SF, 2015
SF, 2015

We all think that upgrading our cameras, getting newer cameras, with more megapixels, with more features, functions, and bells & whistles will make us better photographers.

What if the opposite were true? That by downgrading our equipment — we would become better photographers? By having fewer options, fewer functions, and fewer megapixels and image quality — we would be forced to be more creative?

Hedonic treadmill

Detroit, 2014
Detroit, 2014

In psychology, there is a concept called the “hedonic treadmill.” The basic concept is whenever we buy something, we get used to it, and then we no longer feel pleasure. Then we want to “upgrade” and buy something even newer, even better— to keep up our feeling of pleasure (hedonism).

The problem with the hedonic treadmill is no matter how good something is, it will never be good enough.

We start off as broke college students, and we buy a used Toyota Camry. Then one day after graduating college (and studying finance) we buy a new BMW. Then that no longer feels special, and (after a few decades) we upgrade to a Porsche. Then sooner or later, that loses its appeal — and we want a Maserati, a Bently, then eventually a spaceship.

Enough is never enough. We always want more, and will always be searching for that “new new thing.”

Upgrade treadmill

Mumbai, 2014
Mumbai, 2014

Personally, I am a slave to the “upgrade” treadmill as well. Whenever a new laptop, smartphone, camera, or tablet comes out — I am the first who wants to upgrade.

I know that these impulses to upgrade are irrational. The stuff I own is already “good enough”. Yet I want “better”. I want the newest, boldest, fastest, lightest, and most efficient.

You might know these people — the people who always need the newest iPhone. Or people who always need the newest digital camera. No matter how good what they own is, it is never good enough.

I feel that this “need” or “want” to constantly upgrade is predicated by a sense of fear. The fear of missing out. The fear that by not having the best equipment, we are somehow at a disadvantage.

Similarly, if we don’t have the newest iPhone — perhaps we don’t have the best smartphone camera. What if we leave our DSLR at home, and we need the best smartphone camera to catch that “decisive moment”?

If we don’t have the newest gadget, we might not have the best battery life. What if we are trapped somewhere and we run out of batteries?

Not only that, but a lot of the want to constantly upgrade is from marketing, and from companies breeding desire. The feeling that what you own isn’t good enough. The idea that if you somehow owned product [x] — you would become sexier, more fashionable, and cooler.

Think opposite

Toronto, 2014
Toronto, 2014

Which made me wonder — what if we pursued the opposite idea? What if instead of always trying to upgrade our life, we would try to downgrade our lives?

So instead of always buying the newest digital camera, what if we intentionally sold off, gave away, or traded our current cameras for something smaller, simpler, with fewer bells & whistles, and with worse image quality?

What if instead of upgrading our car, our homes, and our wardrobes— we sought to downgrade?

What if we sold our fancy car (with expensive car payments), for a more reasonable used car? Or what if we decided to get rid of our car all-together; and opt to use public transportation + Uber instead?

What if we sold our big fancy homes, with all the rooms which require cleaning, and expensive furniture, and moved into a move simple and modest home? What if we had less space, but used our space more effectively?

What if we no longer lusted for designer brands, and would just stick to simple and basic clothes — with good quality, that wouldn’t go in and out of season? Clothes that could last us several years, not just a fashion cycle.

Downgrading my home

Pittsburgh, 2014
Pittsburgh, 2014

Personally, I have “downgraded” a lot of things in my life, and have been happier, lighter, and less stressed out as a result.

For example, when I first moved to Berkeley with Cindy, we had a 2-bedroom apartment which cost us around $1900 (not including utilities). With utilities, our rent was probably closer to $2100.

We had 2 bedrooms, but we only used 1. The other bedroom was just a “guest room” (and we rarely had guests). By not always using the spare bedroom, Cindy and I felt stressed and like we were wasting the space. We contemplated renting out the room, putting it on AirBnb, or getting more out-of-town guests to stay with us.

By having a bigger space, rent was pretty expensive. So I was always stressed having to constantly work, trying to scheme of ways to make more money, just to afford living in the Bay Area.

