A few years ago, I met a girl. She's so beautiful it's suffocating. And she had nice personality too. What more could I ask for.
It's your lucky break, I said to myself.
After a few dates we started a relationship, and I poured my heart in. But things took a quick turn. I found out we had completely opposite beliefs and values in most of the more serious matters. I tried to adjust but I also knew that I could never change myself, and I should not try to change her, especially when it was about core values. We tried to make it work but it didn't. It was devastating as I saw the future crumbling in front of me, a good dream being crushed. It's like a little dagger piercing into my heart day after day. We broke up after a few months.
That little dagger piercing feeling reminded me of my wildlife photography experience when I first started.
I started wildlife photography 6 years ago as a passionate hobby, while still keeping my full time job. As a newbie, I was so amazed and intrigued by the beauty of the wildlife photos when I browsed through magazines, books, and the internet. I would look at each of those pics in awe, wondering how long it took, and how much the photographers endured, hiding and waiting in the harsh and extreme wilderness, for that special moment, when the animals showed their most beautiful natural behaviors.
I wanted to be a witness of the wonder of nature, to see these wildlife in their natural habitat. I told myself, if I could take a picture 10% as good as those, I would be so happy.
I particularly remembered a few of those amazing photos that got me into wildlife photography.
- Great gray owl mousing: One was a great gray owl flying towards the camera with both talons out. I didn't even know what a great gray owl was before, but was instantly mesmerized by their beauty and their powerful glance and huge and fluffy talons. I would look at these photos constantly in pure admiration, hoping I would get to see them one day. You can easily google “great gray owl mousing” to see those images.
- Snowy owl hunting: Another one was a snowy owl taking off from the snow. Who wouldn't love the majestic snowy owl. You can google “snowy owl hunting” and click on images.
- Osprey pouncing: I also saw a shot with an osprey flying out from the water, grabbing a fish in the talon, flying towards the camera, with water splashed all over the place, perfect green background. So powerful! Google “osprey finland”.
- Puma jumping:And I saw a place where people could get snow leopard, pumas and tigers running towards the camera and jump, and it only cost $300/hour. It's still a lot of money, but to be able to see these animals I dreamed for my whole life, how crazy cool was that! Just google “puma montana”.
- Golden eagle vs red fox: Then, there was this stunner, a golden eagle, my favorite bird in all my childhood, maneuvering in mid air, with talons out, trying to grab a red fox in the snow. The red fox, helplessly running away, turned his head, with mouth wide open, as if giving one last try to fight off the eagle. The whole scene was in falling snow. I had never seen a golden eagle in my life, nor a red fox. I gave utmost respect to the photographer, guessing that he must have waited for that shot his whole life. Try google “golden eagle red fox”, you will be stunned too.
As a beginner, I was ecstatic, knowing that I might have a chance to really see these wild animals if I took wildlife photography seriously, and be patient. Again, I see a future so beautiful.
After doing a lot of research on the topics so that I can join some of those photo workshops or tours, I was frozen.
For those photos of great gray owl mousing and snowy owl hunting, the photographers actually went to a pet store to buy mice, and tossed them near where the owl was perched, so that the owl would fly there and grab it. They just focused their camera right at the mice, to capture the shot when the owl flew in.
And for some other owls such as the barred owls, photographers just play bird calls in their speakers to make the owls think there was an intruder in their area, so they would fly out to the open to check. And they would take pics while the owls were flying.
As for the pumas, tigers and snow leopard, I did more research, and I found out there is this whole new area called game farm and captive animals. Just imagine, if you are being captured and put in a cage, being starved so that you would follow orders. Then you would be brought out to perform running, jumping to be awarded some meat, while the one who caught you were paid a lot of money. I don't want to be that animal. So I have no interest to photograph them in such situation. Legendary photographer Mr. Tom Mangelsen wrote an article about his viewpoints on game farm animals. I advice everyone to take a look HERE. Mr. Mangelsen said in the article,
Any layperson on the street would likely agree that forcing animals to perform for several hours per day while “wandering around freely” in so-called natural settings and then putting them back into chain linked cages is cruel and inhumane.
