On Building Confidence for Your Own Photographic Pursuits: Become a Better Photographer in 2018

I spend a large percentage of my time with the photographic medium. In fact, when I'm not taking photographs, I'm typically watching videos, reading books or articles, or generally looking at photography, no matter if it is on Instagram, blogs, or other works in portfolios. I'm constantly looking to improve.
I've recently spent more time exploring other photography channels around the internet, though: Tumblr, 500px, and even Reddit. The latter is the inspiration for this writing, as I've found myself coming across more and more posts asking for critique on photographs. In my experience, many of these requests for critique have become so open ended that it's difficult to judge what, in fact, someone is being asked to judge. 
Of course, critique is valuable in a plethora of artistic endeavors, or for nearly all endeavors, honestly. Critique provides feedback for improvement; it helps to streamline processes and opens new avenues. But all of this comes, typically, when someone asks for a specific critique. In my experience, requesting a critique means that there is something specific that an individual wants to improve. An example may be that an individual wants to strengthen their understanding of lighting or composition - which is best done when someone acknowledges that they need improvement. The beauty of critiquing an image with these parameters is that someone can lend advice on these aspects and these aspects alone. Instead, I've found myself coming across dozens, if not hundreds, of images asking for a blanket critique on what could be improved. Honestly, it's hard to say. Here are a few examples (Note that I've left out the images and links because I didn't think it was fair to put people on blast.): 

"Never done a night shot like this, so looking for feedback in terms of light, color, and processing as well as general critique."
"Please criticize"
"Is it sharp enough? Is the composition good?"
"Wondering what you think about this photo, feels a little snapshotty to me. What do you think?"

Yes, of course, there are key rules that could be upheld to make a photograph stand out: one could change their lighting, their posing, their use of the frame. There are a number of different techniques that an artist can use to alter the impact of their image, but it comes down to understanding what that artist is trying to convey. And that's where the important defining feature lies. An artist should have an understanding, no matter how basic, of what they want to convey: what story are you trying to tell as an artist? 

When I began in photography, I thought that an impactful image just needed a ton of bokeh, or the right exposure, which would help set my photographs apart from others. What I was missing was an understanding of how to make an incredible photograph my own. I didn't know anything about shaping light, creating mood, or choosing locations or outfits to complete my vision. Instead, I just showed up, photographed what I saw in the moment, and hoped for the best. I edited in a similar fashion, usually chasing what was the proper exposure and white balance to make the image as technically correct as possible. I've since learned a lot about photography and my process, which has gone far in my portraiture.
The key difference for me was realizing that there were aspects of my photography that I was missing, and upon that realization, I needed to pursue the tools to develop that specific knowledge. I've spent countless hours pouring over videos and books looking for examples on lighting, posing, and other techniques that professionals are using in their published images. And this is exactly where my suggestion lies for the budding photographers of 2018: learn.
Photography today has become so open ended that anyone can join the medium. No matter your opinion on the matter, people with iPhones are creating impactful images that tell a story that some cannot with a DSLR. Furthermore, the difference that sets some apart from others is the desire to self reflect and learn new techniques. But more than that, it's the ability to understand **what** you want to improve. 
If you're looking to improve your photography, first undetstand where you can grow. Are you particularly good at a certain aspect of photography? Do you have a robust understanding of your camera and how to manipulate the settings to create the image that you're envisioning? I'm not arguing that you need to be able to tell me the EXIF data of each image you present, but rather that when you need to darken the background of an image with an external flash you can get to that point without looking up a guide online. 
Once you're able to manipulate your camera in a technical sense, you'll open more time during a shoot to pay attention to the details, specifically posing and the elements of the background that will make or break an image. Once you're able to spend more time thinking about the composition and non-technical elements of the image, you'll have more confidence to break the rules and explore. So, for now, get out there and shoot, and research, and look at great photography for inspiration. Stop asking for blanket critiques and hone into what you're wanting to improve. And, as a final important suggestion: stop apologizing for your images or for the fact that you're learning. You don't owe anyone an apology, nor an explanation for your art. Get out there and make it and always look to improve for your own sake.