You might have heard the term “YOLO”, which stands for “you only live once”. However, I think most people misconstrue the word. They think that it means to live a life of hedonism and pleasure, and give themselves the license to do stupid stuff and waste their time and money.
For example, let’s say that I have to go to work tomorrow, but I’m out with my mates and they ask me if I want to drink some Red Bull and vodka shots. Instead of being a responsible human being and knowing that I shouldn’t (because I need to go to work tomorrow morning), I might say “YOLO” and drink the shots. But of course, this is an idiotic thing to do.
Don’t waste your life
We’re only given one life to live.
I had a friend that I knew ever since I was a kid. We weren’t super close, but something horrible happened to him: when he was 16 years old, he went out with a bunch of friends. 5 of them were in a car. They were driving home, and suddenly a 16-wheeler with a drunk driver behind the wheel ran a red light, hit them head-on, and killed all 5 of them in the car, instantly.
Another story: my girlfriend’s mom knew a man who came home one day to his wife, who was complaining that she was tired. The wife put their newborn baby to sleep, and then she went to sleep herself. She never woke up. Apparently she had a hidden brain aneurism and died in her sleep. Her husband forgot to say “I love you” before she went to sleep.
You want to live life without regrets. You want to live life to the fullest. You only live once, so why do we waste this short period of time we have on earth seeking material possessions we don’t need, seeking to increase the digits in our bank accounts, to constantly delay our gratifications and dreams in lieu of something in the future that might never come?
Don’t be a slave; follow your dreams
We all have a dream. I’m sure you have plenty of dreams as a photographer. I’m sure there are so many places you want to travel to and see. I’m sure there are some photo books you want to buy. I’m sure there are photo projects you want to pursue.
But what is holding you back?
I know in the past, I always made excuses for my external situations in life holding me from pursuing my dreams.
For example, I always made excuses that it was my full time job which held me back from traveling. But in reality, it was myself who kept me from traveling. Meaning, I intentionally didn’t travel because I didn’t want to look like a lazy worker, and I wanted to look good in front of my boss, and get a raise. So it was my fear of not getting a raise that held me back from traveling.
I wanted to pursue some photography projects. But what held me back? Me wasting time by going out to drink and party, not the fact that I didn’t have enough time or energy.
I used to complain all the time that I never had enough time to go out and shoot. Rather, in reality it was myself just making excuses for myself. Even when I had my full time job, I had plenty of time to shoot before work, during my lunch break, after work, and even when I was with my friends and family. But to be really honest, I always thought my camera wasn’t good enough, and the day that I owned a digital Leica, I would suddenly be inspired and take photos of everything. But I was just suckered by marketing at the end of the day, as I did eventually fall into my lust in pouring my life’s savings into a Leica m9, and not finding myself any happier with the Leica, nor more inspired.
Don’t imagine you will life a long life
I have a fear that I’m going to die young. Some call it “unhealthy”, but I think it’s absolutely great. Why? I don’t waste a day of my life.
I used to read all these self help books about saving up money, waiting for retirement at age 65, and then finally being able to travel, do what I want, buy a BMW, or whatever.
But forget that. In reality you never know when you’re going to die. And living a long life is uncertain. Even living another day is uncertain.
I know I sound melodramatic, but you don’t know if you, on the way of driving to work, might get tired (not sleeping enough the night before), accidentally swerve into the other lane, and get killed by the oncoming traffic. You never know if while you’re just walking, you slip, crack your skull on the pavement, and die. You don’t know if a drunk driver will run a red light and kill you. You don’t know if you might have a heart attack, if you might have anaphylaxis from an unknown bee or food allergy and choke to death, or if you might somehow get poked in the eye (or have some chemical accidentally spilled into your eye), and become blind (and never able to see and take photos again).
So why delay your happiness and your gratification? Don’t delay — live now. Photograph now. Don’t make your happiness and freedom hostage of some sort of uncertain future.
What can you do now?
I’m not telling you to quit your job, sell all of your stuff, and travel the world and turn your back on your family and children. Rather, I’m saying that you should try to use today like it were your last day on earth.
If you knew that tomorrow you wouldn’t wake up in the morning, how would you live your life differently today?
Perhaps you would invest in a photobook at a local store or be inspired by photos at the library. Perhaps you will go to that one part of town you want to go (after work) and make a few images. Perhaps you will share an unfinished project with a friend, and ask him or her to give you some feedback. Perhaps you will make more photos of your loved ones and friends (because you’re never sure when they will die either).
I have a personal rule; whenever I say “goodbye” to a friend, I imagine that I will never see him or her ever again. We aren’t certain if we will die tomorrow, how can we be certain that our friends will continue to live in good shape?
I have a friend who is 75, and his fear is literally not waking up in the morning. So whenever he goes to sleep, he imagines that he won’t wake up the next day. Part of it is frightening, but when he wakes up in the morning, he rejoices to God and says, “Thank you God for another day of life!”
You’re only given one life
We’re all given one life to live, no matter how rich or poor.
Many of us (especially us Americans) live our entire lives trying to seek power, wealth, prestige, and security (the beloved “American Dream”). However many of us die along the way in vain.
Never be jealous of someone who is richer or more materially “successful” than you. You might drive a Honda Civic, he might drive a BMW 7-Series. But how many years of his life did he waste trying to get that car? How many butts did he have to kiss? How many sleepless nights did he have to work, and how many weekends did he have to go into the office and spend time away from his family?
The worst trade you can make in life is to trade time for money. The best trade you can make in life is to trade money for time.
Why is that? If you lose $100, you can always earn another $100. If you lose 1 year of your life, you can never “gain” another year of your life.
Let’s take this a step further. Would you rather waste $1,000 on a new camera or lens, or use that money to “buy” vacation time and travel the world and have experiences that you will never forget?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for buying stuff I don’t need. But what helps me (prevent me from buying cars, cameras, clothes) is imagining how out of date and ugly they will look like in 2 years time. No matter how slick the new iPhone is today, it will look like crap in 2 years time. No matter how hot the new BMW is, it will looking worse in a few years time (once the new and hot model comes out).
It’s the same with digital cameras. Remember how sexy the Leica M9 was when it came out? Now it looks like a dinosaur, lots of users are having sensors that are failing and cracking, and now the new Leica M240 is so much sexier. I look at old Leica M9s and think, “Damn, these look like crap compared to the new Leicas.”
So forget money, forget trying to please others, forget kissing ass, and never think that you have another day to live. Because nobody is sure of it.
Live this day as if it were your last.
YOLO, you only live once.
About the author: Eric Kim is an international street photographer who’s currently based out of Berkeley, California. You can find more of his photography and writing on his website and blog. This article was also published here.