“Letters from a Street Photographer” #6: How to Live a Purposeful Life

Provincetown, 2014
Provincetown, 2014

Tied into the previous chapter on how to live a happy life– I also encourage trying to live a purposeful life.

What is the difference between a happy life and a purposeful life?

I think simply a “happy” life is to be free of pain, to be overall joyful, and to be free of stress and concern of how others think of you.

However when it comes to a “purposeful” life– I think it is to live a life not for just yourself– but for others.

As a social creature, we often gain the most happiness by helping others. And I think one of the biggest secrets to a “happy” life – is to live a purposeful life. By living a purposeful life– we not only help build value, love, and help others – but we also benefit ourselves (we are “happy’ as a by-product.

Marcus Aurelius also shares the same ideology– know that you have a purpose in this world. And it isn’t to live for yourself– but to live and serve others:

1. Seek to benefit others (not yourself)

Growing up in America– it has always been a “winner take all” philosophy. From a young age– although collaboration and teamwork were appreciated, there was very much a philosophy of trying to help yourself (before helping others).

However in my personal life– I have discovered that while it is important to please yourself– I have always made excuses for not helping others.

For example, I would tell myself: “Oh – I know I should probably help out others who are less fortunate than me– but I barely have enough for myself.” I lived a very selfish life (only living for myself) and thinking to myself, “One day when I am a millionaire, then I can finally start helping others.”

However as time has gone on– I have realized that there is never an “ideal” time to help others (or the community).

Nowadays I try to structure my life around trying to help others. Trying to benefit others.

I think one of the best ways that I help a large scale of people is through this blog. So in my life– I make this blog and my writing the #1 priority. Whenever other opportunities come up, I always make them #2 after the blog.

a) Focus on benefitting the whole

Marcus Aurelius said it poetically that,

“Nature insists upon whatever benefits the whole.”

If you are helping the “whole” – you are helping yourself (and everybody else out there).

Marcus Aurelius also talks a lot about the “common good” – that we should live our lives serving others, what is best for others (before ourselves).

Marcus Aurelius expands on these points by sharing by first (doing good for others) and secondly (being flexible if there is a better way):

“Arm yourself for action with these two thoughts: first, do only what your sovereign and lawgiving reason tells you is for the good of others; and second, do not hesitate to change course if someone is able to show you where you are mistaken or point out a better way. But be persuaded only by arguments based on justice and the common good, never by what appeals to your taste for pleasure or popularity.”

Marcus Aurelius reminds us that we should always make our decision-making on “justice” and the “common good” – rather than what will simply be “popular” or what will bring us the most pleasure.

Another great quote from Marcus Aurelius expands on the point that what doesn’t hurt the community (won’t hurt us– the individual):

What does not hurt the community cannot hurt the individual. Every time you think you’ve been wronged, apply this rule: if the community isn’t hurt by it, then neither am I. But what if the community is hurt? Then don’t be angry with the person who caused the injury. Just help him to see his mistake.”

I think in the East– there is very much a philosophy of helping the community, helping your family– and helping others. I generally find people in the East a lot happier than people in the West because of this. People in the West generally are more individualistic (which is good for entrepreneurship and building things of value) – but often leads to depression and a sense of loneliness.

b) Doing good for yourself (first) can also help society as a whole

However at the same time– Marcus Aurelius does acknowledge the importance that doing good for an individual (sometimes yourself) is also good for the community:

Whatever happens to a particular individual is good for society as a whole. Not only this, but if you look closely, you will see that what is good for one benefits others as well. To understand this, you must think of ”good” in utilitarian rather than in moral terms.

For example: let’s say that if you want to be more productive in your life (whether it be photography, writing, or your work) you need 8 hours of sleep a night. Mostly you get by on 6 hours (but aren’t as efficient). But getting 8 hours a night seems like a waste– and seems like you could be better using those 2 hours a day to help others.

However that isn’t the case. If you made it a priority to get your 8-hours of sleep a night, you would ultimately be more productive– and end up helping out others more.

Another case when it comes to photography: let’s say that street photography is your ultimate passion and nothing else in your life makes you as happy as it. If you go even a day without shooting– you feel sad and miserable.

But let’s say you have all these “obligations” from friends, work, and family that prevent you from shooting street photography. As a by-product of not shooting street photography (on a daily basis)– you get into a shitty mood, act grumpy, and there is an aura of negativity around you. This ultimately makes others feel negative and miserable– and everyone is hurt.

