“Letters from a Street Photographer” #1: How to Live and Shoot without Regrets

Provincetown, 2014
Provincetown, 2014

This is Chapter 1 on a series of blog posts I will do on the philosophy of Stoicism, and how I relate it to street photography. I draw upon the book: “On the Shortness of Life” from Seneca. The title of this series is inspired by “Letters from a Stoic” (also by Seneca).

I have recently been reading a lot of literature on “time management” and have discovered a new angle– “attention management.”

The basic premise is this: time management is overrated. We have all the time in the world. However what we don’t have is attention.

Everyday there are so many things which fight for our attention. If you have a smartphone you know. There isn’t a minute when it isn’t buzzing– screaming for our attention. It sends us a constant barrage of text messages, voicemail notifications, Instagram and Facebook notifications, we have hundreds (if not thousands) of unread emails, and little red dots all over the place.

I am an addict when it comes to self-help books. I try to read at least one self-help book, philosophy book, or anything else of interest every 1–2 days. The reason I read so many of these books is that I am often dissatisfied with my life– and I want to be more productive and prolific with my writing and work. I don’t want to waste time. I hate procrastinating, and being distracted.

So ever since I fell into the depths of Taoism and learnt the philosophies of doing less (everyday subtract 1 thing you do rather than add 1 thing) – this has helped me gain a lot of focus in my life. I think focus is overrated– as long as you eliminate distractions, focusing is easy.

I have also written on the idea that constraints are what breed creativity. These can be constraints in terms of having time constraints (only having 30 minutes a day to shoot in-between work and family life), constraints in terms of equipment (only having one camera and one lens), or in terms of subject matter (focusing on a project).

I think one of the biggest constraints that has helped give me focus, direction, and concentration in life is knowing that time (and life) is the biggest constraint.

We are all going to die (true story)

There is only one thing certain in life: that we are going to die. Nobody knows when he/she is going to die– but sooner or later, it is going to happen.

I often find that thinking a lot about death is one of the best ways I stop dicking around, and focus on my life’s task– and my life’s work (which I think is writing for this blog, spreading the love of photography and philosophy, and building communities and bringing people together). That and being a loving person.

I’ve had a few near-death experiences (one being a car crash that if my front bumper was pulled to the curb just 1 more foot, I would have probably died in a lethal T-bone collision) and another foolish time I switched lanes on the freeway, and almost hit a 18-wheeler head-on (but I swerved away in the nick of time).

Other instances are actually seeing other people have near-death experiences (or lying on their deathbed). So many people I know are currently living life with regrets. Regrets for not studying in college what they wanted to study, regrets for not taking a chance and starting their own business, regrets for not asking out that one person for a date, regrets for not traveling more, regrets for not pursuing a creative project, or regrets of being suck in a job they absolutely hate.

Living without Regrets

I don’t want to live life with regrets. I don’t want to be on my deathbed and ask myself: “Eric, you wasted your life– you could have done so much more with your energy, time, money, and attention. Why did you waste it living it the way you did, just for yourself?”

Even though I am 26 years old, healthy, and with no major illnesses– I never know when I will die. Who knows, I might be driving to the gym, and some guy who is texting while driving might run a red light, T-bone me, and boom, I’m dead. Or maybe I have a heart problem or some sort of rare cancer that might kill me in a year or two. Or I might be drunk one night, trip, slip on a banana, and crack my skull on the side of a curb.

None of us know when we are going to die. And I don’t want to be that guy who didn’t live life to the fullest, and really suck out the marrow of life.

Stoicism, street photography, and life

Out of all the books I have read on the philosophy of life– there is nothing that speaks more to me than Stoicism. What is Stoicism? Pretty much it is an ancient school of thought in which these philosophers had mental and psychological tricks to help them live in a world of death, fear, and uncertainty– and to not just survive– but to thrive.

Out of all the Stoic scholars (my favorites being Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus) – Seneca is one of my favorites. Why? I could relate with him in the sense that he didn’t front as being this enlightened scholar/philosopher and took a vow of poverty. Instead, he lived a “normal” life and got all the upsides of Stoic philosophy– rather than voluntarily choosing poverty (and embracing the downsides).

