The Benefits of Doing Nothing

I wanted to write you this letter about some thoughts I have on “doing nothing”; not feeling like we always need to be “productive”, that we don’t always need to be producing, and how calmness, peace, and tranquility might be the key to what we’re searching for in life.

First of all, I’m kind of a self professed “self help” junkie. Ever since I was young, I was always trying to improve myself, my life, and my environment. I got into working out (because I no longer wanted to be a scrawny Asian kid). I played Starcraft for hours and pored over tons of strategy to become the best. I mastered combos on Tekken to beat my friends.

In college, I was voracious for knowledge. I had a feeling like everyone (else) in the world was deluded for thirsting for money, power, prestige, big homes, and expensive cars. I felt like studying Sociology (the study of society) gave me some of the mental tools to better understand the world around me.

Of course at the end of the day, I just wanted to be “happy.” I thought the answer was in being more efficient productive and knowledgeable about the world around me.

I saw a lot of my old friends and family members who were sloth-like, lazy, and never did anything. I think from my personal experiences, I saw not working hard to be the ills of most people in society.

From middle school (more and less up until now) I’ve never been able to stand still. I was always trying to shove more extracurricular activities into my schedule, spend more time with my friends, and do more.

However in the last year or so, I’ve become a bit burnt out. Reading a lot of philosophy and meditating on the purpose of my life has given me a lot of insight.

I’m starting to learn that the more I learn in life, photography, and society… ironically enough I get more confused and more dissatisfied with my life. Sometimes I take my own life too seriously, and I’ve been working hard to “chill” and “do nothing more”, without an ounce of guilt.

One thing I learned about working out is that “more” is not necessarily more. For example, if I do the same exercise everyday (let’s say pushups) I never give my body a chance to recover. Therefore I start getting injuries in my shoulder and elbows. Apparently modern exercise theory tells us that our muscles grow when we rest and recover, not when we’re actually exercising.

I also recently listened on a podcast that one author’s strategy to writing novels is to intentionally make himself bored as possible, and then he becomes inspired to write a novel.

Similarly, I remember being a child and being bored all the time. But that boredom is what forced me to be creative. My mom could never afford new toys for me, so in being bored, I made them for myself. I remember making my own army men out of paper, and using plastic bags and cutting a hole on the top for a parachute. I feel so bad for the kids nowadays constantly plugged into their devices and constantly stimulated and distracted. How can they ever be truly creative without a healthy dose of boredom and “doing nothing”?

I feel that in photography, we shouldn’t always force ourselves to make photographs. Just like a field, we need to let the crops replenish, and the soil replenish it’s nutrients. We can’t always force the same field to bear fruit. The ancients figured out “crop rotation” and not always planting the same fruit, in order to maximize the production from the earth.

Even now it’s been a while since I wrote my last article (lessons learned photographing my own wedding). Even before getting married, I haven’t had an opportunity to read, write, or meditate much.

After getting married, I enjoyed my week honeymoon in Mexico City with Cindy, where we did a whole lot of “nothing” except eat amazing food, drink, talk to locals, and sleep. And time in our airbnb where we watched about 4 Miyazaki films (Howls moving castle, Castle in the sky, The wind also rises, and Princess Mononoke).

I feel that the seeds of creativity often take a long time to root, and can’t be forced to grow quicker (than what is natural). Of course we need to work hard when necessary, but we also need to “relax hard” when necessary as well.

When we’re doing “nothing”, I don’t necessarily mean just sit on your couch and mindlessly watch TV. I mean don’t always feel like you need to be “productive” and doing “work.”

That can mean using your time to read, write, go on a walk, and take photos (without feeling forced to when you don’t want to).

I think all of us want to escape misery, dissatisfaction, and frustration in our lives.

A lot of photographers are dissatisfied and frustrated with themselves because they’re not always “inspired” to take photos. The same happens with writers; they feel frustrated that they aren’t inspired to write everyday.

But why do we “need” to take photos everyday or write everyday?

I think many of us are miserable because we listen to what society tells us: always be productive, always be working, or else you are a useless human being. We no longer know how to sit still and don’t do anything.

I know I vilify TV and other forms of passive entertainment. However if you get true pleasure and joy from whatever entertainment source in your life, don’t feel so guilty. As long as you have peace in your heart, that is the most important thing.

Also at the end of our lives, the quality of our lives will count, not the quantity. Furthermore, as an artist, if we can even create one great work in our lifetimes, we have done our task as a human being. We don’t need to create hundreds or thousands of works.

I’m currently reading the Iliad by Homer. That and The Odyssey are his two great works. And they have lasted millenia, and are still widely read today.

Compare that with an author who has written thousands of works, but none has lasted today. Once again, strive for quality over quantity.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have many days when I’m dissatisfied with my work. I feel like I haven’t done enough to help others, and I feel like it I’m not always producing useful things for others, I’m being idle and useless.

I sometimes even feel guilty for reading for days on end, without “producing” anything “useful.”

But once again, in strange ways, all the dots connect themselves (sooner or later).

Keep feeding your curiosity with all artistic mediums, and never stop exploring. Know that it’s also okay to be idle and “do nothing.” Warren Buffett, one of the richest and most successful men in the world, isn’t a day trader. He sits on his stocks for decades and spends most of his time reading and “doing nothing.”

I think there is great wisdom in doing nothing. But when doing nothing, do something personally meaningful to you.