Have you ever photographed at your lowest?
Have you ever photographed at your lowest?
“Blessings on blessings on blessings. Look at my life man, that’s lessons on lessons on lessons.” – Big Sean (Blessings)
Man, we are so blessed. We have so many blessings in our life. We have blessings on blessings on blessings, yet it is easy to forget all the wonderful things we have in our life.
They often call the business world the “rat race.” The concept is that we are all like rats on a spinning wheel— trying to earn more money, trying to earn more advancements, trying to work our way up the “corporate ladder.” But the faster we run, the faster the wheel turns, and sooner or later we will become exhausted and just burn out.
I think one of the most difficult things in the modern world is to ignore what everyone else is doing, and focus on what you are truly interested and passionate about.
pas·sion: A strong amorous feeling or desire; love; ardor. From the Latin word “pati”, which means to ‘suffer.’
We are often told in society “follow your passion” — and I do believe that concept (to an extent). Often we cannot control external factors (like whether or not we can make our passion our full-time profession), but we can control what we do with our spare time.
My impetus for you in this letter is to follow your passion in photography. But of course, before you can follow your passion, you must discover what your passion is.
Dear fellow streettog,
I want to live my life to the fullest. I want to die without regrets.
Often I piss away my days, live a life according to the opinion of others, and desire shit that I don’t need (materialistic things like cars, a lot of money, fancy cameras, shiny devices, and a big house).
As a reminder to myself, I always try to remind myself of “The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.” A hospice nurse wrote a list of 5 common regrets people had on their death bed.
Original post from Nick’s blog.
So it’s that time of year again when I look at my life and all of the things that I’ve accomplished, or in my case, haven’t. My opinions have changed as I’ve gotten older and the things that mattered to me weren’t always the same. I was a selfish person as I only thought about material things. As clichéd as it sounds, but I’ve realised that it’s not the things around me that matter, but who, that make me happy.
I wanted to write you this letter on photography and life.
I just finished an epic week-long street photography workshop here in New Orleans, and it was an absolutely incredible experience. I had such a great time with the students, in terms of teaching, bringing people together, and sharing new experiences together.
A post taken from Josh’s blog. He doesn’t always say much, but like this post talks about, simple things are sometimes good ones. Enjoy.
The end of a long weekend. I used to travel on weekends like this. I would go to Tokyo or Hong Kong. Now, I prefer to stay nearer home.
How much is enough?
How much is superfluous in life? What is excess baggage that holds you back?
What are some demons from your past and mental baggage that holds you back? What are physical possessions which hold you back?
What kinds of cameras and equipment hold you back? Which cameras are sitting on your shelf or drawer which you haven’t used for a few months, or even over a year? Why do you keep onto them? What do you fear? Do you worry about these “what if?” situations?
I wanted to give you some advice on bouncing back from negative and debilitating experiences when you’re shooting street photography.
About a month ago I gave a talk on street photography at EyeEm headquarters in Berlin. During the question and answer session, there was a member in the crowd who asked me the question: “What is your dream?”
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. ” ― Shunryu Suzuki
I’m currently sitting at my desk, facing outside. There are beautiful trees, a soft breeze, the sound of birds chirping. I have a “HappyLight” on my left (which helps me wake up in the morning), I have some beloved books to my right, and I’m enjoying a lovely espresso, while doing a little bit of typing.
Life is perfect.
Never forget: you’re living in a paved paradise, heaven on earth.
Think of all the blessings we have in our life:
Okay I know I’m being a bit dramatic; but just realize that we live in the best time ever in history. Even though I’m having a shitty day, feeling depressed, or not feeling good about myself, I have nothing to complain about (my ancestors were probably dealing with hunger, famine, droughts, and death). Not only that, but the greatest blessing in modern society: the internet.
Know that we live in a “paved paradise” — that sure it isn’t all roses, flowing hills of green, and unlimited apple trees for us to survive on. But in our “paved paradise”, we have people on the streets we can photograph and interact with, we have libraries and photobook stories where we can look at images and be inspired, we have the ability to walk in public places and experience life on the streets, and to have technology (cameras) to document it.
I know I’m just babbling on, but this letter is also a reminder to myself. There are so many things that I wish for in my life, and things that I am dissatisfied about. But I need to remind myself of all the positives, not the negatives.
If we see our lives as “paved paradise” — the world is like our own jungle gym to explore, to have fun on, climb up and down, and sometimes fall off.
Paradise isn’t some far-away foreign country or city, like India, Tokyo, Paris, New York, San Francisco, or LA. Paradise isn’t some nice sandy beach, where we can drink a Corona with lime. Paradise isn’t having a little mountain cabin in the woods, surrounded by trees and deer. Paradise isn’t being a millionaire and not having to work a day of your life.
Paradise is the life we currently have. The friends that we have. The relationships that we have. The food in our fridge, the coffee we can enjoy in the morning, the camera that we currently own, and the freedom of time we have to make images. Paradise is the hug of our child, of our partner, the high-five you give a stranger, the smile that a stranger gives to you, someone letting you merge in traffic, or the one person who left you a comment or “like” on Instagram.
Lately I’ve been trying to practice “walking meditation” — which is essentially walking mindfully, and not being distracted.
I am constantly distracted; which prevents me from appreciating this “paved paradise” we have around us.
So I have been removing all the distractions from my life, as much as humanly possible, by trying to do fewer things in my day, to turn off my phone when I’m walking around, not listening to music while walking, and certainly not texting-while-walking.
When I practice “walking meditation”, I try to walk about half the speed I am normally used to, and I try to notice all the beautiful small details around me. The little crack in the pavement, the little birdsnest in the nook of my apartment roof, the sound of the birds chirping outside, the gentle hum of traffic passing me, the feeling of the pavement pushing against my shoes, and noticing the way that the light and shadows hit cars, peoples, and reflect.
Being able to practice “walking meditation” has also helped my photography in the sense that I can find beauty in the small details of my “boring” city (Berkeley). Once again, I suffer from the “grass is greener on the other side syndrome” (I always think I would be so much happier in San Francisco, because it is better for street photography, more people walking around, better art scene, and it is more hip).
But I need to realize that Berkeley is my paved paradise. I have everything I need here. Rather than changing where I live, I need to change my attitude. Rather than seeing what Berkeley lacks, I need to focus on seeing what Berkeley offers me; which is everything.
So friend, if you live in a boring ass place, know that there is beauty all around you– you just have to slow down, turn off your smartphone, and appreciate the small details all around you.
Also don’t feel that you have to constantly be shooting “street photography” with people in it. Hell, if you like it– shoot flowers, landscapes, macros, whatever makes you happy. Don’t worry about not being considered a “serious” photographer. Don’t even call yourself a photographer, call yourself a human being that happens to like to take photos for fun.
Don’t take photography too seriously; don’t stress yourself out, and have fun.
So instead of going out to “take photos”, just go out for a nice walk, enjoy the nice breeze, the warm sun, and bring your camera along (just in case). Perhaps stop by the local cafe, enjoy a nice coffee, and count the blessings you have in your life.
Thursday, September 10th, finished writing @ 9:03am after a lovely v60 pour-over and espresso. Fortunately that weird throat-swelling thing isn’t happening. Reminder to self; don’t have more coffee for the rest of today.
So being back home in Berkeley has been truly wonderful and a blessing. I’ve been enjoying the “small” and “simple” things in life; spending time with friends and catching up on random chit-chat, walking around my neighborhood (with the Ricoh GR, shooting b/w high-contrast JPEG + RAW) and taking photos of rubbish on the ground and flowers, doing chin-ups in the local park, cooking new dinners for Cindy everynight (I’ve made her a pretty bomb cast-iron garlic lamb-shank and plum-sauce duck), finally had the chance to catch up on 100+ emails this morning (sorry if it took me so long to get to you, I still feel guilty because I am not able to answer the other 100+ emails that are sitting in my newsletter email inbox), reading books that I am passionate about (Steve Jobs biography is incredibly inspirational), and having my family over (recently had a lovely family dinner with my mom, my younger sister, Cindy, and both her parents).
Oh not sure if I told you this, but I actually got a book offer from a small book publishing company called “Rockynook” who are interested in publishing the “Learn From the Masters” book. I am going to hash out the details with them about printing, the contract, and other legal details sometime in the next few weeks. I am really excited; I hope to put a paper-back book that I am proud of, and that can bring a lot of value to the lives of others.
The thing is that there are two non-negotiables that I plan on asking for: 1) To have a free PDF edition online for free, in accordance with the ‘open source‘ philosophy and 2) For them not to own copyright of the text (I don’t think anybody, including myself, should own the ‘copyright’ to any information). If they say “no”, I will thank them for their time, probably figure out if I can self-publish this (which might be a fun opportunity), and stick in accordance with my virtue and morales.
One thing that I learned from Steve Job’s biography is to NOT COMPROMISE. Not compromise regardless of how much money companies or people try to throw out at you.
I’m not saying that corporations are trying to control me, but I need to remind myself not to “sell out”. Apparently corporations constantly approach rappers and ask them to make rap songs about their products, and offer them a shitload of money.
And friend, I am ashamed to admit that honestly, I think all the cameras I have accepted in the past (Ricoh GR, Fujifilm x100s, x100t, XT-1 + 23mm 1.4 + 27mm f/2.8 lens, Pentax K3) has made me a slave to these camera corporations. I am a selfish human being, who cannot refuse free stuff. But the problem of receiving these free cameras is that I no longer own my own opinion, and I am being consciously (or subconsciously) influenced in promoting products.
I can honestly say that I have never promoted a camera to you that I didn’t personally like. But at the same time, I realize that it is unethical for me to accept free gifts of any kind (I also get free smartphones from Samsung, which included a Galaxy S3, a S5, a S6, Note 3, Note 4) that I myself wouldn’t spend money on. And to be frank, as much as I love the Samsung phones, if I had my own money, I would just buy an iPhone.
But sorry for the random rambling– essentially what I wanted to say is that I am extremely excited for this book offer. But if they don’t allow me to print and publish this book with them and keep it “open source”, I am going to have to say no (even though I might have the potential to earn $200,000+). I’m just making up that number, but I think morally, ethically, and based on my principles– I should accept NO amount of money that wouldn’t let the information NOT be “open-source.”
But damn, it’s awfully hard rejecting money. But at the end of the day, I don’t live for myself, but I live for the community, for society, for humanity, and for you.
Anyways, will keep you in the loop friend, until next time, Godspeed!
Oh and another note: you might have noticed that I disabled the comments. I did so because I feel massive guilt not being able to read all the comments on the blog, so for now, I will keep the comments off (until the near future). Thank you for your understanding :)
I want to share a story with you. It is an important life lesson that I learned from Greg Lowe, my tennis coach from high school.
Okay let’s start from the very beginning. I was a sophomore (or perhaps freshman) in high school (Castro valley high in California), and I heard that there were tryouts for the tennis team. I’ve always (kind of) been interested in tennis, as my parents would play (or at least they had some old rackets in the closet). I remember as a kid, looking at these (unused) rackets in the closet, and wanting to pick it up and learn.
So anyways, I go to these tennis tryouts, and fail miserably. I can’t hit the ball to save my life, and I realized that I was out of my league. Some of these kids were able to hit the ball with so much beauty, form, and elegance — adding fancy topspin to the ball, able to serve without even looking, and pretty much dominate without even trying.
Dejected, I thought I would never be a good tennis player. How could I catch up in skill to all of these other guys, who had all these fancy tennis lessons (which were pretty fucking expensive)?
I don’t remember the details, but one of the assistant coaches (Greg Lowe, a retired police chief), offered the students who didn’t make the team, “Hey guys, if you want to improve yourselves and perhaps make the team next year, meet me at the courts this Saturday at 730am, and I will give you free lessons.”
At first I thought, “fuck yeah”– I would be able to get free lessons, work hard, and prove myself by making the team. I thought it was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I thought everyone else would jump on this offer.
So anyways on Friday morning, I peel myself out of bed at 7am (really early for a high school student), and made it to the courts by 730am. I was surprised to see that there were only about three of us in total. I thought to myself, “where are all the other kids, why aren’t they taking up this amazing and generous offer that coach Lowe offered?”
Anyways, long story short, Greg Lowe trained us for that entire summer. There only ended up being around three of us in the long run, but through that summer I was able to hone my skills, work hard, and (without fail) make it to practice every Saturday morning, no matter how much alcohol I drank the night before with my friends. Funny story; there was one day that I was sleeping in on Saturday morning, and my friend (also another guy getting tennis lessons with coach Lowe) threw rocks at my window to wake my ass up.
Anyways, I end up making the team, and through the years, worked myself up from having zero skills in tennis, to being #1 varsity doubles on the team.
There were a lot of lessons that coach Lowe taught me about life through tennis, which I want to outline in this letter to you.
The first thing that shocked me from coach Lowe was that he played and instructed us with a wooden racket. It was a really old thing, I never had seen anything like it. While all of us young guns were obsessed with getting the newest and greatest tennis rackets, our coach instructed us with this super heavy, tiny headed relic from the past.
Yet the thing that surprised me the most was how fluid he was with it, and how hard he could hit the ball with it.
Funny in photography, we call it “gear acquisition syndrome” (gas), in which we think that our lack of photographic ability is because our cameras and lenses and gear aren’t good enough. Yet they have the same exact thing in tennis, where a lot of amateur tennis players think that they’re not improving in their tennis, because their racket isn’t expensive enough. Apparently this also happens in all other sports, like basketball (you want to wear expensive Jordan shoes), in cooking (you want expensive knives), in golf (you want more expensive clubs), etc.
So when I started off in tennis, needless to say I was pretty shitty. I always thought to myself at the back of my head: “If I only had an expensive racket like Andre Agassi” or if I had that new Head, Prince, or Babolat racket, I could hit the ball really hard and be a really good player.
But regardless, without fail, my coach taught us with the wooden racket, and showed us how hard you could hit the ball (even with a really shitty racket).
He always tried to remind us: it isn’t about the racket, but your form.
Now thinking back at it, it is an important life lesson that I have applied to my photography and life in general.
In photography, I say this a lot: “Don’t worry about the camera and gear, the most important thing is your eyes and how you see the world.” I’ve said it so many times that it seems so cliche and a fucking chore when you hear it; but it’s true. And it is a constant reminder I need to give myself (I always make excuses about my photos not being good enough, saying that my camera isn’t good enough).
Don’t get me wrong friend, I am still afflicted with GAS in photography. Although I am currently down to one camera and one lens (film leica and 35mm lens), I still crave for more. There are days I daydream about getting a Leica Monochrom, or daydream about fictitious cameras (like digital cameras without an LCD screen), or buying medium format cameras, whatever. I am not satisfied with what I have, but I always goad for more. And why is that? Because I somehow think it is my gear which is holding me back creatively, and if I suddenly had new gear, I would become “re-inspired”. But it is a bunch of bullshit, it is actually limits and constraints that forces us to be be more creative (they call it a “creative constraint”).
The same philosophy goes in life. We think that we can’t start our own business because we don’t have enough money. We think that we can’t ask that beautiful person on a date because we don’t have the looks. We think that we can never cook a decent meal because we have an ill-equipped kitchen. We think that we can’t become great painters, movie directors, or musicians because our equipment (or tools) are holding us back.