My favorite books by Seneca include “Letters from a Stoic” (the best compilation of his letters and sayings to his friends) and also “On the Shortness of Life.” Both should be read (if you want to learn how to deal with adversity in life).

I might do another article on “Letters from a Stoic” later– but I wanted to start this article on “On the Shortness of Life” (because it deals a lot with living everyday as if it were your last, and not wasting life).

Below are some principles that I have learned from the book, that I think can be applied to photography (and just life in general):

1. Live everyday as if it were your last

“He who bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow.” – Seneca

This is the most simple point – live as if everyday were your last.

I know in today’s world (unless we get hit by a car or fall victim to some rare form of cancer) we can all expect to live around 80 years old due to modern medicine, surgery, and cancer treatment.

However once again as I mentioned earlier– we don’t really know with 100% certainty how long we will live. You might get a drunk teen driving-and-texting to hit you while you are driving, you might get attacked by a random wild bear that mauls you to death (who knows).

Anyways, I once read this thing by Steve Jobs in which every night before he goes to bed– he asks himself if he did everything in his possible power during the day to best use his time, energy, and life. If the answer is “no” too many times in a row– he decides to change something in his life.

I try to do something similar. At the end of every day, I imagine that it is the last time I am going to bed (that I will be dead the next morning). I then ask myself, “Did I do everything in my power to fulfill the best use of my life?” There are many days that I go to sleep feeling unfulfilled– which gives me the impetus to really focus on what matters in my life (photography, writing, loving my friends and family) the next day.

I know we all have busy lives– but shoot as if everyday were your last. I think it is better to shoot consistently for 5 minutes everyday than just shooting once a week for 5 hours. Just like exercise, doing something daily gives a much higher benefit over the long run.

I once read something that if you change your behavior just by 1% everyday– that difference will compound in huge investments down the line (if you think of a financial investment analogy).

So in my photography, I try to shoot as if everyday were my last. I always have my camera with me and try to take photos. Whether that is on the way to the grocery store, when I am stuck in traffic in my car (do this carefully), when I’m having coffee at a cafe, or when I am having dinner with Cindy.

If I go two days in a row without taking any photos, I feel empty inside and frustrated. Similarly, I try to write and everyday. I don’t have to write 10,000 words a day nor do I need to read a book a day– just a little bit here and there compound tremendously over time.

I know that a lot of us are busy and don’t have a lot of “free time.” But if you ever surf reddit, watch television, go on Facebook – you have free time. Subtract those distractions from your life, and channel them into your photography.

2. Time is the most valuable commodity

“No one sets a value on time; all use it lavishly as if it cost nothing” – Seneca

If I lose $100, I can earn another $100 down the line. However if I lose a year of my life, I can never gain another year of my life. Time is the most valuable commodity that is a non-renewable resource.

I know a lot of people say “time is money.” But rather, I would say that time is much more valuable than money. I know a lot of people who trade their time, energy, attention, and effort (for money). Rather, I think we should take the opposite approach: either use money (or forgo earning more money) in order to have more time.

For example, I know some people who work at companies who take a smaller salary and work fewer hours a week (for a smaller paycheck). Or some employees who voluntarily spend their money to buy more vacation days from their employer.

I once heard of a tale of a businessman who visits a fisherman. Long story short, the businessman tries to teach the fisherman business advice so he can get bigger boats, catch more fish, and earn more money. But the fisherman asks, “Why do I need more money in my life?” The businessman goes, “So you can retire and just hang out by the water and go fishing all the time.”

Nowadays in my personal life– I am trying to spend my time as my most valuable commodity. Once I earn enough money to comfortably pay for my rent, pay for my film and coffee, and put a little money into savings– I try not to trade more time for money. I want to eventually have as much free time on my hands to spend more time writing (for this blog), researching, spending time with friends and family, working on building local photography communities, etc. I don’t want to be the guy at the graveyard with the most 0’s in my bank account.

I once read something that once you earn at least $75,000 a year (combined income with your partner) – earning more money doesn’t bring you more happiness in your day-to-day life. But because you earn $40,000 a year, it doesn’t mean you need to work harder to earn $75,000 a year– it just means that the law of diminishing returns on money go drastically down after $40,000 a year.

