Today (Jan 31st) I turn 28 years old. I wanted to use this opportunity to reflect on the past, and also share some life lessons I’ve learned (so far) in my short, yet loving, and fulfilling life:
1. Don’t be afraid of fellow human beings
I have a very vivid memory as a child: I was around 10-12 years old, and I was in the passenger seat of my mom’s car. We were driving around, got lost, and ended up in some shady neighborhood.
My mom saw a guy on the side of the street, and pulled up to him and asked him for directions. At first, I told my mom, “No! Don’t ask that guy for directions, he looks like a thug! Black hoodie, baggy jeans, and he’s black! (as a child I was taught that African-Americans were to be feared).
My mom slapped me silly and told me straight-up: “Eric, don’t you ever dare judge people based on their appearances, and whether they are black, white, or asian. They are human beings, and deserve our respect. You receive the energy you give out.”
My mom then pulled down the window and she said in a very nice and courteous voice, “Excuse me sir, do you know how to get to ‘X’?” The guy turned around, looked scary as hell, and then his frown turned into a smile and said, “Yes ma’am, you can just go down that street and turn right.” My mom smiles back and says: “Thank you!” He responds, smiles, and says, “No problem!”
This experience has stayed with me my entire life. No matter how scary someone might look, no matter the color of their skin, or no matter what (bad) things you might have heard of them, they are our fellow human beings. They deserve our respect, our compassion, our love— they deserve to be treated how we would like to be treated.
One of the things that street photography taught me the most was that you can never judge people on their cover.
I am quite fond of “street portraits” (approaching strangers and asking to take their portrait). Often I meet people who I assume will say “no”, and my presumed notions are totally false. Often the scariest looking people are actually the nicest, and vice versa— sometimes the nicest-looking people can be the meanest.
My lesson is just give people benefit of the doubt, and trust people. Often by untrusting people, we teach them to also not trust us.
I also try to imagine every other human being as a brother, mother, father, uncle, or friend. Every single human being (no matter how mean or shitty they may seem) were once a helpless child, have loved someone, have had their heart-broken, have dealt with death, and have a family that they love.
So why waste our short period of time on earth judging others? Judge others as ourselves.
2. Don’t buy stuff, buy experiences
I love buying shit. I love technology, gadgets, toys, cars, money, and consumerist culture. I love hitting up the mall, looking at stuff, and fantasizing about how cool I will look wearing certain clothes, and how other people will admire me.
A lot of my consumerism-loving nature is because I am (of course) an American. Also part of it is that I grew up pretty poor, and anyone who grew up from a lower socio-economic status knows— wearing expensive clothes is a way to (not) look poor.
I’ve fantasized having certain things in my life, many of which I have ended up buying or obtaining, which include:
- Leica M9
- Leica MP
- Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH Lens
- Toyota Prius
- Bose Noise-cancelling headphones
- Macbook Pro
- Nike sneakers
Funny enough, once I have bought all this stuff, it has never brought me any lasting satisfaction to my life. The first week or two is fantastic (I feel that buzz of having a new toy), then my happiness reverts to the default setting, and then I’m onto the next impulsive purchase to feel good about myself.
I’ve fantasized about all of this “stuff” ever since I was a kid— to finally have enough money to buy stuff that I wanted. Ironically enough, once I have had enough money to buy what I want, I stated to feel empty— if I can afford the physical stuff I want, yet still feel empty— what else is there left in life to strive for?
Somewhere along the line, I’ve also been blessed to travel, make new friends, have lovely (slow 3-hour) dinners with loved ones, the chance to experience nature via hiking backpacking and camping, and the chance to engross myself in making photos, teaching, writing, and reading.
All of the happiest moments of my life were when I was fully-engaged in some creative task (writing, photography, reading), or when I spent time with loved ones (food, travel, camping). None of my physical stuff has brought me any truly memorable experiences that have stuck with me.
Nowadays I’m trying to focus my life in living a meaningful, purpose-driven, and useful existence. I no longer want to live for myself, and to just keep accruing money, and buying more shit that I don’t need. I want to use all of my time and attention to producing information that can hopefully empower and uplift others.
I’m also starting to disdain a lot of the material things that I own.
The Toyota Prius? Cindy’s younger sister got in a car accident, and we ended up giving it to her. Also we’re going to live overseas the next two years, so we can’t take the car with us. Which also makes me think— even if I bought a Porsche or a Tesla, I can’t bring that with me when I die.
The Macbook Pro? I am typing on it, but I often hate how big and heavy it is. I dearly miss my 11’’ Macbook Air, which got stolen in Paris last summer. I remember fantasizing how much I would love the 13’’ Retina screen, the 3.1 Ghz i7 processor, the epic 16gb of ram. But honestly, I don’t feel any difference, except that my bank account is $2,000 less, that my backpack is way heavier, and at the end of the day, all I need is a keyboard to type.
The Leica(s)? I thought buying a Leica M9 would solve all my life’s problems, then I got into film, the M9 started to collect dust in my cupboard cabinet, I sold it and bought a film Leica MP instead. I love the film Leica MP, but honestly, it is quite big, bulky, heavy, and not as compact and easy to carry around as the Ricoh GR II. Also I’ve been having a lot of issues dealing with storing film, processing film, scanning film— additional costs, stress, and hassle. I love how liberating digital feels, and how I don’t take my photography “too seriously” — I feel like a kid again, just taking photos for fun.
