Life lessons from a raindrop

I spent years trying to master 35mm photography, with mostly disappointing results. I never took a picture as beautiful as this one… so why is that?

This is NOT a story of improving technology. The camera on my Google phone is good, but the lens on my old Nikon FE was 100 times better. The life lesson from this raindrop is that technology allows me to improve my creative process – in two ways.

1. Creativity loves cheap failures. Here are all the attempts I made to photograph yesterday’s raindrop:

Most were rubbish. But it’s like Linus Pauling – double Nobel prize winner – told his students, if you want to have good ideas, you need to have lots of ideas and then throw the bad ones away.

Digital photography beats film because it makes failure so cheap. There’s nothing to stop you taking shot after shot until you get a good one. Then throw the bad ones away.

Digital = cheap failures.

My 35mm experiments were expensive – five or six quid to develop 36 shots, maybe only one of which would work. The cost of producing 90% disappointing shots hovered at the back of my mind every time I picked up the camera. Not so nowadays. I shoot as much and as varied as I like. The only cost is my time. Digital vs film is a perfect example of divergent thinking, which lies at the heart of every good creative process.

2. Expertise grows with rapid feedback. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein reckon that expertise flourishes when we get “immediate and unambiguous feedback” on our actions. Think of the difference between learning to drive a car and learning to pilot a supertanker.

Every touch on the brakes or steering wheel gives the novice driver immediate and unambiguous feedback. We try, we learn, we improve. Steering a supertanker into a stormy harbour, with cross currents, winds and tides is much more subtle. 17 year olds learn to drive cars. I doubt there are many 17 year old supertanker pilots out there.

Digital photography is like learning to drive a car. We snap, we check, we snap again. Feedback is immediate and unambiguous, right there on our screen. The feedback on my 35mm film took days. By the time the photos came back from the lab, I’d forgotten what I was trying to learn.

So, Life Lessons from a Raindrop:

If you want to get good at anything, experiment as cheaply as you can, get clear feedback as quickly as you can.

And always look for beauty, even on the rainy days.

  • 11 tips on how to learn from your own mistakes here.

Credit: Supertanker picture from

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