I know a lot of people who fall into “hedonic adaptation” or the “hedonic treadmill” in which as they earn more income, their lifestyles get more fancy– so they end up spending more money on extraneous luxury goods (BMW, big house, kids in private school, expensive camera, etc). But the irony is that the more money they earn, the more time they spend working, and the less time they have to shoot.

So my practical tip: just earn enough money to live comfortably, then protect your free time at all costs. If I still worked at a company, I would just do the bare minimum of work (without getting fired) and once the clock hits 5:00pm, I leave immediately (not staying late at work trying to get a raise or whatever).

Furthermore, rather than trying to earn more money– think of how you can actually get by with less in life. So ask yourself: could you sell your car and get by on just a bicycle and public transportation (which means you don’t have to pay as much for a car payment, gas, insurance, etc) – and you can end up working less at work? Can you move into a smaller apartment and save some money that way, so you can save more money and have more time to live and photograph? Personally I moved into a 2-bedroom apartment in Berkeley ($1800 a month) into a smaller 1-bedroom apartment in Berkeley (utilities included for $1300 a month) – which means I have around an extra $700 a month to spend working less, having more freedom in terms of time, and stressing less about finances.

Never trade time for money. Trade money for time.

3. Always keep death in sight

“If each one could have the number of his future years set before him as is possible in the case of the years that have passed, how alarmed those would be who saw only a few remaining, how sparing of them would they be!” – Seneca

I recently installed an application on my phone called the “death clock” in which it tells me (roughly) how many days I have left to live. It says that I have 20,439 days to live.

Sure that is a lot of days, but everyday it ticks down. I am running out of years to live– and it is a constant reminder that I don’t have that much time on this planet, so I shouldn’t procrastinate in my life’s duty and to focus all of my time, energy, and effort effectively for the common good.

Always keep death in mind.

Another psychological trick: imagine yourself on your death bed. Now write down a fictional list of things you regret in life.

There is a nice article online called “Regrets of the dying” – in which a nurse who took care of the dying wrote a list of common regrets of the dying. They included something like:

  • Not spending more time with loved ones and family
  • Working too hard
  • Not living a life true to themselves (and living life according to others’ expectations)
  • Not pursuing their life’s passions

Another thing I did recently which frightened me– as well as gave me immense amounts of focus (for my future self): I downloaded an application on my phone which simulated how I would look like in 40 years. You essentially take a photo of yourself, and it makes you look old (adds wrinkles, droopy features, color skin blemishes, etc). I did the experiment on myself, and my future self seriously scared the shit out of me. I saw myself as an older man– and it once again gave me a reminder of my mortality– and gave me the thought that my time is ticking.

I got this simple idea from a new book, “The Marshmallow Test” – in which the author talks about when people are shown a simulated older-version of themselves, they are more likely to put more money into their retirement funds.

So try downloading that “death clock” application, and put it on your smartphone homescreen or your desktop. Simulate an older version of yourself. Realize that every hour, every day, every week, every month, and every year– we are getting closer to our death. Don’t even waste a second of your life and stay focused on your photography, friends, family, loved ones, and passions.

4. Guard your time ferociously

“Yet it is easy to dispense an amount that is assured, no matter how small it may be; but that must be guarded more carefully which will fail you know not when.” – Seneca

I think one of the biggest plagues of the modern world is how we often over-communicate with email, text messages, Twitter, Facebook messages, etc. But the problem is this: it is very easy for someone to send you a message requesting some of your time, attention, and focus– but it is very hard for you to send a response. And of course with anyone with an overflowing inbox knows how overwhelming it can be responding to all of these requests for your attention and time.

Personally even though I get help from my manager Neil in terms of screening my incoming emails, I still get a lot of messages and requests from email and social media. At times it can be quite overwhelming, to the point that sometimes at night before I go to sleep, it gives me anxiety. There is always an unresponded email that I have yet responded to– that lurks in the back of my conscience.

One of the best “productivity” tips I’ve read is this: Don’t check your email first thing in the morning. The reasoning is this: it distracts you for the rest of the day, because you start off responding to other peoples’ requests– rather than focusing on your own important work.

For me, I think my free time, energy, and attention is best used blogging. I therefore try to guard my mornings ferociously. I have now made it a habit to turn off my smartphone in the evening before I sleep, and keep it off until around noon. Therefore from when I wake up until noon I can stay focused on my writing.

