I am excited to share that after nearly 3 months on the road, I am finally back at my beautiful home in Berkeley. I just wanted to use this opportunity to share some life lessons I’ve learned during this trip, as long as some other meditations and ramblings:
1. We are tiny
I was on the plane, around 30,000 fleet in the air, and about to land in SFO. I just had a long flight: I left my friend Brian Spark’s home at 7am, after some good hugs and reflections on the trip, jumped on the subway, took the Arlanda express to the airport, waited in line to get my ticket printed, flew from Stockholm to Frankfurt (short 2 hour flight), then a longer-haul from Frankfurt to Montreal (8 hours), and then my final flight from Montreal to SFO (6 hours). I was able to watch “Mad Max” on the flight, finished re-reading “Antifragile” by Nassim Taleb, and also read a few chapters of “Letters From a Stoic” by Seneca. Great airplane reading.
Anyways, when I was looking down from the plane’s side window, I looked down. I saw tiny cars buzzing around on the freeways, I saw little tiny homes, and I had a little mini-epiphany: we are all so tiny, our problems are so insignificant, our time here on earth is short, yet we complain, bitch, and moan about the small and unimportant things in life.
Now you might be thinking: “But Eric, if you think that humanity is so small and insignificant, and everything we does doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, what is the purpose of going on in life, and contuing to work hard?”
Well for me, this is what came to mind: we are on this earth for such a short period of time, so rather than complaining about the small problems that we hvae in life, why not use that mental energy to produce something positive and good in the world?
For example, my aspiration is that after I die, hopefully some of the things I wrote in this blog, the classes that I taught, the people that I met, and the love that I showed will have touched a handful of people. Touching those few people would have made my life worth it. I used to, but no longer have any ambitions to become mega rich, to drive a BMW, to own 100’s of Leica’s, or to have a million followers on Instagram. It is hard for me to constantly remind myself this; but I need to live for others, not for myself, and I also need to fuck fame, fortune, and external recognition. I need to do what I believe my life’s task (helping others), without a need for a pat on the back.
2. Family is king
I also wanted to share you something that was probably my personal favorite part of the trip.
This summer before we left to Europe, Cindy had a great idea: why not bring our mom’s along? After all, both of them have been hard-working single moms (more or less) for their entire lives, and have never had a true “vacation.” They were always working hard, hustling, and trying to pay the bills, and to put food on the table.
So we surprised my mom and Cindy’s mom by telling them that we were sending them on a trip to Paris (one week with us), a week on their own (in Italy, where they visited Rome, Cinque Terre, and Venice), as well as about 4 days together in Lisbon (cheap Ryanair flights made the decision for us).
Anyways, it cost us a lot of money to do the trip for them. I think all-in-all, we probably invested $4,000 in their trip.
Sure I could have used that money to buy a Leica lens, a maxed-out Macbook pro (with a shiny screen), some drugs (just kidding, I don’t take drugs), or some other crazy materialistic shit for myself.
But one thing I learned in life so far: invest in experiences, not material things.
I have no idea when my mom is going to die, neither when Cindy’s mom is going to die. But I knew that before investing in their trip, it would be a memory and an experience all of us (Cindy, me, my mom, Cindy’s mom) would remember for the rest of our lives. I imagined with my mom on her deathbed and being able to look back at all the happy memories in our life, especially this epic Europe trip.
And a great investment this ended up becoming.
Paris was fucking awesome. Imagine this: in our Airbnb in Paris (Place D’Italie), Cindy and I would wake up in the morning (late, around 10–11am), to the smell of amazing cooking. Both of our moms went to the farmer’s market in the morning, and bought fresh fish, veggies, and fruit– and the smell of their amazing cooking woke us up. Cindy and I would then drag ourselves out of bed, make some coffee (thank God, the Airbnb had a Nespresso machine and we were able to pick up some cheap pods at Monoprix), and then do some writing or answer emails. We would then all have a fucking phenomenal breakfast together, have a nice chat, then explore Paris like flaneurs (no explicit plan in mind, but just exploring the city without any stress or anxiety). We would see amazing sights, sit down in a nice cafe for a lovely espresso, and just spend time together as a family. Nothing super-fancy or special– the most valuable thing was the common experiences we were able to share.
