Posted by: Hannah | 06/08/2011

that’s a lot to think about for $250

I used to be smart.

In school, I never had to study for tests. Teachers gave me extra work just to keep me occupied for the full day. When my work was done, I’d sit at my desk and read books far beyond my grade level. In the very early grades, I had two classes a week with the resource teacher so I wouldn’t get bored with the regular classwork.

I was kind of insufferable about it, in retrospect.


I’m halfway through an “Intro to DSLR Photography” class. I’m taking the class because reading the instruction manual, and then the myriad resources online & in the bookstore, weren’t helping. I was baffled by the terminology. Looking up photography terms just caused more confusion. (Note to photography people: have one word for things, OK? Decide, right now, between “aperture” and “F-stop”. Seriously.)

Many of my friends are excellent amateur photographers. They have tried to help. I did a lot of nodding but what they were saying made no sense. I wanted someone to stand next to me while I fiddled with the camera. But I couldn’t ask the questions I wanted answered. Because I’m supposed to be The Smart One. I’m not supposed to ask questions.

Being The Smart One was such a huge part of my identity for so long, that admitting I wasn’t ‘getting’ something right away has been very humbling. And scary. And hard.

True confession time – I dropped out of Quadelle’s very worthwhile Project 52 (take a picture a week, for a year, on a pre-determined theme) partly because I just got too busy & first trimestery… but more because it very quickly got beyond what I knew how to do, and I was too intimidated to admit it and unable to grasp some of the concepts from reading about them online.

So, the class. It’s six weeks, two hours per. By the end of each class I’m exhausted. I feel like my head is visibly throbbing with all the new stuff in there. I’m bummed that it’s already getting dark by the time we get out, because I want to go try the techniques I’ve learned right away, before the lesson fades. Last night, a breakthrough of sorts for me, although no one else in the class knew, I’m sure.

We were learning about Aperture Priority (the AV or A mode on your DSLR camera, in case any other photography newbies are reading). The instructor was using lots of visual aids, which I find invaluable (turns out I’m an auditory / visual learner. Just reading something off a page, it doesn’t stick.) We were discussing shallow depth of field, which I’ve learned is the technical term for the types of photos I love the best. He was explaining that to get really good results in that style, one needs a zoom lens. Then he explained a “cheat” for the standard 18-55 kit lens, which is what I have.

And I didn’t get it. He was talking focus point & focal length & moving & zooming, and he lost me. Utterly. Everyone else in the class was nodding (or ignoring him, because everyone else in the class has a zoom lens). I was getting horribly frustrated, because This. Exact. Concept. was what I wanted to learn, and I wasn’t getting it, and I could feel the moment slipping away.

So I put up my hand. I tried a smile (although it felt more like a grimace). And I admitted I was completely lost. I asked him to please go through it step by step. It turned out to be very simple, but the way he was initially explaining it, I couldn’t grasp what he was saying. The second run through, it clicked.


I’ve been mulling it over ever since. I don’t feel like The Smart One, anymore. I don’t stretch myself enough mentally these days. I don’t force myself out of my comfort zone. I don’t read books that challenge me. I don’t put myself in situations that push me. I stopped reading Bon’s theory blog because I didn’t understand 80% of it and refused to invest the time in making myself comprehend the concepts.

If I’m not getting marked, graded, and evaluated, I apparently don’t find it worthwhile. I don’t like learning for its own sake, and that makes me sad.


There are only three more weeks in this class. After it’s over, I will need to push myself hard to keep on, to keep trying (and failing, and trying again), to keep asking questions. And I need to find a new identity, one that isn’t The Smart One and is OK with it, too.



  1. this resonated deeply for me. i too was the smart one, and it filled other identity holes that, in retrospect, i mighta spent more time working on earlier.

    but there are whole realms of knowledge, particularly hands-on knowledge, that i don’t pick up quickly, b/c they don’t fit with my existing scaffolds. and so when i took a photography class ten years ago (before DSLR, plain ol SLR) i was just like you. except not quite as reflexive about my struggles, though i did eventually learn to ask.

    and i learned again this fall when i did stats. mercy. horrors. but it was good for me, for the exact reasons you say.

  2. Ditto. My saving grace at times has been my conviction that if I don’t understand something than there are bound to be others that don’t, too (hey, might as well use our conviction of our brilliance to our advantage!). That’s often given me the courage to put up my hand, express my confusion, ask for terminology to be explained, etc. Especially given how many times others have then asked more questions, or thanked me afterward for speaking up.

