Does Specialization Lead to Burnout?

If there is one photographer I respect the most it’s gotta be Jeremy Cowart. The dude is crazy talented, always pursuing big ideas, and he puts his family first. When he talks I listen. However, yesterday he made a point that I would generally agree with but my experience tells a different story. Here’s what he said:

Photographers, remember: you need to make a decision. Shooting weddings, families, pets, bands, sports = jack of all trades, master of none.

I consider myself to be a jack of all trades. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve mastered anything, but I’m confident that I can shoot most things better than the average photographer –Hint: the trick is not to be better, but to try harder.

Lately I’ve been wrestling with the notion of finding my niche, but the more I press down into a certain field the more complacent I become. I recently shot photos with a dude who’s been shooting weddings for “unfortunately 17 years” in his words. He certainly made a decision about the work he does, but he also got comfortable and apathetic in the process.

I have a hunch that specialization leads to burnout or boredom.

Personally, I need variety in my work. I value creativity too much to be comfortable with a repetitive diet. Even people like Jeremy Cowart who are exceptionally specialized often pursue creative, personal projects that are extremely different from their normal gig.

The deeper you dig in a single direction, the more you need external stimuli. Creativity thrives on variety.

Then I see someone like Joe McNally, who is one of the best photographers in the world, describe himself as a generalist, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s part of the reason why his photos are so remarkable. Personally I know that I’ve learned things from shooting fashion that have caused me to shoot weddings differently, and I’ve learned things from street photography that has improved my headshots.

So what do you think? Do you consider yourself a specialist or a generalist? Does an artist ever feel like he’s mastered something, or is that word merely attributed to someone else who does something better than we do? Does Talent + Complacency = Mastery?

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One thought on “Does Specialization Lead to Burnout?

  1. That’s like the old saying, “jack of all trades, master of none”. There are many of us like that, or at least somewhat like that, with one or two things we’re really good at. I think if what you’re doing makes you happy, and you’re successful, what Jeremy thinks is irrelevant. Certain areas of photography business might need more focus and specialization than another, but by being broad in your business you open yourself up to more opportunities.

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