So in this sense– also remember that you need to do what is good for you (if your intention is to help out the “common good” or society).

c) Still make the “common good” your focus

However there are certain things, which are “self-gratuitous” – meaning that we can do certain things for the sake of it (to only benefit yourself– with no intention of benefitting others).

I feel that is quite selfish. After all, what is the point of shooting photography if you never plan to show it to anybody else but yourself? I think we are all ultimately put on this planet to help one another (not ourselves).

Therefore I feel that by you not sharing your photos with others– you take away the opportunity for people to be inspired, mesmerized, emotionally affected, and captured in awe by your images.

Marcus Aurelius puts it well:

“What is useless for the hive is of no use to the bee.”

Always make the “common good” or society your main goal. We are nothing but a bunch of bees– and the whole planet is our hive. Wouldn’t it be silly if a bee lived its life for itself– and didn’t bring back any honey to the hive? Of course– that would be preposterous. Think of us in the same way.

Marcus Aurelius expands on the importance of focusing your actions to benefit the whole of the community:

“Just as you are part of the whole community, each of your actions should contribute to the whole life of the community. Any action of yours that fails, directly or remotely, to make this contribution, fragments the life of the community and jeopardizes its unity. It’s a rebellious act, like the man in a town meeting who holds himself aloof and refuses to come to any agreement with his neighbors.”

So when it comes to your photography, know that you want to make it social. Don’t just hoard your photos to yourself. Share them with others. Interact with other photographers. Critique their photos (positively and constructively)– and ask for others to critique your images (they will benefit from learning to critique your images as well). Do group exhibitions and group shows. Get people involved. Get people active. Help others– and benefit the whole street photography community (whether it just be in your own neighborhood, city, town, country, social media, or the whole world).

d) Don’t seek credit

We might put in all this effort, hard work– and strain, but not be “rewarded” or “thanked” for it.

But that isn’t the purpose of what we do. We as street photographers want to show the beauty (and pain) of everyday life– and for our images to add meaning (emotional, philosophical, or psychological) to our viewers.

I feel that knowing that you are doing good deeds as a photographer (either making inspirational images, helping younger photographers, or building up a photography community) is the reward in itself. You don’t need anyone to give you a pat on the back.

We are born to serve others– and the reward of helping others (is the act in itself of giving).

I sometimes feel a bit frustrated and annoyed that I am not always given a pat on the back for helping others– but at those moments, I remember that I was put on this world to help others (not myself). And I remember the simple soft glow of warmth I get (from myself) of helping others. That little warm glow is enough to propel me to do more good deeds – knowing that it might help out others just a little bit.

Marcus Aurelius expands on this point of doing good deeds for its own sake:

“Having done a good deed, what more do you want? isn’t it enough to have acted I harmony with your nature? Do you need to be paid for it as well? Do the eyes demand payment for seeing, or the feet wages for walking? Just as these organs were made for what they do and find fulfillment in doing what they were made to do so, so too are men by nature for one another. Whenever they perform good deed or contribute to the common good in some way, they do what they were made to do and receive all that is theirs.”

As a side-note, the impetus that drives me to do this blog is to please just one reader. I know that there will be thousands of people who will disagree with me, hate my writing, or what I am sharing.

But as long as I help that one 13-year old aspiring street photographer gain one piece of insight, I have done my job. I also make it a point to write for myself– meaning, I write what I wanted to read (when I was younger). All the things I write on my blog is information I wish I knew if I started street photography (and life) all-over again.

Marcus Aurelius drills it down– that there tends to be three types of people in the world:

  • a) People who only help out others (wanting to get credit that he/she is a good person and being recognized for it)
  • b) Someone who helps others with good intent (but secretly wants something back in return)
  • c) Someone who helps for the sake of it (and forgets that he has helped someone else).

We want to become like person “C” – giving for the sake of it, and not remembering that we gave or helped the other person. Marcus Aurelius uses the analogy of a grape vine that produces grapes (for the sake of it) – without asking for anything in return:

“There are three kinds of men in this world. The first, when he helps someone out, makes it known that he expects something in return. The second would never be so bold, but in his mind he knows what he has done and considers the other person to be in his debt. The third somehow doesn’t realize what he has done, but he’s like a vine that bears its fruit and asks for nothing more than the pleasure of producing grapes. A horse gallops, a dog hunts, a bee makes honey, one man helps another, and the vine bears fruit in due season. You ought to be like that third fellow, who does good without giving it a second thought.”

