How to Strip Away the Superfluous


Dear friend,

A philosophy I have in photography and life is to strip away the superfluous.

1. What is perfection?

“Perfection isn’t when there is nothing left to add; it is when you have nothing left to take away.” – Leonardo da Vinci

I am seeking sublime bliss through perfection — through carving away the superfluous, and getting rid of what is unnecessary.

So much of photography and life is unnecessary. We have unnecessary gear, which weighs us down. We have unnecessary stuff at home, which clogs our closets, and overflow into our lives. When we talk with friends or family, we let empty words from from our lips.

How can we live a life where we strip away the superfluous?

2. Ultralight

I got inspired by my buddy Todd Hatakeyama about traveling light. He made it a practice to always travel with less stuff than he think he needed. And each trip, he always figured out something to travel less with.

Traveling ultralight isn’t to make you suffer. Rather, it is to make you thrive. The lighter you travel, the further you can travel, with less fatigue. You enjoy your travels more.

In your heart and soul; the lighter your cares, stresses, and anxieties— the more you can let your creativity soar.

With cameras, the lighter your camera, the more photos you will end up making. I know for myself, when I had a heavy DSLR, I would disdain carrying it with myself everywhere. I was a slave to my camera; my camera wasn’t my slave. Now I just shoot with a point-and shoot Ricoh GR camera, and it fits in my front pocket. I always have it with me, and usually in my hand. The lighter, the better— I make more creative photos, because the weight doesn’t hold me back.

The same goes with sports cars. The best way to increase the speed of your car isn’t to add horsepower; it is to strip away superfluous weight. That means getting rid of the sound-deadening in your car, air conditioning, power steering, stereo system, back seats, getting lighter wheels, switching all the panels in your car to carbon fiber, and stripping the car to the essential.

With design; less is more. The genius of the iPhone is how Steve Jobs and Jony Ive collaborated to strip away everything that wasn’t necessary (like a tactile keyboard, and such) — until they were just left with a full touch-screen, and a single home button.

3. Stripping away the superfluous in photography

With photography, I am trying to strip away the superfluous.

I strip away color. I am left with monochrome. Black bliss.

I strip away distractions from the edges of my frame. Stronger compositions, and more focus to the central subject of my frame.

I strip away dynamic range; I am painting with blots of black ink.

I try to remove everything from the frame which I don’t consider a good photograph. Rather, than trying to add to the frame.

4. Stripping away distracting technology

On my smartphone, I had a daily practice of uninstalling one app everyday. I am pretty much down to the point that I don’t even use my phone much anymore. Stripping down my phone means the battery life is better, I spend less time on it, and I have more focus and energy to do creative work on my laptop — which I think is 100x more productive than screwing around on my smartphone.

With my laptop, I also try to do the same — constantly uninstalling superfluous apps. The fewer apps I have, the more hard drive space I have. The fewer apps, the fewer distractions I have. And in terms of file storage, I practice the art of deleting stuff — rather than just organizing and backing things up.

5. The beauty of deleting

I try to also delete negativity from my life. Delete negative past memories. Delete negative people. Delete bullshit, and superfluous activity.

The more we delete from our hard drives and our lives, the more space we can allow things to enter.

6. Getting rid of ‘paralysis by analysis’

When I have too much choice, I get stressed. The worst is going to an Indian restaurant with 200 options. Just give me 5 options, and my life will be better. This is why I love In-and-out; there are only 3 options (hamburger, cheeseburger, or double-cheeseburger).

I used to have a lot of cameras (suffered GAS — gear acquisition syndrome) and honestly, I thought having more cameras and stuff would make me happier and more creative. In reality, it made me less creative. Having too many cameras stressed me out. I didn’t know which camera to shoot on a certain day. I would carry all the cameras with me all the time, and would take fewer photos.

Now I just have one camera and lens, I have let my ‘creative constraints’ push me to being more creative. Less weight, less stress, less hassle, fewer devices to charge, and more time, energy, and focus to actually make photographs.

7. Stripping down my diet

With my diet, I am trying to strip away the superfluous.

I now practice intermittent fasting— I don’t eat breakfast or lunch. Only dinner.

I also try to eat less crap in my diet. I no longer drink alcohol, beer, sugar, simple carbohydrates, bread, pasta, high fructose corn syrup, and unnecessary sauces.

The less crap I have in my diet, the more energy I have throughout the day. The more focus I have to do creative work.

8. Stripping away superfluous exercises

I also have tried to strip away superfluous exercises from my workout regimen. I no longer waste time in the gym. I usually go in for about 30 minutes, do some deadlifts, and leave.

At home, I do pushups when I’m bored. I also do chin-ups at the park whenever I see it.

I spend less time working out, and have increased the intensity. I have more time, and don’t waste my time with pointless and boring repetitions. As a result, I feel stronger, sharper, and more powerful.

9. When have you achieved perfection?

But what if you strip away so much; that you have nothing left? I think that is perfection.

In Zen and Taoism; they talk about trying to seek ‘emptiness’ in life. A house is only useful when it has negative space inside. A cup is only useful because it is empty and had no liquid in it (yet).

I of course, sometimes go on the extreme end. Getting rid of too much stuff. It is advantageous to have some stuff in life. Like an espresso machine, smartphone, laptop, and camera. But I think the secret is to subtract the superfluous not the essential. You want to keep the essential, and only strip away the superfluous.

10. How to figure out what is essential in your life

But how do we know what is essential, and what is superfluous?

For me, I know what is essential by thinking about death.

If today were my last day on earth, what would I want to do with my time and what would I not want to do with my time?

Things I would want to do:

  • Creative work (writing, photographing, reading, meditating on ideas, reading poetry, philosophy, and music)
  • Time with loved ones (close friends, family, Cindy)
  • Deadlifts

Things I would not want to do:

  • Business meetings that often go nowhere
  • “Networking” events
  • Caring what others think about me
  • Ruminating on negative events from the past // regrets, etc.
  • Spend time with people who don’t make my spirit soar

With physical stuff, I like to keep tools which empower me, not depower me. The laptop and camera empower me to create. The smartphone depowers me — it makes me into an idiot, and causes me to mindlessly scroll through the App store, looking for new stupid games to download.

For all of us, it is different. My preferences in life are different than yours.

I feel the first step to wisdom is self-knowledge. Knowing what works for you and what does not work for you.

Knowing that makes your spirit sing; and knowing what makes you feel like shit.

Knowing what works in your diet, your lifestyle, and physical exercise. Because we are all different. Not every shoe will fit every foot.

Conclusion: Assignments to strip away the superfluous

If you want to subtract the superfluous from your life, some practical assignment ideas:

  1. Uninstall one app from your phone everyday: A practical assignment. Try to do this for a week, or even a month. You will be surprised with how much unnecessary stuff we have on our phones.
  2. Learn how to say “no”: Say no to at least one social engagement this week which you think is a waste of your time and life.
  3. Subtract one negative person: You know who that person is. Unfortunately for myself, that person was my Dad— who was all negative vibes, and darkness. I still love him and have forgiven him, but cutting him out of my life was cutting out a cancerous tumor. Now I’m much healthier, happier, and less guilt-ridden.

You are in control of your life. You can decide what to do in your life, and what not to do.

But know that your life is probably more defined by what you decide not to do, than what you decide to do.

Keep subtracting the superfluous from your life, until you are left with what is truly essential and meaningful to you.


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Find more personal meaning in your life:

Personal Philosophy »

Stoicism »

Zen Philosophy »

Life Lessons »

Learn more: Start Here >