The next year once our lease was up, we realized we qualified for subsidized-student housing (for graduate students). We downgraded to a 1-bedroom apartment in the UC Berkeley University Village in Albany (the town right next to Berkeley), and ended only paying $1300 (all utilities included). We saved close to $1,000 a month — and that was a lot less stress. We didn’t have to worry as much about finances. We could go out and eat more without as much guilt. Also by living in a smaller space, we got rid of a lot of our junk. We learned how to be more effective with a smaller space — and only kept onto our possessions which were truly meaningful to us.

Ironically enough, in our smaller space we ended up hosting more guests, and having more potlucks and get-togethers. We learned we didn’t need a huge space. Because the space was smaller, it felt more intimate. Also we bought an IKEA fold-out bed/couch (which was more effective with space, and also a comfortable bed for our guests).

Now that I’m (currently) living in Hanoi, Vietnam — the costs have plummeted dramatically (even more). This means even less stress with paying the bills, living expenses, and more energy and effort to do creative work.

Downgrading my camera

NYC, 2016
NYC, 2016

For a long time I was infatuated with rangefinders and Leica cameras. They are great cameras— but Leicas had many downsides. They are pretty heavy, require a lot of attachments (lenses, and an external flash), and also shooting film was a bit of a hassle at times.

I decided I wanted something smaller, and simpler. I “downgraded” to a point-and-shoot digital Ricoh GR camera, and now I’m much happier. It is much smaller, much lighter, and is a lot easier to walk around with. I can walk around all day with the Ricoh GR camera in my hand, and feel no strain in my neck (the Leica MP + flash + 35mm lens was quite heavy). Not only that, but I feel less worry or stress about the Ricoh GR. It cost me around $600 — so I know if I lose it, break it, or have it stolen, I can easily buy another one (compared to my Leica + lens, which cost nearly $6000).

I also have a lot of friends who have upgraded their digital cameras, and suddenly they have more megapixels (and more problems). Bigger file sizes are a headache. You need to buy more hard drive storage. You need more cloud storage to backup your files. Your memory cards quickly fill up.

Some benefits of downgrading your camera:

  • Smaller size, weight, bulk
  • Smaller file sizes (easier and cheaper to backup)
  • Worse image quality (forces you to shoot in good light, or use a flash)
  • Creativity (the fewer options you have in your camera, and fewer functions, the more creative you need to force yourself to be)

Other benefits of downgrading

New Orleans, 2015
New Orleans, 2015

Anything that is expensive, luxurious, big, and fast are more expensive to maintain, more stressful to own, and tend to break more.

A Porsche is sexy, fast, and desirable — but they are expensive to repair, expensive to maintain, and faster cars = more likelihood of speeding and death. A Toyota Camry isn’t as sexy, but it lasts longer, gets better miles-per-gallon, and is cheaper to maintain.

A cheaper laptop isn’t as fast, sexy, or state-of-the-art like a high-end MacBook pro. Yet by owning a cheaper laptop, you might need to force yourself to use more “lightweight” applications, to uninstall superfluous applications, and to be more efficient with your hard drive space, and file sizes. This might be a blessing in disguise.

The same goes for your smartphone. By not always owning the newest and sexiest smartphone, you will probably end up spending less time on your smartphone (generally a desirable thing). Less time on your phone = more time with your friends. And more focus on your work, and fewer distractions.

Lastly, by downgrading your lifestyle, equipment, car, home, meals, and camera— you have more money.

More money to travel, to learn, to enjoy meals with friends, and less stress on paying the bills. And more money to buy more coffee (the best investment).

When others upgrade; downgrade

New Orleans, 2015
New Orleans, 2015

Don’t listen to me. Just experiment and try downgrading for yourself. See if it liberates you, makes you feel happier, lighter, and less anxious.

I still want the best, but I’m always trying to train myself not to want the best. I want to aim for “good enough”. To spend less money on things I don’t need. To have less desire in my life, and more contentment.

When you see everyone upgrading; go opposite. Downgrade your possessions, and upgrade your life.


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