Takeaway point:

Think how you can add value to the lives of others (before helping yourself). Think how you can help other street photographers– and realize the more you give, the more you will ultimately receive in return.

For a good book related to being selfless (and becoming “successful”) I recommend the book: “Give and Take”.

2. Self-growth by helping others

One of the biggest advantages I have found of helping others– is that it has also helped me grow photographically and as a human being.

Whenever I do a comprehensive article (like my “Learn from the Masters” series)– they take an insane amount of time, focus, and effort. However in writing the article, I better internalize the lessons from those photographers– and I learn by writing and teaching the information to others.

Marcus Aurelius reminds us– that in helping others, we end up helping ourselves:

“No one tires of being helped, and acts that are consistent with nature, like helping others, are their own reward. How then can you grow tired of helping others when by doing so you help yourself?”

Have you ever tutored a friend, a younger cousin, or a sibling (in Math, English, or whatever)– and realized that after tutoring them, you better learned the material yourself? I have found that tutoring my friends for some of my college classes– I ended up doing better on the tests. After all, you need to best learn the information yourself before teaching it to others.

But you might think to yourself, “Oh– I want to help teach others, but I am not ready. I am not an expert, I don’t know everything– and there are limits to my knowledge.”

Takeaway point:

No matter how well versed you are in any topic, whether it be street photography, philosophy, economics, math, sociology, business, or life– you will always have holes in your knowledge.

My suggestion: regardless of how little you think you know– your thoughts and mind is still of value to others. Teach others before you feel you are fully “ready” and learn along the way.

I think also ultimately the best way to become a truly great photographer is to constantly learn– to never quit learning. The moment you feel you know everything is the moment you know nothing.

3. Don’t stress too much about your own life

One of the biggest stresses I often get is this: I want to focus my entire life, soul, and energy into this blog – but sometimes I worry about my bills, if I will have enough to put into savings, if I will become broke and become homeless, if I suddenly have my girlfriend leave me (because I am so poor), or that I will simply starve and die on the streets.

I know this is quite radical– but I do get these irrational thoughts in my head all the time.

I think the fear that I have of helping others is that I want to protect myself and my own interests (before helping others).

However at the same time in my personal experience– the more I have focused on helping others, the more others have ended up helping me out (and prevented me from becoming homeless).

For example, on any given day I have tons of responsibilities, emails, logistical, and financial things to take care of. Every morning (when I roll reluctantly out of bed) and start my morning coffee, my mind is often crowded for the unanswered emails (I promised to return), the appointments I promised (need to follow-up), and financial burdens I need to take care of.

However the days when I jump straight into emails– I will feel “productive” spending 3 hours dealing with my logistical things– but I feel dissatisfied at the end of the day (because I haven’t created any “real” value for others).

Nowadays I often just say “fuck it” to myself– I am going to focus on my blog.

So now, I have tried to structure my life around blogging and writing. I make blogging my #1 priority in my life – and I think as a result, I perhaps have had some financial setbacks as a result (in the short term at least). But I do have faith that as long as I continue to build value for others and the community– I will continue to be able to write, prevent myself from homelessness, and live a life that makes me feel personally fulfilled.

Marcus Aurelius also shares his thoughts in knowing that contributing and helping the “common good” and society– will ultimately benefit him and that his “life will flow smoothly”:

“Realizing that I am part of just such a universe, I will calmly accept whatever happens. And because I am related to the other parts like myself, I will not seek my own advantage at their expense, but I will study to know what is our common good and bend every effort to advance that good and to dissuade others from acting against it. If I am successful in this, my life is bound to flow smoothly, as one would expect for the dutiful citizen who is always looking out for others and enjoys whatever work his community asks of him.”

Takeaway point:

The worst we really have to worry in life is becoming homeless and dying.

Fortunately the reality is that this rarely happens to anybody. Even failed entrepreneurs are able to find themselves with some sort of family/friend support, perhaps crashing on their couch for a few months, before they can get back on their feet.

Think to yourself: “What am I really afraid of? What will prevent me from doing my life’s work– and are those fears really necessary?”

Identify your fears, crush them– realize how irrational they are, and just head straight to the finish line in terms of fulfilling your life’s goal in photography.

4. Do your good deeds today (not tomorrow)

I think many of us want to do good deeds, but we always put them off until later.

However realize that you shouldn’t delay helping others and doing good deeds. Do them now. Do them today. Don’t do them tomorrow. Tomorrow doesn’t exist. Tomorrow is never.

