2 Lessons Tennis Has Taught Me About Photography and Life

SF, 2015
SF, 2015

Dear friend,

I want to share a story with you. It is an important life lesson that I learned from Greg Lowe, my tennis coach from high school.

Okay let’s start from the very beginning. I was a sophomore (or perhaps freshman) in high school (Castro valley high in California), and I heard that there were tryouts for the tennis team. I’ve always (kind of) been interested in tennis, as my parents would play (or at least they had some old rackets in the closet). I remember as a kid, looking at these (unused) rackets in the closet, and wanting to pick it up and learn.

So anyways, I go to these tennis tryouts, and fail miserably. I can’t hit the ball to save my life, and I realized that I was out of my league. Some of these kids were able to hit the ball with so much beauty, form, and elegance — adding fancy topspin to the ball, able to serve without even looking, and pretty much dominate without even trying.

Dejected, I thought I would never be a good tennis player. How could I catch up in skill to all of these other guys, who had all these fancy tennis lessons (which were pretty fucking expensive)?

I don’t remember the details, but one of the assistant coaches (Greg Lowe, a retired police chief), offered the students who didn’t make the team, “Hey guys, if you want to improve yourselves and perhaps make the team next year, meet me at the courts this Saturday at 730am, and I will give you free lessons.”

At first I thought, “fuck yeah”– I would be able to get free lessons, work hard, and prove myself by making the team. I thought it was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I thought everyone else would jump on this offer.

So anyways on Friday morning, I peel myself out of bed at 7am (really early for a high school student), and made it to the courts by 730am. I was surprised to see that there were only about three of us in total. I thought to myself, “where are all the other kids, why aren’t they taking up this amazing and generous offer that coach Lowe offered?”

Anyways, long story short, Greg Lowe trained us for that entire summer. There only ended up being around three of us in the long run, but through that summer I was able to hone my skills, work hard, and (without fail) make it to practice every Saturday morning, no matter how much alcohol I drank the night before with my friends. Funny story; there was one day that I was sleeping in on Saturday morning, and my friend (also another guy getting tennis lessons with coach Lowe) threw rocks at my window to wake my ass up.

Anyways, I end up making the team, and through the years, worked myself up from having zero skills in tennis, to being #1 varsity doubles on the team.

There were a lot of lessons that coach Lowe taught me about life through tennis, which I want to outline in this letter to you.

1. You don’t need an expensive racket

The first thing that shocked me from coach Lowe was that he played and instructed us with a wooden racket. It was a really old thing, I never had seen anything like it. While all of us young guns were obsessed with getting the newest and greatest tennis rackets, our coach instructed us with this super heavy, tiny headed relic from the past.

Yet the thing that surprised me the most was how fluid he was with it, and how hard he could hit the ball with it.

Funny in photography, we call it “gear acquisition syndrome” (gas), in which we think that our lack of photographic ability is because our cameras and lenses and gear aren’t good enough. Yet they have the same exact thing in tennis, where a lot of amateur tennis players think that they’re not improving in their tennis, because their racket isn’t expensive enough. Apparently this also happens in all other sports, like basketball (you want to wear expensive Jordan shoes), in cooking (you want expensive knives), in golf (you want more expensive clubs), etc.

So when I started off in tennis, needless to say I was pretty shitty. I always thought to myself at the back of my head: “If I only had an expensive racket like Andre Agassi” or if I had that new Head, Prince, or Babolat racket, I could hit the ball really hard and be a really good player.

But regardless, without fail, my coach taught us with the wooden racket, and showed us how hard you could hit the ball (even with a really shitty racket).

He always tried to remind us: it isn’t about the racket, but your form.

Now thinking back at it, it is an important life lesson that I have applied to my photography and life in general.

In photography, I say this a lot: “Don’t worry about the camera and gear, the most important thing is your eyes and how you see the world.” I’ve said it so many times that it seems so cliche and a fucking chore when you hear it; but it’s true. And it is a constant reminder I need to give myself (I always make excuses about my photos not being good enough, saying that my camera isn’t good enough).