One thing that also brought me a ton of joy: seeing how much my mom enjoyed taking photos. I got a free LG G4 smartphone (for doing a YouTube review for it), and damn– the camera on the thing is pretty fucking amazing (sorry for cursing a lot, it is 5:40am, and I am still a bit jetlagged). No but seriously, it can even shoot RAW (never used it, but the image quality is much better than a Samsung S6 and iPhone 6). Anyways, the entire trip she shot nearly 20,000 photos (thank God for Google photos automatic unlimited backup), and seeing her take photos was a reminder to me; how beautiful the art of taking images is.
My mom was like a child: she saw everything in Paris like from the view of a kid. She was amazed by everything, and literally took photos of everything. Her enthusiasm was infectious.
I am such a ungrateful bastard by comparison; I’ve been to Paris a few times before, and now I feel a bit “jaded” by the exoticness out of all of it. I remember the first time when I went to Paris as a backpacking student in college (age 20) and was so amazed by everything. Now because I travel so much, I have dulled my appreciation and novelty faculties– meaning, nothing exotic really excites me much anymore.
But seeing my mom’s enthusiasm for photography rekindled that “beginner’s mind” in me. It made me realize that for a beginner, everything is new, everything is possible, and everything is exciting. Just like how a child will find a few sticks and rocks infinitely fascinating, this has taught me a lesson: appreciate life around you like it was the first time you experienced it.
So friend, don’t know if you have a mom, dad, uncle, aunt, child, or friend who is interested in photography but doesn’t have a camera (or the means to afford one). If so, help enable them with the gift of photography– give them (or buy them) a nice camera that will make it possible for them.
3. Re-discovering gratitude
Another thing that I have learned through my trip is this: happiness is about gratitude, not about having physical stuff, or doing interesting things.
What do I mean by that?
Well, you can own a BMW M3, wear a Rolex watch, own two Leica’s (one Monochrom and one M240), have a fancy house, lots of 0’s in your bank account, a beautiful wife and kids, etc– but still be unhappy.
You might compare yourself to your neighbor who is a lot richer, more good-looking, more “successful” than you– and feel jealous, and ungrateful.
But no matter how rich or poor you are, as long as you are grateful for what you have, you will be happy.
I have rediscovered gratittude from Epicurus, who is an ancient philosopher who taught me that you could be happy, regardless of your external constraints. For example, you can be a street-cleaner making minimum wage, but still be grateful for your vision, your loving friends and family, and the fact that you have a job that keeps you out of the streets. That street-cleaner can actually be happier (by being more grateful) than a CEO who earns millions of dollars (but is hungry for more, and isn’t grateful).
I am so fucking grateful for all the amazing friends I have in my life, for my health, and all the loving individuals I have met through my travels.
People ask me what is the best thing about traveling around the world, teaching workshops, and shooting street photography. To be honest, it isn’t the exotic sights that I see, the fancy restaurants I go to, the touristy landmarks, nor is it the photos that I take. It is always the people that I meet, and the relationships that I make which matter most.
For example, people also ask me, “Eric, aren’t you so bored of doing all these workshops? The content must be the same, and you must be able to teach them blindfolded. Aren’t you going to be bored of doing workshops sooner or later? Will you really do these for the rest of your life?”
Well first of all, each workshops is never the same, as the people are always different. And every workshop, I try to do something a little different– to push myself and challenge myself (and the students).
And once again, the greatest blessing of teaching workshops isn’t so much that I am “teaching” anything anybody. In-fact, I see myself more of an “enabler” – I try to enable the students to break outside of their comfort zone, but ultimately it is they who do it, not me.
Not only that, but I believe in the mantra: “When one teaches, two learn.” I learn as much from the students (if not more) than the students learn from me. The students also learn from one another, which is the benefit of pairing up students in workshops.
I’ve learned so much from the students in so many different ways. I’ve learned about difficult cultures, politics, social interactions, how to raise a family, how to have kids, how to treat others with kindness and respect, and how to not give a flying fuck of how others think of you.