Then the golden eagle and red fox. I found out that the photographers actually put red fox carcass at an area where the golden eagle frequented. Many said that the red foxes were road kill. But I guess the photo that I saw must be an accident, where the red fox somehow survived a road kill. There are workshops where people can pay and go hide in a blind there, with a red fox carcass placed in a place probably with a nice background, and then they wait for the golden eagles to come, and they capture a “once-a-lifetime shot”.
The same thing for the osprey shot. They build a hide near where ospreys frequented. And once the workshop participants are ready, the leader would have fish throw at a spot with nice background. As the osprey pounced at the fish, they took the pictures. Anyone can pay and rent a blind there.
How ironic was that? Almost all the photos that amazed me in the beginning and got me into wildlife photography were taken in such ways. Then I dig a little deeper:
My dad told me a lot of stories about kingfisher when I was a kid, and I have always loved kingfishers. I googled “kingfisher splash”. Turned out people put a small bucket with fish in the water near the kingfisher habitat to get those.
When I told my non-photographer friends how much I dreamed to photograph wolverine, they all asked me the same question. “You mean you want to photograph Hugh Jackman?” Apparently not many people knew that wolverine was indeed an animal (first). And it was on top of the list of any wildlife photographer because the chance of seeing them in the wild was as close as seeing a unicorn. I was told that the only place to photograph wolverine was in Finland, so I was almost ready to sign up those workshops no matter what the cost was. Then I found out the wolverines there were also being baited. People said, “well if you wanted to see a wolverine, that's the only way.” I don't know… It just felt very different. And I lost my interest to go.
I googled the park where I saw stunning photos of foxes, pine martens and other rare animals, and I found from a blog post that people put peanut butter on tree branches! The claimed that the peanut butter was used to feed small birds but somehow these animals showed up.
Many of the eagle shots were taken when people feed them with fish. Some even put Styrofoam inside the fish so they floated, which would be easier for the eagle to grab. But its poisonous:
Many of the song bird photos were taken with a fake printed paper background and fake perch.
If you see insects or reptiles, such as a praying mantis, or a frog or a snake doing cool poses in perfect background, a lot of the times those animals were pre-refrigerated! Take a look at an article shared in facebook recently by Outdoor Photographer Magazine Columnist, esteemed photographer and my friend Melissa Groo on this topic:
Melissa wrote a wonderful article on ethics in Outdoor Photographer Magazine:
Audubon also published an ethics guideline recently.
Then a week ago, I was reading a book called “Mastering wildlife photography” by Richard Garvey-Williams. He touched on the topics of ethics, and said he once heard that some photographers would drive their Jeep to chase a hyenas in Africa. They intentionally drove the hyenas to exhaustion, not letting him to rest, until he finally broke down, stopped, and turned his head towards the jeep, saliva dripping due to fatigue. And those photographers would get their prized shots.
My heart bleeds reading those.
When I started as a wildlife photographer, I thought all the photos were captured in a way that the animals were showing their natural behaviors in their natural habitat.
Now, I could not even look at those pictures anymore, especially the Great Gray Owls and Snowy Owls. There's nothing natural. It's not real. It's just cheating to me. I lost interest and never looked at those workshops again. It's like a childhood dream being crushed. These pictures didn't bring me joy nor wonder. They are fake to me.
There are numerous heated discussions about whether it harms the animals or not. Some photographers claimed that its baited in a safe way. Some said the feeding is for conservation of certain species. Many chose not to disclose. I don't even want to go there. I just think that if a kid comes to you one day, full of excitement, and asks how you took that picture, I don't think you would be proud to say that you got the picture because you lured the wild animals using food. You are basically exploiting the need, the purity and the trust of a wild animal, who couldn't speak for themselves, for an intention of a photo.
But I don't know. Even prestigious photo contests like BBC allows (non-live) baiting and many winning shots were taken using baits. Was I being too much of a purist?
Do I take the red pill and face the painful truth of reality, or take the blue pill and continue to live in this illusion? Where should I draw the line? Because I am really lost as a wildlife photographer.
I remember reading a quote in one of Michio Hoshino's books. It said “those people who manipulated the behaviors of a wild animal just for the sake of a photo is not deserved to be called a wildlife photographer, because what they did lowered the value of a wildlife photo.”
