The Newbie Tax

When I first started getting into photography, I learned about the “newbie tax.” Cameras and their many accessories are expensive, and because you’re a beginner, you feel like you can get away with something cheaper. Instead of buying the $300 tripod with the $150 ballhead, you buy the $20 tripod from Amazon.com. After all, it got 4 stars, and it comes with a carrying case!

Your new tripod arrives, and it’s mostly fine, but one of the knobs is a little bit loose. Two months later, the knob breaks. No worries, you think to yourself. You only lost $20. But maybe it’s worth buying the $60 tripod this time. Your new tripod is sturdier, but it’s also heavy and unwieldy, so you rarely take it out. You finally force yourself to bring it with you on a five-mile sunset hike, but afterward, your sore legs and shoulders convince you to spring for the $150 ultra-compact travel tripod.

And on and on, until you finally end up buying the expensive tripod anyway. The cost of all those cheaper tripods you bought and subsequently discarded? That’s the newbie tax.

I think there’s some truth to this in photography as well as many aspects of life. By definition, newbies can’t truly know why good tripods are so valuable (and, hence, so expensive), which makes it hard for them to evaluate tradeoffs. However, money is also an imperfect representation of value. I have certainly paid my share of the newbie tax in my day, but I’ve also bought plenty of cheap equipment that continues to work beautifully. My 16-year old nephew takes better photos with his cheap phone than many gear heads I know who only own top-of-the-line equipment.

Furthermore, I’m not sure the learning you get from paying the newbie tax doesn’t pay for itself in the end.

A few weeks ago, I bought a cheap crab net from my neighborhood bait and tackle shop, and I decided to try my luck with it at Fort Point this past weekend. I know almost nothing about fishing, but the owner of the bait shop insisted that it was easy and that I would have a blast.

And I did! But it wasn’t easy, and it turned out the equipment she had sold me wasn’t quite adequate. My net was good enough to catch crabs off the pier, but it wasn’t sturdy enough to fend off the seal that dived under the pier repeatedly, stealing bait from chumps like me who didn’t know any better. The regulars on the pier shook their heads sympathetically as I stood there, staring at the hole in my net where the bait used to be.

I had paid the newbie tax. I was annoyed by this, and I was even more annoyed by the seal that, only a few moments earlier, I was marveling and cooing at. But afterward, I couldn’t help chuckling at our little run-in and appreciating the gorgeous morning I had spent on the water with my sister, sipping tea, gazing at the Golden Gate Bridge, taking in the community that met regularly at that pier, and day-dreaming about the tasty dinner that I didn’t end up catching. I’m pretty sure that my experience as a whole was more than worth the newbie tax.

Off to buy another (more expensive) net!

Celebrating What You Accomplish While Looking Forward to Improving

Earlier this month, I wrote a blog post over on Faster Than 20 entitled, “Made of Love.” All I wanted to do was to tell a brief story of a remarkable moment I experienced at a meeting I was shadowing and how that moment made me feel. It turned out to be more complicated than that. I wrote a long, confessional draft that made me feel raw and vulnerable, I asked people I trusted for feedback, then I sat on that feedback for a while, before finally deciding to revise and publish the post.

I’m really glad I did. I got a ton of thoughtful, moving responses from friends and colleagues, which has me thinking and wanting to share a lot more.

For the most part, I’m thrilled about everything I cut and rewrote. However, there’s one tiny story that I wanted to share here, because it’s a bit of a North Star for me.

There’s an episode of the PBS cooking documentary, Mind of a Chef, that follows Magnus Nilsson — considered one of the best chefs in the world — through the process of conceiving and creating a dish with a young protege. (You can watch the episode on Netflix if you’re a subscriber. Oh, how I wish for more open access, so I could easily share video clips. Another blog post for another time.) It’s mesmerizing to watch, partially because of the beautiful setting (a frozen lake in the Swedish countryside), partially because of the creativity and skill of execution.

Two things jumped out at me in particular. First was the delight that Nilsson expressed throughout the process, including when he tasted the final product. He clearly was not satisfied by it, and he methodically walked through how he wanted to make it better. But he still seemed really happy about what he had done. Second was the the relationship between Nilsson and his protege. The latter seemed nervous (perhaps more because he was on camera than because of his mentor), but he also seemed… safe? Excited? It’s hard to describe exactly, but it felt productive and loving.

That’s the balance I personally want to strike for when I create something. I actually think I’m a lot more joyful about iterations than others see, but I definitely could let myself appreciate and celebrate more. More importantly, I can let others see this appreciation and joy. I definitely hold back because I don’t want me or others to get complacent, but I think I can strike a better balance.