All my clothes, books, and other miscellaneous “stuff” at my house? I can’t bring it all with me to Vietnam, I am in the process of giving it away to friends, to the salvation army, or just throwing stuff away. I don’t want to put stuff into “storage” — because honestly, once I put something into storage, I ain’t ever looking at that shit again (I know it). I don’t want to be a “hoarder”— I want to live life lightly, and when I die, I don’t want my future children having to organize all my junk that I’ve accumulated over the years.
Nowadays the only use I see of money is twofold: to buy me more time, and to buy me freedom. And I feel absolutely no regrets or guilt when I spend money on experiences. I would feel a lot less regret spending $1,000 traveling with Cindy, rather than spending it on a new camera. I feel no regret spending $200 with Cindy on my birthday dinner, but I feel massive regret spending $200 on some digital device.
Even if you became bankrupt the next day, they took all your possessions, your past (positive) memories would still always be with you. Did you have the chance to travel with your mom in Europe over that one summer (even though it cost you $3000)? You will never regret spending that time or money. I know that the day that my mom dies, I will always re-live my experience with her and Cindy in Marseille.
3. Tomorrow is never
I am a horrible procrastinator— there are tons of unanswered emails I have in my inbox (sorry to all my friends I haven’t been able to get back to yet), bills that I need to pay, and other logistical things I haven’t tackled yet. I feel massive guilt over it, and honestly at this point in my life— I feel like I am never going to “catch up” to all the work I need to do. Often this gives me anxiety, all the unanswered emails looming over me like Damocles’ sword.
But what gets me through life is not putting off the things which are truly important to me— doing creative work that I feel will give value to others.
I feel a very strong sense of purpose writing, reading, researching— to distill information to provide to you, my dear reader.
I have no idea who you are reading this. Maybe you are a friend, a past-student, a future potential student, I don’t know whether you’re reading this in your car (hopefully while parked), whether you are reading this on your smartphone, iPad, laptop, whether you’re bored at work, or if you’re at a park. All I know is that I feel this spiritual connection with you— I always try to write like I’m writing a letter to a dear friend, sharing some lessons I’ve learned about my life, sharing my shortcomings and faults in my life, all in the hope that this can be useful to you.
One of the new rules I have in life is this: what kind of work would I regret not doing today, if I were to die? Not only that, but if there is certain work that I would not regret doing before I died, it might not be worth doing at all.
For me, my priorities lie in reading, writing, thinking, and sharing love with friends, strangers, and close ones. The only “legacy” I want to leave behind after I die is this: “Eric was a loving human being who shared his love with others. His love was infectious, and inspired others to be more loving towards one another.” That is it.
I often have a lot of ideas for projects, whether photography-related, teaching-related, or writing-related.
I have a phrase that guides my conduct, which is this:
Tomorrow is never.
Anything you say that you will do tomorrow— honestly, you will never do that shit.
Another thing I’ve learned about life is this: whatever you procrastinate is generally not that important. Of course you need to do your taxes and stuff, but often the work you do in lieu while you’re procrastinating on is the work which you truly love.
For example to clarify— whenever I procrastinate on doing my taxes, I use that time to write, read, and spend time with loved ones. So if I listen to my natural built-in procrastination tool as a guide, the things I am most passionate about in life is writing, reading, and spending time with loved ones. Rather than seeing procrastination as some sort of “disease” that needs to be cured, it is rather a naturalistic decision-making tool that we have evolved over the years to help guide us to live happy, productive, and meaningful lives (credit to Nassim Taleb from his book “Antifragile” for this idea).
So friend, what are some things that you would regret not doing if today were the last day you were living on life? Bills, making money, saving for retirement, responding to emails— put that off. And now, hug your kid, kiss your partner, and do the creative work that makes you feel alive.
4. Don’t listen to what society expects of you
Ever since I was a kid, I was that annoying kid who always asked, “Why?” in the classroom. Of course, this annoyed a ton of my teachers, who told me to shut up, sit down, stop talking to my friends and writing them notes, and to listen.
Ever since I was young, I knew that this was bullshit. I knew that there were better things to do in life— like play video games, to run around in the park, play with my friends, to draw, to read books that I liked, and to be creative. I knew that sitting in a classroom and doing multiple-choice tests weren’t the best use of my creative potential in life.
Yet as I grew older, the more society was crushing me into this little box. I was told that I needed to study something in school that would make me a lot of money, that I needed to save up for retirement and (one day when I’m 65 actually enjoy my life), that I shouldn’t question convention, and that my radical ideas were stupid and I would one day become broke, homeless, and nobody would love me.
I rebelled against my Korean parents, I rebelled against what I learned in the Catholic church, and rebelled against what my teachers told me. Being ego-centric, I thought I knew better than everyone else, and that everyone else were idiots and bozos.
Of course I’m not so self-centered (okay, I still am), but I have learned that the rules that society gives you are bullshit.
Honestly, don’t think of society as “the man” trying to force you into doing what you don’t want to do, and that there is “someone out there” trying to get you and make you miserable.
Your parents just want what is best for you. My parents grew up in post Korean-war Korea, super-poor, and starving all the time. Of course they wanted me to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer so I could have a steady income so I would never starve. Of course the Catholic church doesn’t want me to sin, do drugs, and join a gang. Of course society doesn’t want me to become an anarchist and not pay my taxes.
I’m still a realist— of course you need to pay your rent, pay your bills, and feed yourself. But honestly, once you’ve been able to pay your rent, once you’re not cold, once you’re not hungry or thirsty, what else do you really “need” in life? The only thing that nature needs us is to be warm, to be well-fed, and satiated.