But remember; even a wooden racket can help you become a great tennis player. Similarly in photography, even a smartphone can be a more than-sufficient tool for photography. In life, make the best use of what you have, rather than seeking some external thing that you don’t have in order to be creative.
Recently, Cindy and I are embarking on a challenge (which is really difficult); don’t buy anything new for a year.
So far the challenge has been really difficult. I constantly want to buy new shit (and I know I don’t really need it, but still am tempted). But the funny thing is that in knowing that I don’t have the luxury of buying new things, it forces me to be more ingenuous and use what I already own and be more creative.
“Hunger breeds sophistication.”
So for example, I currently don’t have a laptop. I got my 11” Macbook Air stolen in Paris 1.5 months ago, I recently donated my Windows 8 Tablet/Laptop to a friend named Anne who is going to donate it to charity to teach kids in a developing country to program, and all I am left with is the iPad Air I had chilling at home. I have a “in-case” keyboard attachment thingy, and a bluetooth Apple keyboard that I use wirelessly (which I am using right now to type this up).
Before my “don’t buy anything” challenge, I was tempted to stop by the nearest Apple store (there is literally one in just a 20-minute walk from my house, on 4th street in Berkeley), and buy a new Macbook 12” retina (or a 13” Macbook pro). But because I made the decision not to buy something new, I tried to think to myself; how can I best use this iPad to be creative?
First of all, I tried to approach the whole “via negativa” philosophy that Nassim Taleb shares in his book, ‘Antifragile‘ (trying to remove as much as possible). So from the iPad, I have removed all superfluous apps that I find unnecessary. Currently the only apps I have are the ones that are not standard is Dropbox and Google Chrome, and IA Writer Pro (best minimalist writing app for both iPad and Macbook in my opinion). The benefit of having no extraneous apps or fat? I have fucking extreme focus; I am not distracted by anything else. And trust me, I am the most easily distracted person I know. I am a pigeon, I see something shiny, and I instantly lose focus.
But anyways, I first did feel a lot of frustration with the iPad– after all, I was limited. In the west, we are taught to not have any limits, to have ultimate freedom– the freedom to buy anything you want, the freedom to do anything you want, and the freedom to continue to accumulate extraneous things.
But the limitation of the iPad has helped me focus on one thing; just writing. So the limitation of my equipment and tools has ended up being a huge blessing. Rather than installing all these new “productivity” apps (in a ‘via positiva’ approach), removing unnecessary apps (in a ‘via negativa’ approach) has helped me be more creative.
So let us not bitch and moan about the lack of tools, money, cameras, financial security, opportunities, hometown, whatever hold us back.
In tennis, a simple wooden racket will suffice in becoming a great tennis player.
In photography, a simple camera will suffice in becoming a great photographer.
In life, having a little money is sufficient to living happily and contributing to society as a whole.
As I was writing this, I have also come to a little “mini-epiphany”; for the next year (at least until I move to Vietnam), I will put away the Leica and will practice what I preach; to just shoot with a simple camera (digital Ricoh GR). The camera is very affordable (less than $600), and while not “cheap” — I think if you own a laptop, live in a “developed” world, have access to the internet, clean water, whatever– you can afford it.
One of the big criticisms I get is that “Oh, Eric, it is easy for you to say ‘don’t worry about the camera’ when you shoot with a Leica.”
And that is true; I need to eat my own cooking, and not be a hypocrite.
Thank you coach Lowe for teaching me the beauty of playing tennis with a wooden racket and not being obsessed with my racket (all throughout high school, I played with a mid-range racket, which helped me make to #1 doubles on the Varsity tennis team). So similarly, I will make a vow of simplicity by also “downgrading” my camera to something really simple; the Ricoh GR.
So friend, I know it is really fucking hard not to be tempted by all these new tools and gadgets. I am a sucker to consumerism too; whenever I see advertisements, visit the mall, or see friends with more expensive stuff than me, I get instantly jealous. This is why nowadays I don’t surf the internet, I don’t read blogs (only paper-back books), I don’t watch television (I don’t own one), I don’t read the newspaper (“to cure yourself of newspapers, spend an entire year reading the news from last year” – Nassim Taleb), I don’t read magazines (90% of the content are just advertisements), I don’t watch movies (sneaky advertisement placements are abundant in films now, or they tempt you to buy expensive cars, clothes, to be fancy), I don’t (to the best of my ability) associate myself with rich people (or else I get jealous of their material wealth). Ultimately I try to avoid situations in which I will feel temptations to buy shit, feelings of inadequacy (comparing myself to those richer than me), situations where I want more than I already have (“keeping up with the Jonses” in America).
Happiness isn’t about accumulating more; it is learning how to be content with less.
So whenever you feel that your camera, gear, lifestyle, or whatever is inadequate– ask yourself,
“How can this limitation help me be more creative? How can this limitation force me to step outside of the box, and try to find out novel ways to be more innovative? How can this limitation be a positive?”
Let me flesh out some more ideas:
I can blabber on on and on; but rather than blaming your external conditions and situations for not being creative or living the life you want to live, think of how you can use your limitations in your life, and make it into a benefit and positive.
Let us eschew fancy high-end rackets; and praise the simple, wooden rackets.
Another important life lesson that I learned from my coach was this: never miss a practice.
One of the most difficult things in tennis is to master a serve. It is one of the most complex movements, which require fluidity of the shoulder, turning of the hips, and it is one of those things that if you don’t use it, you lose it. You need to practice you tennis serve every single day if you want to improve. You can practice it every other day if you don’t want to lose your ability. And anything less than that, you will totally lose your ability to serve, and have to start again with scratch.
Similarly, I went to practice with my coach every Saturday, no matter how cold, no matter how early, no matter how tired I was. I always had to show up; and it is one of those things that getting there is the hard part, but once you’re there, it is quite easy. Kind of like going to the gym. Peeling yourself out of bed, and getting to the gym is the hard part. But once you’re there, doing the workout is quite easy, and after the workout, you feel great and you think to yourself, “What was so difficult about that?”
The same philosophy goes in photography. I do believe that it is important not to go a single day without shooting (if your goal is to improve your photography). I don’t think it is necessary to shoot everyday for the sake of it, but I do believe that the eye and your creative vision is like a muscle; you either use it or lose it. If you were an astronaut, sent into outer space with no gravity, your muscles eventually atrophy from non-use. This is also what happens to people in the hospital who all they do is lie down for months on end due to an illness. Their muscles weaken, they can no longer walk on their own, and they have to rebuild their strength from scratch.
It is often hard to find the “inspiration” to shoot everyday. But then again, do we need “inspiration” to eat food and drink everyday? No. Why not? Hunger is a pain, thirst is a pain, and to eat and drink is a necessity.
But for you, is being creative and making images a necessity? Do you feel physical and mental pain when you go a day without shooting?
Remember, at the end of the day your goal as a photographer (and human being) is to make images that please yourself, and to ultimately be happy. Like the famous Greek saying: “Know thyself” — try to know who you are as a photographer. Are you the type of photographer that needs to shoot everyday to stay creative or fresh? Or are you the type of photographer that instead of shooting everyday, perhaps you can look at photo books everyday, or find inspiration from other photographers?
So regardless if you shoot everyday or not; I challenge you to never go a single day without being creative, and challenging yourself either artistically, emotionally, or physically.
These are just 2 (of the many) points that I learned from my coach from tennis that I have applied to my photographic and creative life. Try to keep these 2 things in mind:
I think if you practice these 2 things on the daily, you will become truly great in anything you pursue.
Farewell my friend, and I wish you all the best. You have no limits, only the limitations you put on yourself.
Written from 5am-7:20am, another beautiful day in Berkeley. Started off the day with a v60 pour-over with some Ritual coffee beans, but I am starting to realize that I don’t know if I really like pour-overs. They take far too long; I prefer the quickie of an espresso.
As a companion to this article, I recommend reading the article: “The Beauty of Creative Constraints“.
a) Never forget that you will die, it is a great decision-making tool:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”
b) Fuck external expectations, and don’t worry about failing. In the end, thinking of death makes it crystal-clear what is important in your life:
“Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”
c) Never forget that you have nothing to lose, so follow your heart:
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
d) Spoiler alert; we all die (eventually), but know that it is a necessary part of life:
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”
So go out, shoot, hug a loved one, express gratitude for the life you live, be grateful that you’re still alive, breathing, and able to enjoy “heaven on earth.”
You might have heard the term “YOLO”, which stands for “you only live once”. However I think most people misconstrue the word. They think that it means to live a life of hedonism and pleasure, and give themselves the license to do stupid shit and waste their time and money.
For example, let’s say that I have to go to work tomorrow, but I’m out with my mates and they ask me if I want to drink some red bull and vodka shots. Instead of being a responsible human being and knowing that I shouldn’t (because I need to go to work tomorrow morning), I might say “YOLO” and drink the red bull vodka shots. But of course, this is an idiotic thing to do.
We’re only given one life to live.
I had a friend that I knew ever since I was a kid. We weren’t super close, but some horrible shit happened to him: when he was 16 years old, he went out with a bunch of friends (5 total of them in a car). They were driving home, and suddenly a 16-wheeler (drunk driver), ran a red light, hit them head-on, and killed all 5 of them in the car, instantly.
Another story: Cindy’s mom knew a man who came one day to his wife, who was complaining that she was tired. The wife put their (newborn baby) to sleep, and then she went to sleep herself. She never woke up. Apparently she had a hidden brain aneurism and died in her sleep. Her husband forgot to say “I love you” before she went to sleep.
You want to live life without regrets. You want to live life to the fullest. You only live once, so why do we waste this short period of time we have on earth seeking material possessions we don’t need, seeking to increase the 0’s in our bank accounts, to constantly delay our gratifications and dreams in lieu of something in the future that might never come?
We all have a dream. I’m sure you have plenty of dreams as a photographer. I’m sure there are so many places you want to travel to and see, I’m sure there some photobooks you want to buy, I’m sure there are photo projects you want to pursue.
But what is holding you back?
I know in the past, I always made excuses for my external situations in life holding me from pursuing my dreams.
For example, I always made excuses that it was my full time job which held me back from traveling. But in reality, it was myself who held me from traveling. Meaning, I intentionally didn’t travel because I didn’t want to look like a lazy worker, and I wanted to look good in front of my boss, and get a raise. So it was my fear of not getting a raise which held me back from traveling.
I wanted to pursue some photography projects. But what held me back? My wasting time going out to drink and party, not the fact that I didn’t have enough time or energy.
I used to complain all the time that I never had enough time to go out and shoot. Rather, in reality it was myself just making excuses for myself. Even when I had my full time job, I had plenty of time to shoot before work, during my lunch break, after work, and even when I was with my friends and family. But to be really honest, I always thought my camera wasn’t good enough, and the day that I owned a digital Leica, I would suddenly be inspired and take photos of everything. But I was just suckered by marketing at the end of the day, as I did eventually fall into my lust in pouring my life’s savings into a Leica m9, and not finding myself any happier with the Leica, nor more inspired.
I have a fear that I’m going to die young. Some call it “unhealthy”, but I think it’s fucking great. Why? I don’t waste a day of my life.
I used to read all these self help books about saving up money, waiting for retirement at age 65, and then finally being able to travel, do what I want, buy a BMW, whatever.
But fuck it, in reality you never know when you’re going to die. And living a long life is uncertain. Even living another day is uncertain.
I know I sound melodramatic, but you don’t know if you (on the way of driving to work), you might get tired (not sleeping enough the night before), accidentally swerve into the other lane, and get killed by the oncoming traffic. You never know if you’re just walking, you slip, crack your skull on the pavement, and die. You don’t know if a drunk driver will run a red light, and kill you. You don’t know if you might have a heart attack, if you might have anaphylaxis from an unknown bee or food allergy and choke to death, or if you might somehow get poked in the eye (or have some chemical accidentally spilled into your eye), and become blind (and never able to see and take photos again).
So why delay your happiness and your gratification? Don’t delay, live now. Photograph now. Don’t make your happiness and freedom hostage of some sort of uncertain future.
I’m not telling you to quit your job, sell all of your stuff, and travel the world and eschew your family and children. Rather, I’m saying that you should try to use today like it were your last day on earth.
If you knew tomorrow you wouldn’t wake up in the morning, how would you live your life differently today?
Perhaps you would invest in a photobook at a local store or be inspired by photos at the library. Perhaps you will go to that one part of town you want to go (after work) and make a few images. Perhaps you will share an unfinished project with a friend, and ask him or her to give you some feedback. Perhaps you will make more photos of your loved ones and friends (because you’re never sure when they will die either).
I have a personal rule; whenever I say “goodbye” to a friend, I imagine that I will never see him or her ever again. We aren’t certain if we will die tomorrow, how can we be certain that our friends will continue to live in good shape?
I have a friend who is 75, and his fear is not waking up in the morning– literally. So whenever he goes to sleep, he literally imagines that he won’t wake up the next day. Part of it is fucking frightening, but when he wakes up in the morning, he rejoices to God and says, “Thank you God for another day of life!” I personally don’t believe “God” as some sort of dude in the sky with a beard. But I do believe that we should be grateful to some sort of deity “out there” or “wisdom of the universe” to grant us another day. Or if you’re totally atheist, just be grateful that you didn’t die in your sleep, and that you can use another day to live life to the fullest.
We’re all given one life to live, no matter how rich or poor.
Many of us (especially us Americans) live our entire lives trying to seek power, wealth, prestige, and security (the belonged “American Dream”). However many of us die along the way in vain.
Never be jealous of someone who is richer or more materially “successful” than you. You might drive a Honda Civic, he might drive a BMW 7-Series. But how many years of his life did he waste trying to get that car in vain? How many asses did he have to kiss? How many sleepless nights did he have to work, and how many weekends did he have to go into the office and spend time away from his family?
The worst trade you can make in life is to trade time for money. The best trade you can make in life is to trade money for time.
Why is that? If you lose $100, you can always earn another $100. If you lose 1 year of your life, you can never “gain” another year of your life.
Let’s take this a step further. Would you rather waste $1,000 on a new camera or lens, or use that money to “buy” vacation time and travel the world and have experiences that you will never forget?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for buying shit I don’t need. But what helps me (prevent me from buying cars, cameras, clothes) is imagining how out of date and ugly they will look like in 2 years time. No matter how slick the new iPhone is today, it will look like crap in 2 years time. No matter how hot the new BMW is, it will look shitty in a few years time (once the new and hot model comes out). Same with digital cameras, remember how sexy the Leica m9 was when it came out? Now it looks like a dinosaur, lots of users are having sensors that are failing and cracking, and now the new Leica m240 is so much sexier. I look at old Leica m9’s and think, “Damn, those look like crap compared to the new leicas.”
So fuck money, fuck trying to please others, fuck kissing ass, and never think that you have another day to live. Because nobody is certain.
Live this day as if it were your last.
YOLO, you only live once.
Tuesday, September 8, 2015 @ 7:03am, about to drop off Cindy’s parents to the airport after a nice weekend together. If I died today, I would have no regrets. A life full of love, friendship, and family. And good coffee (had a v60 pour over with Ritual coffee I picked up in San Francisco yesterday).
For further reading, read “On the shortness of life” by Seneca.
My current book I’m loving: “The cynic philosophers from Diogenes to Julian”, published by penguin classics.
I have a problem I need to share with you: I have a huge ego.
I love compliments, I love external validation, and I absolutely hate being criticized, judged, or ignored.