Some interview questions that I learned from Tim Ferriss (from his Podcast) were these:
a) “As you’ve gotten older, what has become more important for you in life, and what has become less important?”
b) “What are the common mistakes people make in ‘Activity X’ (child-rearing, buying a home, traveling, interior design, investing in the stock market, etc)?”
Another question I ask a lot of my students (and people I meet in my travels is this one):
“What are your passions and what makes you happy in life?”
Followed up with the question:
“What makes you unhappy in life?”
I have a problem is that I engage too much in “small talk” – now I have been trying to avoid that by going straight into deep questions, and the meat of things.
For example, I try to avoid saying (at all possible costs) the question: “What do you do for a living” or “What is your job?”
Why? When you ask people what they do for a living or what their job is, what you’re really asking them is: “How much money do you earn, what is your social status in society, and are you a higher rank than me or a lower rank than me?”
I once met a guy who was a passionate street photographer (and very talented), and found out afterwards that he was a janitor for a living. He had no loss of pride in saying it, but it made me feel shallow and quite shitty.
Some people have “day jobs” just to pay the bills– but rarely is it their passion. So asking people “What do you do for a living?” is kind of a bullshit question. Why not directly go into the meat of things, and ask them what their passion is– what really turns them on in life? Then you get much deeper and meaningful questions.
I also then ask “What makes you unhappy in life?” because I believe the secret of happiness is subtracting what makes you unhappy in life, rather than what makes you happy. Another lesson learned from Nassim Taleb: the avoidance of unhappiness is more effective than the “pursuit of happiness.”
Things that I have realized made me miserable, that I have tried to cut out of my life include the following:
- Commuting (or being stuck in traffic).
- Networking meetings (only spending time with people I like instead).
- Spending time with negative and toxic people (you are the average of the 5 people closest to you, cut out the “rotten egg” from your circle of friends, you will be much happier).
- Media (television, blogs, newspapers, magazines. Rule of thumb; if there are advertisements in it, I don’t read it, or else I want to buy more shit).
- Camera gear sites (everytime I read any of them, I suddenly get strange urges to buy a new camera I don’t need).
- Sleep deprivation (learning to take naps, waking up without an alarm clock).
But anyways to go back to the gratitude point, I am grateful for the life that I have. I am trying to eliminate desire from my life, which corresponds to more peace of mind and “happiness” in my life.
4. Editing down
Another thing I’m trying to do now that I’m back home is “editing down” my life.
A funny thing: Cindy and I are considering getting rid of our car. Cindy’s younger sister got in a car accident recently, and needs to buy a new car. We’re only going to live in Berkeley for another few months (before we move to Vietnam for a year, and then perhaps France for 6 months–1 year), so we thought of this crazy idea: “Could we survive in Berkeley without a car?”
I’ve always been obsessed with cars my entire life, and like all my fellow lazy Americans, I would rather drive 1 minute to the grocery store than (slowly walk) for 5 minutes. I always try to park closest to the entrance too, because walking is such a pain.
But one thing I rediscovered in Europe which I love; most people don’t own cars. Not only that, but not owning a car is a benefit: you get less envious of others who have more expensive cars than you, you don’t need to pay insurance or gas, and you just end up walking more.
Another idea I had: I want to spend more time in Berkeley, and to keep it “local.” I think the benefit of not having a car is that I will spend more time in my own neighborhood, taking photos close to my home, and not wanting to seek anywhere “exotic”. In-fact, I’m excited to actually walk to the store, talk to more people along the way, and even take more photos.
I’m pretty sure that by not having a car, I will have much more interesting photos. I’ll take photos in the bus, the subway, walking around Berkeley, or wherever. When I’m in a car, I’m usually zoned out and removed from the outside environment.
I talked about “creative constraints” before, but I think one of the ultimate creative constraints are shooting in a small geographic location. I think for the next few months, I will try to just document my life with Cindy and life in Berkeley more intensely; to make photos that are much more inwards looking, than outwards looking.