Do we really “need” the new iPhone, an iPad, a $2000 laptop, a BMW, a 3-bedroom house in the suburbs, 1-years worth of living expenses saved in a savings account, a 401k and retirement fund, and 2.5 kids and a dog?
No, these are things that we “want”— partly bred from consumerism and our capitalist society. After all, the point of advertising is to breed dissatisfaction in our lives, so we can buy shit that we (mistakingly think) will bring us happiness in life. And that is what keeps the capitalist engine chugging along.
Even though you might not be able to quit your job, think to yourself— do you really need to answer emails after 6pm, on the weekends, or work on the weekends? Do you really “need” a raise, and do you really “need” to buy that new car? Do you really want to become a slave to your job, because you love buying all these toys which never bring you true satisfaction in life?
If you’re single, no kids, and no dependents, what is honestly holding you from quitting your job, traveling the world, and perhaps living a fulfilling life (as an ‘artist’) in Vietnam? Honestly living in America sucks, living in the Bay Area most of my friends spend 80% of their income just on rent, the other 10% on food, and the other 10% on basic necessities. In Saigon I can live like a king for less than $1,000 a month.
If there is something you truly want to do in your life, who is holding you back but yourself? Sure, “society” is that incessant annoying voice in your ear which tells you not to do something. But let’s be rational, measure your downside or risk.
Let’s say you want to go on that trip to Paris, New York, or Tokyo. Sit down, do the math. You might need ~$1000. How long would it take you to save up that much money? Better yet— are there current possessions you own that you can sell, can you cut back on your lifestyle, to live out your dream?
If you want to start shooting film, don’t think you need to drop $3000 on a film Leica. Just start off with a disposable camera from your local drugstore and give it a go. Or ask your parents for their old film Canon AE-1 SLR and put a few rolls through it.
You want to try to make a living as a photographer? Dedicate your weekends to shooting weddings, selling prints, or whatever. Take risks, know that you have no downsides. The only “ultimate” downside is death— and none of these risks you take in your life will (generally) entail death (unless you start getting obsessed with motorcycles, bungee-jumping, or riding a bicycle in a major metropolitan downtown city).
So whatever your parents, society, or the media has taught you— erase it from your mind. Drag all that residual garbage and propaganda to your “garbage can”, delete it, and reformat your mind. Start with a fresh slate, “carte blanche”, and do what causes your heart to sing.
5. Don’t seek external recognition
I love attention, and often seek external recognition as a sign of my “success”. I will gauge my “success” by how many social media followers I have, how many page views on my blog, how many subscribers on my newsletter, how many 0’s in my bank account, and the amount of “toys” that I own in my life.
But man, all that stuff is bullshit. Why do we gauge our own self-happiness by how many “likes” we get on social media? A “like” is nothing but a “1” or a “0” that gets entered into a cloud-computing platform, which is activated by someone touching a button on a screen, or by someone double-tapping your photo. How do you even know someone is “liking” your photo because they like it, or because they are secretly hoping that you will see that they liked your photo, and therefore “like back” your photo?
What is “money” nowadays anyways? It is just a bunch of digits that are handled by a computer. And no matter how many 0’s we have in our bank accounts, we will never feel like we have “enough”. I have read tons of books on business— even millionaires feel that they never have enough. Even billionaires don’t feel that they have enough. Even if you were a trillionaire, you wouldn’t feel like you had “enough” until you owned Mars. Even Alexander the Great never felt like he had enough, even when he conquered almost the majority of the civilized world. He apparently took lessons with a geometry teacher, who taught Alexander how big the world was, and how little of the world that Alexander owned (which made Alexander depressed). Even Xerxes (the epic Persian king/tyrant from the movie 300, yeah he was a real guy) became massively depressed once he realized that in about 100 years, his 1 million soldiers would all be dead.
What is the only way we can find “satisfaction” in our lives? No, it isn’t from others— it is only from yourself.
Life is all about opinion, and the perspective we have of ourselves.
We often compare ourselves to others who are richer, more famous, and more good-looking than us. But how often do we compare ourselves to those who are behind us— people who are poorer and less fortunate than us?
If you make $40,000 a year, you might feel poor compared to your boss who makes $200,000. But if you compare yourself to someone who earns $10,000 a year and has 5 children, you suddenly feel rich.
Even if you earned $1,000,000 a year and then moved to the Hamptons, you would feel instantly poor to your neighbor who earns $100,000,000 a year and owns 5 Ferraris (you “only” own 1 Ferrari).
So how do you find self-happiness?
First of all, by counting your blessings. To realize that having reliable energy and power, a Wifi connection, a smartphone, a computer, a car, a house to keep you warm, and freedom from terrorism and fear. Think about all those who are living in poverty, literally starving to death, who cannot afford to buy the $20 medicine to save their child’s life, and to those living in shanty-towns without power and running water. I know this is a cliche’, but seriously— if you are reading this right now over the internet, you are probably already the top 1% of fortunate people in the world.
No matter how shitty your situation in life might be— consider your blessings. Are you hungry, are you starving, do you have all the basic necessities in life? Probably yes. Yet we are jealous of those who have more expensive cameras, who have nicer cars, bigger homes, and those who go to fancier restaurants (they go to $$$ Yelp restaurants, while you can only afford $$ Yelp restaurants).
When you make a photo, assuming that nobody else in the world would ever see it— would you like your own photo?
If you like your own photos, what do you care what others think of your photo?
And if others like your photo (but you don’t like your photo), do you really like the photo?
Why is it that as humans we are so self-centered and selfish, yet we care more about the opinions of others, rather than our own opinion of ourselves?