Recently one of the things I am trying to do in life is to kill my ego.
How am I trying to do this? I want to share some practical things I have been doing in my life, which has helped me (a bit).
First of all, I don’t try to self-identify myself. I just see myself as a bag of bones, flesh, and a mind that is just an inter-connected bunch of electrical activity in my brain. I don’t see myself as having a “soul” necessarily (although I do believe that others have souls).
How do I learn to better not self-identify with myself? I try the best of my extent to not use the words “mine”, “I”, “Eric”, etc. Sure I often have to use the word “I” when writing (it just flows better), but I try to eliminate it from all other forms of my life.
For example, I am extremely defensive and self-critical of the photos that I take. Whenever people criticize the photos I take, I take it personally. However what has helped me is that no longer call them “my” photos, but “the” photos.
What is the difference?
By referring to the photos I take as “the” photos, I am emotionally disconnecting myself from it. I don’t see the photos as my own children, nor do I even try to remember that I shot the images. Rather, the photos exist by themselves, as an external thing outside of me.
Therefore this helps me to be more critical to the photos I take. After all, it is easier to always criticize the photos of others. So I try to think to myself and imagine that the photos I took were actually shot by someone else. Then I can be brutally critical and honest, and take out the chainsaw and “kill my babies.”
Secondly, I try to practice self-deprecating humor. That means, taking the piss out of yourself, or making fun of yourself.
For example, I got into an argument with Cindy the other day, and she criticized me for some of my behavior. Rather than becoming defensive and justifying my behavior, I simply agreed, and then brought up other faults that I had that I told her that I wanted to work on.
Similarly with photos, whenever they get criticized, I try to point out the other faults in the photos, and also share the fact that I am not a good photographer; simply trying to improve.
Another example: whenever people leave negative comments on the blog by telling me that I am a shitty writer or photographer, I try to retort by saying: “I am a terrible cook as well, and don’t fold my sheets in the morning.”
I also need to remind myself that at the end of the day, I don’t really matter. I am nothing but a tiny ant in a huge ant colony. If you zoomed out on Google maps, identified my house, you would see how fucking tiny it was. Even smaller; my tiny human body, my tiny human mind, and all of my petty possessions.
One thing I mentioned in earlier letters to you, my friend, is how I am trying to be less materialistic, and not be attached to my physical stuff. I am now experimenting with another rule: everyday try to donate 1 physical object, or give it away to a friend. Eventually I want to reach the point where I am absolutely free of all baggage of physical materials.
Even at the moment, I am starting to realize all the superfluous baggage and physical shit that I have.
I recently have become attached to my Kindle, which is a bad thing. I realize that the Kindle is just another superfluous item; I would prefer to just travel with 2 wonderful paper-back books (“Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, “Letters From a Stoic” by Seneca) than having to overwhelm myself with having too many books.
Even when I plan to move to Vietnam, I think if I could only bring 1 photobook it would be “Exiles” by Josef Koudelka. The book is an experience; everytime I look through it, I experience a different story, a different set of emotions, and am never short of inspiration.
Even with my smartphone, I have been uninstalling one app a day from my phone. I recently got rid of my email from my phone, Evernote, Spotify, and other applications I thought were “essentials.” Currently the only apps I use on it are Google Maps, texting, What’s app, and not much else. And to be honest, I don’t even need those things, a “dumb-phone” will probably be sufficient. My dream is to (eventually) not own a smartphone, and to go “phone-less.”
But the problem is that my ego is attached to my physical stuff. I am currently going through old photo albums, old knick-knacks, and other physical remnants from my past (high school) – and I realize; I am no longer that person in the photograph. I am a totally different person, so why become attached to that past? And if you think about it, throwing away an old photo album shouldn’t cause physical or mental pain (but yet it does). Why does it? Because we are attached to our sense of ego; that we think that we are the photos, but we’re not.
Lately, I’ve also been trying to take fewer photos. I try to savor the moment, rather than frantically documenting every moment of my life. I am trying to approach a new “wu-wei” style of “unforced” photography, where I don’t need to photograph everything out of a sense of obligation, but to only take photos when I truly want to.
Today I am going to Napa Valley with Cindy and both of her parents. In the past I might have brought all of my cameras, film, gear, and stuff like that. For this trip, I’m just bringing my smartphone, and don’t feel obliged to take photos if I don’t want to. In-fact, I have learned from a psychological study that whenever we take photos of events in our lives, we are actually less likely to remember it. Why? Because whenever we document an event in our lives, we are subconsciously telling our brain: “Oh don’t worry about trying to commit this to memory, because we can always look at photos in the future.” But the problem is that honestly, we will probably never look at those photos again. Another reason I stopped taking photos of my food: I used to try to take photos of all these fancy meals that I had, but realized a funny truth: I never looked back at these photos. So why shoot them, and who gives a shit what kind of food that I put into my stomach? I’m just going to shit it out anyways.
Another problem I have been having recently: I’m starting to seriously re-think the idea of shooting film. I love the process, I love the zen-ness of it all, but the idea of having all these rolls of film and negative encumbering me is a nightmare. I currently went through the closet, looked at all of my (very unorganized) negatives, and thought to myself: “Holy shit, will I ever have the opportunity to re-scan all these negatives? And to be frank, will I be sad if I lost these negatives?”
The only reason I would probably keep my negatives is the hope that some archivist or historian keeps a record of my negatives, for “posterity” or whatever. Almost like how Gary Winogrand died with several thousand negatives of undeveloped film, and he just let others take care of it.
But anyways, I gotta head out, pick up a rental car, and pick up Cindy’s parents from the airports. I hope these random musings are of some help to you friend, and I will share some other thoughts in the future about how I am trying to actively kill my (very big) ego.
8:45am, Sunday, September 6, 2015 (after 4 shots of espresso)
I want to share some meditations and thoughts that are currently on my mind– and perhaps tell some stories. Thank you for being a good friend and listening :)
Okay, so I woke up today, lied in bed, and suddenly this thought came to my head:
“Cultivate Your Own Garden”
I woke up naturally in bed, and am still pretty jetlagged, so I knew it was probably pretty damn early. It was pitch black, I slept last night at around midnight (compared to around 8:30pm the night before), so my body was pretty exhausted. But at the same time, I knew that I had to write this article on this concept of “cultivating your own garden” — it felt like my moral duty.
I dragged my wretched body to the shower, took an ice cold shower (feel much better now), looked in the mirror, and saw the deep, black bags under my eyes. God, for a 27-year old I look like a fucking old man.
Regardless, I felt a great sense of privilege and duty. I have a stronger calling in life, than just lying around in bed and sleeping. Here was a thought that came to mind, one of my favorite passages from Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” (one of the 3 books I would have on my deathbed). It took me a bit flipping around my personal (paperback) book copy to find it, but here it is:
“At day’s first light have in readiness, against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that ‘I am rising for the work of man‘ Must I grumble at setting out to do what I was born for, and for the sake of which I have been brought into the world? Is this the purpose of my creation, to lie here under the blankets and keep myself warm? ‘Ah, but it is a great deal more pleasant!’ Was it for pleasure then, that you were born, and not for work, not for effort? Look at the plants, the sparrows, ants, spiders, bees, all busy at their own tasks, each doing his part towards a coherent world-order; and will you refuse man’s share of the work, instead of being prompt to carry out Nature’s bidding?”
I walk out into the kitchen, prepare a nice espresso, and look at the clock: 5:00am. Not bad.
So friend, I want to share with you a story. Currently my younger sister Anna is having some difficulties in her life; in terms of finding what her life’s passion is, what makes her happy, and how to live a fulfilling life to contribute to society.
As a follower of “Stoic” philosophy, one of my main tenets in life is to live my life for others; for the good of others and society. So at first, I gave my sister advice in terms of asking her: “How can you best use your God-given talents, to contribute to the most people of society, as a whole?”
I quickly realized that this was the wrong answer to give her. Because she didn’t know what her talents were, nor did she know a way she could apply her talents to help “society at large.”
It is a pretty difficult concept to think about how one can help hundreds, if not thousands of people out there. I am lucky in the sense that I know that I can reach a large audience with this blog, as I have the stats that show me that I am doing it. But at the end of the day, I write this letter for you, my dear friend, not for the many. It is easier to try to help one individual, than try to help millions (and much easier to visualize too).
But before one tries to help society, another person– I believe that one needs to help themselves.
This is where this concept of “cultivating your own garden” comes from.
Another philosopher I greatly admire is Epicurus, a Greek philosopher (341-271BC) who made one of the most influential schools focused on the pursuit of happiness. He was born on the Greek island of Samos, and he operated “The Garden” — a school devoted to philosophy and communal living, which was based outside of Athens.
I first came across this concept of “cultivating your own garden” from a book written by a scholar on Epicurus, titled: “Reclaiming Epicurus“. Here is a nice quote from the book:
“All that is very well but let us cultivate our garden” – Voltaire
The whole philosophy of Epicurus was this; to seek “pleasure” by seeking “absence of pain”. The 4 tenants of Epicureanism were distilled into these concepts:
In other words:
What made the philosophy of Epicureanism highly criticized was that it sounded like it promoted the values of social detachment, as it encouraged individuals to retreat from society, and seek inner-solitude, peace, and contentment (rather than interacting with the public world at large). This is why the Stoic philosophers criticized Epicurus and his followers, as they thought them as selfish, navel-gazing good-for-nothings who simply lived for their own pleasure.
The early philosophy of Epicureanism is very similar to Buddhism– to seek happiness in life, first rid yourself of stress, anxiety, desire, and frustration. Then you can reach out to help others.
Okay friend, so I know a lot of people who want to seek happiness in life. They are frustrated with their own lives. They are dissatisfied with their jobs, their family lives, their lack of time to do what they are passionate about, their lack of money, and deal with a lot of stress and anxiety in their lives.
So what is the first step to living a fulfilling life?
I think it is by starting to cultivate your own garden.
Imagine you have a garden. To cultivate your own garden is to take out the weeds, insects, pests, and other shit from your own garden (before attending to and helping out the garden of others).
So imagine your garden which is infested with aphids (eating your delicious tomato plants), with snails (little fuckers who also like to eat everything), with your plants wilted and dying (they need more water, light, attention, and love), and weeds growing out of control.
Before you just add water and sunlight to your garden, you need to first start by removing the pests. You need to kill the aphids (pesticide or attacking them with ladybugs), you need to kill the snails (take them off your leaves, and toss them into a garbage bag with salt– no that is cruel, I did that as a child and it mentally scarred me), you need to also make sure you don’t have random wild animals eating plants from your garden in the evening (perhaps cage off your plants with some wire).
Secondly, you need to start nourishing your plants. You can start off nourishing your plants by starting to add water, fertilizer, light, and love.
Then and only then, can you start having a healthy garden. And then and only then, can you start attending to the gardens of others in your neighborhood and helping them out. After all, it makes no sense for you to try to help tending the gardens of others (if your own garden is a fucking nightmare).
I think this is a good philosophy we can apply to life.
So to restart, our own garden infested with pests and insects is like our own lives being infected with negative people, with back-stabbers, with shit-talkers, gossipers, and other people who drain you of mental energy, physical energy, and emotional energy. You need to start off by eliminating all the negative people in your life.
“But they are my friends! What will they think of me? Isn’t that me just being selfish? But I know they’re not perfect, but who is? I just want to help them out!”
Let me bring you a real-life example:
My father is someone I have cut out of my life recently, and it is something that I did that pained me a lot. Long story short, he was a mentally and physically abusive father to my Mom, compulsive gambler (would sometimes gamble away our rent money, and even gambled away some money I lent him as a 16-year old), and leech to the family. I don’t blame him; I honestly think he had some serious mental issues that he just took out on the family. Now I have nothing but love for him, but I have made the conscious decision to cut him out of my life, because he was like a cancer, a tumor, or a black cloud that was sucking out energy, life, and joy from my life.
The problem was this: because he added so much emotional guilt and blackmail to my life, I couldn’t be of help to others. I was constantly thinking negative thoughts in my life, and that would deeply affect the lives of those close to me.
First of all, I would take out all this negative emotions and thoughts on Cindy. This would then cause her more stress and anxiety (if she didn’t have enough). Not only that, but I would tell my personal issues regarding my father to my mother, who would also feel guilty for not being a more supportive mother.
I tried to essentially “save” my father, by trying to spend more time with him, by trying to console him, and trying to be a “good son”. Part of this was me trying to be a good human being, part of this was this sense of “filial piety” (Asians feeling indebted to their parents), and part of this was a feeling of guilt– that I somehow owed him something (when in reality I didn’t).
But anyways, the more time I spent with him, the more his negativity, brainwashing, and cancer of bullshit ideas started to permeate my thoughts. The only way I can describe it is this: imagine if someone threw you into the sewer, and suddenly you were covered with shit, piss, and imagine how you would smell. No matter how hard you try, you can never really scrub off that smell from your body.
Similarly, spending time with negative people is the same way. Once you are exposed to their filth, stench, and negativity– scrubbing that shit off can be near-impossible.
So anyways after about a year of trying to re-connect with my dad and help him, I realized that before I could help him, he had to help himself. And if I truly wanted to dedicate myself to help the “common good” of society as a whole, I needed to cut him off from my life, to remove his negativity– to cultivate my own garden.
So I cut of all ties with him. I blocked his phone number, his text messages, his emails– any sort of way he could communicate with me.
In the beginning it was so fucking painful and difficult. I would seriously get nightmares that he would suddenly die, and then I would feel extreme guilt and remorse that I didn’t do more to help him out while he was still alive. I would feel like a bad son, and feel like a horrible, selfish human being.
But as time went on, I finally started to have some clarity of thought. I started to feel more positive, and less negative. I felt like the dark clouds from my mind’s sky were starting to part; and I could see the light.
There is a Taoist saying that in order to see the light, you need to take away the dark clouds from your mind.
So to continue, life and happiness is all about removing the negative people, influences, and thoughts from your life.
To use the garden analogy again; it is more effective to remove pests from your garden, then to start using fertilizer for your plants.
Going back to my Dad, I still feel guilt and remorse for not reaching out to him. I talked to my sister Anna about this the other night, and honestly at the end of the day, some people are “unsaveable” and that is just a damn shame. But c’est la vie. That is life. Life goes on. And the only thing we can do is trust God (or whatever super-being or universal will you may believe in) that everything will turn out okay in the end. In Taoism they call it “wu-wei” — not forcing things, and letting the intelligence of the universe guide you through life.
Yeah, it is true– life is fucking hard. I know friend, life is really fucking hard. As Seneca once said, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
But if you really want to help others; you need to start off by helping yourself.
So don’t feel bad or guilty, start off by helping yourself.
Let me share some more personal anecdotes and stories of how I learned how to cultivate my own garden, before trying to help others. I don’t mean to share these ideas as a way to say that I am somehow better than you or “enlightened” — because I’m not. I’m just another wretched and psychologically troubled human being trying to rid my mind of negativity and bullshit, in order to live a “happy”, “fulfilling”, and “productive” life.
The most valuable currency you have in the world isn’t money, but time. Time is the ultimate non-renewable resource. If you lose $100, you can easily earn another $100. But if you lose a year of your life, you can never “gain” another year of your life. Life is a ticking death clock, and everyday you are living one less day of your life. Death approaches one day at a time.