5. I don’t need material possessions
When I’m traveling, I always bring too much stuff. I have all these excess things that I don’t really need, and every subsequent trip I decide another thing I don’t need to bring.
This trip has been the most “minimalist” I have been so far, and it has been beautiful. I then ask myself, what kind of material things do I really need in my life?
I’ve also realized that honestly, we don’t really “need” any material things. They are nice to have, but we can survive without them.
All we “need” in life is freedom from starvation, freedom from thirst, and freedom from the cold. Everything else is optional.
Things that are nice to have in my life include:
- Camera and one lens
- Smartphone (honestly this is extraneous too)
- Kindle (prefer it to carrying around a lot of paper books, although I prefer paper books)
Besides that, I realize I don’t need anything else.
I just got home literally 8 hours ago, and I’m looking at all my “stuff” on my desk, shelf, closet, whatever– and I’m thinking to myself, “Why do I need all this shit?”
The funny thing is that when I’m traveling, I don’t miss any of my stuff. In fact, having less stuff has brought me more clarity of thought and happiness to my life.
So I think for the next few months I’m going to try an experiment: everyday get rid of one thing (or better yet, donate it). I’m going to try to purge myself of clothes I haven’t worn in a long time, photography books (donate to friends, sell on eBay, or donate to library), “normal” books, and any other nick-nacks I might have lying around in home.
My grand plan is this: I want to fit all of my life’s possessions into one back (Thinktank Perception 15, which I bought with my own money in Aix-En-Provence which is fucking brilliant), and take it to Vietnam. Just two pairs of each clothes (Uniqlo airism shirt, Exofficio boxers, quick-dry socks), camera, film (I romanticize shooting only film in Vietnam), laptop, smartphone (only need it for Google Maps and What’s app), my Kindle (for books).
Honestly all of my physical stuff is superfluous.
My photo books? Sure I love them, but I can see all the images online (magnumphotos.com). I prefer real physical books, but at the end of the day– the emotional impact I get from the images is more important to me than the medium it is presented on.
My philosophy books? All can fit on my Kindle. For me, the information is what inspires me more (than the presentation). Once again, physical books are preferable and give me more peace-of-mind, but lightness is the key for me.
My “keepsake” possessions, like old photos and letters? Will probably store those with my mom (like my negatives, hand-written notes to Cindy, and any other things of sentimental value). I reckon these can all fit into a small box.
Another thing me and Cindy are trying not to do until we move to Vietnam: not buy anything new for a year.
Honestly, we deal with the disease of affluence– we have subscription to “Amazon prime” which makes it so easy to buy shit (free 2-day, sometimes same-day shipping). Our apartment is pretty small, and we’re pretty much to the max of all the physical stuff we have.
For a while I wanted to buy a grinder for my espresso machine, but I am starting to see the benefits of not buying new stuff.
For example, not buying a new grinder means that I will be more motivated to leave the house and visit cafe’s in my local neighborhood.
Not buying new clothes: re-discover the clothes I don’t wear that I already own.
Not buying new photobooks: re-read old photobooks.
I’m the ultimate sucker for consumerism and capitalism. I always desire to buy new shit. But what are some ways I can cut off this desire?
- Not read any magazines (seriously, I see so many damn Audi, BMW, Rolex advertisements in them that cause unnatural cravings, it isn’t even funny).
- Any photography blogs (99.9% of them are about reviewing cameras, selling cameras, and my rule of thumb; don’t trust any camera review site with affiliate links, even this blog).
- Not going to the mall (everytime I go to the mall, I end up buying shit I don’t need, because the advertisements sucker me into thinking if I bought a new shirt, I would be more handsome and liked).
- Interacting with rich people (rich people love to talk about their physical possessions, and the new thing they just bought. Everytime I interact with these people, I want to start buying new shit (as I compare myself with them). I want to spend time only with people who are down-to-earth, don’t flaunt any of their material possessions, and are frugal and value-oriented.
Honestly, I don’t know how this “no car”, “no buying new stuff” will work out. Apparently Leo from zenhabits.net has done it with great success. That guy is a saint, with human flaws, but promotes good values.