So disregard the world’s opinion of you— you will never be loving enough, generous enough, selfless enough, rich enough, good-looking enough, or famous enough.
Seek inner-satisfaction and peace, and leave the rest behind.
6. Your attention and time are your two most valuable commodities
Money is overrated. Many people make a million dollars a year, yet are still slaves to their jobs. Even if you made a billion dollars a year, yet you had to work 120 hours a week, are you truly “free”— or are you just a really really rich slave?
Today the biggest complaints I hear people have in their life isn’t that they aren’t making enough money, but that they have no free time to pursue their hobbies, not enough time to sleep, that they’re always being distracted, that they have too many emails to answer, and that they never have a moment to themselves.
Realize that even if you got a raise at your job, that wouldn’t fix your problems— it would probably increase your problems and stress in life. Let’s say you earn $40,000 a year, and then you get a promotion and suddenly you get 2x the income ($80,000 a year). Realize that with that promotion, you will get 2x the emails daily (instead of 80, 160 emails a day), you have 2x the stress (you now have to work weekends), and you have less of your own time.
A lot of modern business-people write books on “time management” — but that is all bullshit. Much more important is “attention management” and “energy management.”
Even if we had 3 hours of free time (after work), can you actually make any use of that time if you are constantly distracted (thinking about all the work you still need to do in your off-work hours), and if you’re tired as hell after your draining workday?
First of all, attention is one of your most valuable gifts. Attention is the power to focus on whatever you want to. If you don’t have control over what you can pay attention to, you are unfortunately a slave to someone else’s opinion and power.
Today’s economy is actually an “attention” economy— think about all the social media networks which are always trying to fight for your attention. The emails that popup on your phone, text messages, marketing messages, Facebook status updates, Snapchats, Instagram posts, etc. Nowadays companies are getting quite savvy— they actually pay you money for your attention (for example, there are apps in which you are paid money to watch advertisements!)
There are even theories of a “post-work” economy (a future in which we don’t need to work to pay for our basic needs anymore) that our attention will be the most valuable commodity. After all, there are billions of blogs out there constantly striving for you to pay attention— and I know I am very grateful for you giving me your attention to reading this.
Secondly, your time is one of your most precious gifts. Imagine time like your smartphone battery. You start off with the day with 100% charge, and as the day goes on, your battery drops to 80%, to 60%, to 40%, and finally 15%. And when your smartphone battery is at 15% at the end of the day, you start to get “charge anxiety” — imagine yourself at a bar at 8pm, you know you might need to call an Uber at around 11pm, will your phone battery last you long enough for the next 3 hours? If you know you only have a few hours of battery life on your smartphone, will you really kill your smartphone battery by playing Candy Crush, checking Facebook, or Instagram? No, you will probably turn off your smartphone (or switch it to airplane mode) to conserve as much battery as humanly possible in order to call the Uber late at night to get you home safely.
This is an analogy to our lives— if you knew that you only had 15% time left in your life, how would you spend your life differently?
A lot of people who are older (60’s and 70’s) realize that a long of things that us younger people don’t realize— that one day we will (unfortunately) die, so we should stop wasting our valuable time on bullshit (people we don’t really care about, about making more money, and external recognition). Most people in their 60s-80s will spend time on doing what they really love (traveling, taking photos, writing, reading, spending time with loved ones, tending their gardens) because they know not much time is left.
Even me, I am 28 years old. I don’t smoke, consume sugar, drink alcohol (sometimes), do drugs, and have no illnesses that I know about. Assuming that I don’t get into a car accident or get some sort of rare form of cancer, I think I can live to be 90. That means I might have a good 60+ years ahead of me.
But who knows if I die tomorrow— if I am distracted by my smartphone as I am crossing the road, and I get hit by a drunk driver. Or if I find out I have lung-cancer (my dad was a heavy smoker, and many of my good friends growing up smoked heavily), and found out that I only had 2 years left to live? Or if I found out I had a brain tumor (happened to a friend), and discovered I only had 6 months left to live? How would I live my life differently?
I would be fiercely protective of my time. I wouldn’t give away my time like it was worth nothing. If I had the choice between having a million dollars or another 6 months to live, I would choose having an extra 6 months to live. The decision would be obvious— yet how often do we make the opposite mistake (we will sacrifice many years of our life just to make a few extra bucks).
So nowadays, I realize that time is one of my most valuable assets. If I decide to spend time with someone, I really love and care about them. I have a mental rule: if I would spend $100 to have dinner with this person, would I do it? Or if this was my last day on earth, would I decide to have dinner with this person without regrets?
My buddy Seneca tells me:
Go to sleep like you would never wake up again. Wake up like you will never sleep again. When you travel, never expect to come home again. When you come back home, never expect to travel again.
So once again friend, treasure your attention and time like it are your two most precious gifts. And whenever possible, trade money in order to have more attention and time for yourself.
7. Less technology, more innovation
I always make a sucker-mistake: I think that having more technology in my life will lead to more innovation and creativity.
Having less technology in my life forces me to be more creative with what I already have.
For example, I remember when the iPad first came out, I imagined how “innovative” it would help me become. In reality? I just ended up getting distracted by all the fun iPad games, and spending inordinate amounts of time and attention trying to find the next magical iPad productivity app which would revolutionize my life.