I also remember George Lepp said in his book “Wildlife Photography: stories from the field” that ‘a fed coyote is a dead coyote', when he sadly photographed a coyote approaching him near a parking lot, where the coyote had obviously been fed by other people before, and started to rely on humans.
Few days ago, I saw a quote by photographer Kevin Schafer in his book “Penguin Planet” (as I was doing research while writing my book on Falkland Islands and realized the book name I wanted to use, “penguin planet” was already taken by him long ago). He said,
In my view, the “wow” factor of photography – its power to delight and even astonish – is directly tied to its being perceived an honest record of a real event. Without that, a picture is just an illustration, and truth is irrelevant.
All of the following photos were taken without baiting, or bird calls; and the animals or birds are not captive.
Wild barn owl, San Simeon. Taken with 600mm and 2x teleconverter.
The gopher catch
The last ray of light shinning on the leaves behind the owl and turned them golden. (wild, not baited, not called)
I reviewed in my camera LCD, and I saw an owl with big pupils looking towards my direction, with a hint of ambient light from the horizon just seconds before sunrise. And a purple background of the morning sky.
That was a good meal.
Great gray owl, Grand Teton National Park, 600mm, f/5.6, 1/1600s, iso 800.
Bobcat, Yellowstone, 600mm, 2x converter, f/11, 1/1250s, ISO 1600.
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In his quest for the mastery of painting, even the young Vincent Van Gogh once said that these questions prayed on his mind: “What am I good for, could I not be of service of use in some way, how can I become more knowledgeable and study some subject of others in depth?”
— The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh
You may have seen the following in your newsfeed: the lady who had never tried triathlon until her late 20s broke the world record that was held for 14 years by over 30 minutes, and won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship 4 times, the relatively new NBA player scoring 37 points in a quarter, the young man whose family was under social support and who worked as a cleaner in a grocery store built a chatting app and sold to Facebook for $19 Billion, the single mom who conceived an idea at a train station due to a delayed train, wrote a novel series that had sold 400 million copies.
The whole world seems to be full of geniuses.
If you were like me, you might have also wondered, when's our turn?
Life is already tough just to make ends meet. Family, career, expectations, diet plan, gym, back pain, car repair, not enough sleep.
It's not easy to even finish the daily chores. How do these geniuses do it?
Sometimes in the middle of the night, you may also have this little fire burning in your heart, a yearning to find out if you are actually good for something. You would tell yourself, maybe you just haven't found your muse yet.
You would wonder how greatness feels like.
Outliers, Mastery, and all those books are New York Times Best Sellers for a reason. Because we all crave to learn the secret of those who achieved greatness, and to find out why we are not one of them.
Maybe because I haven't had my 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, or maybe because I haven't started practicing golf when I was 2, or learning math when I was 3, or playing tennis when I was 4…
But wait, I just want to be happy and have a peaceful life without too much drama, why so harsh on myself, you asked.
A famous blog post said that Being mediocre ain't so bad.
I read an article 10 years ago that solved these mysteries. It was the script of a speech in Chinese given by Professor Steven Cheung at a university in China.
It only took me 10 years to finally understand more about that speech. The speech touched on a topic of what I called the “Elite Club”–the new club members, the associate masters and the grandmasters.
Professor Cheung is a world renowned economist. Being mentored by Nobel Prize winners Ronald Coase and Milton Friedman, he is most famous for his economic analysis on China open-door policy after the 1980s and was considered a very likely candidate for the next Nobel Prize. He is also an avid Chinese Calligrapher, chess master, successful entrepreneur, writer, educator and photographer.
Here are my 6 interpretations of his speech on how to Master a skill:
“Follow your passion” is the most overused phrase nowadays. It is not completely wrong but can be dangerously misleading. For example, I can say I am passionate about being a novel writer. Or I am passionate about Formula One Car Racing. Or rock climbing. Or snowboarding. Or being a culinary master. They all sound like wonderful passions. But am I really “passionate” about those?
Professor Cheung said that in order to know if you are really passionate about something, you have to go all in, pour all your heart into it, for at least 3 months, and see how it feels.
