brainstorm. Meditate. Experiment. Study. Don’t stay up late watching “Scandal.” (Okay… Guilty!)

Wish me luck on my journey. I’d do the same for you.

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