One of the most influential books that read in my life is “Antifragile” by Nassim Taleb. The book is part philosophy, and part a practical guide on how to live a virtuous life.
One of the central concepts of the book is the “barbell theory.” What is the barbell theory you ask? Well, it is the concept that whenever it comes to things in life– we should approach two extremes (and avoid the boring middle). It is a concept that I have applied to many fields of my life, including street photography. I hope this article can shed a new way on how you see the world, and how you can apply this to your own personal work.
Introduction to the Barbell Theory
What exactly is the “barbell theory” you ask? The concept of the barbell theory is to embrace the extremes in life (image the heavy weights on the the far left and the far right of a barbell). In the book “Antifragile,” Nassim Taleb suggests that this is a better strategy in life rather than just striving for mediocrity. For example, You can apply this philosophy to life.
An easy way you can think about this theory is the idea of two polar opposites– which when combined work better than just half-assing two things. An easy way to think about the barbell theory is the idea of “working hard, playing hard.” I will continue to explain the theory a bit more in detail below:
Writing and the Barbell Theory
Taleb uses writers as an example to illustrate the barbell theory. Writing is one of the most uncertain professions in the world. There are so many aspiring novelists who find writing to be their passion. But they have a dilemma. Should they try to put 100% of their effort into writing and try to make it a career? Or should they simply keep a boring accounting job and pursue writing as a passion on their side without any interruptions? Or should they pursue a middle-management job and try to write whenever they may have the chance?
According to Taleb, he preaches for aspiring writers to stick to a boring and stable job (which doesn’t require you to use much mental energy) and pursue your writing on the side as a pure passion. He doesn’t encourage the idea of even getting a writing job that can suck the life out of you (freelance writing, editing, or other gigs that you may not be passionate about).
This is the barbell theory in application: keep a boring and stable job (the far left side of the barbell) while pursuing your passion of writing without it being influenced by your day job (the far right of the barbell).
I will try to illustrate the barbell theory with the ghetto illustrations below:
1. Barbell approach (left and right extreme strategy) – Preferable
- Left extreme: Boring Job
- Right extreme: Passionate writing
- Outcome: Stable life, and better writing– as the quality of your writing has no obligation or negative influence from your job.
2. Boring approach (middle, average-weighted strategy) – Boring
- Left average: Mediocre job
- Right average: Mediocre writing
- Outcome: You don’t become super rich from your job (you are just stuck with middle-management jobs) and your writing will be affected too (the stress of work will kill your mental energy for writing). So mediocre job and mediocre writing.
3. Risky approach – Avoid at all costs
- Left: no stable job
- Right extreme: Pursuing writing as a profession
- Outcome: You might end up homeless, as the prospect of making a living being a writer is very unlikely.
Barbell Theory in Other Fields
We can approach the barbell theory in other fields. Here are some examples in which we may incorporate it into our life:
Avoiding “medium risk” investments. Rather, investing 90% of your money in uber-safe investments (government bonds or boring cash) and 10% in very speculative stocks (high risk, high reward).
This way your downside is low (you can only lose 10% of your money) while you have a huge upside (if your speculative stocks shoot up, you can earn a killing)
Avoiding “jogging” and low-intensity aerobic exercise. Rather, focusing on short and intensive sprints at 90% of your heart rate combined with leisurely walks.
Avoiding working in a fragmented manner all day (checking social media, blogs, email). Rather, working in short and intense bursts and after finishing work, relaxing all day.
Avoiding a “moderate diet.” Rather, combining fasting for a day, and then feasting for the next day. Studies have suggested that “intermittent fasting” is superior to our health than just obtaining “regular calories.”
5. Family time
Avoiding distractions when spending time with your family (not checking email while with your kids on your smartphone). Rather, spending your non-divided attention with your kids for a day, and perhaps working for the entire next day (not seeing them at all).
Enter Street Photography and the Barbell Theory
I have been fascinated with the barbell theory for quite a while, and have applied it to my everyday life (some of the examples are in the list above).
A few of them include really intense workouts (for a short period of time) rather than jogging in the gym pointlessly for hours. I also try to only do email for a focused block of around 30 minutes-1 hour a day (instead of checking it constantly throughout the day). Not only that, but for my thoughts on street photography, I try to keep them either very long and detailed (blog posts) or very short (Facebook updates or tweets).
When it comes to street photography, I think there are also a lot of ways we can utilize the barbell theory to make ourselves more efficient, happier, and better photographers. Here are some ideas I propose:
1. Shoot in short, intensive bursts (relax otherwise)
The two best times to shoot street photography (if you want good light) is the early morning or the late afternoon (golden hour). Generally at all the other times during the day, the light is absolute crap.
So when you are out shooting on the streets, only shoot when the light is good
and shoot like mad. Then don’t even bother taking photos during other parts of the day. Rather, you can relax, look at photography books, read, or visit exhibitions.
