What’s Holding You Back?

Provincetown, 2014
Provincetown, 2014

Dear friend,

I just wanted to write you this letter to share you some personal thoughts after reading “Capital” and “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx. And no, it isn’t some crazy communist shit– it is rather about how you should never let anything hold you back from unlocking your creative potential.

Creative Leisure

Okay first of all, let’s get the common misconceptions out of the way. Karl Marx was a social optimist who believed in the human condition and “human creativity” and flourishing. I don’t think he imagined communism as killing tons of people and other horrible crimes.

Anyways, the biggest inspiration I got from reading all of his literature was this:

The focus of our lives should be to *minimize* the time we spend work at work as little as humanly possible (to just provide our basic needs— food, water, shelter), and to *maximize* our time to devote ourselves to “**creative leisure**.”

“Active” leisure

What is “creative leisure?”

I think creative leisure is not just sitting on your ass after work, eating potato chips, and watching Netflix.

Rather— “creative leisure” is to be active. It is to create. It is to utilize the fullest extent of your creative faculties to create art, or express yourself in some sort of substantive and concrete way.

For example, “creative leisure” can be taking photos, editing photos, reading books, writing, writing poetry, dancing, rapping, singing, or anything else you would consider creative and artistic.

We live in the best generation, ever.

During the 1800’s when Marx wrote “Capital” and “The Communist Manifesto” — times were pretty shitty.

Imagine this: you probably worked 12-14 hours a day (even as a kid), were paid “poverty wages”, and were essentially a slave on a production line. People had little/no “free time.”

Now, we still complain about our day-jobs. But honestly, we have it so much better than our ancestors who have come before us.

If anything, we are cursed by surplus. We have too much excess in our lives.

For example even in our photography, I think the biggest problem most photographers (at least here in the states) is that we have too many cameras— and our “first world problem” is that we’re not sure which camera/lens to use today.

First world problems

I saw a funny comic of a man sitting on a couch, with a smart tv, iPhone, iPad, and laptop. His first world problem was, “Which one should I use to check Facebook?”

Is “free time” really the issue here?

We have tons of “free time” — even if we work ridiculously long hours.

I don’t think the issue is not having enough “time” to do our creative work— but it is a matter of cutting the extraneous activities of our life— to conserve our time and energy to do our creative work which brings us true happiness in life.

For example, I have read a lot about motivation being like gas in a tank of a car. You start off the day with 10 gallons of gas, and after the workday you might have depleted 9 gallons— leaving you only 1 measly gallon to cook, clean, and do chores before you sleep (and go to work all over again).

The secret is to sleep early (9pm) and wake up ridiculously early (4:30am) and use those precious morning hours when you have time, no distractions, and energy to devote yourself to your creative work.

Even for me, I have never been a morning person. However, I have found in my life that whenever I do work in the morning (without checking my email, without turning on my internet, without turning on my smartphone), I am so surprised how much creative work I can get.

## How to gain more “free time” to do your creative work

Life is short. Be selfish with your time. People are always asking you for your time— why do you give it away like its free and costs nothing?

If you want to regain control of your life and have more “free time” — here are some things you should stop doing.

1. Don’t do work for free

Especially as a freelancer, “exposure” is bullshit. Free work will only lead to more “free work”, and you will become a slave to shitty clients. My personal rule: I only do free presentations or work for personal friends, family, or schools which I truly believe in. But if you’re a commercial photographer, do not do any work for free— this will give you tons more free time for you to do your creative work, or time to work to make money

2. Don’t meet friends/family you don’t care about

You know that feeling— traveling back to your hometown and you feel obliged to meet certain old friends and family or else you’ll feel guilty.

But to be honest; you really have no more connection to them, and you don’t care for them.

My personal rule: only meet people you must meet, rather than people you “should” meet.

Your time is valuable. Your time is your life. Time is the only resource that never increases— it slowly chips away everyday.

For example, let’s say you are paid $20 an hour at your job (if you earn $40,000 a year). Every hour you spend with that person you dislike, that is $20 down the drain.

Now I am not saying you should distill all social interactions to monetary values. However for me, I have no problem having 3-4 hour long dinners with close friends/family that I truly care about and love (I would gladly spend $60-80 to spend that time with them).

3. Turn off your internet

Seriously. If you have no self-control (like myself) be like Odysseus and tie yourself to the mast and fill your ears with beeswax (to avoid the sounds of the Sirens).

In this case, the sexy sirens are like the internet. They are constantly luring you to be distracted, to look at funny cat videos, play Farmville, and go down a rabbit-hole on Wikipedia or Reddit.