Panettone from Roy

Yesterday, I tried my first panettone ever. It was delicious! It wasn’t mind-numbingly delicious, and I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to buy one again, but I enjoyed it, and I’d definitely eat it again.

I had never eaten panettone before, probably because of its reputation as a dry and terrible mass-produced holiday tradition. I was drawn to this particularly panettone thanks to a David Chang podcast, where he interviewed Roy Shvartzpel, its creator. Chang’s podcasts are an acquired taste. They are borderline insufferable, a weird see-sawing act of self-aggrandizement and self-flagellation. I’ve recommended episodes to a few friends, and they all complained that it was too bro-y. Still, I’ve enjoyed several of his interviews for their insights into those who are obsessed about craft and, to some extent, the Korean-American psyche.

This interview almost struck the wrong side of this weird balance. I was intrigued by Chang’s bold pronouncements about this panettone and also hyperaware of his proclivity to exaggerate. I was intrigued by Shvartzpel’s origin story as a hoop obsessive, but put off by his comparing his game to Steph Curry’s. I almost turned off the podcast several times, but when they finally got around to talking about Shvartzpel’s story as a cook, I was entranced. His story about how the Italian panettone master, Iginio Massari, took him in made me weepy. And I’m a sucker for honest stories about the grind, especially when they’re about small businesses.

His story made me interested enough to look into buying one of his cakes. They cost between $30-60, outrageous in comparison to the $5 monstrosities you can find at your grocery store, but within the realm of reason when you compare them to buying a high-quality cake at a good bakery. Still, I wasn’t compelled enough to buy one.

That changed earlier this week. I’m in Southern California visiting family and was shopping for groceries when I saw boxes of his panettone on sale. It’s the holidays, I was with family, and it was right there, so I ended up springing for a box, praying that I would not be filled with regret later.

Last night, after a delicious dinner, we finally opened the box and had a taste. As I said, it was delicious. I could see how it might be easy to overlook the craft required to get it to taste as good as it did. However, it was nowhere close to The New York Times’ assessment, which I found hilarious:

His domed wonders are unworldly in their featherweight texture: the tender crumb dissolves on your tongue, almost like cotton candy, were cotton candy spun from butter. They seem paradoxically rich and ethereal at the same time.

I’ve only had one experience that I can remember where a baked good lived up to its hype. When Arsicault Bakery opened in my neighborhood in 2016, I wasn’t super interested. I’m neither a croissant nor really any baked good fanatic. When Bon Appetit named it America’s best new bakery later that year, I was even less interested. I’m hype-averse, and I’m even more line-averse.

About a year later, I finally tried one, and I couldn’t believe how incredible they were. I’m usually a chocolate or ham-and-cheese croissant guy, but when I go to Arsicault, I always order the plain, because I don’t want any of those other adornments to interfere with the light, flaky, buttery goodness of these masterful creations. For the most part, folks I’ve shared them with agree with my assessment, although, I hear the occasional, “They’re just croissants,” or, “They’re not as good as they are in France.”

There have been studies showing that the more expensive we think a bottle of wine is, the better we think it tastes. The brilliant J. Kenji Lopez-Alt showed that we all think farm-fresh eggs taste better, even though we can’t actually taste the difference. I guess what it comes down to is that we like what we like, regardless of the reasons why. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

The Joys of Making

I started playing with sketching and watercolors back in July 2018. I had been curious about watercolors for several years, and I happened to be having a terrible month, so I decided it was finally time to play. I signed up for a Bluprint online class, and I bought a sketchbook, a portable water brush, and a tiny set of watercolors.

A year and change later, I’m finally on the last page of my sketchbook. I decided to celebrate with a little value study:

My book is filled with terrible drawings. I’m not being falsely humble either. Earlier this year, I went to an urban sketching meetup and noticed someone painting a beautiful landscape. I struck up a conversation with him and asked him lots of questions, which he pleasantly answered. He then asked if he could see my sketches, so I opened up my book and showed them to him without comment. The expression on his face was hilarious. There was a flash of disappointment on his face, a long pause, then he offered me some tips, which I happily accepted. I truly enjoyed that moment. He didn’t try to pretend that I was anything more than the beginner that I was, and he helped me by giving me frank feedback. It was honest and kind, and it helped me get better.