My morning routine looks something like this:

  • Wake up to alarm, roll around a few times, slowly roll out of bed.
  • Walk over to hot water boiler, boil water.
  • Take an icy cold shower (nothing gets your blood pumping like this– and it prevents you from staying in a nice warm shower for about an hour)
  • Dry myself off, put on some clothes, head to kitchen.
  • Turn on frying pan, and start cooking bacon (breakfast for Cindy).
  • Make pour-over coffee for Cindy (with boiling hot water), and an espresso for myself.
  • Finish breakfast for Cindy, drag her out of bed, serve her breakfast with a kiss, enjoy a nice morning conversation.
  • Have espresso, clean up the kitchen, clear my table, and start writing from around 7am-noon. 5 hours is a great chunk of time to get writing done.

I know not everyone has the convenience of having a huge chunk of time to do meaningful work in the morning– especially if you have a day-job and need to be in the office by around 8–10am.

However even when I was working my day-job, I woke wake up early at around 7am, and still do some writing from 7–9am (2 hours of focused writing is a great chunk of time) – and just get into the office by 10am (great thing about tech companies is that they start late).

I know some other writers who are even more hardcore – because they have young children and a day job– they wake up at around 4am and write from 4–6am to get their writing done (when there isn’t any distractions). Others I know are night owls– and get their writing done through the midnight.

But regardless – when it comes to your time, be absolutely ferocious in terms of defending it.

For example, if you don’t have enough time to shoot (and have a day job)– I recommend the following: schedule shooting time during your lunch breaks. Do not (please) have a “working lunch” in which you buy a burrito, and sit down at your desk and eat, while answering emails. Try to book a solid hour of time to have a quick meal – and go out and snap photos around work. If you work in a boring area– try to see how you can take interesting photos of your boring environment.

Another idea: Go to your office an hour early. If you drive to work, perhaps take a different route and park your car somewhere, and snap some photos. If you commute to work via bus or subway, you can always shoot on the bus or subway– look at Bruce Davidson’s “Subway” book for inspiration.

I know how draining it can be after a long day of work– but see if you can spend another 30 minutes–1 hour shooting after work. Perhaps do a night-time street photography project.

Another trick to defend your free time: treat your free-time as seriously as a meeting. In your outlook calendar or whatever– block out certain hours of the day for yourself. And if people ask you if you have time to meet up during that time– apologize and say you have a meeting (it isn’t lying– you are having a meeting with yourself).

If you don’t ferociously defend your free time and set boundaries and limits– people will suck out every minute, hour, and ounce of energy from you (and you will never have the “time” or attention to do anything you’re passionate about).

I don’t think it really even matters how much free time you have. I think it matters more how effectively you use your free time. Even 30 minutes of concentrated activity in shooting, reading photography books, or critiquing the photography of others online is more effective than just dicking around for 3 hours mindlessly. There is a saying: “Pressure makes diamonds” – having a limited amount of free time (under time constraints and pressure) will force you to focus and do great work.

My good friend Charlie Kirk used to work as a lawyer in Tokyo, and would only have free time late at night after work. Work would be so stressful and difficult for him that after a long day of working, he would have all this energy that he wanted to spend on shooting. So the hour or 2 after work would be immensely focused and productive for him.

Sometimes it is good to be selfish with your time– for the greater good. The more you spend your time wisely doing creative work, the more everybody benefits. Don’t feel guilty about it.

5. Start living, right now.

I know a lot of people who make excuses for not being happy and living right now. They always look into the distant future and say, “Oh– I’ll be happy once I get that promotion, once I get that new car, once I get that new camera, once I get a million dollars in the bank.” They work more and more, put in more hours, put on weight, put on more stress, in the hope that somewhere in the future– they will finally have enough time and money to retire to a island somewhere in Hawaii where they can start to “truly live”.

This is not a modern-day problem. Apparently the Romans had the same problem. Our friend and guide Seneca shares the problem of who spend their life “in preparation to truly live”:

“Can anything be sillier than the point of view of certain people—I mean those who boast of their foresight? They keep themselves very busily engaged in order that they may be able to live better; they spend life in making ready to live!”

Seneca also laments how some people focus too much on their future selves, without enjoying themselves in the present moment:

“They form their purposes with a view to the distant future; yet postponement is the greatest waste of life; it deprives them of each day as it comes, it snatches from them the present by promising something hereafter.”

