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Chapter 5. IMPROVING: We increase our ability to endure

Theme 5


Making improvements is a basic human trait. Our nervous and hormonal systems are set for doing this. The good hormones rush through our body as we take a new step closer to our goals. However, as soon as we have grown accustomed to this, the reward of dopamine and serotonin will dissolve and then the cortisol will begin to bother us again until we take a new step forward. We are the descendants of those who sought improvement, not the ones who settled down. Therefore, it is completely natural to be unsatisfied when we are standing still. We can utilize this dis- satisfaction and let it drive us forward instead of being irritated by it. The price for growth is discomfort and pain.

As a doctor I have the clear impression that the patients who work on improving themselves use less energy over time than people who neglect it. Gradually, making improvements comes so naturally that it becomes effortless. In comparison, it takes a lot of energy to be passive and irrita- ted due to a lack of progress. One of my most important lessons after 23 years as a doctor is this: It is a lot harder not to improve ourselves than to do it. Good photographers continually work to get better. They go to courses, take notes, practice, evaluate what they are doing and try to learn from the mistakes that others have done before them.

Roughly speaking, there are two approaches to trying to make improve- ments – repeated baby steps in the right direction or giant leaps. Those people who don’t succeed don’t know the power of the first tactic. But it is actually the most important one. Baby steps over time snowballs into massive improvement. This compound effect is invisible for a long time, and that is why the impatient ones lose faith in it. We have to trust that regular, daily efforts will bring us to our goals. On the other hand, if we choose what is comfortable then the seemingly insignificant daily choices will cause us discomfort over time.

Many people are not aware of the intense effect all of the tiny steps have over time. You might not notice a difference today, or tomorrow, next week or next month. It won’t be until several years have gone by that the effect of small, daily efforts (or the lack of them) will grow into some- thing larger and make a crucial difference. Because of that cause and

effect we can have difficulties perceiving the connection between these. It is just like starting to roll a snowball from the first snowflake. For a very long time the increase in size is not noticed but at a certain point it has seemingly grown big on its own.

Since all of the choices in and of themselves are small, every single one of them seems easy to make, but also easy not to bother with. It is like buying an apple today instead of the chocolate you would prefer having or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Only after several years are the consequences of these choices big.

In addition to the small, daily efforts, we also have to take some giant leaps. Say yes to going to an important lecture, a rare job opportunity or a date with an attractive partner you thought was out of your league. With trembling steps and our hearts in our throats we can throw ourselves into the unknown. The height we could fall from seems tremendously high.

At my office I meet many people who don’t know about any other approach than taking a giant leap. For them, the task ahead of them can seem so overwhelming that they are often paralyzed by insecurity and they withdraw themselves. This coping mechanism can also impact us as photographers. We need to hear that even though we are improving with each picture, a half a year might pass without any noticeable development. But hold on because in five years the difference will be huge!

It is not without reason that all hunter/gatherer societies have tests of manhood – a ritual where they have had to train to a certain level to be able to exhibit the courage that was needed to perform the risky actions that the tribe is dependent upon. Here they have had to make sure to build up the necessary resilience, a process that is of course dependent upon facing resistance. Most people today have a limited need for physi- cal resilience. In our time, mental resilience is what is lacking.

Regardless, courage isn’t something that appears by itself. Courage is built up through getting used to dealing with struggles and daring maneuvers. Taking photographs is always scary. The best pictures are often taken while we are trembling with our fingers on the shutter button.

With a camera we can train ourselves to dare to do scary things and tolerate feeling insecure. A characteristic of many people who have succe- eded is that to begin with they were unsure and afraid, but it didn’t hin- der them from doing what they had planned. Instead of waiting until they felt they had enough confidence, they just threw themselves into the unknown. The mantra here is: Do it now, don’t wait. Even do it poorly and learn from it.

The people who are most concerned with getting better are often the ones who are already the best at what they are doing. The people who are least concerned with improving are often the worst at it. It should almost be the opposite.

‘Kaizen’ is a Japanese term for continual improvement. It includes having a persistent desire to improve, to not look backwards with dissatis- faction but forwards with a wish to grow. It is possible to be thankful for what one has and is and still want something more – consequently one also has more to give to others. “ am good and can get better, is a better thought than thinking, I am bad, and I have to get better.

There is no pain-free condition (at least not until we are in our graves). More to the point, we have to choose between the low-grade chronic pain involved in withering away and getting worse, or the periodic but stronger pain involved in growing and improving. We can learn a lot about how we can improve ourselves in general through working on improving our pictu- res. Every picture offers an opportunity for health and progress.

The inherent ability of photography to lead you in search of something better and more interesting around the next corner will spread to your whole personality and will spread like ripples in water to everyone.

BOOK SUGGESTION: The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy

Habit 5

Build strength

Being in a sedentary position is the most dangerous activity we can do. Few man-made devices take as many lives as a sofa, and several studies have shown that wearing a couch out is just as harmful as smoking. In the context of photography, it inhibits both mental functioning and creativity.

When I looked at myself in the mirror when I was 45, I was not greeted with a beautiful sight. The highly trained body of my youth had decayed into an inert, middle-aged shadow of itself. And I knew why – for too many years I had moved from my office chair via my car seat to the sofa. I saw that working out in a gym didn’t have an effect on me unless the sessions lasted at least an hour. And, thus, I didn’t bother with it.

Thanks to the effect of taking baby steps, I became aware of what was needed was actually only something that included small, daily efforts. Five minutes of effort a day was enough. As I progressed, I realized how lax I had been. I was surprised and overjoyed to recognize my old self in the mirror again after almost 25 years.

“The human body is the best picture of the human soul,” wrote Lud- wig Wittgenstein. By training physical strength, our mental strength also improves, something which in return increases our power to act. By doing pushups, sit ups and knee bends you are not only strengthening your visi- ble muscles, but also the most important one of them all – your heart. The heart muscle ensures that your blood is transported efficiently to your brain and other central organs. Strong thigh muscles contribute to the same thing. People are made so that our blood circulation should reach a certain speed, and if you sit too long you become slack. Then the solution is not to increase your blood sugar but to increase your blood circulation instead.

Make it simple: Do up to 15 pushups, 15 knee bends and 15 sit ups. That way you can train the big muscle groups at the same time and this is an efficient use of your time. Choose one of the exercises at a time. This takes barely 30 seconds each time and if you do it ten times during the day you will notice a big improvement in your body. These baby steps over time will gain momentum and will help you get into decent physical shape even with only half an hour effort a week.

At my office I do these exercises between every patient. They have improved my concentration and performance radically. To begin with if you only manage to do one, two or three repetitions, it will be ideal. Then you will use an even shorter amount of time to exercise and get stronger.

If you struggle with doing the exercises several times a day, then, for example, you could do sit ups before you get out of bed, knee bends around dinner time and pushups before going to bed. This way you can test out the effect of taking baby steps in practice because this routine will give you strength that you can benefit from well into your old age, when you need it the most.

BOOK SUGGESTION: The 4-hour Body by Timothy Ferriss

In my body project, I figuratively cut my body into parts. I play with the visual forms. In this picture maybe you will see a couple of approximate circles, a square and the shape of a heart. Together they almost look like a face. Incidentally, it was through these self-portraits that I discovered how bad of shape I was in and then changed my lifestyle.
OSLO, NORWAY, 2014. Photo: Torkil Færø