6. Printing more stuff
I also realized from my travels (especially after staying with my buddy Brian Sparks who has a beautiful and well-curated photobook library) that I love printed material.
The irony; I said I don’t want to travel with physical objects (like photoboks, prints, and physical books), but at the end of the day– they kickass anything digital.
I love holding a physical photobook, appreciating the smell, texture, three dimensionality, the weight, the feeling of flipping pages, and the fact that it exists in the physical world. I aspire on making more prints, photobooks, and plan on trying to keep it local (getting it all printed here in Berkeley), and perhaps selling it and giving away to friends and close ones.
I am a sucker for digital; but when it comes to putting together photo projects, I think printing small 4×6’s and making sequences is far better than doing them on some sort of digital device. Yeah, the iPad is the best thing when I’m on-the-go, but now that I will spend more time at home, I want to start covering my home, my desk, and my life with physical prints– and to give them away as much as possible.
7. When in doubt, be generous
I have this weird relationship with money. Ever since I was a kid, my parents would get into so many fights, arguments, and violent encounters due to money. We never had enough money growing up, and it caused my Dad to gamble the rent money, for my mom to beg her friends and family for money. So for me, whenever I think of money, it feels dirty, brings up bad memories from the past, and makes me think it is the “root of all evils.”
A nice quote I picked up from Seneca: “Wealth is the slave of the wise man, but the master of the fool.”
I am very fortunate that as time has gone by, the workshops have been selling out, and for the first time in my life, I actually have 0’s in my bank account. I finally have enough money that I don’t need to stress out or worry about the rent. I finally have money that I can take an uber without feeling guilty about it. I can finally eat out without feeling physical pain (I remember when I was a high-schooler or college student I would pretend not to be hungry when my friends would eat out, because I literally had no money).
So I am in an interesting position: I am now earning more money than ever, but rather than trying to become a slave to my wealth, I want to learn how to be more generous, and also cut back my own lifestyle.
I have a new heuristic (rule of thumb) in life: “When in doubt, be generous.”
For example, there are many psychological studies which show that if you spend money on others, it brings you more happiness than if you spend it on yourself.
I always find the best use of money is to make others happy. Otherwise money is quite useless.
For example, I always try to pay for my friends or family for dinner. Why? There is nothing that tastes better than a free meal, and also having 10 people get a free meal (and 1 person paying for it) brings more joy than the pain that every individual has when paying the bill.
Not only that, but the more generous you are, the more generous you inspire others to become.
For example, at my last workshop in Stockholm, I surprised the students by being sneaky and paying the whole bill for everybody. That brought a lot of love and gratittude to the room. Happy stomachs = happy lives.
The thing that actually made me the most happiest: on the last day of the workshop, one of the students, Martin, did the same thing: he paid for the entire bill for everybody.
Now I’m not saying that he wouldn’t have picked up the bill if I didn’t do so in the first place– but I’m sure that my first act of generosity might have nudged or inspired him at least a little bit.
I also have found the irony of being generous: the more generous you are with others, the more you receive in return.
So not doing generous acts as a selfish thing (expecting others to do it back to you)– but it is a unintended side-effect. And sometimes the benefits come back to you, sometimes they don’t. A great book to read on this (for free on Kindle) is Seneca’s “On Benefits.”
Also one of the life lessons I learned from Cindy in college was the concept of “Pay it forward.” When you do a random act of kindness for someone else, rather than trying to get the person to repay you the favor, you ask them to “pay it forward” by doing an act of kindness to someone else.
So to all the students who I paid for the meal, I just asked them to repay me back by taking out a friend (or group of friends) to dinner, and paying for the bill. Then these acts of kindness will cascade, kind of like a domino effect.
And what is a better use of money than to spread love, generosity, and happiness in the world?
I have also found that giving away or donating things has brought me far more happiness in my life than simply selling it. Yeah sure if I sold a camera I could make $500–800 bucks, which is nice. But the happiness I bestow upon a friend who needs a camera brings me infinitely more joy than simply having extra cash.
But don’t get me wrong, giving away stuff is painful. I am a selfish human being, who looks out for my own well-being.