If, after 3 months of completely going at it with all your heart, you are still enjoying every moment, then you may have a passion.
Sometimes you think you would love something, but in reality you hate that feeling and it turns out to be a disaster, then it's not your passion.
He said it is like falling in love with someone. After you pour your heart into it for a few months, it only goes stronger. You keep thinking about that person every moment. Sometimes you even forget to eat or sleep, thinking about ways to improve that relationship.
As Gary Vaynerchuk also said, “There are way too many people that are doing the stuff they hate. Please stop doing that.” Put in your time to find out what you are passionate about is the first step. You need to know what makes you happy. But that's just the first step.
2. CAN YOU DO REALLY WELL
Another commonly misunderstood phrase is “Do you have what it takes?” People usually misunderstand this question as a challenge to their will power. When there's a will, there's a way, they think. It's not true. Yes, with willpower you may achieve something but you may not be happy.
When Professor Cheung was 13 years old, he loved playing ping pong. In fact, he was the best player in his school. One day, he saw a kid, about 10 years old, practicing at a ping pong table behind a library. The kid was from a poor family and could not afford school, so he was working full time in a library sweeping the floor. After work, the kid would go to the ping pong table trying to learn how to play by himself. Prof. Cheung said the kid was a newbie and had no idea how to play at all. But he realized something interesting. Every time the kid hit the ping pong ball with his racket, the sound of impact was much louder than any other people. Cheung found it interesting, so he taught the kid how to play. After 2 to 3 times, he already felt that his potential could not compare with the kid. Within two months, he lost to the kid completely, in all matches. That’s when he realized that somebody could have so much more potential.
Long story short, the kid later became the ping pong champion of Hong Kong, and then the champion of China, and subsequently the first ever Chinese world champion of Ping Pong. His name is Rong Guotuan. Unfortunately, his life ended too soon.
Prof. Cheung thought he could do ping pong pretty well in the beginning, until he met Rong. Then he realized that someone could be so much more talented in a skill and that was the time when he knew he should not continue to try to master ping pong. He said you have to ask yourself, after you found something you are passionate about, whether you have a chance to do very well in it. You have to be brutally honest with yourself.
It doesn’t mean you have to be particularly smart. It’s more like a style, a personal trait. Some people like to organize things. Some people are more patient. Some people like outdoor, some people like to stay in. It’s neither good nor bad. It just means you are more suitable to do certain things.
3 .YOUR STYLE IN DIFFERENT SITUATIONS
So what if you found something you are passionate about but after a few months of pouring your heart into it, you realize you are never going to be really good at it? He suggested you to stop trying to master it. It would be okay to treat this activity as a past time. But if you want to master something, it is time to quit and switch to another one. As Seth Godin said in “The Dip”, one should quit often if he knew he could never become the best in the field.
But what if you are doing something you are not that passionate about, but you are really good at it? Everything feels effortless yet you just don't have much love. Professor Cheung said one should also quit, because eventually you will end up hating yourself doing something you don't enjoy.
Surprisingly Professor Cheung said he was a total failure in school before he was 25, being kicked out by schools in Hong Kong multiple times. Then, suddenly, he became the best student, winning all sorts of academic excellence awards and became a world class economist. The most shocking thing? He had never changed his style of doing things before and after 25. The only thing that has changed was just the situation: that he moved to a new environment and picked up Economics. He said: Given the same person, in certain situation, he could be a complete failure. But in another situation, with the same style and method, he could suddenly achieve something that people envy and respect honorably. So don't underestimate anyone around you who don't seem to achieve much, because all of a sudden, he would produce results that many people admire.
He believes that everyone should be able to find a few things he is passionate about and have potential to do very well.
4. THE REAL TEST
After you find your passion and that you have the potential to do well, it comes to the final stage. Mastery is very different from technically perfect, such as having full score in an exam. It's a stage which Seth Godin called “The Dip.” It is a difficult period. Without the correct approach and guidance, bad people and bad things can happen that take away your dream while you are just a few steps away from becoming a master.
“Narrow is the way; strait the gate and there are only a few who finds it.” —Vincent Van Gogh
To go through the dip, to pass the gate and get to the other side, aka the “Elite Club”, Prof. Cheung mentioned 3 key points:
A: STUDY THE BEST WORKS
You have to find the best works, the best books that inspire you, and study them with all your heart. It doesn't need to be a lot, but study them deeply. You have to build extremely strong fundamentals.