The ironic thing is that we are so stingy with our money, but (overly) generous with our time (to a fault). This is because money is a tangible thing, whereas time is intangible. Therefore we don’t value our time.
So the first thing that I learned is that in order to cultivate my own garden, I need to be stingy, frugal, and selfish with my time.
I said this before, but one of my new goals for this year is to (as little as possible) go to “meetings”, especially partake in this beastly thing called “networking.”
At the end of the day, it is a huge waste of your time. Apparently the way that Seth Godin is able to be so prolific as a writer, blogger, and author is that he doesn’t go to any meetings.
Not only that, but every “meeting” can fuck up your entire day and schedule.
For example, I have been to a lot of “networking meetings” in San Francisco. It takes me an entire day. I have to leave my house, either drive into the city (now I don’t have a car, I would have to take public transportation for 1.5 hours), wait for the person, try to contact them, have a coffee, and then maybe have a lunch, eat a little too much, then get food coma, want to take a nap, go home, and end the day not feeling productive at all.
Another personal rule I have been trying to institute in my life: I don’t schedule anything before noon. Why? The morning is my golden time to read, write, and do things that I feel truly make my “heart sing”. I am the most productive in the mornings, so I need to be as selfish and greedy with that time as humanly possible, in order to help the greater good.
So also for you my friend, learn to be more greedy with your time. Don’t have an “Atlas Complex”– feeling like you need to hold the weight of the entire world on your shoulders. Give yourself some space, time, and energy for yourself (before giving it to others).
For example, be selfish with your time after work. After 6pm, make your default answer “no” to any sort of extracurricular activities you aren’t passionate about.
The funny thing is especially with a lot of introverted people, they feel constantly pressured by extroverts (people like me) to go out, party, hangout, and have a good time. They are constantly criticized for being “loners” and there are billions of self-help books that teach you to “never have lunch alone”, to always go out and network, to always build new connections, and to always say “Yes” to every single opportunity that comes.
But no, fuck that. Say no. If you want more time to shoot street photography, you need to CUT from your life. You need to cut extracurricular activities. You need to cut those pre-scheduled gym classes or 7pm Yoga classes you aren’t passionate about. If photography is the most important thing in your life (or you want more time to shoot), say NO to having dinner or a beer with friends or people you don’t really care about. And even if they are someone you care about (but shooting photography is more important than having dinner and chatting about random stuff), have the courage to say NO.
What else can you say “no” to in life to find more “free time”? Some ideas:
Be selfish, greedy, and protective of your time– it is the most valuable thing in life you have.
Then use that spare time to cultivate your own garden, however it makes you happy. Use that time to shoot photography, visit exhibitions on the weekends, read photography books, meet other photographers, have your work critiqued by others, sit at home and edit your shots, sequence new projects or series, print your photos (either on a home printer or in a darkroom), develop some film, watch a photo documentary (make sure to watch “Salt of the Earth” by Sebastiao Salgado), or cook a meal for a loved one (everyday I am trying to cook a new fancy dinner for Cindy).
And realize at the end of the day, photography isn’t the most important thing in life. The most important thing is your personal happiness; which you can derive from photography, any sort of other creative pursuit, friends and family you truly care about, and living a life in accordance with your own personal values and ethics.
I have a problem: I cannot say “no” to people. I am a total push-over. I have always been one of the kids who have been easily peer-pressured into doing things against my own will. Even now as an adult, I have a hard time saying “no” to my good friends, especially when they peer pressure me to drink alcohol (I prefer not to drink alcohol anymore, as it makes me feel shitty, gives me hangovers, and ruins my sleep), when it comes to going out late at night (I prefer to sleep early now, so I can wake up early and write), when it comes to eating unhealthy food (I don’t like excess fat on my body, and unhealthy food makes me feel like shit). I am so easily influenced by others, and don’t want to disappoint others.
Here is some wisdom that I have learned from Epicurus (another Stoic philosopher) who has helped give me some peace of mind when it comes to ignoring what others think of me, and following my own heart and path:
“You should be especially careful when associating with one of your former friends or acquaintances not to sink to their level; otherwise you will lose yourself. If you are troubled by the idea that ‘He’ll think I’m boring and won’t treat me the way he used to,’ remember that everything comes at a price. It isn’t possible to change your behavior and still be the same person you were before.”
“So choose: either regain the love of your old friends by reverting to your former self or remain better than you once were and forfeit their attention.”
Sometimes when you pursue some new passions and directions in life, you will be ridiculed, tempted, and detracted by friends, colleagues, co-workers, family members (who might be jealous of you):
“Formerly, when you were devoted to worthless pursuits, your friends found you congenial company. But you can’t be a hit in both roles. To the extent to cultivate one you will fall short in the other. You can’t seem as affable to your old cronies if you don’t go out drinking with them as of old. So choose whether you want to be a charming drunk in their company, or dull and sober on your own. You can’t expect the same reception from the group you used to associate with if you don’t go carousing with them regularly anymore.”
It is really fucking hard, but we need to value our own beliefs and virtues over what even our close friends might think of us:
“You have a choice: if you value dignity and restraint over being called a ‘sport’ by your old mates, then forget other considerations, renounce them, walk away and have nothing more to do with that crowd. If you don’t like that, then commit to the opposite course with all your heart. Join the [wretched] set, become one of the degenerates– do as they do and indulge your every impulse and desire. Jump around and yell at a musical performance, what’s to stop you now?”
Sometimes we let the dregs or mental residue of the past hold us back.
If you have ever moved away from home, and going back home and visiting your old friends, it might feel awkward and strange. You have moved on a lot mentally and life-wise as a human being, but it seems your friends are stuck in the same old place, doing the same old shit as before. They haven’t really “grown up” in the same way you feel like you have.
Another problem that I have is that I feel indebted to my friends, because they were my friends in the past, and I feel like I need to be close friends with them now.
But in reality, you aren’t the same person you were a year ago, 10 years ago, and certainly not 20+ years old.
So don’t feel bad breaking ties with friends that you no longer associate with, with friends that no longer share similar life-goals and visions as you, and feel some sort of “obligation” towards them.
Be selfish, but for the greater good. Learn how to cultivate your own garden, your own beliefs, your own values, your own morales, and know that you do carry the risk of being called an outcast by your (former) loved ones.
But that is the price of freedom, and remember as Epictetus said, “Everything comes at a price.”
In cultivating your own garden, you will disappoint and perhaps piss off some people.
For example, I find one of the things that screws up my clarity of thought the most is answering emails. To be frank, I don’t get a lot of emails anymore, and most of them are lovely emails from past students, from friends, that are giving me thanks or words of encouragement. But then again, there are a lot of emails that I get that are “work-related”, that distract me from my pure passion in life; writing, reading, teaching, and helping our my loved ones.
Whenever I want to get into the “zone” of writing, I need to abstain from checking my inbox for at least 2-3 days. I want to share another story from “The Second Book of the Tao” of a master bell-maker, who was able to focus his mind and create the most beautiful bells (after emptying his mind, and going into seclusion):
“After three days of meditating, I no longer have any thoughts of praise or blame. After five days, I no longer have any thoughts of success or failure. After seven days, I’m not identified with a body. All my power is focused on my task; there are no distractions. At that point, I enter the mountain forest. I examine the trees until exactly the right one appears. If I can see a bell stand inside it, the real work is done, and all I have to do is get started. Thus I harmonize inner and outer. That’s why people think that my work must be superhuman.”
Similarly, my problem is that I am easily distracted. I am like a pigeon, if I see something shiny, I totally go off-course.
So my deepest apologies if you are reading this, and I haven’t answered your email yet. Trust me, it is for the greater good.
And honestly, at the end of the day, nothing is really that important in your email inbox. Nobody is going to die. Nobody sends you an email and tells you, “Eric, your mother has just passed away.”
Furthermore, any information that is really important somehow finds its way to you.
But once again, my fear is that I am afraid of disappointing people, of letting people down, or being “irresponsible.”
But once again, you need to learn how to disappoint people, let people down, and be “irresponsible” for the greater good. By focusing on your life’s task, you will (unintentionally) hurt the feelings of others.
So when pursuing your passion in life, let’s say it is photography– you are going to have to make sacrifices. Perhaps on the weekend, and your primary concern is to shoot. But a good friend invites you to some party, and you don’t want to go. Be honest and tell them that you already made plans. Your friend might be sad and disappointed– and that is tough. But it is the price you need to be willing to pay to “cultivate your own garden.”
Okay, it is now 6:42am, I am starting to feel my throat do that weird swelling-up thing (had 3 espressos), and my body is feeling pretty fucking exhausted.
To sum up, learn to first cultivate your own garden before trying to help the garden of others. Start off by cutting off the extraneous bullshit of your life, by cutting out negative people and pests from your life, and then finally having the space in your garden to give your plants light, water, fertilizer, and love– in order to grow.
Your photography is like a garden. You need to give it time, attention, and love to grow. You can’t expect to simply water it every once in a while, let it become overgrown with weeds, if you want your little seedling to become a juicy strawberry plant. And the strawberries (or fruit) is an analogy for the work that you produce.
Don’t feel guilty by focusing your time and attention on yourself before others. If you’re barely paying the rent, don’t burden yourself by trying to donate $100 to help starving kids in Africa. If your mental state is not good, don’t burden yourself by trying to relieve the suffering of a friend. If your photography is suffering, learn to first cure yourself of your mental ills before you go out party and have beers with friends.
Cultivate your own garden, then help water the gardens of others.
Written at Saturday, September 5, 6:46am, in my beautiful home in Berkeley.
So some random stuff– I will probably crash, take a nap on the couch, read a little bit more Stoic philosophy, and today I am really excited to visit Dolores Park in the Mission in SF with Grace and Justin, two of my closest friends. We will have a nice picnic, enjoy a nice lazy lunch and day, and have the time to catch up with them after being on the road for two months. I am so blessed to have wonderful friends like them.
So also don’t forget friend, sometimes cultivating your own garden is to spend time with loved ones. Because at the end of the day, fuck our art and photography and whatever. It is the relationships that (ultimately) matter the most, at least for me.
I want to tell you the exciting start of my day today. I want to share with you as vividly how it felt, and what is on my mind.
I woke up, still feeling a bit drowsy, yet felt alert. I looked around my surroundings. I was in bed, lying next to the love of my life (Cindy). I was a bit hot, and for some strange reason, my body woke up at this natural time. I knew it was probably really early (some ungodly hour), but the first thing that came to my mind was this:
“Thank you God for giving me another day of life, I didn’t expect this, but this is a bonus. I will use this day as faithfully as I can, to the best of my abilities, because I don’t know if I will wake up the next day, and when I will die.”
I’m not sure why I woke up with this strange sense of gratitude. I think I do now, but will get to that in a second (after taking another sip of this lovely espresso I made).
Anyways, the first thing I do is jump in the shower, and blast it on cold (best way to wake up in the morning). I brush my teeth, go to the living room (on my tippy-toes because I know my neighborhood downstairs is sleeping, did some brief yoga stretches (God I feel like an old and achy old man), put on some clothes, put on some hair wax (makes me feel more “legit” before writing).
I look at the clock on my kitchen stove, and it reads:
Oh man, it’s pretty early, but I feel pumped and ready for today.
I just made myself an espresso, and sat down on my kitchen table, with my iPad setup with my keyboard (I just gave away my Windows 8 Laptop to a charity, a friend named Anne runs an organization that teaches programming to underprivileged children, so I have no more laptop), and wanted to share some thoughts with you.
Well first of all, I wanted to share with you how fucking awesome it is to be alive, and no matter how much we bitch and moan about our lives, we are blessed.
I have a really good friend named Glen Goh, who lives in Vancouver. He did one of my workshops with Adam Marelli in Venice/Verona a few years back, and we have become good friends since then. He is a devout Catholic, loving husband, loving father, keen and passionate photographer, and overall great human being. He is quite well-off, but he doesn’t flaunt his wealth, and is very frugal, humble, and knows his values and principles.
Anyways, the other day Cindy and I got a very kind email from him. Dr. Morgan, a professor of philosophy that he would take to mass every Sunday, just passed away. We briefly met him when we visited Glen and his wife Sharon in Vancouver. Father Morgan was over 80 years old, lived in an “old person’s home”, was a distinguished professor in Philosophy, and still had fire in his eyes. Even though he was old and frail, he still refused to use a wheelchair, and would try to walk everywhere he could. He was full of energy, gratitude, and humor. Also as a side note, I told him about my love of Stoicism and studying the ancient Greek/Roman philosophers. Dr. Morgan recommended me reading Thomas Aquinas, who I plan on reading.
But anyways, Cindy told me the news of Dr. Morgan dying right before I slept, so perhaps that is why I suddenly woke up today, full of gratitude, and ready to live my life.
To be honest, I have no idea when I am going to die. I think about death a lot, especially as someone who is only 27 years old. I honestly at the moment don’t know if I believe in an afterlife (I’m still a practicing Catholic, although not a very good one), but I try to live my life according to the life and teachings of Jesus, to the wisdom of the sages of Stoicism, and even the wise words of Laozi and the Taoist sages.
But regardless of what your background, nationality, religion, personal spiritual beliefs– whatever; know that life is a gift that is to be cherished, and to be appreciated. We are only given one life on this earth, albeit short. Why not use the best of it while we aren’t here?
Friend, I think at the end of the day, we all want to be happy. So I want to share some of my meditations on happiness and making the best of your life while we’re still alive on this little green planet.
First of all, I am starting to believe that happiness isn’t the “pursuit of happiness”, but the avoidance of unhappiness.
What do I mean by that?
Well, according to the Epicurean school of philosophy, the philosopher (Epicurus) said that pleasure was the key to happiness. But not the hedonistic type of pleasure where all you are is having sex, eating good food, participating in orgies, getting drunk and fucked up, and whatever. No, it is avoiding pain (mental pain, and physical pain). And he makes a good point; that we know whether something is really necessary or “good” in our life, whether we feel pain in the absence of it.
For example, according to Epicurus, the only 3 main things which cause true pain (which we would die without) is food, water, and freedom from the cold. We feel pain when we are hungry, we feel pain when we are thirsty, and we feel pain when we are cold.
But the funny thing is that these are “nature’s wants”– and they are very subtle and easy to achieve. We live in a society of affluence, where food is cheap and attainable. We have access to clean drinking water (if you want to appreciate water more, watch “Mad Max: Fury Road). We have access to warm clothing (and to those of us who live in warm climates like California, you can survive without a jacket, unlike my friends in Sweden).
But there are all these superfluous things that we don’t need in life, and don’t feel physical pain in the absence of them. This includes having a lot of money (not having a lot of money doesn’t give us physical pain, unless it leads to hunger, thirst, or pain from the cold), this includes driving a fancy car (if you ‘only’ drive a Honda Civic and not a BMW, you are not in physical pain, only perhaps jealous), this includes fame and fortune (you don’t feel physical pain if you have 0 followers on Instagram), and many more things.
Let me continue to hash out thoughts, because this is the best way I can communicate, thank you for bearing with me friend (I know my grammar is horrible, I think I am actually slightly dyslexic, I just recalled that my mom used to take me to “speech therapy” courses as a child).
Anyways, let me get back to the point: What is superfluous (unnecessary), and what causes us “unhappiness”?
So let me map out some things (this time in bullet form) what is superfluous):
And let me map out what makes us unhappy in life:
Anyways, all of these things that I listed aren’t things that “we” necessarily share. It are the personal ills that I have faced in my life. Everything I write is from personal experience, and I want to share all my scars and pains with you.