Don’t get me wrong friend, I am still afflicted with GAS in photography. Although I am currently down to one camera and one lens (film leica and 35mm lens), I still crave for more. There are days I daydream about getting a Leica Monochrom, or daydream about fictitious cameras (like digital cameras without an LCD screen), or buying medium format cameras, whatever. I am not satisfied with what I have, but I always goad for more. And why is that? Because I somehow think it is my gear which is holding me back creatively, and if I suddenly had new gear, I would become “re-inspired”. But it is a bunch of bullshit, it is actually limits and constraints that forces us to be be more creative (they call it a “creative constraint”).

The same philosophy goes in life. We think that we can’t start our own business because we don’t have enough money. We think that we can’t ask that beautiful person on a date because we don’t have the looks. We think that we can never cook a decent meal because we have an ill-equipped kitchen. We think that we can’t become great painters, movie directors, or musicians because our equipment (or tools) are holding us back.

But remember; even a wooden racket can help you become a great tennis player. Similarly in photography, even a smartphone can be a more than-sufficient tool for photography. In life, make the best use of what you have, rather than seeking some external thing that you don’t have in order to be creative.

Recently, Cindy and I are embarking on a challenge (which is really difficult); don’t buy anything new for a year.

So far the challenge has been really difficult. I constantly want to buy new shit (and I know I don’t really need it, but still am tempted). But the funny thing is that in knowing that I don’t have the luxury of buying new things, it forces me to be more ingenuous and use what I already own and be more creative.

“Hunger breeds sophistication.”

So for example, I currently don’t have a laptop. I got my 11” Macbook Air stolen in Paris 1.5 months ago, I recently donated my Windows 8 Tablet/Laptop to a friend named Anne who is going to donate it to charity to teach kids in a developing country to program, and all I am left with is the iPad Air I had chilling at home. I have a “in-case” keyboard attachment thingy, and a bluetooth Apple keyboard that I use wirelessly (which I am using right now to type this up).

Before my “don’t buy anything” challenge, I was tempted to stop by the nearest Apple store (there is literally one in just a 20-minute walk from my house, on 4th street in Berkeley), and buy a new Macbook 12” retina (or a 13” Macbook pro). But because I made the decision not to buy something new, I tried to think to myself; how can I best use this iPad to be creative?

First of all, I tried to approach the whole “via negativa” philosophy that Nassim Taleb shares in his book, ‘Antifragile‘ (trying to remove as much as possible). So from the iPad, I have removed all superfluous apps that I find unnecessary. Currently the only apps I have are the ones that are not standard is Dropbox and Google Chrome, and IA Writer Pro (best minimalist writing app for both iPad and Macbook in my opinion). The benefit of having no extraneous apps or fat? I have fucking extreme focus; I am not distracted by anything else. And trust me, I am the most easily distracted person I know. I am a pigeon, I see something shiny, and I instantly lose focus.

But anyways, I first did feel a lot of frustration with the iPad– after all, I was limited. In the west, we are taught to not have any limits, to have ultimate freedom– the freedom to buy anything you want, the freedom to do anything you want, and the freedom to continue to accumulate extraneous things.

But the limitation of the iPad has helped me focus on one thing; just writing. So the limitation of my equipment and tools has ended up being a huge blessing. Rather than installing all these new “productivity” apps (in a ‘via positiva’ approach), removing unnecessary apps (in a ‘via negativa’ approach) has helped me be more creative.

So let us not bitch and moan about the lack of tools, money, cameras, financial security, opportunities, hometown, whatever hold us back.

In tennis, a simple wooden racket will suffice in becoming a great tennis player.

In photography, a simple camera will suffice in becoming a great photographer.

In life, having a little money is sufficient to living happily and contributing to society as a whole.