Marcus Aurelius reminds us to not procrastinate on doing our good deeds, and contributing our talents to helping others. He reminds us that our days are numbered, and we should always think about death (as a good way to keep us motivated to do good):

“Remember how long you have procrastinated, and how consistently you have failed to put to good use your suspended sentence from the gods. It is about time you realized the nature of the universe (of which you are a part) and of the power that rules it (to which your part owes its existence). Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with It.

In every deed we do, whether it is helping out another photographer, giving compliments to strangers on the streets, or sharing your insights about street photography – do it as if it were your last:

“Every hour be firmly resolved, as becomes a Roman and a man, to accomplish the work at hand with fitting and unaffected dignity, goodwill, freedom, and justice. Banish from your thoughts all other considerations. This is possible if you perform each act if it were your last, rejecting every frivolous distraction, every denial of the rule of reason, every pretentious gesture, vain show, and whining complaint against the decrees of fate. Do you see what little is required a man to live a well-tempered and a god-fearing life? Obey these precepts, and the gods will ask for nothing more”

Avoiding regret is also a great way to live life:

“Before you act, ask yourself: ’What are the likely consequences of this act? Will I later have cause to regret it?’ A little while and I will be dead and all will be gone and forgotten.”

Takeaway point:

Think about the thing you can do right now to avoid regrets in your life in street photography.

Perhaps you can go on a walk around your block and make some photos. Perhaps you can finally order that photography book you’ve been eyeing on Amazon (but thought it was too expensive). Perhaps you can send a text message to some photographers you know and schedule a meet-up later on in that week (or even better yet, call them and see if they are free for a quick coffee or drink– and you can talk photography and critique one anothers’ photos).

Or perhaps you can get all that film dropped off at the lab you’ve been stockpiling, or dropping off film at the lab, or finally going through and editing (selecting) all that back-logged street photographs you have digitally on Lightroom.

Think what you can do in the present moment to advance your street photography a little bit forward.

5. Limit your activities

We have only a certain amount of hours in a day, a limited amount of energy, and a limited amount of effort we can put into our work everyday.

I think the common mistake that us photographers make (myself included) is that we overburden ourselves. We try to do everything. We try to shoot street photography, start a magazine, start a blog, manage social media, teach photography (online or offline), do commercial work, manage our personal/family lives, work (either as a full-time photographer or a regular day-job), and all these other responsibilities.

I very often feel overwhelmed. There is so much I want to do for the street photography to help out– by writing articles, to doing interviews, do making videos, to making tutorials, to organizing meet-ups, teaching workshops, and possibly even creating products or magazines.

But I think I have realized that I should just stick to my core competency– which is teaching. And I believe I do my best teaching through writing on this blog, through some educational YouTube videos, and also through teaching workshops.

Marcus Aurelius brings up a point that if we are to be happy– we should limit our activities to a few– to stick to what we are good at, to stick to what makes us happy and fulfilled, and know that we shouldn’t overburden ourselves:

“Democritus said, ‘If you would be happy, limit your activities to a few.’ Is it not better simply to do what is necessary and no more, to limit yourself to what reason demands of a social animal and precisely in the manner reason dictates?”

Marcus Aurelius expands in the importance of doing a few things (but doing them well). Not only that, but subtracting the unnecessary things from our life:

This adds to the happiness of doing a few things the satisfaction of having done them well. Most of what we say and do is unnecessary anyway; subtract all that lot, and look at the time and contentment you’ll gain. On each occasion, therefore, a man should ask himself, ‘Do I really need to say or do this?’ In this way, he will remove not only unnecessary actions, but also the superfluous ideas that inspire needless acts.”

I think for myself– the biggest time suck (mentally and time-wise) is trying to figure out ways to make more money. I tell myself that I am trying to make more money to become more “financially secure” – and perhaps save money for a future house, to provide for my future family– whatever. But I think this makes me time-travel and think too much about the future– rather than worrying about the present moment. I forget to enjoy my life in the current moment, and focus on my life’s task (teaching).

I think there are many things I can personally subtract from my life, which include:

  • Trying to earn more money
  • Trying to please people (who don’t like me, but I wish they did)
  • Spending time with negative and toxic people
  • Meeting other people (with the hope of financial/status gain) – instead of meeting people I genuinely like
  • Trying to gain more followers on social media (and this blog)
  • Trying to become the world’s most famous street photographer

I think everything in this list above is quite useless– and I can subtract from my life. By subtracting all of these things, I can focus on the writing, blogging, and content-creation, which I think brings the biggest amount of value to the street photography community.

