Feeling incompetent, like you’re not that great at what you do is never a nice feeling, but unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it!) it’s an unavoidable part of the journey as a professional photographer and something that pretty much every single photographer goes through.
At some point in your career, you’re likely to have a big crisis of confidence and say to yourself on a regular basis, “There’s SO MUCH I don’t know!” You’ll feel inadequate compared to other photographers and the sheer volume of things you feel you need to learn more about and get better at will feel quite overwhelming. The good news is… this is all completely normal, and all backed up by a well-known and well-established learning model and theory.
The Conscious Competence Learning Model and its Four Stages Of Competence have been around, accepted and taught within Psychology and management training theory since the 1960s, and explore the four stages people pass through when moving from incompetence to competence in any given skill. The theory proposes that it’s not possible to jump over any of these stages – for example to move from stage 1 directly to stage 3 or 4, or to begin higher up, going straight in at stage 2 or 3. Every single person, learning any given skill, will unavoidably have to pass through every single one of these stages, including feeling incompetent, on their way to being (and feeling) fully competent.
Here’s how the four stages of competence relate to your photography journey:
STAGE 1 – UNCONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE
This stage can perhaps be summed up by the well-known saying, “ignorance is bliss” – this is the stage where you don’t know what you don’t know. You’ve just started out on your journey towards becoming a photographer and everything feels really exciting.
You’re picking up your camera a lot, taking a lot of pictures, and quite liking what you’re producing. Your images are pretty impressive compared to your friends’ and family’s pictures, and your loved ones are reinforcing this by complimenting you on how lovely your photos are. You’re trying out different presets, taking pictures of as many different things as you can, and you’re feeling a bit giddy about taking this further. You’ve maybe even chosen a possible business name and started putting together a few ‘shop fronts’ such as an Instagram account and maybe even a first stab at a website. You’ve maybe done a small handful of portfolio-building shoots for friends and family (and perhaps a few of their friends too), maybe even taking some payment for a couple of them, and really starting to feel like this is something you could make a success of.
While you might have started looking at some resources for professional photographers, and following all the instructions you come across, you’ve mainly just got the blinkers on and are fully focused on what you’re doing yourself.
Overriding feelings: fun, excitement and energy
What’s needed to move to the next stage: more practice and experience
STAGE 2 – CONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE
After the heady heights of Stage 1, this next Stage 2 can feel pretty grim. This is the stage where you actually start feeling incompetent, you start to realise what you don’t yet know, impostor syndrome runs riot and a crisis of confidence sets in – this is unsurprisingly also the stage where most photographers give up. Now that you’re more enmeshed in the photography industry and chatting to other photographers you start to notice more what other people are doing.
You’re no longer comparing your images to your friends and family’s, but to other professionals, and suddenly your pictures don’t feel quite so good as you originally felt they were. As some money comes in from shoots you realise you’ve no solid financial systems in place to manage it. The presets you enjoyed previously are now causing you headaches as they don’t seem to work well on all of the images you’re taking. The Instagram account you were excited about setting up now makes you feel overwhelmed as you realise you have no idea what to post on it. The website that had felt so professional suddenly feels really amateurish next to those of other more established photographers.
The more advice you find, the more you realise that loads of it is conflicting – that there are actually loads of different styles, approaches and business models, so the road ahead now looks really confusing and you’ve no idea which way to turn. You realise you now need to do some marketing but discover there are countless different types and you’ve no idea which ones you should be doing. Every one thing you learn seems to unveil another ten things you still need to learn and you start to feel a bit silly and inadequate.
Overriding feelings: lack of confidence, overwhelm, fear, embarrassment
What’s needed to move to the next stage: simplification, persistence, support, education
STAGE 3 – CONSCIOUS COMPETENCE
If you can hold your nerve through Stage 2, show tenacity in the face of your insecurities and seek support from people who can help you navigate your way through the quagmire of those difficult days, you will be rewarded with Stage 3. This is the stage where you’ve become competent at what you do, and finally feel like you know what you’re doing, that you’re a ‘proper’ photographer.
Of course you still have moments of impostor syndrome (something that unfortunately accompanies most of us for the entire duration of our careers!) but on the whole you feel genuinely proud of more of your photos, find a consistent editing style you like, have confidence in your own unique brand, style and approach, have established services and products that you’re selling, are getting more clients, a more consistent level of income and are getting into your groove a bit more with your website and social media.
Whilst this stage feels a lot less brutal in terms of self-confidence, it can still be really tough energetically. The increase in experience and the associated increase in workload and the number of things you’re managing on a day to day basis means that it can feel quite tiring and exhausting. It can sometimes feel a little like fire-fighting, where you’re constantly busy but your tasks aren’t necessarily tied together by an overall strategy or routine and it never feels like you have enough hours in the day to do everything. Spinning all the different plates requires a lot of effort and concentration, your photography career can feel all-consuming, and this is the stage where photographers tend to replace lack of confidence with risk of burnout.
Overriding feelings: self-assurance, validation, exhaustion
What’s needed to move to the next stage: systems, strategy, automation, outsourcing
STAGE 4 – UNCONSCIOUS COMPETENCE
The holy grail! This is the final stage where you are highly competent at what you do, and you tend to do much of it on autopilot without expending huge amounts of energy.
As you’ve set up efficient systems, larger proportions of your business largely take care of themselves with minimal maintenance, and you tend not to be as consumed by your photography business as you used to be; running it all feels a lot easier and more effortless. You’ve taken time to outsource and/or automate those elements of your business that you don’t enjoy or that can easily be done by someone else, leaving you to focus on more strategic tasks and decision-making that truly supercharge your business’ growth.
All of this means you start to find space and time in your life to focus on other projects and dreams too, and are able to build your business around your life rather than the other way round.
Overriding feelings: freedom, wellbeing, achievement, success, contentment
What’s needed: keep doing what you’re doing!
I hope this reassures you that if you’re currently struggling in the depths of Stage 2, this discomfort and fear is a result of your growth, and it’s an unavoidable rung on the ladder towards greater things. Most people never progress beyond Stage 1, because this is their comfort zone, and beyond this is too scary to contemplate. Only the brave even attempt to move to Stage 2 in the first place, and only a small percentage of those have the determination, guts and persistence to drag themselves through all of the growing pains of Stage 2 to Stage 3 and beyond.
So give yourself a pat on the back for even stepping foot in this unnerving territory in the first place, and make sure you remind yourself that EVERYONE goes through this – all those people you admire, who seem further ahead than you – they went through this too. You feel like you know nothing because you actually know a lot more than most and your eyes are seeing a lot of things that most people don’t see. You are not ‘less than’, you are just growing.
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