As I was writing this, I have also come to a little “mini-epiphany”; for the next year (at least until I move to Vietnam), I will put away the Leica and will practice what I preach; to just shoot with a simple camera (digital Ricoh GR). The camera is very affordable (less than $600), and while not “cheap” — I think if you own a laptop, live in a “developed” world, have access to the internet, clean water, whatever– you can afford it.

One of the big criticisms I get is that “Oh, Eric, it is easy for you to say ‘don’t worry about the camera’ when you shoot with a Leica.”

And that is true; I need to eat my own cooking, and not be a hypocrite.

Thank you coach Lowe for teaching me the beauty of playing tennis with a wooden racket and not being obsessed with my racket (all throughout high school, I played with a mid-range racket, which helped me make to #1 doubles on the Varsity tennis team). So similarly, I will make a vow of simplicity by also “downgrading” my camera to something really simple; the Ricoh GR.

So friend, I know it is really fucking hard not to be tempted by all these new tools and gadgets. I am a sucker to consumerism too; whenever I see advertisements, visit the mall, or see friends with more expensive stuff than me, I get instantly jealous. This is why nowadays I don’t surf the internet, I don’t read blogs (only paper-back books), I don’t watch television (I don’t own one), I don’t read the newspaper (“to cure yourself of newspapers, spend an entire year reading the news from last year” – Nassim Taleb), I don’t read magazines (90% of the content are just advertisements), I don’t watch movies (sneaky advertisement placements are abundant in films now, or they tempt you to buy expensive cars, clothes, to be fancy), I don’t (to the best of my ability) associate myself with rich people (or else I get jealous of their material wealth). Ultimately I try to avoid situations in which I will feel temptations to buy shit, feelings of inadequacy (comparing myself to those richer than me), situations where I want more than I already have (“keeping up with the Jonses” in America).

Happiness isn’t about accumulating more; it is learning how to be content with less.

So whenever you feel that your camera, gear, lifestyle, or whatever is inadequate– ask yourself,

How can this limitation help me be more creative? How can this limitation force me to step outside of the box, and try to find out novel ways to be more innovative? How can this limitation be a positive?”

Let me flesh out some more ideas:

  • Benefit of shooting with a shitty camera (you only end up shooting when the light is good, which is sunrise and sunset, and you ultimately make better images than just shooting in shitty light with a high-end camera)
  • Benefit of living in a boring town (you force yourself to be more creative with boring subject-matter, and you’re more likely to create unique bodies of work that have never been shot before)
  • Benefit of not having a lot of money (you don’t use money as a crutch, and try to fix all your problems with money, which never works)
  • Benefit of not having a lot of free time (you don’t squander the little free time that you have. If you only have 1 hour of free time a day, you fucking squeeze out every ounce of that free time, very much like how you squeeze the last drop of lemon juice from a lemon. Even if you only had 15 minutes of free time in a day, think of how you can use that time to shoot (during your lunch break), how you can write, read, or do something that nourishes you creatively).
  • Benefit of being old (you are wiser, have more life experiences, which can help you be more creative and innovative with your art. You also realize your own mortality, so you don’t waste your time pursuing money and other extraneous things in life, but to ‘live everyday like it were your last’).
  • Benefit of being young (the world is your oyster, you have no kids to take care of, no spouse to feed, and you can just “YOLO” and do exactly what you want to do in your life. Nothing is holding you back).

I can blabber on on and on; but rather than blaming your external conditions and situations for not being creative or living the life you want to live, think of how you can use your limitations in your life, and make it into a benefit and positive.

Let us eschew fancy high-end rackets; and praise the simple, wooden rackets.

2. Never miss a practice

Another important life lesson that I learned from my coach was this: never miss a practice.

One of the most difficult things in tennis is to master a serve. It is one of the most complex movements, which require fluidity of the shoulder, turning of the hips, and it is one of those things that if you don’t use it, you lose it. You need to practice you tennis serve every single day if you want to improve. You can practice it every other day if you don’t want to lose your ability. And anything less than that, you will totally lose your ability to serve, and have to start again with scratch.

