How to Die Without Regrets

Stockholm, 2015
Stockholm, 2015

Dear fellow streettog,

I want to live my life to the fullest. I want to die without regrets.

Often I piss away my days, live a life according to the opinion of others, and desire shit that I don’t need (materialistic things like cars, a lot of money, fancy cameras, shiny devices, and a big house).

As a reminder to myself, I always try to remind myself of “The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.” A hospice nurse wrote a list of 5 common regrets people had on their death bed.

I have no idea when I am going to die. I’m only 27, but I might get into a fatal car accident (drunk driver, someone running a red light, me speeding too quickly), I might die in a plane crash, I might discover I have a brain tumor, I might trip on a curb and crack open my skull, or my heart might explode from drinking too many espressos (fortunately not yet).

Anyways, like you, I just want to be happy in life.

But how does one live a happy life?

I don’t know the answer. But I know one useful piece of advice: avoid regret.

Regret Minimization Framework

Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) talked about the “Regret Mininimization Framework” as a way to guide his life.

The story goes as following: Jeff Bezos was a highly paid lawyer, and heard about something called “the internet.” He thought it might be a good chance; yet he was afraid of leaving his job before he got a big bonus. But he thought to himself:

If I were on my deathbed at age 90, would I regret not having tried out this “internet” thing?

Once he saw it that way, the decision was quite easy. He quit his job, pursued this “internet” thing, and now we know Amazon to be a multi-billion dollar business.

How to minimize regret in your life (and photography)

Stockholm, 2015
Stockholm, 2015

I know you have great ambitions in your photography and life. So how do you prevent regretting anything in your life? Once again, going back to the regrets of the dying, here are some things I would advise avoiding (if you want to live a happy life).

These things are things that I try to avoid in life. I am not always successful, but everyday is a new day to try my best to stick to these principles:

1. Don’t live a life based on the expectations of others

‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’ – Dying patient

Don’t live being a slave to the opinions of others. No matter how hard you work, how successful you are, it will never be enough for others.

What we should do is seek inner-fulfillment. We don’t want to be the kid listening to the asian parent (to become a doctor, lawyer, businessman, etc). My family told me to become a doctor; I’m glad that I dropped out of biology and pursued sociology instead.

Life is too short. Who cares what others think of you? If you are rich, famous, have a BMW, two-car garage, white-picket fence– what does that all matter if you are not pleased with your own life?

With your photography– if social media didn’t exist (or if you never showed your photos to anybody else), what would you photograph?

What would you find interesting to shoot, if your mind wasn’t burdened by these notions of “cliches”?

Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. There are a lot of “master photographers” out there who I still personally don’t “get.” Not only that, but a lot of master photographers fall into complacency, and their work begins to diminish (because their ego is so inflated by the fame, wealth, and prestige). Remember to treat the masters of photography like our guides. But once we have found our path, we need to learn how to “kill our masters.”

So essentially what I want to tell you is this: photograph what you find interesting, rather than what you think others might find interesting.

Also in life, fuck it– it is too short.

Don’t stay at that shitty job if you hate it. Don’t work harder for that promotion and kiss your boss’ ass (I did this by sending emails at 1am in the morning, pretending to be a good ‘worker bee’). If you’ve always wanted to work for a non-profit; go for it. You won’t be rich, but you won’t be homeless either (and you might have to sell your car).

Don’t think to yourself:

“One day I will travel, just once I get that next raise, that next promotion, or once I save a little more money.”

Book your ticket now. Go to, find an affordable hostel to stay at hostel, and buy an experience that you will never forget.

“But my kids, their college tuition, I don’t have enough savings, what would my co-workers think of me?”

Once again; do you want to be on your death bed at age 90 and regret not having traveled more? Your kids will take care of themselves and take out student loans. Do they really need to go to a private school– public schools are fine.

“But I won’t be able to save enough for retirement!”

Is it even certain that you will live to be age 65? What if you die before then from cancer or a heart-attack? You never know.

Also remember friend, you can live out your dreams while not quitting your 9-5 job. There is no shame in having a day job and doing your passion (photography) on the side. I’d only advise quitting your job if you truly hate it. Otherwise, bear with it, be grateful for what you have, and try to find as much free time as you can to pursue your passion.

