One doesn't see with one's eyes, one sees with the whole fruit of one's previous experience.
Anita describes a familiar lament over on her blog. She expresses dissatisfaction with the images she is currently taking, compared to those in her head. I've had long periods of feeling the way Anita does - my aspirations were well above my abilities. It has been a strange progression over the last 7 years.
Initially I loved so many of the pictures I took, fatally overlooking my lack of technical abilities that I had no understanding of. I was blind to the faults. I'd print them, share them, enter contests and juried shows and be bemused by rejection. After a while, I started producing passably good pictures - still technically flawed, but compositionally competent, satisfying and generally okay. I'd learned enough to see what was wrong with my earliest attempts. I could start seeing glaring flaws like over-sharpening halos and uncontrolled dynamic range. I have several prints around the house from this phase that I still like. They might now be in the laundry, but they are at least still on a visible wall.
Then I went through another growth spurt. I was back again to seeing the glaring flaws in all the pictures I was taking. I couldn't print anything out because by the time it came to printing or framing it, I already was dissappointed in the picture. I learned quite a bit about composition and technical printing in this phase. By the end of it, again quite a few, better, images adorn my walls. That was about 3 years ago.
The more you learn, the less you know
I guess I'm back in another satisfaction vacumm again. There are no photographs on the walls from the last 2 years. My standards might have shifted again, but also the subject matter I'm shooting has moved away from grand landscapes and other forms of easy wall decoration. The images are now lots of people I don't know or maybe more challenging but ultimately satisfying images that don't look so good on the wall. There are a few I've taken that I could think about printing, but even as I type and think about them, I can come up with all the reasons that I'd be dissatisfied with them. There's a book I suppose, but nothing else printed in the last couple of years.
The thing of it is, though, that these periods of dissastisfaction are really where the growth is occuring. If and when you think you are doing good work, then you no doubt are, but you aren't striving for something bigger. The dissappointment and continuing urge to get better shows you know what's wrong and what can be improved. When that moves to the background, and satisfaction sets in, then you've stopped being able to identify the areas for growth, at least for a while. Those plataeus are to be enjoyed, but the struggle up the mountain is where the improvement is really happening, even if you can't see it and want to just give up along the way.
I first encountered this concept of plateaus on the way to learning in the book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment A worthwhile read. I've also started using the Amazon affiliate program for links to books - feel free to buy through these links and I get a small amount back - or if it offends you, just type the name into your favourite book store and avoid my small attempts at commercialism.
True knowledge comes in knowing that you know nothing
ETA: Great comment from Paulo Bono on this post - well worth a read. It reminds me of the idea that a writer is someone who writes, and a photographer who is someone who takes photographs. If you aren't actually writing or taking the photographs, then you aren't really being a writer or a photographer or whatever sort of -er you aspire to be. Do the work and the rest will take care of itself.