The Power of What If…?

In Pep Talks, Thoughts & Theory, Vision Is Better by David19 Comments


I’m reading an article right now on creativity; it’s from the December 2009 issue Psychology Today (as is the picture above). My wife, who loves me more than she fears being arrested, stole accidentally borrowed it from our chiropractor’s office so I could read it. I plan to return it. Probably. You should acquire a copy, though by more legal means.

It was the monkey with the camera that caught my eye, in part because I tend to think that some clients don’t want a creative person with vision and talent, they want a “monkey with a camera to do their bidding.” Anyways, that monkey with the Rolleiflex TLR is my new hero, but has nothing to do with the article or what I want to mention here. (But seriously, a chimp with a Rolleiflex? How cool is that! Now I know what I want for Christmas…)

The article is excellent, and one that photographers and anyone that works – or lives – in the creative arts, ought to consider. Creativity is not merely part of our skill set, it is the real estate upon which the rest of our skills rest. It’s why I got so excited about the Creative Mix conference here in Vancouver a couple weeks ago. We need to not only talk about our skills with cameras, optics, and lights, but our foundational asset: creativity. It’s something we ought to be nurturing above all other things – the ability to think and live creatively.

But that’s all much easier said than done, isn’t it? I mean, for the life of me I don’t think I could even come up with a working definition of the word “creative.” But here’s where I think I’ve settled in my thinking about it: creativity is the ability to see things in a new way, a way that combines existing things, viewpoints, elements, in a way that hasn’t been done, or in a way that uniquely solves a problem. It is, in short, the power of “What if…?”

“What if…?” has got me out of more jams and produced better work for me than any other question. Tell me to “think creatively” about something and I’m stumped, much like asking a comedian to “say something funny.” But give me the space to ask “what if…?” and I’m off to the races. It frees me to begin thinking in new ways and following mental rabbit trails until some new thing jumps out from behind a mental bush and yells “Surprise!”

We all wrestle with it. Some of us get stuck because we don’t have enough inputs feeding the “what if…?” Some of us censor ourselves too much. Some of us are afraid of the answer to the question. Whatever the block is, consider this your permission to tear it down. The stakes are too high not to. When’s the last time you did something wrong, shot with the wrong aperture, the wrong shutter speed, the wrong light ratio? Been a while? Do it! How long’s it been since you shot a portrait with the wrong lens? Sure, we take risks when it seems the only choice we have left, but forcing yourself to take those risks before you get to the end of your other good ideas, that’s often where the gold is.

I highly suggest you pick up the current (Dec/09) issue of Psychology Today and nurture the muse a little.

I’ll leave you with a couple ideas from the Editor’s Note in the same magazine. This is Kaja Perina’s short list of things to do to annihilate your creative spark. I think she used the word “extinguish.”

1. Know exactly what you’re doing before you start.

2. Be careful not to offend.

3. Get Permission.

4. Run it by everyone else first.

5. Criticize yourself at every step.

And here’s my addition to the list to bring it to an even ten…

6. Don’t try, don’t fail. Mistakes are always bad.

7. Dump all “bad ideas” as soon as you think of them.

8. Don’t ask questions.

9. Only read photography books and never read stuff that you might not agree with.

10. Always shoot with the “right lens” the “right settings” and the “right light.” Always. Rules are made for following.

For bonus points, get – and read – Hugh MacLeod’s Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity.Highly Recommended.


  1. Pingback: La Creatividad Diaria « Tutor Digital

  2. Wonderful post David! So do you want the Rolli or the Chimp, or both.

    Thanks for the link Daf- I’ll put it in my que right behind David’s last E-book.

  3. Hi David. Really enjoyed this post so much so that I did go and find the issue. Did you notice the article after the creativity one was titled “Are You Normal”? Coincidence? 😀
    Have a great one!

  4. I’d add one more. Every time I hear it I die just a little bit inside.

    “We are going to do it this way because it is the way we have always done it.”

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  6. A good post, not only for artistic types, but for everyone. On a show I sometimes watch, I saw a sign that reads, “Fail Fast, Succeed Sooner.” If we are afraid of failing, we will never achieve any sort of success…and THAT, my friend, is Failure (with a capital F). I like your recommendation to break the rules…to invite failure without fearing it. Some of the greatest discoveries in this world are the result of some sort of failure (eg. penecillin). Great post David!!

  7. Man! This applies to every creative endeavor. It’s so true… you had me at “do their bidding” We actually had a client say he was looking for someone he could “manage” A big heaping thank you for posting this.

  8. I love your “what if?” definition of creativity. We are often too heavily invested in doing things the “right” way. I think I began to realize just how much when our children were learning new programs on the Mac. I don’t know how many times I bit my tongue as I started to caution them to wait and learn to do it the right way. Their results were inevitably more creative and they learned a great deal more than I did in my class. I’m also learning to challenge myself when I think I “must” “should” or “need” to do something.

    Cute Monkey, …I’m imagining the contest you might have with him for who could make the best VisionMonger face. 🙂

  9. Great article. Thank you for sharing, David. I love the posts where you say, break the rules! This is why you’re one of my favorite photographers who are online!

  10. Oh man There is a right lens for stuff? I knew something wasn’t right. Great find and the fact your wife loves you more than the fear of being arrested is way cool.

  11. I’ll definitely read it online. I’ve been trying to “nurture the muse” by shooting with my film camera on B&W film. It’s an olympus 35mm camera with a 50mm 1.8 manual focus lens. Imagine no autofocus! I keep looking at the back of camera after I take a shot. No instant feedback?!? It’s helping my creativity because I have to envision the shot completely in my head before I push the shutter release. I’m also seeing the digital darkroom more as a darkroom and I’m trying pushing and pulling and cross processing and experimenting with different film effects in color efex pro. Really fun. I just thought “what if…” and I’m growing because of it.

  12. Great read. Thinking outside of the box has always gotten me some of my better results. It has been when I have had a plan that some of my thoughts haven’t come out as well as I wanted. I always think of Jazz musicians when I think of creativity because from some of the musicians stories some of the greatest songs we hear are just jam sessions where everyone was just being creative.

  13. The article is indeed online, but sans “Rolleiflex monkey”. I’ll be buying a copy on the newsstand. 🙂

  14. “Creativity is not merely part of our skill set, it is the real estate upon which the rest of our skills rest.”

    This is excellent wisdom. I’m a technical guy – engineering by education and career – and I truly feel that the engineering schools miss the boat on this subject. Creativity seems to be beaten out of the students (figuratively of course) and replaced with logic, reason and order – to an excess. To me, paying more attention to creativity later in life is helping me to advance my career ALONGSIDE logic, reason and order. These are not mutually exclusive concepts, but rather complementary. I wish the engineering/tech schools would understand this.

    Thanks David for firing up my synapses this morning!

  15. Hey cool, they actually have the current issue online! Should’ve went there first – I actually went through my university library’s web resources to get the PDF. A bad quality one too, but at least I still get the monkey photos…

    Thanks David for the recommendation(s). Shall get to MacLeod after Chris Orwig’s book. Keep shouting these articles for us to check out please!

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