    However, if I have absolutely no idea what is going on I don’t ask at all. I am just mostly mortified and mildly panicked at the unusual nature of the situation. Then I’ll either ignore/avoid that area (embarrassing to admit, but true) or find someone I can confess my ignorance to and beg them to help me make sense of any of it. Which is pretty much how I stumbled my way through stats three years in a row.

    As for the Project 52, so many weeks I have had a love/hate thing going on with the topics. Some have pushed me way past my comfort zones, and I’ve put off doing them because I felt incapable of producing anything worthwhile. Basically, I’ve been frightened of failure. Some weeks it is by sheer determination to meet an obligation (nothing like being the coordinator to MAKE one do something) that I get out my camera. More often than not, I’m happy after the fact. Usually I find I’ve learned something – even if the images didn’t turn out as I had in my mind’s eye. At least afterward I have some idea of what factors worked and what ones didn’t, and what might be worth trying next time.

    Plus, as said at the time, you are welcome back if / whenever you want. Seriously! The purpose is not to be perfect, the purpose is to push ourselves.

  3. Well Hannah, it can be tough to be the ‘Smart One’, and then forget how to learn new things, or in your case, be nervous about showing your limitations in front of others. The more you do it the easier it gets to ask questions.
    I think after the photography class you should sit down and try and read or learn something outside your comfort zone. Way outside. Like physics. Or statistics. Conquer that fear of ‘Math’. Whatever.
    You will feel better, and reclaim a bit of the ‘Smart One’ identity if you so choose. Just remind yourself that you got to be the ‘Smart One’ in the first place by asking boatloads of questions. About everything, and anything. I assume you used to ask questions when you were younger, because that sure as hell is how Isaac & James are going about it. I figure they got the ‘smart’ from somewhere. 🙂 Cheers

  4. I was the smart one too. Now I’m just the mom at the playground who has a funny blog.

  5. I was the smart one too. And yes, I even was given buckets of extra work just to keep me occupied. But learning is tiring, and life sucks a lot out of us. I just graduated with my third diploma (in business this time) and I’ve found that being in school just gets harder and harder because I’ve got more and more other things demanding my attention.

    PS. I can never get aperture down correctly. I keep meaning to take a class just so I can learn that very thing.

  6. I’ve been lucky to be dating someone who’s being doing photography since I was just a kid, and have been learning a lot from the ground up with film. He also turned me on to a great (but old) book called The Joy of Photography. It’s not all relevant, but some of it helps with the concepts, which I also find frustrating. Esp as the “smart kid”

    I’m coming to terms with the fact that I’m NOT as smart as I may have once thought, which kinda blows. Or rather, that smart has a million definitions, and book smart is just a small sliver of the rest of my life. Hard lesson.

    I finally started to grasp the stupid freaking apertures and shutter speed and ISO this weekend, and was rewarded with 10 shots of over a hundred I liked. It will come. (and learning while pregnant? damn you’re better than me. I was too busy gestating. :p)

  7. Funny, I think that the blogosphere has alot of us “smart kids” percolating around here….I too was one of the people who didn’t have to work too hard at it. Funny, it also seems that I have to work DAMN hard at almost everything I do now. I’ve often wondered whether it was my brain that was developing swiss cheese like holes…OR whether it was that I was now swimming in a larger pool than any of my previous environments (schools/universities/etc)….therefore, same sized fish -larger pond, type of thing. who knows?

    I’ve gotta say that I HAVE had to come to terms with this in recent years and it’s not always been easy….I am actively trying to forge a new identity that is NOT based on being the smart one, or the one who writes the best…or the one who has the best speeches (because I’ve met so many ppl who FAR exceed me in these things in past years)…. but rather, an identity based on being just ME…a mix of a whole bunch of stuff (some good, some bad, some funny and some badass).

    Like a few others mentioned, getting myself involved in adult learning stuff (photography, cooking, roller derby, crossfit) has been incredibly good and also, incredibly humbling….I am finally (FINALLY) coming to terms with sometimes also just “not getting it” and being ok with it, mostly. I am finally starting to be happy to be one of those people who is still DOING STUFF, even when life is crazy and chaotic and schedules make me tear out my hair. At least I am DOING it (whatever IT is at the moment) and that makes me feel pretty damn good on most days.

    I guess we’re all works in progress, and we all just need to figure out which road feels like progress and then start walking…:*)

    PS – The p-52 project has also kicked my ass at various points….(I missed several weeks)…usually, once I pick up the camera, I am mostly happy with what I’ve gotten…but not always…part of the learning curve I guess.

    PPS – I also would love to see you back in the group at any time that you feel like joining. I miss seeing your pictures!

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