The other day, I deactivated my iPad and erased all the content on it, and now I’m back to the “old school” paper notebook. And man, paper rocks. I can write not only horizontally, but vertically. I don’t need to “write within the lines”, I can draw diagrams, and different languages. One of my favorite quotes from the introduction of Fahrenheit 451:
“If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.” – Juan Ramón Jiménez
I have also spent the last month or so “detoxing” from social media— I no longer upload photos to Instagram. Which got me thinking— how else can I decide to share my photos with the world? I then ended up working with Cindy to start printing my photos on lovely textured paper which give the viewer a more “haptic” experience of experiencing the photo not just as an image, but as a three-dimensional object, which you can hold, touch, and experience the photograph. I’m also working on making a “deconstructed book” or a “print book” of about 7-10 prints in a box, intended to be looked at as a book, but also giving the viewer the opportunity “re-order” the book however they would like, to take some prints and frame them on their walls, or even give away some as presents to others.
I’ve also made it a goal to everyday uninstall one superfluous application from both my smartphone and laptop. This has quite possibly been the best thing— now my smartphone and laptop last a lot longer on a battery charge, I have fewer apps to distract me, and I have more attention to do what I truly love doing (writing, like I am doing now).
Even nowadays, I try to keep my smartphone off as much as possible when I am doing creative work, as not to be a distraction. And with my laptop, the only “app” I have which I actually find real use is “IA Writer” (seriously the best minimalist writing application I have ever used), and Lightroom for processing photos. And Evernote and Dropbox for keeping information organized— all else seems to be unnecessary.
Even with my cameras, I am trying to constantly get rid of cameras, to achieve my ideal of “one camera, one lens.” I find that having too many cameras is a distraction, and causes me to make excuses instead of making photos. And having too many lenses and focal lengths is also a distraction — sticking with one focal length and staying consistent is the only way to be innovative with your images.
Even with my clothing, I am always distracted to figure out what to wear, so now my “uniform” is just to wear a black v-neck shirt, a black pair of jeans, and black shoes. Fewer options, less distractions, less technology = more bliss, more tranquility, more focus, and more innovation.
I remember when I was a kid and had no money, man I had to be so innovative to find out ways to make money. I started to learn how to build PC desktops, and ended up building and selling computers for about $100 profit each, selling about 10 of them, and then having $1000 to buy my first car (1991 Nissan Sentra). I remember how much more creative I was when I first started blogging, before I had an audience, and how hard I worked and collaborated with others. Now I feel that I am becoming a bit complacent — I know I already have an audience, which is making me a bit lazy.
I’ve been spending a lot of time studying ancient history, philosophy, and the past to figure out how to “innovate” for the future.
First of all, I think that text will always continue to “innovate”. At the end of the day, writing and reading are the two technologies which are intertwined with human DNA and human experience. Twitter thrives on text, we text-message one another all the time, we send emails, we read books, we read blogs. Sure we love visual information (photos, Instagram, Snapchat), but text is immortal; photos vanish through the digital ether.
I am trying to figure out ways how I can make text more open and accessible to you. Part of my “open source” initiative is to keep all this text open to you— free to remix, share, and distribute. All the e-books I’ve put out on the past have .txt documents for you to download, and I also try to share this information on Google docs, and other ways to download.
Taking it back to photography— I also feel that the next generation of true innovation won’t be through all these fancy digital cameras, but to those shooting 35mm film, seeing how they can push the boundaries of their creativity by being restricted by technology. Even some of the most famous movie directors are starting to shoot 35mm film again, as they realize that digital technology is making them quite lazy. Just look how Kodak has put out a new Super-8 camera that is a hybrid of film and digital— pretty cool stuff.
So if you really want to innovate with your photography, see if you can stick to the “one camera, one lens” philosophy. And perhaps instead of tempting yourself to buy that new digital camera with 40+ megapixels, see how you can “downgrade” and perhaps start shooting more film.
Through limits, we force ourselves to be creative. This is the beauty of “creative constraints.”
8. You don’t need to travel to be happy
When I was younger, my life’s goal was to travel and see the world. Very much inspired by the book, “The Alchemist” — I wanted to discover my “heart’s treasure” in some distant country. I was dissatisfied with my life in LA, and I thought I would be much happier in Paris.
I ended up having the great fortunate to traveling the world, going to cities such as Beirut, Tokyo, Zurich, Marseille, Paris, Prague, Florence, Rome, New York, Chicago, Toronto, Melbourne, Sydney, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu, Manila, Seoul, Kyoto, Berlin, Vancouver, Seattle, Lisbon, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Portland, Istanbul, London, Brighton, Venice, Cinque Terre, Manchester, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Brussels, Stockholm, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hong Kong, Saigon, Hanoi, and probably a few other cities I can’t think of off the top of my head.
Yet my biggest takeaway from traveling is this: home is where the heart is. I felt that a lot of my traveling was a sense of escapism from my home. I wasn’t satisfied with my home, my friends, and my community— and I thought that happiness lied somewhere else in the world.
But the truth is that a happy person can live happily anywhere— it is their own attitude about life, rather than where they live which constitutes happiness.
At the moment, I am in Berkeley, at Philz coffeeshop, drinking a lovely “New Manhattan light-roast” coffee, sitting across from the love of my life Cindy. It is a nice sunny day, and I realize in this present moment, all I need to be happy is a nice cup of coffee, engaged and lively conversation with my friends, the love of Cindy, and the warmth and presence of my family (Mom and sister in San Jose). The other day I had a birthday potluck with my Mom, sister, her boyfriend, myself, Cindy at “Joy Sushi” in Mountain View (my mom works there, if you want good Sushi go visit there and say Eric sent you), and having the love of my family was the warmest feeling of all.
I have all my basic needs, I have a comfortable 1-bedroom apartment in (specifically Albany, which is next to Berkeley), I have a laptop with a wifi connection, and my health. What else do I really need, and does any foreign city provide what I cannot provide for myself here?