2. Don’t work too hard

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.’ – Dying patient

When is “enough” truly “enough?”

Enough is never enough.

One of the common regrets of the dying (especially for men) is that they wish they didn’t work so hard.

Okay I know, you work hard to provide for your family, take care of your parents, take care of your kids, and save up for your future self. That is noble and all; but once you have worked hard enough to provide the basic necessities of life (not being homeless, not starving, and not freezing to death)– why do you need more?

It is human nature to be dissatisfied. Once we earn more money, we also fall into the “hedonic treadmill.” We start off as a broke-ass college student and have a point-and-shoot Canon digital camera. Then we earn a little bit of money and buy a used Canon Rebel XT. Then we find out the kit lens isn’t “good enough” and we need “bokeh” (so we invest in a 50mm f/1.8 lens and shoot everything at f/1.8 for an entire month). Then the internet forums tell us that crop sensors suck, and you “need” a full-frame. So you go out and buy a Canon 5D. Then you need “L” lenses. So you get that. Then you find out that ‘real’ street photographers shoot with Leica’s. So you lust after a digital Leica, deplete your savings, and buy one. Then you find out that a Summicron (f/2 lens) isn’t good enough– you need a Summilux (f/1.4 lens). Then you need two Leica’s (Leica M240 and Leica Monochrom) — because hey; you want to have the freedom to shoot both. The fucking madness never ends. How do I know? This is my life story.

Once again; human nature. Even Saint Augustine mentioned it:

“A true saying it is, Desire hath no rest, is infinite in itself, endless, and as one calls it, a perpetual rack, or horse-mill.” – St. Augustine

3. Don’t be afraid to express your feelings

I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.’ – Dying patient

I want to share with you something friend– I censor myself all the time. I am afraid of what others might think of me, and I am terrified of offending people. Not only that, but I don’t express my true feelings, even to those closest to me. For example, often I don’t tell Cindy what is truly on my mind. I just water it down, to not offend her, and to avoid getting into a fight.

But I need to remind myself to express my feelings openly and freely. I don’t want all of my emotions, thoughts, and true opinions to be held within me. I don’t want it to bubble up and explode one day.

Often I also don’t upload certain images to the internet, fearing that others might not take me as a “serious” photographer.

It takes a lot of course to pursue the photography that you truly love, and not too be afraid to express yourself.

So think friend– how are you holding yourself back? What are some images you really want to take, and what are the photos you want to share?

Don’t be afraid. Be bold. Have confidence. Punch fear in the face, and bare your heart.

Wear your heart on your sleeve, and photograph with your heart exposed.

Don’t hold back your feelings. Be true to who you are, regardless of how you are worried how others might judge you.

4. Don’t lose touch with your friends

‘I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.’ – Dying patient

There is nothing sweeter than the company of a good friend (or better yet; a group of friends).

In the past, I have fallen off the map. I have lost touch with good friends, which caused deep regret.

I don’t want to be on my death bed, alone, with no friends from my past to keep me company, and to reflect on the good times in life.

Sometimes we make the excuse that we are “too busy” to see our friends. But how would we feel if they suddenly died tomorrow? I’m sure we would regret not having spent more time with them.

We are never too busy for our (true) friends. In-fact, our friends are ourselves– they are a part of us.

I think in life, you don’t need more than 3 really close friends. 5 if you are generous.

Even with my photography, I only solicit the opinion of three people: Josh White, Neil Ta, and Cindy Nguyen. They give me no-bullshit feedback; and they know who I am. They know what I am trying to accomplish with my photography. So why should I care about what others think of my work? As long as they like my work, and I like my work, what does it matter what the world-at-large thinks of my work?

Even nowadays on Instagram I try to keep the number of people I follow less than 10. Why? Because I am too busy with living my own life; I want to only pay attention to people I care about and who are close to me. Can a person in real life really follow the activities of over 1,000 people? I don’t think so. So let us keep the number of people we follow small, so we can focus on building depth in our relationships (rather than breadth).

5. Don’t prevent happiness from entering your life

‘I wish that I had let myself be happier.’ – Dying patient

Let us not add onto the miseries we have in life.