So once again going back to the idea of happiness. I think happiness is best dealt as a “negative” concept– in which the avoidance of happiness is far more robust than the “pursuit of happiness.”
According to Taoism, the fool tries to add 1 new thing to his life everyday. The master tries to remove 1 thing from his life everyday.
Therefore, if you want to truly be happy; don’t seek happiness in terms of pleasure, comfort, or “good” things. Seek pleasure and happiness in your life by cutting out the bullshit; 1 negative thing a day everyday.
So for example, here are some things that I am slowly trying to cut out of my life:
“Oh my God Eric, you are the king of social media! You are a horrible photographer, the only reason you are ”famous“ is because you know how to game SEO, and pay Google to put you on the top of these search engine rankings! You have no skills. You are a fraud. Sooner or later, your pyramid of cards is going to topple, and I will be here looking at you, and laughing.” – Sincerely, hater
Okay I have received some similar quotes to the one above (this one is fictional). I have a lot of “haters” on social media; but honestly at the end of the day, they are my most “benevolent teachers” (as Laozi would say). They call me out on my bullshit (although in a bit overly critical way), but I love them nonetheless.
But the problem with social media is this: there is an unfavorable asymmetry (credit Nassim Taleb).
What do I mean by an “unfavorable asymmetry?”
What I mean is this: in social media, we have more to lose than gain.
For example, the pain of getting a few comments (or worse, no comments or likes at all) is worse than the joy of getting lots of comments and like’s on photos.
For example, before I uninstalled Instagram from my phone about a week ago, I would get on average 1,000+ “likes” per image. Now in the past, I would have been absolutely fucking thrilled to get those many likes on my images. But now, it has become my new “norm” (I guess this is kind of how lottery winners feel after winning a million bucks, first extreme happiness and appreciation, then “regression to the norm.”).
Anyways, the thing is whenever I got my expected amount of “likes” (1,000) I would feel indifferent and “whatever”. If I got more than 1,000 likes (let’s say 1,300) I would be fucking thrilled and quite excited, but not so excited that I would do cartwheels. I would take back a step and say I didn’t feel “fucking thrilled”, but more like “pleasantly amused.”
But whenever I got anything less than 1,000 “likes”, I would feel like shit. I would ask myself, “What did I do wrong? Do people suddenly not love me anymore? What’s wrong with this image?” This would then disturb my inner-serenity, and I would start to second-guess and doubt myself. I would start to feel anxious, frustrated, and thinking about the next image I could upload to Instagram to get “at least” 1,000 likes again, so I could feel good again.
So according to my personal example, the pain of not getting a lot of love on social media outweighs the slight joy of getting more love on social media than you expect.
In psychology, they call this the “treadmill effect”, or the “hedonic treadmill.” We are never satisfied. Enough is never enough. We always want and crave more.
Let’s say you start working at an entry-level job at a corporation making $40,000 a year. First year out of college it is fucking awesome, because you were surviving on student loans and eating cup noodles to (barely) survive.
Then you see your colleagues at work who are (obviously) a lot richer than you. They drive BMW’s, wear Rolex watches, talk about their upcoming trips to the Bahamas or New York City, and the fancy restaurants they just ate at.
You now feel jealous and inadequate. Whereas when you started, $40,000 was a lot of money (especially compared to your friends who are still working at the grocery store or at baristas at Starbucks, because they couldn’t get a job with their humanities degree). But now, you need more money, at least $50,000 a year.
So now you try to figure out how to play this tricky game of “corporate politics” – and how you can step over people and work your way up the ladder. You start clocking into your job early. You start wearing nicer (more “professional” clothes). You don’t leave your job until your boss leaves. You send emails on the weekends, and always ask for more responsibilities. You start leaving work later, and start doing “working lunches” at your desk. You start gaining weight, you feel more frustrated, and more anxious. You are desperately waiting for the performance review at the end of the year, so you can get that slight bump in your salary.
At the end of the year, that time comes, and you don’t get the raise. You don’t get that promotion. You also sit down and you realize that an extra $10,000 a year (after taxes) isn’t actually that much more money (just a few hundred bucks a month).
You feel frustrated, confused, and upset. Isn’t more money supposed to make you feel more happy, and isn’t having a fancier title supposed to make you feel more important?
How do I know all of these feelings? Because that person was me.
Anyways; let’s say I did make that $50,000 a year. I would then “upgrade” my lifestyle (they call this “lifestyle creep”) by spending more money eating out more, buying nicer clothes (shopping at Banana Republic instead of H&M), I would trade in my used car from 1990 for a new car, and buy new smartphones, iPads, and other electronic gadgets. After each material purchase, my happiness is given a slight bump. Then it goes back to baseline, until I get that next promotion/pay raise.
Let’s say the next year (or perhaps 2), I start earning $60,000 a year. Once again, I move into a nicer apartment, start socializing with other “richer” people, and start talking about fancy cars, sports games, and designer goods. I now start moving up the social ladder and hierarchy, and start associating with richer people. Once again, I start to feel poorer and less adequate, unless I earn $100,00 a year. Then I need to earn $200,000 a year. Then I need to earn $500,000 a year, and then $1 million a year. Fuck a million dollars, I want to be a billionaire. I want to own a boat. I want to own a private jet. I want to own my own private sport’s team. I want to own my own island. I want to own my own spacejet, I want to fly to Mars and colonize it. I want to escape death. I want to be a God.
Okay let me stop for a second– I think I got a bit out of hand. But you know what I mean.
Enough is never enough.
Be grateful for what you have. Be content in this present moment, and know that everything is perfect.
At the moment, Cindy and I don’t have a car. Cindy’s younger sister (Jennifer) got into a car accident and needs a car pretty badly (she commutes in LA, and for anyone who has ever lived in LA, it is literally impossible to survive without a car there). So Cindy came up with this crazy idea: why don’t we try to live a year without a car?
So we have been “car-less” the last 2 days, and it has been the fucking best thing ever.
I seriously don’t remember the last time I “walked” in Berkeley. I also only remember taking the bus once or twice. I spend too much of my time sitting on a chair at home, and generally the only walking I do is to my car (from my apartment) and back.
But not having a car is probably one of the best things that I have done for my happiness (once again, happiness is about subtraction than addition).
Now that I don’t have a car, I am forced to walk everywhere. At first I was like, “But what if I want to visit SF, or visit my family, pick up some stuff at IKEA, or go to Costco?” But not having a car is a “creative constraint” – I need to find out more ways to survive “locally”, and it has been amazing.
First of all, walking around Berkeley has helped me appreciate the small things more. I notice other families walking in the neighborhood, and see the joy that the parents have with the kids (never notice this when I’m stuck in a bubble in my car). I walked around with my camera and ended up taking a bunch more photos than if I were in my car. I started to walk to the local Whole Foods (which is literally right around the corner), and have been buying food everyday, and cooking new dishes for Cindy everyday. I enjoy the feel of the sun on my face, the feeling of the pavement under my feet, and the steadiness of mind, and feeling of “zen” while I am practicing “walking meditation.”
In a car, I am often more anxious and stressed. I always feel perpetually late for meetings, I hate being stuck in traffic, I always cram my brain and distract myself with podcasts and music, and I always compare myself with others and their cars (having a Prius is “lame” compared to a BMW M3).
But not having a car is the ultimate freedom; if you commit to not having a car, you don’t feel jealous. It is a voluntary choice, so you don’t feel the pain of comparing your car to those of others. You never feel like you need to “upgrade” your car, because you know you won’t have a car in the first place. I guess this is the peace of mind my friends who live in San Francisco have (nobody there owns a car).
Furthermore, taking the bus has been a joy. I have started to chat with strangers on the bus (nice conversations), say hello to the bus driver (always surprised to hear a stranger say hello, I guess most people who ride the bus are quite miserable), and I am even thinking of shooting more “bus street photography”. I also notice my outside surroundings more when on the bus. Furthermore, I am able to read while on the bus (cannot do this when stuck in a car).
But you might think: “But Eric, don’t you feel limited and restricted not having a car?”
Yes I do– but once again, I need to be crafty and ask myself, “How can this limitation be a benefit? And I have found many so far.”
Another example; after I got my laptop stolen in Paris (best thing that has happened to me), I got my Windows 8 Laptop/Tablet. It served me well for about a month and a half, and taught me the beauty of Google Docs and using the “cloud” – and knowing that I don’t need an Macbook computer to survive.
But I just donated that Windows 8 laptop/tablet like I mentioned, and my only “laptop-like” device is my iPad at home. The setup I currently have is this: I have a “encase” iPad/keyboard stand, an iPad Air (original), and a bluetooth Apple keyboard attached to it. I am using “IA Writer Pro” as my word processor, and it is the ultimate zen. I literally am not distracted by any superfluous things, except for the text on the screen.
Also another thing I did so I wouldn’t be distracted; I hid all the apps that I don’t really need into a drawer. Furthermore, to the best of my ability, I have uninstalled all of the superfluous applications from the iPad (for example, I don’t have email on the iPad, Facebook or any other social networking sites, or even the Kindle app, games, etc).
People sometimes ask me, “Eric, how are you such a prolific writer and get so much writing done? How do you focus?”
Focusing is quite easy if you eliminate distractions.
Trust me, I am the most easily distracted person you will ever meet. I am like a pigeon, if I see something shiny, I will drop everything I am doing and therefore run to it.
So once again, the key to focus is a negative (“via negativa” as Nassim Taleb calls it in his book “Antifragile”). You need to remove distractions. You need to remove superfluous activities from your life (networking, gym classes that you hate, family events that aren’t important to you, acquaintances you feel you ‘should’ meet, answering emails when you’re off work, etc). You need to remove hobbies and interests you aren’t really that passionate about (if your primary passion is photography, I’m sorry– I recommend you to drop those cello lessons, your interest in writing, your interest in music-production, or video-gaming).
Our life is short, if we want to truly be happy and great, we need to eliminate all the superfluous and unnecessary things in our lives, and only focus on the essentials.
So for me, I have been trying to slowly (but surely) remove extraneous activities from my life. Let me give you a personal taste:
Videos: I am starting to realize; I don’t really like making videos all that much, especially on YouTube. Sure there are a lot of videos I made in the past that I thoroughly enjoyed in the past, but nowadays I feel that making YouTube videos feels more like an obligation than a passion. I don’t wake up in the morning and say to myself, “Fuck yeah, I’m going to record a YouTube video today!” So unless I have a natural urge to upload a video (or record one), I’m going to stop making videos.
Interviews: I enjoy doing interviews for the blog, but it isn’t my primary concern or passion. There are many other people who do it far better than I do (I highly recommend Blake Andrews’s blog. So I will still do interviews in the future, only when I have a good opportunity– otherwise I can cut it from my diet.
Powerlifting: few of you know, but powerlifting is (or used to be) one of my big passions. I have always had an inferiority complex growing up (being a skinny Asian kid), so I started to hit the gym starting high/school college to get stronger, and bigger. I used to be obsessed with “bodybuilding” (eating a lot of protein shakes and building muscle mass), which soon transformed into a passion for powerlifting (lifting really heavy weights). I found that the problem with powerlifting was this: I would tire myself out too much from powerlifting (wouldn’t give me enough energy to write or do other interesting mental-activities) and after eating a bigass meal (10 eggs+bacon) after a workout, I would be essentially useless for the next 5 hours. So now I just have been sticking to pushups, chin-ups, and 1-legged squats (pistols) to just avoid being a fatass. The benefit? I don’t waste time driving to the gym and back, and don’t have to wait in line for the weights. I can do my workouts efficiently at home, and get back to my most important activities (writing and reading).
Networking: “Networking” meetings rarely ever go anywhere. I only go to them in the hope that they might benefit me in the future– either monetarily, with prestige, or some sort of “opportunity” which will make me more influential or famous. But fuck it, I don’t need any more money, and I certainly don’t care if I have more followers on social media. So my goal is to not network as much as humanly possible, and only spend time with friends and human beings that I genuinely appreciate being around.
Internet: I have mostly subtracted the internet from my diet. I now only use Google to search recipes for dinner, Google Maps to find directions, What’s app to message international friends, and that is pretty much it. The internet (especially blogs) can be so fucking distracting, and kill your clarity of thought. Yeah, the irony is that you’re reading this blog right now. But don’t feel obliged to read any of this stuff, feel free to close this tab and move on. But if you find value in it, I am very happy to have you here friend :)
So these are some of the few things I have been trying to cut out of my life (which are distractions), and now after slowly cutting and editing down my life, I found out what is my true passion and calling in life: writing. It is the thing that puts my mind most at ease, it is the thing that most puts me in a zen-like “flow” state, and it is the thing that I feel like I do that contributes the most to society. Secondly after writing is reading (to come up with ideas and materials to write). Thirdly it is to photograph (helps me connect with others and society). Fourthly, it is to spend time with loved ones and family (yeah I know this should be higher up there, but unfortunately it isn’t at the moment). But at the end of the day, I know my personal relationships will be far more important than my “work.” But please forgive me friend, I am still a work-a-holic American.
Another secret of life and happiness? Practice gratitude; always. Be grateful for what you have, rather than what you don’t have.
The funny thing– I own a Leica MP and 35mm f/2 Summicron Leica ASPH lens. It is probably the best film camera rangefinder setup that money can afford.
Yet I am not grateful. It isn’t enough. I look at dick-envy with those with digital Leica Monochrom’s, and think that I would be so much happier and creative with them. Sometimes I dream of the bokeh of the Leica Summilux 35mm f/1.4 ASPH (FLE) lens.
But fuck that– I need to remind myself; be grateful for what I have, grateful for the people in my life, and grateful that I am alive.
Honestly at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter (how much) material possessions (or how little) material possessions you have in life. At the end of the day, having good friends, family, and loves ones is the most valuable treasure.
Furthermore, life is the ultimate gift.
I mentioned (way earlier) in this essay how I woke up, jumped out of bed, and was like, “Fuck yeah, another day of life, thank you God!” I want everyday to be a day like this.
But the funny thing is that this is literally the first time that has happened to me in my life (maybe once in the past that I cannot recall).
I once read that in order to be happier in life, write a gratitude journal. What is a “gratittude journal” you ask? In a little notebook (every night before you sleep), write 5 things you are grateful for. It can be for life, for food, shelter, Wi-fi, good coffee, nice beer, whatever. I think even taking it a step further and writing down 5 things you are grateful for in the morning is even better (you start off the day with fresh new eyes; the world is full of possibilities).
So let me share with you the 5 things I am grateful for today (this morning):
What are one of the big things that causes me a lot of mental pain and anguish? Being ungrateful– and hankering after what I don’t have and what I lack.
So for example, I sometimes lust for a new car, I sometimes lust for a new laptop, I sometimes lust for a new smartphone, I sometimes lust for new clothes, I sometimes lust to live in SF, I sometimes lust to have more money in my bank account, I sometimes lust to own my own home, I sometimes lust to be more famous and influential, I sometimes lust for an expensive espresso machine, I sometimes lust for a new camera.
But if I kill all these desires and lusts, what am I left with? Perfect contentment with what I have, and the life I currently live.
Another thing I have learned which might be helpful to you friend; don’t have preferences.
Once you have preferences, you set yourself up for disappointment.