For a long time when I first moved to Berkeley, I felt a ton of “penis envy” of people who lived in San Francisco— which is right over the bridge, a lot “sexier”, and more “exciting.” But all I realized that San Francisco had (which Berkeley didn’t have) is $5 espressos, $5,000+ rent, and a lot of traffic. A good cup of coffee, wifi connection, and loving friends can be found everywhere.
Even nowadays, I still love traveling, but see it less of a “need” in my life. I can honestly say that if I spent the rest of my life in one place and never traveled again, I would feel no regret. I think this is because I have realized that happiness isn’t where I live, but the person who I am.
Even when I was living in East Lansing, Michigan with Cindy— I didn’t really have many “friends”, yet I was still happy. I still had the love and company of Cindy, the ability to take photos of whatever I found interesting (mostly urban landscapes), and that we still enjoyed the only 1-2 good restaurants in town. I still had caffeine (although the coffee there wasn’t great, there was still 1-2 good places in town to get a decent espresso), and the friendly smile of strangers. Even if tomorrow we got re-located to South Dakota or Idaho, I could probably live a happy and fulfilling life there (no offense to anyone who lives there).
So if you’re the type that you have never traveled (and would like to), please, by all means— try to travel as much as you can. However realize that traveling is a means to an end, not the end itself. Which means— the point of life isn’t to travel for the rest of your life. Rather, see traveling as an experience which teaches you that the most valuable place to live in is the home where you already live.
9. What is your life’s mission?
I think we are all put on this earth for a reason. We all have a calling— a creative urge to do something to benefit our fellow humankind.
“He who lives for himself is truly dead to others.” – Publilius Syrus
I know a lot of people who make the central mistake in life in thinking that the purpose of life is to maximize your self-pleasure (hedonism), by eating really good food, buying expensive toys, by traveling to exotic places, and to increase “feeling happy.”
I think most people have it wrong (as I did in the past)— the secret to a meaningful and fulfilling life is to have a strong sense of purpose— a mission statement for life.
Without a mission in life, what kind of goal or aim do we have? If we are a sailor in a ship, without knowing what our destination is, how do we know where to steer our ship?
Everyone has a different mission in life. Some people serve their local communities, some people work hard to put dinner on the table, some work and create art that uplifts and inspires, others lend a hug and a smile to those who are in pain and in misery.
I have a bad habit of asking really personal questions to Uber drivers. One of them is: “What do you feel like is your life’s mission?”
This is a very personal question to ask people— but when you ask people about it, most people have a sense of mission in their life (yet are too embarrassed or nervous to talk about it).
For me, I feel like my life’s mission purpose is to help others. I want to dedicate myself being a servant towards others, and making my short life as useful to my fellow human beings as possible. Not only that, but I want to help the greatest number of people possible— this is why I love blogging and the internet, you have the opportunity to help people “at scale.”
I also have realized that my purpose in life isn’t to become the world’s best photographer, or even a “good” photographer. Photography is something I am passionate about, but I feel like my #1 calling in life is to be a teacher, and sharing useful and practical knowledge that I’ve picked up along the way.
My mom was a teacher, and tons of uncles, aunts, and my grandparents were also teachers or professors. I feel like I have been given a zest of life through teaching, through writing, and by connecting people. I feel that this is my life’s mission statement.
So friend, what is your mission statement? I generally feel that most human beings feel the most satisfaction helping other human beings.
In-fact, there were many studies done which showed that spending money on others actually makes us happier than spending it on ourselves. Which makes sense— if society didn’t evolve to help one another, we would all probably have died off by now.
So friend, think how you can better make yourself useful to other people. I think also in terms of photography, business, and life, the more you give, the more you receive in return.
I initially made all the content on this blog free and “open source” because I felt like it was the right thing to do, and not to make information a privilege or have any paywalls to hold back those in-need (I was once that kid who was worried whether his mom could pay the rent that month, can you expect a kid to spend $20 on digital content?)
Of course at the same time, creators need to “make a living.” I’m fortunate enough that I have been able to make a comfortable living teaching workshops (90% of my income), and I no longer live in poverty or having the stress of not being able to pay the month’s rent.
But friend realize— if you dedicate your life to serve others and make yourself as useful to others as humanly possible, why do you fear for your basic needs and living? In fact, if you are useful to others, it is in the interest of others to make sure you don’t starve to death. Sure you might not become “rich”, but instead you will become “rich” with friendship, rich with respect, rich with a sense of purpose, and rich with a sense of overflowing abundance and love from your heart.
We all live in a society of friendship and mutual-assistance; when you are helping others, you are actually helping yourself.
10. You have no limits
Man, we live in such an incredible world.
I can buy a $179 Chromebook and connect myself to a free public wifi network.
I can buy a sub-$99 smartphone that can access the world’s entire repository of knowledge from all of history.
I can buy a meal for $1 that will keep me satiated for the next 5 hours.
I can drink water for “free” and ensure I will not starve to death.
I can get “free” power by accessing a power outlet in many coffeeshops which only “charge” me $2 for a cup of coffee (and stay there for the entire day).
The only limit we have nowadays is our own imagination.
We have the power to control our destiny, to create whatever we set our mind towards, and the only limit we have is what we self-impose upon ourselves.
Sometimes I get selfish and greedy, and forget to be grateful for all the tools I have. But it is tools what have made humans different from other animals— our tools have helped empower us to create dwellings, to control the streams of water, and to grow food in the fields.
We live in a world of abundance— in-fact, most of the problems of modern civilization are from over-abundance, rather than starvation.