I know as responsible adults we should plan, save, and try to focus on our future selves. We are constantly told that we need to save up more money in our 401k, retirement funds, money so our kids can go to college, etc. However if we spend too much of our time and efforts thinking about the future, it prevents us from realizing we can be truly happy, and start living RIGHT NOW.

Now I’m not saying you should take your entire life’s savings: buy a Leica, a ticket around the world for a year, and eschew all of your life’s responsibilities. Far from it. I still encourage you to be frugal, thrifty, and save up for your future self.

Rather, what I am trying to say is don’t let saving for the future distract you from that fact that you can truly live a productive and happy life as a photographer and human being RIGHT NOW.

I know personally I used to have a lot of “if only” statements when it came to my photography. For example:

  • If only I had more money, then I could buy a new camera, which would help me be more creative, and finally start making good photos.
  • If only I had a Leica, then I wouldn’t look so creepy shooting street photography, then I would have more confidence, and then I could finally start making good photos.
  • If only I lived in Paris, then I could be inspired by the city, and finally make good photos.
  • If only I had $1,000,000 saved up, then I could travel the world, and escape my boring cubicle office-job, and finally make good photos.

However there is no reason why we can’t make good photos right now. Presumably you already own a camera (even a smartphone is good enough), and have at least 1 hour of free time a day (if you say you don’t have at least an hour of free time a day I call bullshit). Why can’t you start making photos right now?

Sure not all of the photos are going to be great– but I think the process of shooting everyday is the right habit to have. Keep stacking that habit of shooting everyday, until it becomes second nature. You’re not going to make a good photograph everyday– but that isn’t the point.

I think photography is a beautiful tool to augment our life’s experiences. When I have a camera in hand, I am much more cognizant of the beauty around me, and it forces me to live life more purposefully.

And once again the beauty of street photography is that we have no excuses– we can do it literally anywhere. We aren’t doing landscape photography or wildlife photography here. You don’t need a double-rainbow in the background to make an interesting photo.

Even if you live in a boring neighborhood– look to the work of William Eggleston and Lee Friedlander (who made great street photographs in boring areas).

And ultimately at the end of the day remember– it doesn’t have to be “street photography”. To me, as long as what you photograph you’re passionate about– that is all that matters.

6. Real leisure is active, not passive

“Even the leisure of some men is engrossed; in their villa or on their couch, in the midst of solitude, although they have withdrawn from all others, they are themselves the source of their own worry; we should say that these are living, not in leisure, but in busy idleness.” – Seneca

One of the big lessons I’ve learned about happiness and living a fulfilled life is that “leisure” (free time) is best used doing something active (photographing, writing, spending time with loved ones) rather than doing something passive (watching TV, trashy entertainment magazines, etc).

There is something in psychology called “flow” – in which when we are totally engrossed in an activity, it gives us a sense of euphoria. It is often a task which is challenging that pushes our human potential. People often fall into states of flow (or being “in the zone”) when reading books, writing, photographing, rock climbing, running, etc. We are most engaged, happy, and productive when we are active.

I know a lot of people daydream of finally taking a vacation and just relaxing on the beach with a Corona and lime. But ironically enough that doesn’t bring us real happiness (despite what the advertisers of alcoholic beverages and hotel resorts want you to think about).

When you are tired after a long day of work, drinking a beer and vegging out in front of the TV isn’t going to make you feel better. It will just make you feel more lethargic, tired, and dead. Rather, when you are tired– do something active. Go to the gym, walk around the block and take some photos, do something active.

I think we often make the wrong assumption that doing any sort of activity that is vigorous will just tire us out. I think this is the wrong assumption– as activities that we are truly excite us tend to invigorate us and give us energy.

For example, when I go to the gym (which takes a lot of physical and mental energy) – I feel much more pumped-up after I leave the gym. Similarly when I often don’t feel like going out and shooting, I just tell myself that I will go on a walk (and I bring my camera along). However once I start walking, I start seeing photos, and then I start getting excited, and start making photos. Once I get home, I feel this sense of excitement and glow eminating from inside my body– which makes me feel truly alive.

So remember: if you have any free time, spend it doing something active (ie. taking photos).

