The Necessity of Trial and Error

I took this photo about 15 times before I captured the right moment with the right settings

My approach to trying new things or learning new disciplines is and has always been to jump right in and do it. From teaching myself how to play guitar as a kid to becoming a vegetarian to engineering complex big data systems for clients, I always just go for it and figure it out along the way. I like to think this is a good trait – though it’s incredibly detrimental to putting together Ikea furniture.

But of all the things I’ve done in my life and all the passions I’ve pursued, I think I can say that the one that has involved the most trial and error – and the most facepalm moments – is photography and videography. I don’t mean point-and-shoot photography or taking photos on my iPhone. I mean switching your DSLR to manual mode and manual focus and going to work taking photos and shooting video.

The other complication to this is that I’m a perfectionist, so my idea of error includes a shot slightly out of focus or a little overexposed. But when you’ve never taken a class or had professional training in a discipline (and sometimes even if you have), the learning process involves trial and error. And the key word there is error. Error is an essential element of that equation. If you ever find something you do perfectly the first time, then you’re probably not going to enjoy doing it for very long because there’s no challenge, there’s no personal art to it, there’s no chance to hone your craft.

The chemist and author Orlando A. Battista once wrote, “An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” I would expand on that to say that a number of errors don’t equal failure as long as you keep at it to get them right. This is really the nature of producing anything – of creativity, of craft. The people who get really good at a skill or an art often had people tell them (maybe for years) that they were no good at what they were doing or that the product of their work was crap. But if you can sift out the constructive criticism from the noise, then going through that actually provides a pretty accelerated learning curve.

In addition to continuing to overcome errors in the process of creating, another essential element is getting work done. My friend Alan talks about how good work that is finished is, by nature, better than “perfect” work that was never completed. Because we all know there’s really no such thing as perfect anyway. The illustrator and cartoonist Jake Parker hits the nail on the head in a video about this. He makes this point: “The world wants, and it needs, people who finish things.” So, go do the thing you want to. Get it wrong, mess it up. But do it. Because just in doing it, you’re exponentially closer to doing it right than people who are afraid to try it in the first place.

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