Download freedom.to if you are like me, and turn off the internet.

It is scary at first. But when you have no internet, suddenly you will find yourself reading books, writing, and doing other creative things you are passionate about.

The biggest problem of the internet is this: it makes us passive consumers of information, rather than active creators of information.

By spending a lot of time on the internet, you are just a “swallower.” You want to be a creator.

4. Say “no”

Another problem I have— I cannot say “no” to save my life. I want everyone to love me, and I don’t want to alienate anybody.

So if you really want more free time to do your creative work, as a default say “no.”

So for example, let’s say your friend invites you to dinner, and you really don’t want to go. Don’t be a dick and just say “no”— you can say it with tact. Be honest; tell them that you are really exhausted and there is a creative project you want to work on, and if your friend was a “real” friend (who isn’t trying to sabotage you)— they will understand and perhaps reschedule to another time.

This will cause you to lose a lot of “friends.” But unfortunately, when you start living a life that isn’t passively consumerist (going to the mall, watching movies at the theater, watching ‘shows’, watching Netflix) and you start creating (writing, taking photos, blogging, making videos, etc) — people (especially your close ones) will try to sabotage you.

Even in my case, whenever I am in the “zone” and flow, often Cindy feels jealous that I am so focused and creating. And sometimes she will interrupt me, because she feels frustrated that she cannot focus.

If you are horrible at saying “no” — know that you won’t die. And honestly at the end of the day, I think you only need 3 really close friends— everyone else is extraneous.

5. Be brutally honest with yourself

Okay so let’s say there is a creative project you’ve always wanted to pursue: start a photo blog, start a photography project, travel, whatever.

Ask yourself:

“How bad do I really want it?”

Honestly, if you don’t really want it bad enough, that’s okay.

For me, blogging/writing/teaching/photographing/reading is my passion. Everything else comes secondary. If (even) a single day goes by when I am not able to do do any creative work, I feel frustrated as hell. I get pissed off.

There have been days where my time has been “stolen” from me in terms of distractions (either caused by others or by myself), and I go to sleep frustrated.

A personal rule I learned from Steve Jobs is this: everyday when you wake up, look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself, “If today were the last day I were alive, would I be happy with my life?” If the answer is “yes”, carry on. If the answer is “no,” you need to change something.

And I know I am vilifying Netflix, Reddit, distracting websites, etc. But honestly, they are not “good” or “bad”— it is all how you define it. If you spend time on Netflix and you genuinely enjoy it and it brings you happiness, joy, and meaning— spend as much time on it as possible. However if you find it to distract you from things you would rather be doing— be ruthless. Kill your subscription, sell your TV, whatever.

6. Attention economy

Today apparently the internet economy is the “attention economy”— the most valuable commodity is your attention.

Think about it, there are so many blog posts, tweets, FB updates, Instagram posts, and pop-up ads which are vying for your attention. They want you to notice.

I have a limited attention span, and honestly I no longer trust any website that relies on advertising. This is why I am very skeptical of “free” apps (games/applications)— they are selling your personal data and attention, and are generally distracting as hell.

I personally don’t trust myself falling victim to advertisements and distractions (blogs, websites, etc) — so nowadays the only media I consume are books. And whenever possible, I try to spend money on apps websites or any other services.

7. One thing at a time

Honestly as humans we can never do more than 1 thing at a time. So kill the concept of “multi-tasking” from your mind.

If you have 100 ideas for a photography project, cut that down to 20. Then cut it down to 5 ideas. Then 3. Then 1.

Only aim to do one thing a day.

For me, that means reading everyday. And if I’m lucky, that means writing everyday.

8. Don’t force it

Ironically, the harder I try to create “creative” things— the less likely I am.

So take the pressure off you.

Start off by eliminating distractions, then simply do what you want to do with your time.

For me, writing doesn’t come naturally. However reading comes naturally.

So nowadays, I only do what I want to do. I try to do as little as possible (things I don’t like to do).

So I’ll wake up, read a bit, and not put pressure on myself to write. I only write when I have the urge to write.

The same should be with your photography— don’t force yourself to shoot all the time. But if a few days go by and you feel frustrated by not shooting, try this trick out: lock your camera in a cupboard and purposefully try not to take photos.

Often this frustration will be a creative inspiration. You purposefully keep your camera at home, and you feel frustrated that you didn’t have your camera. So you rush home, grab your camera, and then go off and create beautiful images.