7. Seize the day

“Why do you delay,” says he, “Why are you idle? Unless you seize the day, it flees.” Even though you seize it, it still will flee; therefore you must vie with time’s swiftness in the speed of using it, and, as from a torrent that rushes by and will not always flow, you must drink quickly.” – Seneca

For a while I had the words “carpe diem” (seize the day in Latin) posted to my desk. Everyday when I was feeling shitty, tired, or unmotivated– I would look at those words, and it would suddenly give me a fire in my belly.

Seize the day.

Everyday is a brand new day, a new blank slate. It doesn’t matter if you wasted your time the day before. I know a waste a lot of my time, and often go to sleep with regrets (not making more photos during the day, not going to the gym, not spending more time with my loved ones, and not writing/reading more). But everyday I go to sleep and tell myself, “Tomorrow will be a better day.” And when I wake up, I bless God for giving me a chance at another day, and I then tell myself to seize the day, and not waste another moment.

Seneca says in the quote above that we need to seize the day, and we shouldn’t be idle. Not only that but even though we seize the day– time still slips away in-between our finger-tips.

Imagine if you were lost in a desert. You’ve walked for miles and hours on end, with no salvation in sight. You are so parched, that your throat feels like sandpaper. Suddenly, an Oasis of water appears. Theres is a waterfall of icy, fresh, and crystal-clear water. But the catch: the waterfall will only last for 30 more seconds. You then run over, and inhale as much water as you possibly can for those 30 minutes (knowing that there won’t be any more) – and you will have to journey for many more miles on end (without the hope of any more water).

I think that is an apt analogy for our lives and time. It is constantly slipping away. Even if we make our best efforts to effectively use our time, attention, and concentration– we are still losing it.

Sometimes life can feel like an uphill battle, but my suggestion is this: live life furiously, to the fullest, without hesitation, intentionally, and gratefully. Be present in whatever you are doing, and be gracious of every moment time has given you to live your life. Because before long, you will be dead and no longer able to appreciate the joys of everyday life.

8. The difference of living long (versus existing long)

“There is no reason for you to think that any man has lived long because he has grey hairs or wrinkles; he has not lived long—he has existed long.” – Seneca

I know a lot of photographers who claim that they’ve been photographing for “30 years”. But have they really been photographing for 30 years? Or have they been simply making a few snapshots here and there (only on the weekends or when they travel to Yosemite or Paris) over 30 years.

Age is a funny thing. A lot of people often think that old age leads to wisdom. It can be a contributing factor– but not always the case.

I know a lot of older people who have lived life unpurposefully– and have lots of resentment and regret in their life. As Seneca has mentioned, they haven’t lived long– they have merely existed a long time.

So I think what our buddy Seneca is telling us the following: It doesn’t matter how long you exist, it matters how purposefully you live. For example, someone who is 30 years old (and discovered that he only has 2 years left to live) and spent those 2 years living meaningfully and purposefully could die happier than someone who lived 80 years (living a life full of regret not doing what they’re truly passionate about).

Living a long life is overrated. Who cares if you live to be 100 years old, if you just spend all of that time watching television, listening to the demands of others, and never making time for yourself and what makes you feel truly alive?

Another analogy one of the Stoics give us (forget if it is Seneca or Marcus Aurelius) is that life is like a play: it doesn’t matter how much time we are given on-stage. What matters more is how good our acting is. So it is better to be given 5 minutes on stage (and give a great performance) than if you’re given a lead-role and have an hour on stage (and give a shitty performance).

Life is the same way. Don’t yearn to live a long life– yearn to live a meaningful life.

And you can do that starting now.

9. Imagine you were given a second shot at life

You don’t want to be an old man (or woman) on his/her deathbed– regretting life like the following:

“Decrepit old men beg in their prayers for the addition of a few more years; they pretend that they are younger than they are; they comfort themselves with a falsehood, and are as pleased to deceive themselves as if they deceived Fate at the same time. But when at last some infirmity has reminded them of their mortality, in what terror do they die, feeling that they are being dragged out of life, and not merely leaving it. They cry out that they have been fools, because they have not really lived, and that they will live henceforth in leisure if only they escape from this illness; then at last they reflect how uselessly they have striven for things which they did not enjoy, and how all their toil has gone for nothing” – Seneca

I once read a story of an emperor, king, or some other powerful person in ancient Rome in which every time he went to bed, he would have servants put him in a casket, parade him around the palace and say something like, “Oh, he has lived, he has truly lived!” And then the man goes to bed (in the coffin), literally imagining his death in a visceral, vivid way. I think he did this to remind himself that death was just around the corner, and that he should live a virtuous life. And when he woke up the next morning, he literally felt as if God gave him a second chance in life, and would live more vigorously.