Similarly, I went to practice with my coach every Saturday, no matter how cold, no matter how early, no matter how tired I was. I always had to show up; and it is one of those things that getting there is the hard part, but once you’re there, it is quite easy. Kind of like going to the gym. Peeling yourself out of bed, and getting to the gym is the hard part. But once you’re there, doing the workout is quite easy, and after the workout, you feel great and you think to yourself, “What was so difficult about that?”

The same philosophy goes in photography. I do believe that it is important not to go a single day without shooting (if your goal is to improve your photography). I don’t think it is necessary to shoot everyday for the sake of it, but I do believe that the eye and your creative vision is like a muscle; you either use it or lose it. If you were an astronaut, sent into outer space with no gravity, your muscles eventually atrophy from non-use. This is also what happens to people in the hospital who all they do is lie down for months on end due to an illness. Their muscles weaken, they can no longer walk on their own, and they have to rebuild their strength from scratch.

It is often hard to find the “inspiration” to shoot everyday. But then again, do we need “inspiration” to eat food and drink everyday? No. Why not? Hunger is a pain, thirst is a pain, and to eat and drink is a necessity.

But for you, is being creative and making images a necessity? Do you feel physical and mental pain when you go a day without shooting?

Remember, at the end of the day your goal as a photographer (and human being) is to make images that please yourself, and to ultimately be happy. Like the famous Greek saying: “Know thyself” — try to know who you are as a photographer. Are you the type of photographer that needs to shoot everyday to stay creative or fresh? Or are you the type of photographer that instead of shooting everyday, perhaps you can look at photo books everyday, or find inspiration from other photographers?

So regardless if you shoot everyday or not; I challenge you to never go a single day without being creative, and challenging yourself either artistically, emotionally, or physically.


These are just 2 (of the many) points that I learned from my coach from tennis that I have applied to my photographic and creative life. Try to keep these 2 things in mind:

  1. Disregard the equipment
  2. Don’t miss a day of practice

I think if you practice these 2 things on the daily, you will become truly great in anything you pursue.

Farewell my friend, and I wish you all the best. You have no limits, only the limitations you put on yourself.


Written from 5am-7:20am, another beautiful day in Berkeley. Started off the day with a v60 pour-over with some Ritual coffee beans, but I am starting to realize that I don’t know if I really like pour-overs. They take far too long; I prefer the quickie of an espresso.

Related article

As a companion to this article, I recommend reading the article: “The Beauty of Creative Constraints“.

Reading list

  1. Just finished reading “The Cynic Philosophers” which is a fucking incredible read. The “Cynic” philosophers were the predecessors of the “Stoic” philosophers, except that the Cynics were even more manly and mentally/physically tough than the Stoics. The Cynic teachings can essentially be distilled into the two concepts: 1) “Know Thyself” (live a life true to yourself, not of others and 2) “Deface the Currency” (fuck money, disregard fame, fortune, and disregard popular beliefs; seek what you think is the ‘truth’ in life).
  2. Starting to re-read the free Aphorisms of Nassim Taleb, full of wisdom, insight, and wit.
  3. I’m thinking about re-reading the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. A rare insight into a man who was so passionate about his life’s goal, that he fucked everything else. He knew that he had cancer and was going to die soon; so he didn’t waste a single day of his life. One of my favorite quotes from Jobs, let me break it down:

a) Never forget that you will die, it is a great decision-making tool:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”

b) Fuck external expectations, and don’t worry about failing. In the end, thinking of death makes it crystal-clear what is important in your life:

“Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

c) Never forget that you have nothing to lose, so follow your heart:

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

d) Spoiler alert; we all die (eventually), but know that it is a necessary part of life:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

So go out, shoot, hug a loved one, express gratitude for the life you live, be grateful that you’re still alive, breathing, and able to enjoy “heaven on earth.”