Margins of Experience

By Patrick Cummings

When I first moved into the city after college, I signed up for a black and white photography class held not far from my apartment. We shot on 35mm film and spent time in the darkroom trying to coax our pictures out from inside baths of chemicals. It was the first time I'd ever done anything like it, and from the start was overwhelmed. It didn't come naturally to me and I was sure the rest of the students had already a base of knowledge to draw from that I didn't have. I got lost, but was too embarassed to admit it and too scared to ask for extra help.

One Saturday a few weeks in, I climbed the long stairs up to the office and told them I had to pull myself from the class. I had convinced myself I didn't have enough time to spend out taking pictures of buildings and street signs and the reflections in puddles. But really, I just wanted to stop feeling lost.

There is a ceiling we all hit, up there where our comfort levels flicker like a weak digital signal, and what we do when we make contact with it is what defines us. Greg Glassman, co-founder of CrossFit, once observed, "We fail at the margins of our experience." The first time I heard this, it floored me. It still floors me.

Photography was the edge of my experience.

Almost everything worth doing lives along the edges of our experience, just beyond where the waves break. It's not enough to wade in, to sit in the still shallow water and submerge ourselves, to simulate the feel of drowning without any of the actual danger. The danger is what changes us, is what forces our evolution.   

I've climbed early from the water far too many times in my life, and for what? For the vague fear of proof I do not know what I do not know? For fear of embarrassment or discomfort? Yes, for the sake and security of my fragile ego.

Nobody on their death bed ever wishes they coddled their ego more.

In the book Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist teacher and author Pema Chodron writes, "A warrior accepts that we can never know what will happen to us next. We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not-knowing is part of the adventure. It's also what makes us afraid."

We fail at the margins of our experience because that's where we're forced to improvise, and improvisation is an art form rarely taught. Like all art forms, proficiency must be earned.

When I found myself in a photography class, lost and frustrated, I didn't improvise. I didn't push toward the unknown, I didn't push toward the adventure. I pulled back and therefore learned nothing.

From an early age, we should be taught with intention how to improvise. We should be taught how to start something that has no definable end, because definable ends do not exist. Everything changes, including and especially finish lines, and when they do we choose whether we change with them or run against them.

Bringing ourselves to the edge of our experience is commendable, but only half the work. Failure is only half the work. Of course we fail. We must fail. It was Thomas Edison who once said, "I make more mistakes than anyone I know. And eventually I patent them."

It's not enough to show up with our camera. We must produce bad pictures until we produce good ones.

We must move through our failures until they cease to be failures, until they become lessons and stories and the stones of our foundation.  

Failing at the edge of experience may sound dour, but it couldn't be further from truth. This is what I'm learning. Accept that we do not know what we do not know and keep moving ahead. Accept that our egos will survive the unpaved road. Accept that failure is the beginning and not the end.

The goal is to begin treating adventure as an equal to fear, not as some thing we earn by overcoming it.   

Patrick Cummings is the Editor-in-Chief of Again Faster. Photograph courtesy of the author.