For those of you who follow this blog — you know that I am a big fan of “stoic” philosophy — essentially how to be a badass in today’s unpredictable, chaotic, and insane world.
Stoicism was “invented” 2,000+ years ago, by a greek named Zeno. Since then, there have been centuries of Stoic philosophers— initially Greeks, then Roman.
What has appealed to me most about “Stoic” philosophy is the practicality. I hate studying philosophy which is all about these theories of “nature” and the cosmos. I don’t care about theorizing — I want to learn how to be less stressed, less anxious, and happier in life.
Stoicism has been (one of the) best cures for me so far. Stoicism has helped me face uncertainty in life. Stoicism has helped me not regret past decisions. Stoicism helps me daily think about death, my mortality, which helps me focus on what is truly important to me — helping empower others.
I want this essay to be a distillation of everything I have learned about Stoic philosophy, and how you can apply it to your photography and life:
1. Focus on the effort, not the results
One of the first lessons I learned in stoicism is to not worry about the results— just to focus on the effort.
For example, you can control your own actions, your own behavior, and your own mindset. However you cannot control how others react to you.
Applied to street photography — you can try your best to make the best photos you can in the streets, but whether you get a good shot or not is outside of your control.
Of course, you can dictate the effort you put into your photography. You can control how many hours you shoot, where you shoot, and when to hit the shutter. But whether or not you will capture that beautiful moment is dictated by things outside of your control — the weather, the outfits of your subjects, the emotional states of your subjects, and what people want to do at a certain moment.
Lesson 1: Don’t be attached to the results
Therefore the lesson I want to share with you is to not be disappointed, frustrated, or sad when you don’t make any good photos.
You might spend a day, a week, a month, or even a year shooting on the streets, and not get any good photos that you’re happy with.
That is fine. Let it go. Remember that street photography isn’t just about capturing beautiful decisive moments. Street photography is the chance for you to go on a walk, to appreciate nature and people, and to explore the world.
Focus on the effort and process of shooting street photography, not the results.
2. Imagine the worst-case scenario
Another stoic tip — always imagine the worst-case scenario, no matter what.
For example, let’s say you work at a very stressful job. A good way to lessen the stress in your job: imagine like each day the worst-possible thing will happen (you lose your job, you lose a ton of money, you become homeless, etc). Mentally-adjust yourself to the worst-case scenario.
However in reality, the real worst-case scenario will (rarely) happen. Therefore, if the day is a little better than your worst-case scenario, you will feel happy and relieved. And if the worst-case scenario does happen, you will have prepared for it mentally, and it won’t hurt you as much.
When you’re shooting street photography, remember that it isn’t easy. Street photography is one of the most difficult genres of photography. You deal with the chance of pissing people off, you deal with getting yelled at, or perhaps even attacked physically. It rarely happens, but sometimes it does.
Therefore when I shoot street photography, I put on my stoic body armor, and get ready for the worst. In the past, I have been yelled at, had the cops called on me, been shoved, and (once) even slapped in the face (by some teenage kid). Even funnier— I’ve once been karate-chopped by an 80+ Chinese man in Toronto.
Anyways, this is the worst that has happened to me in the last 10 years I’ve been shooting street photography. Therefore when I’m shooting, I always expect the worst. This has helped toughen me mentally (and physically)— and so now I’m a lot more fearless when I’m shooting.
Lesson 2: Street photography is 90% mental
Honestly, I think street photography is 90% mental — having the courage to take photos, especially when you’re scared.
But once again— one of the best ways to overcome your fears is to imagine the worst case scenario possible. This will prevent any future sting from when anything bad actually does happen.
3. Always think about death
In the past, when the world was overrun by plagues, disease, wars, and uncertainty — you never knew when you’d die. Of course in today’s world, we are a lot more fortunate. Most of us don’t starve to death, aren’t attacked by neighboring tribes, nor die of common diseases.
One of the stoic mottos was “memento mori” — remember you must (and will) die.
By always reminding yourself of death, you never wasted any time. Because everyday was precious.
One of the essays I’ve re-read the most (probably at least 15 times) is “On the Shortness of Life” by the Roman Stoic Seneca. In this essay, Seneca stresses living each day as if it were your last, and focusing all your time, energy, and attention on yourself. Not in a greedy way, but to focus on your life’s task, in order to help future generations. Seneca raised the importance of not wasting time on superfluous activities, mindless “networking”, or trying to make a bunch of money for the sake of it (things that are also very applicable to today’s world).
Seneca reminds us — whenever you wake up in the morning, imagine it is the last time you will wake up. And whenever you sleep at night, imagine like it is the last time you will go to sleep.
Steve Jobs had a more modern version of this concept — he would wake up, stare at himself in the mirror, and ask himself, “If today were the last day of my life, how would I spend this day?” Especially when Steve Jobs learned he had cancer— he hustled hard, cut away all distractions in his life, and focused on what was truly important to him — creating innovating tools to empower humanity.
Lesson 3: Focus
How can we apply this concept to street photography and our lives?
I think it is to focus — and to remove distractions and superfluous activity from our lives.
Of course there are a lot of things that we must do — like work, feed our kids and our family, and pay the bills. But there are a lot of things we don’t need to do — waste time networking, waste time socializing with people we don’t care about, and trying to earn more money (when we already have enough to sustain us).
My analogy on the shortness of life is like a smartphone battery. Imagine you were born with a 100% charge on your smartphone, but you didn’t have a charger. And everyday, your charge went down a few percentage points. If you knew you only had 20% charge left, how would you best use your energy, time, and efforts?
I know personally when my phone is at about 20% charge— I get anxious. I stop fiddling around with my phone, checking stupid websites, and conserve my battery for important things (like calling an Uber late at night, or perhaps calling Cindy in-case of emergencies). I don’t waste any of my battery.
That battery is your life. Nobody really knows how to “best” use their life— but we certainly know how we waste our life. We waste our life by mindless and passive entertainment, on bodily pleasures, and anything that causes us to regret.
The way I apply this stoic idea of imagining everyday were my last is to literally imagine like everyday were my last.
This has helped me focus on blogging, writing, and creating information — which I feel is the best use of my time, energy, and efforts. My hope is to create information that helps empower others, and opens up access.
For you, of course this will be something different. Perhaps this means to (finally) pursue that one photography project you’ve always wanted to pursue. Perhaps this might mean to photograph as if today were your last day on earth. Perhaps that just means to spend more time with your kids and family, or to tell your loved ones how much they matter to you.
Of course if you literally lived everyday like it were your last— there is no way you can work on long-term projects. But perhaps the solution is to not work on a long-term project, because that is assuming you will live another 10+ years (which you have no control over).
So my simple suggestion: be the best photographer you can today, and share your most personally-meaningful shots today. You don’t own tomorrow; only today.
I wanted to continue this essay, but I feel this is a good time to cut it short. I don’t want to keep dragging on and on — I want to keep this essay short and sweet.
Essentially know that the world is unfair. There is no point of complaining. The only way to succeed in life is to build up your own courage, your own skills, and your own undertakings. Know that your motto of life should be in action.
Focus on action in your photography — don’t waste time worrying about whether your camera is good enough or not. Just use it and make the best photos you possibly can.
Don’t have fear on the streets. Put on your stoic armor, and be ready to face the worst-case scenario. And know that the worst-case scenario (almost) never happens.
Lastly, don’t waste your time. Treat everyday as if it were your last. This will truly help you laser-focus into your personal work. It will prevent you from working on photo projects which have no personal meaning to you. It will help you focus on what is truly important.
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