For example, let’s say you “prefer” to shoot with rangefinder cameras. Let’s say you own a digital Leica (an older M9). But then someone steals it. And you also get laid off your job, and you have no money left in your bank account. Now you feel like a slave. You feel upset, frustrated, and angry, because you “prefer” shooting with a Leica, but you can no longer afford one. So going “backwards” (getting a DSLR, or even worse, a Fujifilm camera) will make you feel inadequate and frustrated.
The solution? Be happy with any camera you currently own, are given, or can afford.
Let’s say that you have a preference for shooting street photography in a downtown area closeby your hometown (but still a 30+ drive). You set yourself up for disappointment. Why?
If you’re busy with work, life, and kids, you won’t always have the time to go down there and shoot. You will be frustrated by your preference of shooting in that area. You feel that if you aren’t in that area, you can’t be creative.
The solution? Be grateful for the neighborhood you live, and shoot in your own neighborhood (or even take photos of your friends, family, loved ones). Don’t have a preference for shooting “street photography” (all photography is photography).
Let’s say that you have a preference for drinking designer coffee (like I do). Any espresso pulled on anything less than a “La Marzocco” machine isn’t sufficient. You are a coffee snob (I am).
But the problem is, when you have a preference for good espressos, you can’t deal with shitty gas station coffee. You have an 8-hour drive to see your family in LA, and you are “forced” (poor you) to stop by a Starbucks and have a shitty espresso. The problem? Not everywhere can you find a fancy hipster cafe with good espressos. So by having a preference for good espressos sets you up for disappointment.
The solution? Be appreciate of good espressos, but don’t become dependent on them. Be as happy as drinking instant Nescafe coffee as an expensive $3.00 espresso from Blue Bottle (a tip I need to remind myself).
This goes with everything; with preferences to the type of food you eat, the types of restaurants you visit, the places you visit on holiday, the clothes you wear, the lifestyle you have, the artwork you collect, the photography books you purchase, the books you read, the schedules you setup for yourself, the watches you own, whatever.
Don’t have preferences, and you can be happy in all circumstances, whether shitty or “good.”
Another tip of something I have been trying (very hard) to do in my life: not use the words “good” or “bad”, or “better” or “worse.”
Once you start comparing things as “better” or “worse”, you start putting negative labels on things.
For example, what I learned from Taoism (“The Second Book of the Tao” by Stephen Mitchell is excellent) is that things are neither “good” nor “bad” – they are what they are.
For example, one might say that a beautiful white horse that can run at top speeds is “good.” But can the horse catch a mouse? No.
Another example: a lot of people would say that winning a million dollars is a “good” thing. True? Not necessarily. Suddenly after winning a million bucks from the lottery, all your friends turn against you. Old family members start phoning you, asking you for money. You are now in the tabloids, harassed by paparazzi. You start becoming paranoid, and trying to find out ways to hide yourself (and your money) from the public. You start going into depression, you start using your money on cocaine, hookers, and Ferrari’s. You still feel empty. You have nobody to trust anymore, and you want to kill yourself.
Some people would say having a Leica camera is a “good” thing. Not necessarily. A Leica can’t focus very closely (minimum focusing distance is .7 meters). It is quite heavy (made out of solid brass). It is difficult to use and doesn’t have autofocus. If you own a digital Leica, the buffer is slow, the camera sometimes doesn’t turn on, and even the old Leica M9’s have cracking sensors. So a Leica camera isn’t “better” than a Fujifilm x100-series camera. It is just different. More expensive as well.
Sometimes people ask me what is my favorite place to shoot street photography, or the “best” place for street photography. Once again the problem is that once I say “better” it implies that the other place is “worse” for street photography. But in reality, they are just different. You can’t compare apples and oranges. For example, the experience of shooting street photography in NYC versus Michigan is totally different– there are benefits/disadvantages of both. NYC has more people in the streets, but Michigan has more interesting urban landscape. NYC is a bit more hectic and crazy and “interesting” – but the downside is that it has already been shot to death (hard to make an “original” photo in NYC). Michigan can be seen as boring, but the benefit is that the people are friendlier. So don’t think that the city you live isn’t good enough for street photography. Find the hidden benefits.
So long story short; try to eliminate the words “better”, “worse”, “good”, or “bad” from your vocabulary. This will give you ultimate freedom and happiness.
In the “Second Book of the Tao” there is an interesting story about a man who talks to a shadow. The man asks the shadow, “It must be so depressing to be a shadow. You never have any control over your life. You are just constantly following people, doesn’t that make you feel frustrated?”
The shadow then replies to the man:
“No actually not, it is actually quite nice– not to be stressed with making decisions. Wherever people go, I merely follow. I don’t ask questions. I don’t judge whether the decision is right or wrong, I just go along for the ride and enjoy it.”
When I first read the story I was like what the fuck– I don’t want to be like that shadow. I want to be free and have unlimited freedom! I want to do what I want to do without others trespassing on my court (the typical American mindset).
But in reality; not having any choices is the ultimate freedom.
Why is that?
Well to start off, the universe has its own intelligence. What will happen, will happen, and should happen. “Everything happens for a reason.” Or they call it “Murphy’s law”: “Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong” (watch the movie ‘Interstellar’ for more insight into this concept).
As human beings we think we can exert control over everything in life. But at the end of the day, we only have some control in life. At the end of the day, we can’t control whether a drunk driver will speed past a red light, hit us, and we will die. We can’t control if we’re in a plane, there is turbulence, the plane gets hit by a lightning bolt, and everyone dies. We can’t control if our parents had some sort of rare disease, and we find out (at age 28) that we have it– and we only have 2 years left to live. We can’t control if people on the internet talk shit about us (I know, just read my YouTube comments). We can’t control whether we will meet the “love of our life” or our “soulmate” (I am just fucking lucky I met Cindy in college). We can’t control these “[butterfly effects(https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly_effect)” in life, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can cause a tsunami halfway across the world.
So the morale of the story? Go with the flow. Don’t try to control things in life.
In Taoism, they call this “wu-wei”: action without action. Not trying to force things. Letting the right decision make itself.
So how have I applied this to my life to be happier?
I try to give up my choices.
For example, I have pared down all of my physical possessions to just 1 of each (okay 2 pairs of clothes when traveling)
This has given me so much peace of mind and zen it isn’t even funny. I don’t have to make a decision, and this limitation of my physical stuff is fucking true freedom. I don’t have to make a choice about what to use, because I am pared down to the essentials.
Applied to mental concepts this idea of limitations and no choices can work as well:
Having no choices (or fewer choices) is something that Steve Jobs and Barack Obama apparently does. Steve Jobs (when he was still alive) only had 1 outfit: his signature black turtleneck, blue jeans, and white shoes. Barack Obama only has 2 suits (one black, one navy) so he has less “decision-making anxiety” and fatigue– and can spend more mental energy making important decisions.
Another concept which shows that having fewer choices and no freedom in life can be a good thing: they call it “paralysis by analysis”. The concept is that sometimes you become paralyzed by having too many choices, because you have so many things to analyze. The last time you went to the grocery store to buy some cereal, do you remember how many fucking types of cereal there were? Making that decision was such a stressful endeavor, wasn’t it? The last time you had to buy a camera, remember all the camera reviews you had to read before you found the “perfect” camera? The last time you tried to buy a car, there were so many fucking choices (different colors, car brands, car models, packages, trims, etc) that stressed you out– no?
Barry Schwartz explores this concept in his book: “The Paradox of Choice”, in which the irony of being a human being is that we think that having more choices leads to more happiness. But in reality, having more choices in our life adds stress, complexity, and frustration to our lives.
The solution? Remove more choices from your life, make non-reversible decisions (when you buy something, throw away the receipt), and don’t regret or ruminate on the decisions you’ve already made.
So how are some other ways you can remove choices from your life, to add more happiness and creativity in your life?
Remove the choice of what kind of subject matter to shoot. That means focusing on one theme or project. Set yourself a “creative constraint.”
For example, make the decision that you cannot shoot anything except “street portraits.” Then you aren’t stressed out; you know exactly what (and what you can’t) shoot. By having focus on just “street portraits” – you know exactly what you’re looking for, and you become focused on faces as a subject-matter, and you end up creating a strong and consistent body of work.
For example, when Richard Avedon did his book: “In the American West”, he only shot with an 8×10 camera, black-and-white large-format film, people in the shade, and against white backgrounds. There were all these limitations, constraints, and lack of choice in his project. But what he did choose and add variety in were his subjects, their poses, and facial expressions. It is one of the best portrait series ever done in history.
Similarly, Josef Koudelka only photographed Gypsies for 10+ years, and they were his only subject matter. Not only that, but he had no choice except one camera and lens: a cheap SLR (I believe it was an “Exakta” camera) and a 25mm lens and black-and-white film. By disregarding any other subject matter, he was able to focus on photographing the Gypsy people, living with them, getting to know them, and creating one of the most incredible socio-ethnographic photographic projects titled: “Gypsies” (yes, the politically correct term is now “Roma” people).
Honestly, having more than 1 camera and 1 lens is just stressful to me. Having more than 1 camera and 1 less is more choices, so my suggestion: commit yourself to literally selling off (or better yet, giving away) all of your cameras, and just commit to 1 camera, 1 lens for a year. And if you shoot film, only 1 type of film. If you shoot digital, only stick to color or black and white. Having no stress in terms of what camera to use is more happiness in your life. I have even taken off the camera application away from the homescreen of my smartphone, and have vowed (for the next year or so) to shoot as little on my smartphone as possible. Only black-and-white film on the Leica (at least for the end of the year, before I move to Vietnam with Cindy).
Set another “creative constraint” by not having a choice to where you photograph. Create a 1-mile radius from your house or workplace, and you are only allowed to shoot there for a month (or better yet, a year). You will probably be forced to step outside of your comfort zone, and force yourself to be creative.
Photography isn’t about finding exotic things, visiting exotic places, and making interesting photos of strange things. Photography is about using the material life has already presented you, and making the best photos with what life has given you. Some of us live in NYC, some of us live in the suburbs of Southern California. Regardless of your position or situation in life, make the best photos with what you have been given in terms of your environment, living situation, whatever.
Okay I’m not some fucking guru or someone who thinks that they know anything. I am not some enlightened Buddhist, nor can I levitate while meditating.
The truth of the matter is I am a wretched soul, full of all these demons, stresses, anxieties, frustrations, and unsteadiness of heart.
I am just sharing with you some ideas that have personally worked well for me (at the moment), so I recommend you to just try it out, and see if it works well for you. Pick and choose. And if you think I’m speaking bullshit, feel free to tell me: “Fuck you Eric”, I don’t mind. Because I say that to myself all the time, in the pursuit of trying to find happiness.
So dear friend, I hope this letter served you well, and has helped ease some of the thoughts on your mind, and will eventually lead to (a little bit more) happiness in your life, and less stress, anxiety, frustration, and worry.
Finished writing at 5:25am, after 2 nice espressos, a little nap, some pushups, and relaxation. Friday, 9/4/2015, at my home in Berkeley.
Some random plans for the rest of today:
I have to wake up Cindy in about 30 minutes (for her to have an early start to the day and do some reasons for her classes). I have no fucking clue what I have planned for the rest of the day, which is total bliss.
I want to do a little more reading (finish re-reading the “Second Book of the Tao”, visit Artis coffee (the cafe near my house), walk around a bit, ask my younger sister Anna to come over for dinner, and maybe take another nap later. Oh yeah, and excited that I’m going to see a blues show with Cindy in SF today at around 10pm. Hope I won’t be too exhausted after waking up at 3am.
Anyways, thank you for always reading my friend– and Godspeed. Always be grateful for the life you have (rather than the life you don’t have). Count everyday as a blessing, live life to the fullest, and go out and shoot :)
I am a slave. I am a slave to others’ opinions of me. I am a slave to material things. I am a slave to my bank account and money. I am a slave of my wardrobe, of my cameras, my material possessions, my gadgets, my smartphone, my friends, my health, and everything external from me.
Not only that, but I have compromised a lot in the past. I have compromised my morals, my principles, what I believe in– all for fearing that others might judge me, that others would hate on me, that I would become broke and homeless, and that ultimately nobody would love me.
I’m a slave the comments I get on the blog, to the number of “likes” I get on Instagram, or the amount of followers that I have. I often feel held back creatively because at the back of my head I’m always thinking: “But what will others think about me?” Not only that, but I’m constantly asking people for feedback; because I am insecure about my path in photography, my writing style, and my behavior as a human being.
I have always been an insecure person. According to my Myers-Briggs personality type, I a an “ESFP — meaning that I draw my energy from other people, that I crave concrete and practical solutions, that I listen to my heart more than my head, and that I hate routines and crave “going with the flow.”
I am very much like my mom, in-fact.
Let me tell you a story about my mom (the most amazing person in the universe). She met my Dad in the states, and that is where I was born (San Francisco). But when I was a baby (perhaps 1-2 years old), she realized that he wouldn’t be the father that she expected him to be. Low and behold, my Dad has never held a job since I was 2 years old, and since then (until now), my mom has been working her entire life working menial part-time jobs or labor-intensive jobs. In the past to pay the bills (and put food on the table), she has worked cleaning houses, as a nanny, cashier, and as a waitress (which she is still today). But she has never once complained in her life; even with my dad being physically (even worse, mentally abusive), even when my Dad would gamble the rent money (and we thought we might be homeless the next month), or even when my Dad would blackmail her.
However what was the problem? My mom was a slave to my Dad. She was the most loving and forgiving person. No matter how much my Dad would fuck up our lives (and cause my mom extreme pain and anguish), she would always forgive him, and let him back into our lives.
But old dogs don’t learn new tricks. Well, perhaps sometimes, but rarely.
Long story short, my mom never learned how to say “no.” She would always compromise in her life, always having hope. My mom’s biggest weakness is that she can’t let people down. She always puts others before herself, which is a generally noble thing, but she did it at a huge expense– her sanity, health, stress, and emotions.
The happiest day in my life was when my mom decided to leave my Dad. Taking this “via negativa approach” to life (removing the negative people in your life) brought my mom more happiness and joy than anything in life. Not only that, but it has brought me a lot more happiness as well.
I have written about this in the past, that life is more about subtraction than addition. The truth is, removing 1 shitty or negative person from your life is more important than adding 10 positive people to your life. Similarly when it comes to your health, it is more important to stop eating McDonalds than simply adding blueberries to your diet.
Well, I am exactly like my mom. I am a total pushover, I don’t know how to say “no,” and my biggest fear is letting people down.
I can honestly say that I have never done or said anything (intentionally) to hurt or harm anybody. All the fuck ups in my life have been unintentionally. I have hurt so many loved ones and friends because I wasn’t considerate enough, because I didn’t watch my mouth, because I was forgetful, because I didn’t see their perspective, because I rushed into action, or because I was selfish (unintentionally).
But once I realize that I upset or hurt somebody, I feel extreme guilt. I mean, true extreme guilt. In the past I have said or done a few small things that upset some close friends, and I literally lost a week-worth of sleep, because I would ruminate on all of the negative thoughts in my mind. I am prone to regret, self-criticism, and self-flagellation. I have a lot of mental psychoses that I try to cure myself of (that is why I read so much philosophy; especially Stoicism, Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity).