This will probably help you produce better images because when you are focused shooting during golden hour, you won’t be distracted– and you will be working with beautiful light (which will make your photos glow). This is the way in which Alex Webb works (he shoots early mornings, scouts for locations during the mid-day, and shoots again at the late afternoon).
I tried this approach while in Mumbai with my buddy KP. Since we are lazy we would generally wake up late, enjoy a nice coffee and lunch in the afternoon, chill out, read photo books, talk street photography, and once it was around 4pm– we would jet out of the house and shoot like mad for 6pm. I found it be a lot less stressful, and more enjoyable way to enjoy street photography.
2. Keep the day job, keep street photography as a passion
I know lots of street photographers who want to make their photography a full-time profession. What would the barbell theory tell us? Don’t.
According to the barbell theory, it is better to have a hyper-stable job and pursue your photography 100% as your passion, rather than taking up wedding photography and ending up losing your passion for photography (photography soon feels like work).
So my advice is similar: if you are truly passionate about your street photography, perhaps you should choose a profession that isn’t straining to your street photography. Don’t choose a job that has long hours (which prevents you from shooting after work) or that makes you work on the weekends (even less time to shoot).
The benefits of having a steady job is also that when you go on holiday and travel, you can do 100% of your street photography as your passion– rather than having to travel and ‘go on assignment’ and shoot stuff you don’t enjoy.
Having a steady income will also allow you not to stress out about your photography, and figure out how to monetize it and make it a living. It also gives you the funds to buy new cameras and lenses if you desire, or for film and developing costs.
I am hugely lucky to be able to make street photography my career. Key word: luck. For example, I started my blog when there weren’t many other street photography blogs, I got laid off my job at the right time, and I have also been fortunate enough to get so much help from others. I certainly never intended to make street photography a living either– it just kind of fell into my lap.
Therefore to be quite frank, I don’t know if you could make street photography a living (even if you worked really hard and wanted to) without having luck. And I certainly wouldn’t bet my life on just luck alone.
3. Shoot a ton, show very few photos
We can also use the barbell theory when it comes to shooting and editing. For example, I believe in the idea of shooting a ton of photos, but only showing a very few photos.
By shooting a lot, you increase your chances of getting a great potential shot. But on average, you will not get many interesting shots. But once you do get that one epic photo, then decide to share it. For all of your “average” photos, I encourage you not to share them at all.
I have encountered many photographers who are superb photographers but horrible self-editors of their own work. For example, if I look at their portfolio they got some really amazing photos, but a lot of mediocre stuff too. The sad reality is that my opinion of that photographer generally goes down when I see their so-so work. It would be better if they just edited down to their strongest images.
I know we all want to share our photos, as they are all our babies. But try to embrace this barbell approach and only show your best work.
My suggestions? I would say shoot everyday if possible, but only upload photos once a week. Even better, once a month. Then you will find the quality of your work that you should will be absolutely stellar.
Most photographers who are famous are only known for their one most famous image. So even if we show our one best photo once a year (and assuming you have a few decades to live) we got good chances of making one memorable image before we die.
4. Only look at great images (and crappy images)
You are what you eat, especially when it comes to street photography. If you want to be healthy, it is generally better to have a super-strict diet of lean protein, veggies & fruit 95% of the time (and eating fast food 5% of the time) than eating mediocre food 100% of the time.
Perhaps the same can go when it comes to looking at images. I would say spend the majority of your time only looking at two types of images: extremely great images (photos from the greats) and really bad images (stuff you might see on Flickr).
The really great photos will allow you to understand what makes for a great composition, dynamic framing, strong content matter, etc. The really bad photos will teach you how not to shoot (shooting random crowds, having flat light, messy backgrounds, etc).
When it comes to looking at photography, I try not to spend too much time looking online (although there are a handful of really talented contemporary street photographers online– think In-Public, Burn My Eye, That’s Life, and some images in the HCSP pool) but rather looking at photography books. I also recommend Magnum Photos, Invisible Photographer Asia, and LPV Magazine.
Photography books tend to be far better edited, have a better selection of images, and have better image quality than the tiny 640px jpegs you see on the internet.
Some street books I recommend are here.
The barbell theory is just one theory how to approach life, and not the ultimate. For me, it has personally worked well– but it won’t work for everyone.
However I do find that in life in general, it is better to avoid the average and go for the extremes. After all, when you are watching movies are you more interested in the average Joe C-list actor? Or the ripped action star (Sylvester Stallone) or the suave actor (George Clooney)?
I suggest as an experiment, try out some of these barbell theories in street photography and see how you like it. Life is all about tinkering and trying out new things. If you like it, embrace the barbell theory. If it doesn’t work out for you, no big deal– you didn’t lose anything but at least have the peace of mind have having experimented.
So once again, don’t strive for mediocrity. Go for the extremes, and it will pay off.
For further reading on the Barbell Theory read Chapter 11 in “Antifragile.” I highly recommend the book to everyone, who knows
it might also change your life!