But reading a lot of stoic philosophy made me realize that in life, there is really so little that I need to survive. All I need is eggs, coffee, and wifi. Everything else is optional. And these things are easy to get.
So my hope is this: to continue to build my wealth, but also continue to be more generous. I want to do more philanthropy and community-related things, and help others in need. I grew up in the lower socio-economic spectrum, but I am so grateful for all the love and help that I got from others in the community. Now I need to repay the debt, by dedicating my life in serving others.
I need to tape: “Fuck you money” to my wall. I need to do things not to seek money, but because it is genuinely helping people.
But at the same time, I don’t want to see money as an evil. Because what is money good for?
Money is good because it pays my rent, and I don’t go homeless.
Money is good because it gives me freedom to do things I actually enjoy (like writing this, instead of relying on going to a 9–5 job).
Money is good because I can use it to be generous to friends and people in need.
Now what if you have a 9–5 job that you hate, and you feel like a prisoner with no free time in your life?
A few options:
a) Quit your job
Honestly, nobody is holding you back from quitting your job and picking up a new job that will earn you less money, but give you more freedom of time.
People ask me, “Eric, when your street photography workshops no longer sell out, what will you do to make a living?”
I would probably just become an uber driver or barista, and do the minimum amount of work possible (to pay my bills and food), and to have the maximum amount of time to do what I’m passionate about.
Or another option: move to a cheaper city or country. You can live very comfortably for only $1,000 a month in a lot of southeast asian countries. If your passion is travel, writing, photography– whatever, make that sacrifice. Living in the west is overrated, and way expensive. You can always pick up a job teaching English overseas, working remotely, or working for a year in your own city and saving up a lot of money and just living off your savings in India, Cambodia, or Vietnam.
b) Work less hard at the job you’re already at
To be honest, having a “day job” is a blessing. You have the bills paid for, a steady income, often health benefits, and other forms of security.
I think instead of quitting your job, just appreciating the job you have is a better option.
What do most people regret when they’re on their deathbed (read the “5 Regrets of the Dying” online)? One of them (especially for men) is that, “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”
So take this lesson from these wise older people (about to die). Don’t work so hard at your job. Do the minimum amount of work not to get fired, or at least don’t answer emails after 6pm or on the weekends.
Once you’re off work, you own your time, your activities, your schedule.
Use the money you earn from work to buy photobooks, travel, make prints and give them away for free to friends and family, to buy friends dinner, and other ways that you can “pay it forward.”
8. On cultivating your own garden
I have a problem: I feel extreme guilt when I disappoint others. I need to stop worrying less about what others think about me, and focus on cultivating my own garden.
Publilius Syrus has a saying, “Do not water your neighbor’s garden if your own garden is parched.”
Similarly, I know that the more I take care of myself, the more I can be of service to others.
So I need to learn how to be more greedy with my time– to focus on writing, reading, and doing other activities which make me feel happy and fulfilled, and to load my schedule with fewer appointments, and to create more “white space” in my life.
Not sure what is going to change now that I am back here in Berkeley. I will spend less time worrying about what others think of me, less time trying to “network”, less time worrying about money and finances, less time forcing myself to take photos I don’t want to take, less obsession with material things, less stress and anxiety, less drama, and less bullshit.
Thank you so much for reading this friend. I hope you can also continue to live a happy, productive, and meaningful life.
Don’t worry about all the bullshit in your life. Your life is short, live it to the fullest. Squeeze the marrow out of life, and live like everyday is your last– because who knows when we will meet the grim reaper.
Written @ Berkeley, Wed, Sept 2, 2015 (9am) with a nice espresso in the morning, another espresso (with coconut milk), and a third espresso (okay, I need to cut back now, feel that weird throat thing again). But fuck it, I’m not giving up coffee, it brings too much joy in my life.
Some reading materials for today: “Screw it, let’s do it (lessons in life by Richard Branson)” and “Epicurus: The Art of Happiness.”
Hope to have a nice lunch with my homie Walter here in Berkeley, relaxed, maybe answer a few emails, and cook a yummy dinner for Cindy :)