Funny enough, I heard that there are some people in Asia (not sure if Japan or Korea) where they give “mock funerals” to people who are depressed or feel purposeful in life. They literally invite the entire family and give a fake funeral, with friends and family giving speeches in terms of how meaningful the person was in their life, and how much they were sad that they were dead. Then the person (fake dead person) would be put into a casket, and literally nailed shut. After a few hours, they open up the casket– and the person is “reborn” – given a second chance at life. Apparently this gives people a psychological kick-in-the-ass, better helping them appreciate their lives before they do something stupid like commit suicide by jumping in front of a train or off a bridge.

I’m not telling you to do something similar by having people act out your mock funeral. But what I am saying is that every time you go to sleep at night– literally ask yourself, “If I died tonight in my sleep, would I regret anything in life?” And if you say “yes” – write down or think about what you will regret not having done more (taken more photos, published a photography book, done an exhibition, traveled more, wrote more, read more, spent more time with friends and family, etc). And if you happen to wake up in the morning, bless God that you were given another shot at life. And true story– I know some people who are older (75+) who do have a fear of going to sleep at not waking up the next morning.

I fly a lot– and with all of these news of planes crashing, getting hijacked, etc– I often get a slight tinge of fear (and death) when I fly– especially when I’m taking off or if there’s a lot of turbulence in the air. So when I’m taking off on my flight (and the cabin crew yells at me to turn off my phone or iPad) I close my eyes, relax, and imagine: If I died on this plane, is there something in life I would regret? Fortunately it is most often “no” (I wouldn’t die with regrets) – but there are times it is “yes” (in those cases– I tell myself if I am given a second shot at life and land safely, I won’t waste my time anymore).

I also read something from Marcus Aurelius (in “The Meditations”) that every time you kiss your child to sleep, imagine that he/she won’t wake up the next morning and will die in his/her sleep (a lot of children died back then).

Thinking about death can come off as grotesque– and talking about death is a huge taboo, especially in the west. However the more I think we can have mature conversations about death– it can give us a huge upside: focusing more on life and living intentionally.

So psychologically imagine your death (by closing your eyes, imagining the details vividly, with sermons being given, your family weeping, you being tossed into the grave, etc) – and then open your eyes and tell yourself: “Time to stop wasting time for shit that doesn’t matter. It is time for me to go forth on my life’s task– and give every ounce of energy, life, and soul to accomplish it.”

10. The only time that exists is the present

“Present time is very brief, so brief, indeed, that to some there seems to be none; for it is always in motion, it ever flows and hurries on; it ceases to be before it has come, and can no more brook delay than the firmament or the stars, whose ever unresting movement never lets them abide in the same track. The engrossed, therefore, are concerned with present time alone, and it is so brief that it cannot be grasped, and even this is filched away from them, distracted as they are among many things.” – Seneca

The only thing that is certain is the present moment. The future is uncertain (we don’t know what will happen), the past has already occurred (we can’t change it). The only thing we have control over is the present moment. How we currently are thinking, how we are feeling, what we are doing in the moment.

Whenever I get distracted, I always am able to get back to my course of thinking by simply saying: “What am I doing in my present moment to improve my condition, to improve my thinking, or living more creatively?”

For example, if I am feeling dissatisfied with my photography (which I am often) – I will think, “What can I do in this present moment to improve my photography?”

Upon thinking that– I might literally grab my camera, exit my apartment, and go on a walk around the block and snap photos for around 30 minutes. I might go to my library and pull out a random photography book that inspires me, and delve into it– and gain inspiration that way. Or I might do research on a photographer who interests me, and add to my “Learn to the Masters” series for my blog.