But isn’t it a good thing to be considerate of the feelings of others? Isn’t it good to try not to upset anybody? Isn’t it good to be a good boy, listen to the rules, sit in your chair, listen to the teacher, government, or strangers on the internet? Isn’t it bad to step out of line, to say something you believe in (that might hurt someone’s feelings), or to “be different?”
I no longer want to be a slave. I don’t want to be a slave to the opinions of others. I want to truly say what is on my mind, with no filter, and no bullshit. I want to be authentic, transparent, and to continue wearing my heart on my sleeve. I am a flawed human being, with tons of problems of my own. I don’t give a shit if people judge me or not anymore, I just want to pour out my heart, soul, and unedited thoughts on the page.
I compromise too much on my ideals. No more. I want to live like Socrates, and stay true to my morals and principles, rather than being tempted by money, fame, success, and influence.
You know how I say “buy books, not gear” and how I preach about “one camera, one lens” and also how you shouldn’t fall victim to “GAS” (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)? You know I contradict myself all the time. I have bought tons of gear in the past that I didn’t need, and didn’t stick to the “one camera, one lens” philosophy either. I expected others to comply to this “ideal reality” — without wanting to keep my skin in the game, and listen to my own principles.
But fuck it, I pledge to you that I will no longer contradict myself, unless I have some huge revelation in the next few years.
First of all, I realize that I am a slave to money and influence. In the past, I have kissed a lot of ass (especially to camera companies like Leica and Fujifilm), because I wanted to feel important, special, and to be “affiliated” with important brands. To be frankly honest, one of the main reasons I first got a Leica M9 was to be taken more “seriously” (not only that, but Leica didn’t like the fact that I blogged for them and was shooting with a Canon 5D). Also with Fujifilm, I hoped that they could help sponsor the blog, and I could make some money advertising with them.
I rationalized this all to myself saying that “I was doing this for the greater good. I am only going to (partly) ‘sell out’ so I can make more money, to have more security, to blog more, to continue to give out more free content and ebooks, without having to worry if I could pay the bills or not.”
But in reality, I have always been able to pay the bills, even after I got laid off my job over 5 years ago. I honestly don’t give a shit about money, but I know subconsciously, I wanted more money because I was afraid. I was afraid that one day I would become like my mom, constantly strapped for cash, stressed out, worried that I couldn’t pay the rent, and the possibility that my kids might be homeless.
But fuck it, all my basic needs are taken care of. If there is anything I learned from the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus is that in life we only need 3 things to survive: freedom from hunger, freedom from thirst, and freedom from the cold. Everything else is optional.
I don’t suffer from hunger (although I do practice intermittent fasting to take away my sense of entitlement, and also for health benefits), I don’t suffer from thirst (I drink a shit-load of coffee, tea, and water), and I don’t suffer from the cold (I live in California). My basic needs are met, what else do I need?
Sometimes I joke with my friends: I only need 3 things: eggs, coffee, and wifi. But it is true, everything else is superfluous.
Of course that is just me being “greedy.” What about taking care of my family? Cindy? My future children?
Of course I want to take care of them as best as I can. But I need to remind myself, I can’t compromise on my morales, even for them.
When Socrates was ordered to drink poison, he had (at the time) a wife and children. Rather than deciding to go into exile, he decided to stick to his sense of morals and justice, and drank the poison. Some of his friends pleaded for him to go into exile instead, for the sake of his family. But at the end of the day, had Socrates not drank the poison, nobody would have respected the beliefs of Socrates. Socrates practiced what he preached, didn’t compromise, and now his life (and actions) live on forever, inspiring countless generations (even a young kid like me).
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not just going to be a hobo for the rest of my life, and let my future family starve to death. Hell no, I am going to dedicate my life to being the most kick-ass Dad ever. If anything, I truly appreciate my Dad, and think he was the best father ever. This is partly because he was the best “anti-role model” — in order to be a good father, I just need to do exactly opposite of what he did to me.
As an aside; I hold no ill will towards my Dad. Honestly, he was pretty fucked up psychologically from my grandfather (who died when I was 2). My grandfather (to my understanding) never really showed love or gave credit to my Dad, who was extremely hard-working, intelligent, and the first of the entire family to master English and come to America. But some reason or another my Dad started to suffer from mental diseases, which fucked up his judgement, caused hate to enter his heart (my grandma, who I love, told me that my Dad used to be the most gentle and shy kid), and harbored resentment to the external world. I think my Dad did the best he could to try to raise me up well; by instilling the morales of hard work, education, and working hard to be “successful” (and rich). At the end of the day, he is a flawed human being (like all of us, especially myself). I haven’t talked to my Dad in a long time, as my heart is still healing from all the mental blackmail he has given to me in the past. But I think I’ll soon be ready to open up to him again.
Anyways, yeah fuck photography. My future kids are going to be more important to me. In-fact, when I have my first kid, I vow not to work the first year, to spend every minute with my future newborn child. I will dedicate my photography to documenting the life of my child (will also shoot on film), and also of my life with Cindy. Even at the moment, my “Cindy project” is the most meaningful project to me in my life. And I know when I’m on my deathbed (even if I die of cancer at age 50), I will have no regrets, and be grateful for all the love and friendship we shared in our (very short) life together.
Going back to the original point of not being a slave, I want to try to disconnect more and more from the internet, social media, and what others think.
Funny enough, the person I find the most inspiration from (in terms of not compromising) is Kanye West. Love him or hate him; he is true to who he is. Like he says in his song, “New Slaves”: “I would rather be a dick than a swallower.”
Kanye West wore pink polos, skinny jeans, and backpacks when other rappers were wearing baggy clothes. Kanye West rapped about Jesus, when other rappers were rapping about money, cash, and hoes. Kanye West made an album (808’s and heartbreaks) and sang in the album (even though he admitted he isn’t a good singer) to express himself (he was heavily criticized for the album and called all these names on the internet). Kanye West publicly said on live TV: “Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He has also stayed true to his artistic vision, is constantly pushing the boundaries of rap music, and speaks his mind — regardless of what others think of him.
Another modern figure who I have great admiration for is Steve Jobs. Sure people paint him as an asshole; but I see it differently. I see a man who never compromised on his values or beliefs. He spoke with no filter and hurt a lot of feelings. But he did it for the greater good. He had a 0% filter for bullshit, and he wanted to use his short time on earth to create something meaningful. He believed so much in the beauty and aesthetics of his products, that he would even make the insides of the Mac computers beautiful (a good carpenter doesn’t use cheap wood on the back of a drawer, even if nobody can see it). Obsessed with perfection, he never took “no” as an answer. People would fall entranced by his “reality distortion field” and make things possible that nobody else thought was possible. I remember hearing a story in the Walter Isaacson biography in which one of the first Mac computers booted up too slow. He told one of the programmers to make the startup time faster. The programmer told him it wasn’t possible. Steve Jobs then made a point: “If you could shave off 30 seconds of boot time from this computer, across thousands (potentially millions of people), you will save hundreds and thousands of hours for humanity).” The next day the programmer was able to figure out how to shave off 30 seconds off the boot time (possibly even more).
When I write, when I photograph, or whenever I create, or speak, I am still scared shitless. I am still scared of offending people and upsetting them. At the end of the day, other people’s opinion of me matters more than my own opinion of myself. But I want to switch that around.
Josef Koudelka is probably my favorite photographer of all time. Both in terms of his photography and how he lives his life. He values freedom above everything else; freedom of his time, his opinion, and does exactly what he wants to do. He is a human being who also hasn’t compromised in his life or photography. I want to emulate him.
It is quite incredible; he hasn’t paid rent nor has he taken on any commercial assignments that he didn’t believe in:
“I have never accepted any magazine or commercial assignments. I do not have any deadlines. I do not need any outside pressure to work. It is very important for me to feel that I am free. I make photographs for myself.”
He has also arranged his entire life to give him the ultimate freedom of time to do what he is most passionate about, which is shooting:
“At the moment my life is organized to give me the greatest possible time and freedom to actually shoot photographs.”
Koudelka has also inspired me in the sense that he sets no rules or barriers for himself. Rather, his only rule in photography is below:
“You should take photographs how you feel you should be taking photographs” – Josef Koudelka
There are so many people out there who tell you how you “should” be taking photographs. But there are no rights or wrongs in photography. The only rule is following your own heart; and not caring about what others think about you and your work.
For Koudelka, he doesn’t want any sort of restrictions in his work (or life):
“What I have written about here is my approach to photography now and in the past. It may not hold true tomorrow. I do not want to lay down rules for other people and I do not intend to be restricted by any myself. I feel that my life and perhaps my work are changing at the moment, but my basic interests have not altered. Above all, the most important for me is to keep working.”
I have always found it fascinating how Koudelka was able to stay so true to his own personal vision; of doing what exactly in life he wanted to do. Interestingly enough, growing up in communist Czechoslovakia helped him pursue what he was interested in (rather than just what made money):
“The lack of the freedom to make money forced us to do things we believed in, that interested us, and that we liked to do. We now if we became engineers, we would make less money than street-sweepers. In the West, it was different.”
I am also deeply inspired by his ascetic lifestyle. Apparently when he is on the road, all he carries with him is two shirts (one that he wears), one pair of pants, two pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear, a small sleeping bag (and mat), film (Tri-X), 3 cameras, and a spare pair of glasses. That is pretty much it:
“I tried avoiding owning anything. I didn’t pay rent. I knew that I didn’t need much to function: just some food and a good night’s sleep.”
I have been discovering something similar during my time abroad the last 3 months or so. All I have done is traveled with my small backpack (Thinktank perception 15) and a small leather messenger bag. All of my life’s possessions fit in there.
All I have packed for my trip include 2 shirts, 2 pairs of socks, 1 pair of pants, 2 pairs of ExOfficio boxers, a Kindle paperwhite, notebook, Leica MP and 35mm lens, Tri-X film (brought 120 rolls for the trip, shot around 80 so far), a laptop (Lenovo Windows 8 PC/Tablet I bought in an airport in Lisbon after getting my 11’’ Macbook air stolen in Paris), toothbrush and retainer, and that is pretty much it.
There is so much freedom in traveling light, and realizing how little physical stuff I need to survive. I don’t need any of my photobooks, additional clothes, additional cameras, additional stuff, etc. Funny enough, the fewer material things I have, the happier I am.
Another thing that Koudelka has inspired me with: he rarely processes and prints his photographs. Apparently he (used to shoot) around 1,000 rolls of film a year, and focused his energy only on shooting. He is worried about the processing of his film later. Apparently he hasn’t even seen some photos he has shot 10 years ago. He explains his rationale:
“I don’t want to lose time. I want to put all of my energy into taking photographs. Last year I spent 11 months traveling. Until now I’ve been in good health.I know this is not going to last forever.”
Josef Koudelka seems quite similar to Garry Winogrand in the sense that they are more interested in shooting and living life, rather than worrying about the results.
Not only that, but it seems to be a good strategy; why not spend all of your energy and effort shooting while you are still healthy, and you can do all the processing and editing once you’re not able to travel or shoot anymore? Or you can be like Winogrand, and die with 6,500 rolls of undeveloped film, and have someone else process and edit them for you.
Another reason I love shooting film: I know people will be able to access my negatives 200 years from now. No way are they going to be able to access my RAW files.
When I shoot digital, I have a problem that I look at the photos too quickly. I look at the images the day-of, which makes me depressed. I am bound to not get any good photos in only one day of shooting. If I get one good street photograph a month, I’m lucky.
So if I shoot film, I don’t get my film processed for 6 months-1 year. According to my math; if I can get 1 good shot a month, that means 12 good shots a year. So if I wait a year before looking at my images, I am bound to get a handful of shots I’m happy with. There is less noise, and more signal.
Furthermore, I also find that when I’m traveling, I stay up too late at night receiving the digital shots that I shoot. I much prefer the peace of mind of shooting the film during the day, letting it sit and “marinate”, and being able to sleep at night.
Another Idea I have; I might experiment “crowdsourcing” the editing of my images somewhere down the line; to see which photos resonate most with others.
But didn’t I say earlier that I didn’t care about what others thought about my images, and that I would shoot to please myself?
Yes, I will still shoot to please myself first. But if I upload images on the internet, they are ultimately more about the viewers; not myself. The really personal shots that I make that make me happy will stay offline, for me and close friends and family to enjoy.
Josef Koudelka is probably also one of the most famous photographers out there, but becoming famous has never been his focus. Funny enough, he has only shot for himself his entire life, and because he stayed true to his values, he became famous for his dedication in his work and craft.
He doesn’t care about becoming famous, he is only interested in working and not being bothered by others:
“Fame doesn’t interest me. I dont like being the center of attention. I like to concentrate on working and not be disturbed.”
This is a good reminder for me; I get too distracted by social media and worrying too much about what others think about me. Everytime I check Twitter, comments on the blog, Instagram, Facebook, whatever– positive and negative feedback hurt me. Positive feedback inflates my ego and makes me feel important. Negative feedback makes me feel shitty, and frustrated. I think the secret is to just ignore everybody, except my own opinion of myself, and the opinion of a few close friends. I’d have to say after uninstalling all social media apps from my phone, I finally have some peace and serenity of mind– and am able to focus on more important things, like writing this article.
What is the only thing Koudelka is interested? He doesn’t care about being the “best” photographer out there. Rather, he wants to satisfy himself, and become the best photographer he possibly can become. He wants to find his limits, and push himself to the maximum:
“Everybody has a right to think what he wants. I know who I am. I don’t do what i do in order to make somebody like me, or to prove something to someone, or to be the best. I do it for myself, for my own satisfaction. I want to find my limits, to see how far I can go.”
Koudelka is truly an exemplar for me.
Sure, I don’t want to ultimately be exactly like him. He has no home, probably not a lot of security financially, nor does he have a steady family life, or any sort of roots.
I know for me, I need a sense of home and community. As Seneca said, “He who constantly travels has many acquaintances but few friends.”
I also know that I don’t need to constantly be on the road to be happy. Paradise is in my own backyard. All the best photographic opportunities are in my own city, and I dont need to be in Tokyo or Paris to be inspired. My only limits are my creative potential, inside my head. Never my camera, film, or external circumstances.
Another philosopher I gain immense inspiration regarding freedom is Epictetus, and many of these excerpts are from “Of Human Freedom” (the most inspirational essay I have ever read on freedom).
What is “freedom” to Epictetus?
“Free is the person who lives as he wishes and cannot be coerced, impeded or compelled, whose impulses cannot be thwarted, who always gets what he desires and never has to experience what he would rather avoid.”
According to this, I have no freedom. I still am compelled to do things against my will.
Not only that, but I am still a slave to negative emotions: like sadness, envy, and frustration:
“Who wants to live life experiencing sadness, envy and pity, being frustrated in their desires and liable to experience what they want to avoid?” – Epictetus
Haha even funnier, I can totally see myself being a slave to Cindy sometimes:
“Weren’t you ever commanded by your sweetheart to do something you didn’t want to do?”
Spot on Epictetus, your wisdom from 2,000 years still rings true.
I also recall all the times I have done shit and went to events and parties I didn’t want to go, because of some sort of “social obligation” and peer pressure. I really need to learn how to say “no”:
“Didn’t you ever risk going out at night where you didn’t want to go, spend more money than you had intended, say things in the course of the evening in accents or misery and woe, put up with being mocked, and finally locked out?”