We have problems because we have too much food, too much high-fructose corn syrup, which leads to health problems.
We have too many digital distractions— from all these free smartphone apps and games and social media networks we can access.
We have too many desires to buy shit we don’t need (digital advertising seems to be the only online platform which is thriving).
Do you remember when you were a kid, how creative you were? How creative you were with that pencil and paper, how you were able to create magical drawings from just your imagination? Do you remember playing with that cardboard box from the TV, how you were able to make forts, to make castles, to make a home for yourself? Do you remember how you were able to use your imagination with your friends, and play “house” — and assign each other roles and complex social scenarios with once again, just your mind?
Man, today we are so goddamn lazy. It really isn’t our faults— but the faults of all the distractions all around us (okay, some of it is our fault). Rather than being imaginative, we’re suckered into watching YouTube for hours on end (the ‘recommendation’ engines are getting so damn good), rather than innovating ourselves out of a tough situation, we would rather buy our way out of difficult situations (Amazon prime can fix all of our creative problems). Rather than trying to make glue from boiling rice, we just get stick-glue from Amazon prime shipping. Rather than trying to innovate and be creative with the cameras we already own, we just buy a camera with faster auto-focus and more megapixels. Rather than trying to be a more creative writer, we just buy more expensive laptops and tablets as an excuse of our lack of imagination.
I have fallen to this sucker trap a lot— blaming my tools, rather than my own lack of imagination.
Thus, I am trying to become a child again for the next 10 years of my life. I’m 28 now, I feel I will be 38 years old before I know it.
What do I want to do differently?
I don’t want to learn via standardized learning and classrooms— I want to be an “autodictat” and learn things on my own. Rather than following a stream of education force-fed into my mouth, I want to simply follow my curiosity and to spend more time thinking about answers to questions in my own head, rather than simply asking Google or Wikipedia for the answers.
I want to “play” in life, rather than force myself to “study”. I want to enjoy myself and my life, my friends, rather than thinking of life in terms of “productivity”, “efficiency”, and “optimization.”
I want to feel the lightness of becoming a beginner again. I want to approach photography everyday like it was the first time I picked up a camera, without any sort of theory or “knowledge” to hold me back. I want to take photos like snapshots, to not think too much, and to just enjoy the photos for myself (without worrying whether others will like my work).
I want to get lost in the library again, and remember the time how creative I was before I had money to burn. When I don’t have money, rather than just buying stuff, I want to learn how to be resourceful, scrappy, and grateful of what I already have.
I want to harness the great power of the internet, without being tempted to buy stuff. I want to use the internet to empower me, rather than to distract me. I want to find truth, beauty, and knowledge in the world.
So friend, realize that you have no limits but yourself. Don’t think that money, your job, your spouse, your kids, or anyone else is holding you back.
Do you want to start that start-up? Easy; go to sleep at 9pm every night, and wake up at 4:30am everyday to build your business.
If you want to have more time to make photos, uninstall email from your phone and take the time you have after you’re done with work to shoot.
If you want more time for your creative activities, cancel your Netflix subscription, and use that 1-2 hours a day you have to paint, draw, read, write, or photograph.
Protect your time, attention, and creative mind with all your abilities.
The next 10 years
It is kind of crazy that before I knew it, I am 28 years old. It was like yesterday that I was 18 years old— honestly I don’t feel too different either physically or mentally.
I have dropped some of the bad habits I have had when I was 18 years old. I no longer drink to get “fucked up” and puke after playing beer-pong. I no longer waste time with video games (Counterstrike, Starcraft, Diablo) and instead use that time for self-improvement (reading, writing, photography). I no longer care for fancy clothes, and have a simple all-black wardrobe. I no longer care to drive recklessly or spend inordinate amounts of time and money “fixing up” my car (good thing I don’t have a car anymore to be tempted by). I no longer waste time chasing girls and trying to look cool (fortunately I have Cindy). I no longer need to be “popular” (I already have a wonderful circle of friends that I love and whom love me).
I no longer desire to be “rich”; rather, I desire to be time-rich. I no longer desire to be social media-famous, I now seek to be satisfied with myself. I no longer desire more toys and gadgets; I am trying to figure out how to have fewer toys and gadgets in my life to burden and distract me. I no longer desire to be “buff” or “ripped”; I want to treat physical exercise like playing in a jungle gym. I no longer want to travel around the world; I want to learn how I can better appreciate the home I already have.
I no longer want to complain about my life; I want to learn how to better make do with the life I already have. I no longer want to seek having more expensive food at trendy restaurants; I want to learn how to cook and make my own delicious food at home. I no longer want fancy sports cars; I want to learn how to be more savvy riding public transportation and using the time on the book to think, meditate, and read.
I no longer want to lust after that new $7000 camera; I now want to learn how to enjoy the zen of “one camera, one lens” and use a camera cheap and disposable to be as creative as possible. I no longer want to leave behind a legacy; I just want my friends to feel loved and appreciated by me. I no longer want to build an empire; I want to learn how to control my own negative impulses and vices and build a “kingdom of God” in my own heart.
I no longer want to be more “productive” in my life; I want to learn how to cherish the few precious moments I have with my loved ones. I no longer want to be make my schedule more “optimized”; I want to slow down, smell the roses, and enjoy the beautiful tapestry of nature which is before my very eyes.
I no longer want to download apps; I want to read books. I no longer want to win arguments; I want to learn how to not be petty in the first place. I no longer want to accrue more 0’s in my bank account; I want to learn how to be more frugal with the money I already have.