B: MODEL THE MASTERS
You have to seek help from the giants in the field. Good mentors/teachers, whose work inspire you, could bring you to “the other side”, the “Elite Club.” They could save you years of blindly searching because once you are standing on the shoulder of the giant, it's easier to climb from the ground up. It is almost impossible without at least one good mentor who is already in the “Club,” no matter how talented you are. So model their belief system, their style, their thoughts, everything. In the book “Steal Like an Artist,” the author Austin Kleon said that if you model one teacher, people would say you are a copy cat. But if you model more than one teachers, people would say you have your own style.
C: LIKE-MINDED FRIENDS
You have to build a strong network of friends who share the same passion, who you can discuss, encourage, and challenge each other’s limits. It is hard to keep up with the literature or complicated theories. You need to constantly brainstorm with friends on the newest vision, techniques, or even the best equipments that can help you realize your vision.
5. HOW DO YOU KNOW YOU HAVE ARRIVED
So you have studied the best works in the field, modeled the mentor you admired the most, and constantly brainstorm with like-minded friends for a long time. But when would you know you have mastered it?
Prof. Cheung said he has a friend about 50 years old who used to be a professional tennis player. His back was badly injured when he was young so he no longer played competitively. But every time when you see this guy play, from his serve, and how he attack at the net, you can instantly tell that he used to be really good. You could tell he used to be world-class. He loses every match because of his bad back. But from the way he played, you knew he's in the”Elite Club”.
So what's this “Elite Club”?
Professor Cheung said it’s a special feeling when you have arrived and joined the “Elite Club”. You may not be the best in the world or a grandmaster, maybe you are not even a small master, but the feeling of being a “club member” is very interesting:
You will feel a bit lonely. You will feel a bit bored even. You start to see other people wandering on the other side, the side where you once was, trying to look for the entrance. It’s like you are on a mountain looking down. You wonder how long it will take for them to eventually be able to join you.
B. YOU SEE THROUGH
All of a sudden you see others' works differently. You see the strength and weakness of people's works in a whole new way.
C. YOU CAN COMMUNICATE WITH THE MASTERS
You can suddenly see the people who are also in the Elite Club. You can see the other new club members, and also the “associate” masters and the grandmasters. You can suddenly communicate with them and understand what they are talking about. You can carry on a conversation with them.
D. NOT RELATD TO ACHIEVEMENTS
You may not have any achievement yet. It takes time. It has nothing to do with how many awards you got or how many perfect scores you have received. It’s just a different feeling.
He said once you have arrived at the other side in one field, it is quite easy to do the same on other fields.
6. THE FREEDOM AND THE FUN
So it gets back to the original question. Why so harsh on yourself to master something? Isn't the most important thing to be happy and with less drama?
In Men’s Search for Meaning, author Viktor Frankl said true happiness consists of 3 keys:
- When you are doing something that you feel is meaningful and that your next generations would be proud of.
- Spending time with your loved ones.
- To a deeper sense, the courage to overcome adversity.
When you have put in the hard work, when you have studied and understood the best works in the field, when you had worked with your team, when your teacher had held your hand and take you to the “club”, you have built a strong foundation. You can finally of your own thoughts and dream, to let your ideas run wild and fly.
You can do whatever you want, nobody can control you, nothing can stop you. Suddenly, in the darkness, in the limitless ocean, you see a spark. It’s difficult to describe the happiness. When you let your idea roams in the ocean, you would hope to be standing on a firm rock. The world wouldn’t benefit much with your existence, and it wouldn’t lose a lot if you are no longer here. Why don’t you give yourself the freedom to create some art? After all these hard work, you finally earned this freedom to be independent and to be creative, it is the time to have some fun.
It's about soul searching. How great it feels if you can find something that you are naturally good at, and you are able to cultivate that skill with the best in the field to reach a level where you can utilize this skill to create art that you enjoy immensely, and share with your loved ones and like-minded friends and many others and have an impact to their lives?
At the end, it's all about happiness.