9. Your equipment isn’t holding you back

All the equipment you have is more than sufficient. If you have even a smartphone with a camera, you have more than you need to create.

With a smartphone, you can take photos, process them, and share them on social media.

With a smartphone, you can write, read, consume books, and you have pretty much access to the entire history of humanity’s knowledge.

If you don’t have a smartphone, you can always go to the library, read books for free (fiction, non-fiction, photo-books), and you can always write for free in a notebook and publish it on a free library computer.

If you have a laptop (you can get a Chromebook for less than $200), you have no excuse for not writing, starting your own free blog (wordpress.com) and sharing your ideas.

You might have an older, low-end DSLR; but honestly, that camera is more than enough to create beautiful images. You don’t need a fancy digital camera to make beautiful images (nowadays I just use a $550 Ricoh GR II camera), and you don’t need an expensive laptop either to process your photos (you can get an “eye-fi” card for your camera, and then process your JPEG images on your smartphone or any other tablet device).

And wifi is essentially free. You can get it for free at any local Starbucks, McDonalds, the public library, and if you are reading this now— of course you have access to the internet.

Honestly the biggest inspiration I got from Karl Marx is that we no longer have any limits holding us back from being creative.

Why is that?

In the past, only the “bourgeois” had the “means of production” (machines)— whereas the proletariats (workers) didn’t have access to tools.

Now we live in a world where we have access to any tool to create.

If you have a Mac computer (even an old one), you can use iMovie, Photos, Garage Band, iBooks Author to create art.

If you have a cheap Windows computer, there are so many fantastic “open-source” software applications to create art. Not only that, but you can use “Google Docs” and other cloud-based services (for free) to create and publish your ideas.

“Hunger Breeds Sophistication”

The truth is that often when we are too wealthy and prosperous, we lose our edge for innovation and creativity. Often limited means help us become truly creative.

10. You are a genius

You have so many fantastic ideas, innovations, and creative concepts running around your head.

Who is holding you back?

Not your boss, not your wife, not your friends.

Only you are holding yourself back.

I know it might be fear. It might be self-criticism. It might be fear of being judged, of failing, or of disappointing yourself.

Fuck it.

Your life is short, why waste it doing shit for others you don’t care about? Just to be “admired” and “liked?”

Unfortunately if you want to live a life truly true to yourself— you are going to alienate people. You are going to have to say “no” to others— and fiercely protect your free time as much as possible (your time before work, your lunch break, and after work, and weekends).

What if a billion dollars were transferred to your personal checking account tomorrow?

If you never had to worry about money again, what would you do with all your free time?

No— the question isn’t “What would you do with your money”— the question is, “What would you do with your time?”

Ask yourself that.

Is it to travel? Is it to teach to under-deserving children? Is it to take photos?

Then why are you staying at job that you hate, in order to hopefully save enough money to retire, and then pursue your passion? Fuck that.

It isn’t even certain you will live to be 65 years old. And even if you make it to 65, what guarantee do you have that you will still be mentally fit? I know so many of my mom’s friends who are starting to get Alzheimers (even in mid 60’s).

Take a shortcut in life. Quit that job you hate, and go straight to what you’re passionate about.

“But how will I pay for my kid’s education?”

Send them to public schools.

“But how will I feed my kids?”

Food is cheap.

“But how will I pay the rent?”

Have a job that doesn’t make you rich, but earns you enough to pay basic expenses.

“But how will I afford that digital Leica?”

You will never but trust me, even after personally owning a digital Leica, it never brought me any real happiness. Only having freedom of time has brought me any real happiness.

“But how will I save up for retirement?”

You probably won’t be able to. But do you ever really want to retire— if you’re doing what you’re passionate about? I know a lot of teachers who teach until they die, because they love it.

“But I will suffer”

Honestly, as long as you don’t freeze to death, as long as you don’t starve to death, and as long as you have loving friends and family— you’re good. If you need convincing, just go camping for a few days and you’ll see how little you need to survive/be happy.

Keep your day job

Another solution; if you don’t want to quit your job and pursue your passion, that’s totally cool too.

Just be super protective over the very little free time you have. Say “no” to everyone, wake up super early (write, read, do creative work), say NO to “working lunches” (use that time to walk around the block and take photos), say NO to working after 6pm and answering emails, say NO to working weekends.

Even if you might have a very little amount of free time, if you use that free time economically, you will always have an abundance of it.

For more inspiration on this, read “On the Shortness of Life” by Seneca.

Farewell friend– I believe in you, now and always,

Friday, 4:01pm, Dec 11, 2015