Learning by Shafic Osman

Over a year ago, I bought a second hand camera and decided to start photo blogging to while away time. It was six months after graduation and I had decided to use that year as a gap year, so there was ample time at my disposal. When I first bought the camera, I knew next to nothing about taking pictures beyond what my Samsung Galaxy could do. Words like aperture, exposure, F stop and a host of others flummoxed me whenever I asked someone to teach me. I remember once turning on the camera and only seeing black, wondering whether my camera was broken. It turned out that I had not taken off the camera cover. Did I feel like giving up? Yes! I was very close to selling the camera off. After all, I got it at a very cheap price and I had zero to lose.

Thankfully, I did not sell it and I am very glad I never did. Over the next year, I moved from always shooting on Auto to never shooting on anything other than Manual. This post is not entirely about how far I have come in photography. To be honest, I am still a long way away from being the photographer I wish I was. I still take pictures that are overly exposed, lack the depth of field they should have or have little sharpness. This post is about the learning process and why we should all trust it.

There is said to be a hierarchy of competencies everyone on a learning journey finds himself on at a point. They are Unconscious Incompetence, Conscious Incompetence, Conscious Competence and Unconscious Competence. These are the “Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill” theory developed at Gordon Training International by its employee Noel Burch in the 1970s. Obviously the goal is to find yourself at the apex of this ladder but you do not wish yourself to the apex. You work yourself up.

Unconscious Incompetence

Take the example of a pre-pubescent kid who is taught in his Religious and Moral Education about abstaining from sex. To begin with, chances are that he does not know what sex is. So he cannot fathom why it is so important to abstain from something he is not even interested in. Or a lanky 7 foot tall kid who has never heard about basketball being told by a scout that he can make millions of dollars playing a sport called basketball. Prior to this encounter, he is totally unaware of what he does not know. That is unconscious incompetence.

The depth of information out in the world is staggering. There are things we all do not know that we do not know, even about our bodies. The pre-pubescent kid does not know the organ he uses to pee can be used for sexual excitation. Neither does the lanky 7 foot tall kid know of a sport that will ease his path towards riches. Being aware that there are things out there that we do not know exist should humble all of us.

Regardless of where you are on your learning journey, this thought should be humbling. More importantly, in an age where new information keeps popping up by the second, you should know that what you know can become obsolete by the second. In photography for instance, the use of films in taking pictures was the norm. Today, that is totally out of fashion. What that then means is that photographers had to learn how to use digital cameras and soon enough, the switch was to DSLRs.

You should not be worried about what you do not know that you do not know. You should be worried about your openness to learning new things.


Once you know what you did not know, you become conscious of your incompetence. That however does not mean chasing competency in that field. For a very long time, I knew I did not know a thing about photography. Today, I am conscious about my incompetence in videography. But I presently find little need to learn videography. My current situation might change and getting competent in videography might become necessary, but at this material moment, it is not.

I decided to take photography more seriously when I realized the income stream I stood to generate from it. I was aware of what little I knew and how damaging that was to what I was trying to put across; AKA my brand. You do not want to be associated with blurry pictures or images which are not sharp. If you call yourself a basketball player, you do not want to be known as the guy who cannot dribble left.

Being conscious about your incompetence also means asking all the dumb questions. You never should be shy about coming across as silly. I have asked photographer friends questions which exposed how little I knew about photography. In class, I do not shy away from raising my hands in Hermione Granger fashion, albeit to ask questions and not to answer them. When you commit yourself to learning, know that there is no such thing as being shy. However, there should be a fine line between asking pretty obvious questions for the sake of coming across as the serious student and asking questions which are worthy of being answered. But even if you are still super shy, GOOGLE IS YOUR FRIEND! But asking a teacher in person (you could walk up to the teacher after class) helps a lot.


One of the things about the learning process is that, the end goal is the achievement of some benefit. It might be material, spiritual, or even altruistic. Regardless, achieving this means having a grasp over whatever it is you are involved in. To be a well-paid basketball player, you need to at least, know your fundamentals. Excelling at this without the flashiness of high powered dunks and over the top dribbling moves made Tim Duncan one of the best basketball players of all time.

Being consciously competent means knowing what you know and with this self-awareness comes being measured in your actions. When I started getting a hang of photography, I did not accept every single gig that came my way. For instance, I knew fully well that wedding photography was not yet up my alley but random street photography was due to issues of lighting. I knew what I was capable of doing so I worked at that and welcomed job offers that were up that aisle. For the ones that were not, I turned them down but continued to work towards getting better at it.

If you are not abreast with quantum mechanics, do not present yourself as someone who knows it. But if you do want to be the quantum mechanics expert, commit yourself to the learning process. You commit yourself to what it is you want to know and go overtime burning the midnight candle.


When you get to the point where you do things without even thinking about it, then you are at the zenith of your learning journey. Take the basketball player Steph Curry as an example. He jacks up three pointers from spots all over the court without even thinking about it. His pregame routine are incredible. He does what he does so effortlessly, it is like he is not even serious about it. However, you will be kidding yourself if you thought he woke up one day and became this freak of a shooter. Curry is one of those who religiously followed the 10,000 hours rules which states that to be an expert, you need to clock at least 10,000 hours into whatever path you have chosen to follow. Growing up undersized, he knew he had to work on a distinguishing skill to allow him a chance in the NBA and excelling at 3point shooting and “breaking ankles” was his best option.

One of my favorite Aristotle quotes is the one that says “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit”. Unconscious Competence is excellence. It is having that Midas touch. That touch is not miraculously gained. The best photographers take National Geographic worthy pictures on a regular without setting out with the intention of doing so. Excellence is an acquired attitude that is acquired when you fully commit to the learning process.


What is consistent along this journey is being humble about what you know and do not know. By this, I am not talking Ghanaian Humility where we mistake meekness with humility. I am talking about the kind of humility that makes you willing to submit yourself to learn, that makes you admit that you do not know, that makes you know that talent is not enough. Humility is waking up before everyone else because you know better than anyone else that there is a lot out there that you do not know.

Attitude is interspersed in the mix with humility. For without the attitude that says “I am here to learn and commit myself to the learning process”, you will never learn what you need to!