At the end of the day, I want to be free and unencumbered. I want to almost be like a wild animal. Sure, I might not have as much “security” and might go hungry at times, but I don’t want to become caged. How sad is it when you see a lion in a cage at the zoo?
“Consider how we apply the idea of freedom to animals. There are tame lions that people cage, raise, feed and take with them wherever they go. Yet who will call such a lion free? The easier its life, the more slavish it is.”
Sad enough, I still have a lot of friends and know people who are stuck in “golden cages.” Sure they might drive BMW’s, wear Rolex watches, make 6-figure incomes, own homes and whatnot– but their jobs and salaries own them, not the other way around. They hate their jobs, but cannot escape, because they have fallen on the “hedonic treadmill” — in which their lifestyle is constantly being upgraded (“downgrading” from a BMW 5-series to a Honda Civic can be painful to these people).
They are like caged birds:
“The birds above us, when they are caught and raised in a cage, will try anything for the sake of escape. Some starve to death rather than endure their condition. Those that survive– barely, grudgingly, wasting away– fly off in an instant when they find the least little opening to squeeze through, so great is their need for their native freedom, so strong the desire to be independent and unconfined.”
But how do we find true freedom? Some advice from another philosopher, Diogenes:
“One way to guarantee freedom is to be ready to die.” – Diogenes
Sounds a bit melodramatic. We are lucky enough that in today’s society, we will never have to worry about dying. Our only concerns are social stigma (everyone calling you a failure), bankruptcy (losing all our money and our house), and perhaps becoming homeless (but if you live in a developed country, you will probably get some sort of assistance).
Back in the ancient Roman and Greek days; these guys could literally be put to death by speaking their mind, against tyrannical emperors, or lived in social situations where they could literally starve to death. Unfortunately there are also some places in the world (India, Africa, etc) where people have been put to death, tortured, extorted, etc for standing up for their beliefs.
I remember when I still had a full-time job, and my only wish was to get a promotion. I was “only” earning $40,000 a year (with benefits) as an Online Community Manager at eHow.com. I desperately wanted to earn more money (because everyone told me that money buys you happiness) — $50,000 sounded right. I tried to work hard to get a promotion by kissing ass, staying late at work, answering emails on weekends, and trying to climb the corporate ladder (I feel horrible for trying to step over some people, or play bullshit office politics). I would try to take credit whenever possible, and that ended up causing me to burn a lot of bridges. I feel terrible for that, even today.
But the funny thing is that I was a slave to this rat race. I staked my happiness on the “once” and “what if” hypothesis. Once I earn $50,000 a year, I can truly be happy. Once I buy that new iPhone, I will truly be happy. Once I get that BMW M3 (cherry red), I will be happy. Once I get 10,000 followers on Twitter I will have “made” it.
But that was all slavish thinking. Epictetus brings up a good example of what slaves think (when they wish to become “free men”):
‘Once I’m set free, everything will be roses right away. I won’t have to wait on anybody I can talk to everyone as an equal and a peer, travel wherever I like, come and go as I please.’ Then he is liberated, but now, looking for a place to eat, he looks around for someone to sweet-talk and dine with. Next he resorts to prostitution and, if he gets a sugar daddy, he suffers from the most degrading fate of all, having now fallen into a far more abject slavery than the one he escaped.”
If we think that freedom is earning more money, earning promotions, gaining power and prestige in society; we are wrong.
Nassim Taleb has a heuristic: to see if someone is successful or not, see if he or she can take a nap when he/she wants. I am sure there are billionaires out there who are still slaves to their wealth, inboxes, and business duties. These people can’t even take a nap if they wanted to.
What is it that we all want in life? Epictetus shares:
“To live in peace, to be happy, to do as we like and never be foiled or forced to act against our wishes.”
How simple life is. We just want to live in peace (without drama or stress, or shitty bosses), to be happy and do what we like, and not forced to do shit we don’t want to do.
But we all have excuses:
One might say, “Oh I have a high-paying job that I hate. I would quit my job and do something I love, but I have a mortgage to pay, and kids to feed.”
Then foreclose your house, and move into a smaller apartment so you don’t need to work as much.
“But I have children, and I need to send them to private school.”
Why send them to private school? Send them to a public school.
“But I want them to have the best education that they can.”
Realize that if you work less, and take a job that you love, perhaps you will have more free time to actually spend time with your kids, to play with them in the park, to read them books, and to educate them directly yourself.
“But I have bills to pay, lots of debt, and a spouse to take care of.”
File for bankruptcy, or figure out other ways to manage easier payments. If your spouse stays at home, perhaps your spouse can also pick up a job.
We all make excuses for not following our life’s passion and goal. Life is short and brutal. Why not spend the small time we have doing what we love?
“But what if I don’t want to quit my job?”
I think that is totally fine; you can still carve out freedom from doing a “day job.” Just make sure that you turn off your email at 6pm and leave the office. Do the minimum amount of work not to get fired, and use your weekends and holidays to the fullest– to do creative work (in your case, take pictures and travel, invest in books and photography workshops).
Sometimes having a stable and boring job can be a blessing, as long as you don’t allow yourself to mentally become a slave to it.
I have another thing I am trying to do; not kiss anymore ass. I have kissed so much ass in my lifetime, and my mouth smells like shit. I have read so many books on “networking” and have sent so many “coffee meeting” emails. and tried to associate myself with rich, powerful, or influential people with potential.
But I realized, I am being a shallow bastard. I am just spending time to hopefully open up “new opportunities” (which ultimately means, make more money).
But I already have enough money. I have enough to pay my rent, food, and coffee. I am starting to realize that “networking” is a massive waste of time (I would prefer to spend time with friends and loved one, where there is no potential “gain” or “utility”). Networkers are slaves:
“Whenever you see someone grovel before another, or flatter them insincerely, you can safely assume that that person is not free– and not just if a meal is at stake, but even when they abase themselves for the sake of a governorship or consulship. In fact, you can call the people who behave that way for small gains petty slaves, while the latter deserve to be called slaves on a grand scale.”
So I now have a personal rule: Would I meet this person or spend time with them if I knew that they only earned $40,000 a year, or if they were just an entry-level position person? I have found myself that I enjoy more the conversations of baristas, janitors, and waiters than high-powered CEOs and managers.
You might be thinking: “Eric, I want to be free, but I don’t earn enough money. Easy for you to say all this idealistic bullshit. You travel the world, do what you love, and have money saved up. How do you expect us who live day-to-day to not be a slave, and follow our passion?”
I understand what you mean friend. However I also grew up in (slight) poverty and I know it is hard. But know that self-ownership and freedom isn’t a matter of how much money you have, or how many hours you need to work at your job. Rather, it is a state of mind.
Not only that, but I have started to realize how little I need in life. I have made a conscious choice to limit the amount of workshops I do next year, to earn less money, and spend more time with Cindy and more time writing. Furthermore, I spend less time on social media, emails, “networking”, and am completely content with where I am in life. I am surely not the richest person out there, but I am satisfied with what I have. I feel that satisfaction with one’s life is true freedom:
“What is it then that renders a person free and independent? Money is not the answer, nor is a governors, a consulship, or even a kingdom. Something else needs to be found.” – Epictetus
Epictetus goes on by sharing us this question we should always ask ourselves:
“Can anyone force you to choose something to which you’re opposed?”
Also what do we fear?
Sometimes I am afraid I will lose all of my money and material possessions, as Epictetus writes:
“Perhaps you fear for the body and material possessions– things that lie outside your scope of responsibility and have no meaning for you.”
But ultimately at the end of the day, money, my health, the health of my loves ones, are all externals. External things that I cannot control (regardless of how rich or powerful I am). So the secret? Don’t worry about any of that. The only thing we can control is our mind, how we decide to perceive events, and whether to see life in a positive (or negative) light.
It is hard. Really fucking hard. I am a sucker for advertising, and a slave to material things. I am the one who gets a hard-on everytime there is a new Apple product releasing. I get tempted by new fancy cameras being released. I desire fast sports cars and designer clothes. I am a fallible human being.
Another tip to happiness and freedom? Kill desire:
“[Don’t] feel irrational desire any more. You have a fixed and measured desire for the good of the soul, since they are within your power and accessible. You disdain external goods, so that no opening exists for that irrational, intemperate and impulsive form of desire. With such an attitude towards things, you can no longer be intimidated by anyone.”
If I don’t give a shit about desiring anything out of my control (or any new material things), I will no longer be a slave to others’ opinions.
What are some other things I should surrender? Epictetus tells us:
“Surrender the body and its embers, physical faculties, property, reputation, office, honours, children, siblings– repudiate them all.”
I can’t control my health (whether I get cancer or not), whether I get into a car accident and lose control of my legs, whether someone (accidentally) pokes me in the eyes and I lose my vision, whether a family member gets sick and my bank account gets cleaned out, whether people on the internet will like me or not, whether I will win any awards for being the “most influential photography blogger” or whatever, if my kids die at a young age from a rare disease, whether my sister or Cindy dies in a freak accident.
By preparing for the worst, we can truly live life freely– without stress or anxiety.
I don’t want to be held back by doing what I want to do. I want to (as Kanye West says) “Wild the fuck out” and write what I want to write, shoot what I want to shoot, say what I want to say, and not give a flying fuck about what others think:
“The tyrants’ bodyguards, too, can stay, for how can they affect me? Their sticks, their spears and their knives are meant for other people. I, personally, was never kept from something I wanted, nor had forced upon me something I was opposed to.” – Epictetus
Funny enough, even though I believe in Stoicism, Zen Buddhism, and Taoist beliefs– I am still a Catholic at heart. I don’t believe “God” as some bearded dude in heaven. In-fact, I am a bit dubious about there being an afterlife. Regardless, I do believe in some sort of cosmic force in the universe, and that everything happens for a reason. That mantra has helped me endure through all the difficult and painful times I had growing up, and has helped me become a stronger person.
Epictetus also mentions the importance of submitting his will to “God” (which was a different concept from the Judeo-Christian God):
“How did I manage it? I submitted my will to God. He wants me to be sick– well, then, so do I. He wants me to choose something. Then I choose it. He wants me to desire something, I desire it. He wants me to get something, I want the same; or he doesn’t want me to get it, and I concur. Thus I assent to death and torture. Now no one can make me, or keep me, from acting in line with my inclination, any more than they can similarly manipulate God.”
Whatever you believe in, know that ultimately everything will work out fine. Worst case scenario; you will die. And what is so bad about death? Once you’re dead, you won’t feel any pain. We’re always afraid of the pain we feel before death, not death itself.
Another thing that I use whenever something difficult or shitty happens in my life: “How can I turn this negative experience into a positive one?”
I still have a hard time letting go of my physical possessions. I am attached to them, and have some “hoarding” tendencies. Some advice Epictetus gives us to start giving less shits about our material possessions:
“These are the reflections you should recur to morning and night. Start with things that are least valuable and most liable to be lost– things such as a jug or a glass– and proceed to apply the same ideas to clothes, pets, livestock, property; then to yourself, your body, the body’s parts, your children, your siblings, and your wife. Look on every side and mentally discard them. Purify your thoughts, in case of an attachment or devotion to something that doesn’t belong to you and will hurt to have wrenched away.”
When I get back home, I want to purge all of my “stuff.” I want to donate the clothes I don’t wear, I want to give away photography books to my friends who would appreciate them, I want to start donating other random trinkets to Goodwill, and edit down my physical possessions so that they can fit into just one small backpack. And that small backpack is the only thing I want to take to Vietnam.
I don’t say any of this to sound high and mighty, or some sort of “enlightened” philosopher. Rather, I am a slave. A slave that is trying to be happy, and to emancipate myself from the bullshit of society’s expectations of me. Epictetus told me the importance of trying to emancipate myself from slavery on a daily basis:
“As you exercise daily, as you do at the gym, do not say that you are philosophizing (admittedly a pretentious claim), but that you are a slave presenting our emancipator; because this is genuine freedom that you cultivate.”
I don’t want to be a pretentious asshole; sometimes I can be. But another negative trait I need to cut out of my system.
At the end of the day, I don’t own anything. I don’t own my money, I don’t own my body (it is on loan, and I will give it back when I die), I don’t own my camera (mother fortune has simply lent it to me), I don’t own my electronics– I only own my opinion:
“I don’t consider this body to be my own, because I lack for nothing, and because the law is the only thing I esteem, nothing else.” – Diogenes
I also want to learn how to speak up my mind (in real life) with no filter. I always censor myself from saying what I really think, fearing that I will offend people. But fuck it, if they are my true friends they won’t get offended. And if they get offended and no longer are my friends, so be it. And they were probably not my “real” friends in the first place. Not only that, but at the end of the day, I only need 5 “real” friends in my life to be happy, perhaps even less– Cindy is more than sufficient.
If you have read this far, I congratulate you, and really appreciate you. You have probably dealt with a lot of the mental pains and struggles I have, and I hope this essay has touched you in one way or another.
Once again, this shit is fucking hard. I know I ramble and repeat myself a lot; but ultimately I write this (first) as a meditation for me to get rid of the demons in my head. Secondly, I write this to help you. Pick and choose which ideas help you, and discard the rest.
Epictetus reminds us, my dear friend, that if we truly value freedom (and don’t want to be a slave to the expectations of others), we need to make huge sacrifices:
“Study this– these principles, these arguments– and contemplate these models of behaviour, if you want to be free, and our desire corresponds to the goal’s importance. Don’t be surprised if so great a goal costs you many a sacrifice.For love of what they considered freedom men have hanged themselves, have thrown themselves over cliff– and whole cities have occasionally been destroyed. For true, inviolable, unassailable freedom, yield to God when he ass for something back that he earlier gave you. Prepare yourself, as Plato says, not just for death, but for torture, exile, flogging– and the loss of everything not belonging to you. You will be a slave among slaves otherwise; even if you are a consul ten thousand times over, even if you make your residence on the Palatine, you will be a slave none the less.”
Last thought to leave you with: freedom isn’t about fulfilling all of the desires, buying all the shit that we want, and having the life that we desire. Rather, it is by eliminating all desires, and being content with the life that we currently live, right now, in the moment:
“Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it.” – Epictetus
Some random thoughts on my head:
“To receive a favor is to pawn your freedom” – Publilius Syrus
I get free cameras from camera companies, free smartphones from Samsung, and don’t get me wrong– it is awesome.
But at the end of the day, I realized that this is making me a slave. Making me a slave because I feel indebted to them.
I have a new rule: I will no longer accept free things (unless I plan on giving it away to a friend, family member, or somebody in need).
If I believe in something, I cannot compromise. I must think of the collective, before myself. What is good for others is good for me. I already have everything I need in my life. I need to constantly remind myself the shortness of my life, how I will die at any moment, and squeeze every minute of the day to help others– by producing information, spreading goodwill, giving lots of hugs and showing appreciation, and by endowing love onto others.
As an experiment, I will no longer edit my thoughts, my words, writing, photography, whatever. I want to live life more fully with more rawness, genuineness, and transparency. I want to show no bullshit. If I piss people off, so be it. I will still feel bad about it, but I know it will be for the greater good.
Farewell and godspeed friend,
Written at ilcafe, Monday, Aug 31, 2015 / Stockholm. Started writing at 4am, ended at 11:11am. Damn I’m tired, but feel great. Excited to fly back home to Cindy after being away from her for two weeks, and on the road for 3 months in total. Excited to see my friends, family, loved ones, and to start editing down my life :)