"Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick.
After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick.
Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick."
-- Bruce Lee
One of the major influences throughout my life has been the years of martial arts training I took during my twenties. I first studied under Steve Sanders (now Sifu Steve Muhammad), one of the foremost practictioners of American Kenpo Karate as developed by Ed Parker. I then studied the Filipino arts of Kali, Escrima, and Arnis from Dan Inosanto, who was a friend and protege Bruce Lee. That's when I first heard the quote above, which I must confess didn't make much sense to me at the time. My moment of enlightenment didn't come until a few years later, when I began studying Zen and Tai Chi Chuan.
Maybe you're wondering what any of this has to do with photography. Patience, grasshopper. The simple explanation is this: Before you begin learning an art such as photography, the techniques it takes to practice the art are undifferentiated to you. All cameras and lenses look pretty much alike, you're not aware of differences in quality and direction of light, and differences in visual style appear subtle at best.
As you begin to learn the art, however, your mind and awareness begin to expand. You see things you never noticed before. Things that were once unimportant become extremely important. It's easy to become obsessed with a particular style or technique, the Right Way to do something, or owning The Perfect Lens. You might even look down on photographers who lack your refined knowledge and sensibilities.
If you're fortunate and you stick with it long enough you'll find yourself coming out the other side. Where you were once focused on differences you now begin to look at things more holistically. Equipment and techniques are simply means to an end and your vision is far more important than the tools it takes to achieve it. A camera is just a camera, a lens is just a lens, and software is just software.
In short, the path to mastery is to integrate what you learn so that it becomes as much a part of you as the way you walk, the way you talk, and the way you sign your name. You do them all without thinking and without effort, yet they express more about who you really are than all the clever tricks you know or masks you wear.