Takeaway point:

Think about the unnecessary things you can subtract from your life. This can include “meetings” (that often lead nowhere), business ideas to earn more money (if you already earn enough money to make a comfortable living), trying to please other people, trying to focus on more “marketing” for social media or something else.

Try to focus on what truly makes you happy– which truly makes you thrive. This can be shooting on the streets, meeting other street photographers, curating photography, or educating younger photographers.

Subtract the unnecessary– and all you are left with what is necessary in our life to thrive as a street photographer and human being.

Conclusion

So sometimes realize that all of your good deeds and acts won’t be recognized by others. But remind yourself– like a bee: you were born for the hive, to help the hive (not to just help yourself).

At the same time, make sure that you are happy, and well– because that will help you be more productive as a photographer (and a member of the community and of society). So for example, if you find that sleeping 8 hours a night is good for your life and health, focus on that. If you find regular physical exercise to help you (I find this tremendously important)– dedicate to that daily. If you find meditation or prayer (or taking occasional naps) being good for your productivity– focus on that. Know that all of these things to take care of your own self well being will ultimately help others.

There are so many ways you can benefit others (no matter your experience or level as a photographer). Here are some ideas:

  • Give a critique to another street photographer (online or in-person) that is constructively critical: Try to tell them what you find interesting about the image, and what you wish was done differently. Remind the person that this is just your opinion and that you ultimately want to help them (not put them down).
  • Give a camera away: If you know someone who wants to learn or pursue photography (and you have an extra camera) – give it away to that aspiring photographer (rather than just selling it online for a few hundred bucks). This will do more for the common good, society, and that person’s life than anything else. I have given away a lot of cameras in the past (Canon Rebel XT, Olympus Pen Mini, Canon 5D, Leica M6, Ricoh GR1v) and it has brought me so much more happiness and self-fulfillment (rather than any instances of buying myself my own camera). And now I have the peace of mind knowing that camera is being put to good use– to create more beautiful street photography.
  • Volunteer your time to a local photography club/school: Regardless of your experience in street photography (or photography) – offer to donate some time to a local photography club, school, or community center. Share your personal experiences and share the “Gospel of street photography.” Spread the good word– clear misconceptions, and just inspire others to pursue this beautiful art of street photography.
  • Start a blog and share your experiences: The way I treat my blog is that it is a journal for myself– of the things that I have learned about street photography (and life). I am constantly evolving, changing, and growing. Along the way I have written some things that have helped build value in the life of other photographers. Similarly– try to do the same. Just start a blog (I recommend wordpress.com) and share your personal journey in street photography. Not only will it help you articulate the lessons you are learning in your street photography, but it can also be of help to other people who will come across and read your blog.
  • Host a local street photography meet-up: Another strategy I recommend is to host a local street-photography meet-up. Try to contact some local photographers (who might be interested in street photography) – and tell them to meet at 6pm on Friday for a coffee at a cafe. Tell them to bring their cameras, their photos, and ideas ready to share with one another. It doesn’t need to be formal. You can chat and get to know one another, constructively critique one another’s’ photos, and also go out and shoot together (and grab dinner and some drinks afterwards). Try to aim to do this at least once a week or once a month– and you will build a beautiful community.

What else brings you a sense of purpose in your street photography? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

Related Articles on Happiness

If you enjoyed this article, here are some hand-picked articles I have regarding seeking happiness in street photography (and life)

My favorite books on Stoicism

If you want to learn more about Stoic strategies, I recommend reading the following books:

1. “The Emperor’s Handbook” (A modern translation of “The Meditations”)

Currently one of the most valuable books in my library. I have read this at least 5 times (especially in times of pain and suffering).

There are tons of translations of “The Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, but I have found this version to be the easiest to read and comprehend.

You can also find tons of free translations of “The Meditations” online.

2. “Letters from a Stoic

Also another of my favorite books of all-time (written by Seneca). If my house were burning down and I could only carry 5 books, this would be one of them.

You can also read an excellent version of “Letters from a Stoic” the Kindle for only 99 cents here.

3. “Antifragile

One of my favorite books by Nassim Taleb — which teaches us how to live and thrive in a world of uncertainty. For a related article on the book, I recommend reading: How the Philosophy of the “Barbell Theory” Can Improve Your Street Photography.

“Letters from a Street Photographer” book

I plan on producing a book (available online for free) titled: “Letters from a Street Photographer.” Each chapter will be published regularly to the blog. Here are my prior posts:

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