The first time I sat down to draw something in my book, I was paralyzed with fear. I had to psyched myself up to apply that first pen stroke. I finally got over myself and started to draw, and the fear became concentration and curiosity almost immediately. It was wonderfully meditative, and I was happy with what I created. That was followed by several clunkers, which demotivated me for a few months, but I picked it up again, and I haven’t stopped since.

Filling my book has brought me peace and joy every time, and it’s also brought me closer to friends and family. Most of my friends ignore me when I draw with them, but some get curious, and I’ve even been able to persuade a few to join me. My favorite has been painting with kids, including my nephews. They are fearlessly creative, and I always have tons of fun and walk away inspired. I haven’t bought a single card or postcard this year, choosing instead to paint them when the opportunity arises. I always enjoy the process, but I still get pangs of fear of being judged. Unlike the urban sketcher, I think my friends often give me plaudits for my skill that are slightly exaggerated, but I can tell that their appreciation is real, and it really touches me to see them moved. It reminds me of how simple and wonderful it is to gift someone something you’ve made with your hands, regardless of how good it is.

My sketchbook also serves as a record of my learning journey. Signs of my stubbornness abound, which amuses me. It’s clear from many of my drawings that I have no idea what I’m doing, but those are often followed by several (mostly failed) attempts at figuring it out. I’m only marginally better than when I started, but the paralysis and fear and self-consciousness have disappeared. I just try things when I’m struck, and I don’t worry too much about how it turns out.

A few months ago, I went to a Leadership Learning Community gathering to meet their new Co-Executive Director, and I ended up spending most of the evening talking to an artist who was friends with her. He told me that the best way to learn watercolors was to do a value study with a single color. He also told me to look up Anders Zorn, who famously created stunning paintings with only four colors (Lead White, Yellow Ochre, Vermilion, and Ivory Black). I never knew any of this before, and it’s opened up entirely new worlds for me.

There are so many fantastic resources for learning how to draw and paint. I discovered the aforementioned urban sketching meetup in my neighborhood, and they have been friendly and supportive. I follow a number of artists on Instagram and on their blogs, and I’ve especially enjoyed Suhita Shirodkar’s work. And then there’s YouTube! So many instructional videos! It’s not only been a great resource for me, but it’s also inspired me to explore different ways for sharing knowledge about collaboration, which is my day obsession. In general, I find myself playing with ways to incorporate this little practice into my everyday work. I can’t help myself.

I see everything differently now — from everyday objects to art. It slows me down, and I’ve gotten better at noticing things — light, color, contrast, little details here and there. I’m still pretty bad at painting, and I think it will be a while before I improve significantly, but it’s already made me a better photographer, a better learner, and a better person. Most importantly, it’s been relaxing and fun. Making stuff rules!

Two Seconds a Day in January 2019

Toward the end of my photo a day project in 2015, several people asked me if I was going to do it again in 2016. “Heck, no!” I responded. That project meant a lot to me (still does), and I loved doing it, but it was a lot of work, it took up a lot of mental and emotional headspace, and I was burned out on sharing.

Still, once you get into the habit of making, it’s hard to break. It just feels good to make something every day, to watch a little bit of incremental effort become a body of work. And it’s especially nice when it serves as a kind of journal of your life.

Even though I was saying no to doing another 365 photo project, I had started toying with the idea of doing a one second of video a day project. I had seen a few of these floating around on the Internet, and I was amazed by how much a single second of video could capture.

I started playing around with this at the beginning of 2016 and didn’t even get through a week. Over the next few years, I tinkered with other daily project ideas, but wasn’t motivated enough to do one.

I decided to revisit the one second a day idea this month. You can see the results above. I started with one second a day, and really liked it, but when I showed it to others, they said it was too fast. I decided to go with two seconds instead, and I like it even better.

Doing this was much less stressful than my 365 ever was. First, it was only 31 days. I might do another month, but I haven’t decided yet. Second, I’m not sharing every day. Third, video is much more forgiving than photography. You get two more dimensions — movement and sound — to capture something interesting. Fourth, I don’t care that much about getting good at video right now. I’m just playing, which is pretty liberating.

That said, I’m slightly more primed to capture video than I was three years ago. I’ve been inspired by several friends and colleagues (and, in some cases, their kids) who often produce simple, but really fun and compelling videos. My experience with photography helps. I also read Walter Murch’s outstanding, In the Blink of an Eye, a few years ago, and it made me see video in a whole different light. Finally, the 1 Second Everyday app makes it super easy to compile and edit your videos. (The iOS version is superb. Sadly, the Android version is terrible.)