I no longer want to be distracted; I want to live in the moment. I no longer want to care about what others think of me; I want to learn how to look at myself in the mirror and not be ashamed of who I am looking at.
I no longer want to worry about film vs digital; I just want to learn how to make photos that bring me pleasure and joy. I no longer want to get more social media followers; I just want to share my photos with the few friends whose opinion I care about. I no longer want to live in a big and exciting city; I want to live in a city that is calm, relaxing, and affords me the space to think without noise and distractions.
I no longer want to buy a new smartphone or upgrade all the time; I’d rather learn how to use my phone less and be fully-present with those I am meeting face-to-face. I no longer want to get more page views for this blog; I want to write things with more meaning and purpose. I no longer want to learn how to be a “good” photographer; I want to learn how to be a purposeful photographer.
Some things I do plan on studying more (for fun) the next 10 years: history, physics, science, art, Latin, poetry, philosophy, all in the hope of being a more loving human being.
I think about the last 10 years of my life, and how much gratitude I have for the people who have helped me along the way.
I have so much gratitude for my mother, who has put me first in life, and has worked and slaved her entire life to help me get to where I am. Mom, you are the most incredible person in my life (before I met Cindy), and I will work my hardest to always take care of you, help you enjoy and experience life (travel, good food), and make you proud.
I have so much gratitude to my sister, who has always been super-supportive of me, nonjudgmental, and one of the purposes I have tried to work hard (in order to be a good role model).
I am so grateful to all my teachers in public schools, who have taught me to be curious, to develop my artistic abilities, and to always question authority.
I am grateful to all those in my church, who have taught me morals, to be (less) crappy of a human being, and prevented me from being engulfed in a world of drugs, violence, sex, gangs, and vices.
I am grateful to all my bosses, employers, and community leaders who have helped me learn responsibility, leadership, and to help others.
I am grateful to all those who have helped me in my photography-career; all the photographers who have given me guidance and advice, to all the camera companies who have sponsored me with equipment and have helped get my name out there, to all the fellow bloggers who have helped support me to get where I am.
I am grateful to all my students who have attended my workshops, who have helped me put on the lights, who have taught me about life, who have shared lots of love and laughs, and to those who have taught me to become a better teacher.
I am grateful to all the strangers I have met along the way, who were comfortable enough with me to take their photo, to share lively conversation with, and also to expand my view of the world
I am grateful for all my family members— those who have caused me pain and misery in the past, but have also given me love and affection, and who have taught me to become a strong human being.
I am lastly grateful to Cindy, who is my love, my heart, my soul-mate; my better-half. She is the one who inspires me to wake up every morning, the one who encourages me to fulfill my “personal maximum”, and who has helped me pursue my passion in photography, blogging, traveling, teaching, and is my life teacher. She is the one who uplifts me when I feel shitty, the one who makes me laugh when I am blue, the one who tests my patience (and helps me become a more loving, compassionate, and empathetic human being), and the one who has taught me the beauty of other cultures. She is my rock, my foundation, my anchor. She is the one who makes my heart sing, and the one who shows me that I also have unlimited potential— and that I have much to sing, laugh, and dance for in life.
Cindy is the one who has taught me the tenements of faith, hope, and love— and through her eyes I can see the eyes of God.
Thank you so much Cindy, my family, friends, loved ones, and you my dear reader— because without all of you, I wouldn’t be blessed to have the life that I have, and the opportunity to share my overflowing joy of the world with you.
Thank you so much.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
2:42pm, Jan 31st, Sunday, 2016— at “Allegro” in Berkeley, feeling a nice buzz off the Vietnamese-iced coffee, and looking forward to a delicious home-cooked meal by Cindy tonight.
28 life lessons
Yes, I know that I promised 28 life lessons, I only wrote about the first 10 in-depth; so here is the full-list:
- Don’t be afraid of fellow human beings
- Don’t buy stuff, buy experiences
- Tomorrow is never
- Don’t listen to what society expects of you
- Don’t seek external recognition
- Your attention and time are your two most valuable commodities
- Less technology, more innovation
- You don’t need to travel to be happy
- What is your life’s mission
- You have no limits
- Photography (and life) is more about subtraction than addition
- It is better to travel to fewer places (and getting to know them very well), rather than traveling to many places (and not getting to know them very well)
- “Enough is never enough”
- Embrace “beginner’s mind”
- Home is where the heart is
- Count your blessings, rather than counting what you don’t have
- (Good) coffee is proof that God loves us
- The most powerful tool is your own mind
- Live everyday as if it were your last
- Concentration is a matter of removing distractions, not applying force
- Shoot for yourself; never others
- Trust your intuition over “knowledge”
- People don’t know what they want until you show it to them
- “Happiness” isn’t a feeling; it is an action
- The more you desire, the less you appreciate what you already have
- “Social” wealth is far more valuable than monetary wealth
- There is no “good” or “bad” in life; only opinion
- When in doubt, be generous
Other reflections on life
Below are two of my other reflection articles on life (at age 27 and 26):
- 27 Lessons I’ve Learned About Photography and Life
- 26 Lessons Life Has Taught Me About Street Photography
Unleash your creative potential:
- April 10-11th, 2021: BOSTON / Discover Your Unique Voice in Photography Workshop [Register Intent Here]
- May 1-2nd, 2021: CHICAGO / Street Photography Composition Masterclass [Register Intent Here]
- May 22-22nd, 2021: NEW YORK CITY / STREET PHOTOGRAPHY MASTERCLASS by ERIC KIM [Register Intent Here]
Be notified of when new workshops are live here.