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.
Being alive fucking rocks
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.
You only live once
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?
The secret of happiness: the avoidance of “unhappiness”
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):
- Having a lot of money
- Having a big house
- Having fancy clothes
- Having an expensive camera
- Depending your self-worth on the opinion of others
- Having a lot of followers on social media
- Having a high-rank in your company
- Being famous and being recognized in the streets
And let me map out what makes us unhappy in life:
- Being jealous of friends, family, those who make more money than you, who are better-looking than you, and those whose life you wish you had.
- Having a shitty boss who is far too demanding, and gives you stress, anxiety, and overworks you.
- Feeling stuck in a job that you hate.
- Not feeling like we are able to fulfill our “creative potential”.
- Having expectations of others (that they will work as hard as we do).
- Feeling sorry for ourselves.
- Comparing ourselves to others.
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.
Remove 1 thing everyday
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:
1. Avoiding social media
“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.
2. Avoiding trying to earn more money
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.
Being grateful for what you have
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.
Practice an attitude of gratitude
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):
- I appreciate being given the gift of another day of life.
- I appreciate having good friends at the cafe near my house who give me free coffee (and the nice espressos I had this morning).
- I appreciate waking up in the morning next to the most beautiful woman in the world (Cindy).
- I appreciate waking up early 3am to do what I am passionate and love (writing).
- I appreciate that I am perfectly content with everything I have in my life at the moment.
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.
Don’t have preferences
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.
No choices is the ultimate freedom
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)
- I have 1 camera and 1 lens (Leica MP and 35mm f/2 lens)
- I have 1 type of film (Kodak Tri-X pushed to 1600)
- I have 1 pair of shoes (Nike Free Flyknit 4.0)
- I have 2 pairs of boxers (ExOfficio Boxer Brief)
- I have 2 pair of shirts (UNIQLO airism)
- I have 2 pairs of socks (quick-dry)
- I have 1 backpack (Thinktank Perception 15)
- I have 1 smartphone (Samsung Galaxy S6)
- I have 1 laptop-like device (currently an iPad Air)
- I have 1 watch (my beloved red Casio G-Shock)
- I have 1 book-reading device (Kindle)
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:
- I have 1 best friend (Cindy)
- I have 1 main activity (Writing)
- I have 1 main reading interest (Philosophy)
- I have 1 favorite beverage (espresso)
- I have 1 primary form of exercise (pushup)
- I have 1 “social media” to publish on (this blog)
- I wear only 1 color (black)
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.
Having no choices in photography
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.
I know nothing
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 :)