We all deal with enough bullshit in our lives. Why do we prevent happiness from entering our lives?

Let us be happy. If someone compliments you, don’t think that they’re trying to kiss ass. Be grateful, say thank you, and move on.

If a friend invites us to have a drink (and we really want to go, but we ‘should’ do work) — fuck it; let us go out with them and have fun.

If there is something in our life that we are truly passionate about (but we ‘should’ be doing more ‘adult’ things like answering emails), fuck it; let us follow our passion (and disregard ‘reality’).

Let happiness enter your life. Let us count our blessings everyday. Let us be grateful for the laughing of children, the smile of an elderly person on the bus, the generosity of a barista giving you a free cookie, the gratitude of our friends and loved ones being alive, the gratitude of spending time with those who have passed, the gratitude of having sight and vision, the gratitude of being alive (if we don’t have our vision).

Let us not add unto our miseries. Let us not bitch and moan about how things can be better. Let us not complain that our computer or smartphone isn’t fast or shiny enough. Let us not goad after that new digital Leica. Let us not think that having a new lens will make us more creative. Let us not wish to have more ‘free time’ — but for us to better use the little free time we currently have.

Let us not seek fancy shit in life; let us be content with simple coffee, our simple camera (thank God for the Ricoh GR), a simple meal (eggs and bacon), a few close friends, the few followers we might have on social media, our ugly (yet functioning) car, our simple clothes, our lovely IKEA table, our health, and the joy of being surrounded with fellow human beings (and not being in a prison cell, or worse, on Mars).

Friend, everything I am telling you isn’t to berate you or look down on you. Rather, I am just sharing with you what is in my mind and my heart. Because I suffer all the things you suffer from (and sometimes more).

Let us live life without regrets; let us squeeze the marrow out of life, and imagine if we were going to die tomorrow.

Let us say we are lucky and live to be age 90. Imagine ourselves vividly on our death bed. What regrets would we have in life? Here are some that I might regret:

  • I wish I didn’t get so distracted with social media and spent more time writing
  • I wish I didn’t buy expensive cars and homes, and became a slave to debt
  • I wish I didn’t travel so much; I wish I spent more time at home with loved ones
  • I wish I didn’t send my kids to a private school (and rather invested that money into traveling with them)
  • I wish I didn’t waste money on shit I didn’t really need
  • I wish I didn’t let “lifestyle creep” elevate the standard of my life, so I can no longer be satisfied with simple pleasures

Live life to your fullest, fulfill your personal maximum, and sleep tonight telling yourself:

“I have done everything in my power to live today like it were my last. If I were not to wake up tomorrow, I would have no regrets fulfilling my life’s duty.”

Now go forth– you were destined for great things.

Further reading

To learn more, see the author’s book: “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing.” I haven’t personally read the book (I read from Amazon reviews that the entire book can be summed up to the points mentioned prior).

For me, I have re-read Seneca’s “On The Shortness of Life” at least 10 times. I read it generally once in the morning to get me fired up, and to “prime” my mind to not waste time. Apparently it is also a favorite of Tim Ferriss and Maria Popova. I recommend the paper-book (quite cheap), but you can also read it online for free.

What I’m currently reading

I often switch between paper books, my Kindle paper white, reading on iPad, smartphone (whatever is handy). Ultimately I prefer paper books, and because I am at home and not traveling, I have been re-reading old books. What I currently am reading:

Related articles on death and life

Busan, 2013. Part of my "Grandfather" series.
Busan, 2013. Part of my “Grandfather” series.

I know I write a lot about death and life. I re-write these articles because it is a reminder to myself. I know I repeat myself a lot, so thank you for your patience.

If you enjoyed this article, also read these other articles:

Upcoming workshops

Downtown LA, 2014
Downtown LA, 2014

I also wanted to let you know that I have a few spots left in my upcoming two workshops in LA. These will be the last workshops I do in southern-California for about 2 years (I’m moving to Vietnam for a year starting next summer). So don’t miss your chance to conquer your fears in street photography, take your work to the next level, and also meet some other passionate street photographers:

Hope to see you soon :)

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