I have a saying for myself: “Tomorrow is never.” If I ever tell myself, “Oh– I’ll just do it later or tomorrow” – I never end up getting it done. So I either do something immediately, or just forget about it. For example, if I want to spend more time with Cindy – rather than just saying to myself, “Oh– I’ll take her out on a date sometime” – I’ll do something in the present (give her a phone call or text message asking how she is doing, writing her a card, or surprising her with a bar of delicious chocolate (at least 70% or higher). If I am unhappy with my physical condition at the present moment, I’ll go to the gym and workout, do a few push ups in my room, or just be conscientious to watch my diet for the rest of the day.

Focus on what you can do in the present moment, because that is all that exists.

11. Don’t get distracted; stay on-course

“What if you should think that that man had had a long voyage who had been caught by a fierce storm as soon as he left harbour, and, swept hither and thither by a succession of winds that raged from different quarters, had been driven in a circle around the same course? Not much voyaging did he have, but much tossing about.” – Seneca

I think nowadays one of the most difficult things to do is not get distracted. Distractions are pervasive, through emails, text messages, social media, etc.

I think in our photography it is easy to get distracted as well. While I do believe in the idea of experimentation– sometimes experimenting too much can detract us. Just like Seneca says, life is like a voyage in a ship. We can be tossed and thrown around in different directions, but still end up where we started.

Rather, I think in our voyage in photography– we should always advance our work.

For example, one of the biggest distractions that I personally face in my photography is being tempted by different equipment. Digital, 35mm film, medium-format film, smartphone, etc. Then there is switching between black and white and color.

I think one of the things that has given me the greatest focus and sense of direction is choosing one camera, one lens, one film – and pursuing a single project with it. For example in my “Suits” and “Only in America” series it is all being done in a film Leica MP, 35mm f/2 lens, and Kodak Portra 400 film.

For a project I’m doing around my house (just urban landscapes of Berkeley), I’m using a medium-format film Hasselblad and Kodak Portra 400 120 film.

For miscellaneous documentary work I do, I tend to shoot black and white digital (either on a Fujifilm XT–1 or a Ricoh GRD V).

I find that is another benefit of working on a project: you are working towards something, and making progress.

I think it can often be a bit distracting to be doing too many different types of photography. When I started shooting, I did everything: wedding, portraiture, macro, landscape, HDR, selective-color, and street photography. I was like a Wal-Mart photographer, okay at every genre (but not really good or focused in on one). The biggest change in my photography was when I realized that street photography was my passion, and I decided to ignore all other types of photography– and to just focus on my street photography.

There is also a similar analogy called the “Helsinki bus theory” – in which a photographer’s life starts off at a bus stop. Then there are all these different bus routes that go in different directions. You hop on one bus (which is a style of photography), but then you might pre-maturely jump off the bus, to simply get on a different bus route (a different style of photography). But the more you jump off and go on different buses, you never really find your style or vision as a photographer. The author’s piece of advice? “Stay on the fucking bus.”

I think while having lots of options and flexibilities can be exciting– the real creativity comes from constraints, and having fewer options.

So avoid distractions in your life and photography, whether it is spending too much time on social media (Flickr, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, etc), or blogs (gear rumor sites, gear review sites, reddit), or anything else which distracts you from your artistic purpose.


Remember, life is short. You never know when you will die. Do you want to be 80 years old, on your deathbed, and regret not having traveled more, having photographed more, and having lived life more purposefully?

I think the secret to living a life full of energy, fulfillment, and progress is to eliminate what is a distraction from your life– whether it be negative people, bullshit on social media, or anything which pulls you away from what is important in your life (whether it be photography, writing, reading, spending time with people who you love).

You might die tomorrow, you never know. So live life to the fullest. Be selfish and greedy with your time – and invest that energy, time, and attention into doing meaningful creative work. Society will be benefitted as a whole. Live for the common good, and creatively thrive.

You have no limits, but your days are limited. Don’t waste it– go and seize the day and shoot last today were your last!

Books on Stoicism

If you are interested in learning more about Stoicism, these are the books I recommend reading:

  1. Letters from a Stoic
  2. On the Shortness of Life
  3. The Emperor’s Handbook (Modern translation of “The Meditations”)

Articles on Stoicism

Here are some articles I’ve written on this blog on Stoicism:

Chapter 2– coming soon, stay tuned :) You can also read more articles I’ve written on street photography philosophy.