Off topic: thoughts on turning 30, or – the trouble with choice

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The barrier: mental, physical, or simply too much confusion?

How many careers will the average 30 year old have by the time they retire – if they can even afford to retire? My guess is anywhere north of five. This is a stark contrast with my parents’ generation, where working with the same company for life wasn’t unheard of – and 20+ year stints were pretty common. A move after anything less than five years was seen as ‘unstable’. When I began my career 14 years ago, that timetable was down to three; these days, a year is just fine. Are we learning faster? Probably not. Are we getting more impatient? Definitely. Tomorrow, I’ll turn 30. I am aware that this is probably a bit younger than most in the audience, if the workshop demographics are anything to go by, but I’m both here and I’m not; having graduated and started work at 16, I’m now on my second career and the vast majority of my friends and peers are in their 40s and 50s – which puts me in a rather unique observatory position (or eternal no-mans’ land, depending on how you look at it). If you’ll permit me the digression – I promise we will talk photography at some point later in the piece – I’d like to share some thoughts.

The further back in history we go, the longer one’s career lasted – to the point that it was often determined from birth or caste and one had absolutely no say at all. There wasn’t even an opportunity to discover you had an aptitude for anything other than what you were already doing, simply because education was limited and for the privileged. Information simply was not as freely available as it is today. It was possible to live one’s entire life without leaving the small village in which you were born, doing the same trade as your ancestors. Today, it is possible to have a credible and useful working knowledge on pretty much any subject so long as a) you have an internet connection; b) some common sense and ability to evaluate credibility of sources, and c) adequate time and commitment to the topic at hand.

It is these three things that lead to my career as a photographer. I’m a physicist by training, a financier/corporate-exec type by first career, and initially, a horological enthusiast by passion and curiosity for all things mechanical. In researching purchases, history and other information, I became increasingly aware to the point I taught myself to service and later on, design, complicated watch movements – all from information that was freely (or nearly) available through easily accessible sources. All it took was time. Photography developed from here: I was captivated both by the images I was seeing and unable to replicate, and moreover, by the fact that I could feel some sense of ownership and longer-lasting appreciation for watches that I could gain access to (thanks to internet communities) but have no hope of ever owning (and still have no hope of owning). I could make my interpretation of that piece of art, and thereby have something unique that satisfied both my creative needs and my avaricious ones.

The same approach to acquiring information on watches was what I applied to photographic knowledge. This one stuck a little longer, because the available universe of information seemed to be never-ending; there was always something more to learn, and beyond that, no two photographic situations were identical – so you never had such a thing as repetition, either. It provided creativity in small-sized chunks of time to fit around every other commitment, a lot of knowledge to anticipate, and the satisfaction of making something at the end of it. I think that’s why photography stuck – for me, at least. I suspect the same can be said for a lot of the audience; for others, it’s the gear, the community, and perhaps a sense of escapism at being able to be somebody other than their normal professions (not here; as my wife points out, I’m a photographer 24/7).

In true democratic style, though, the photographer of the earlier age was content to use what he had – for the most part (or at least for longer periods of time) and focus on the image making. Perhaps the pace of the process had something to do with it; knowledge acquisition was a lot slower because the feedback process was necessarily slower with film (and more expensive). If there were no alternatives, we were forced to use our creativity to surmount the challenge and find a solution. Today, we can pretty much buy a solution for everything (if not, it’ll be on kickstarter tomorrow), and the learning process has accelerated a hundredfold. We have become far too used to buying a solution than devising one – and our creative brains have atrophied as a result. In practice, this means it’s now pretty easy to get to a level of adequacy that was the reward for many years of diligent work previously; any further gains require substantial effort. And since we have choices to the nth degree in everything else, with the ability to buy our way up the food chain – why not in photography? Surely if I can choose between hazelnut brown nappa and cinnamon tan leather in my car, I should be able to find that one ‘better’ camera that makes my images instantly go up a notch.

The trouble is, unlike interior upholstery selection, which is an academic dead end and zero-return, photography is a two way process. You get out what you put in, and it is actually the hardware that’s the zero-return: it is nothing more than a mirror of one’s own abilities (or lack of). If anything, the better the hardware, the more acute a mirror it presents: anything lacking in vision or technique is simply magnified. But we are so conditioned to expecting that more money gets us more performance or more higher faster better whatever [insert desired quality here] – that the self-development aspect is often left sorely neglected. Effort is required, and often quite a bit of patience, too. Rewards are not instant – there is no sudden step change from increase in skill as with a camera with double the pixels, but rather a very slow and incremental one that’s proportional to one’s own commitment.

Don’t get me wrong; one can certainly do more with better tools, but it’s getting easier and easier to fall into the twin traps of entitlement and short attention span – then blaming everything but the operator for an unexpected (and undesired result). I see the same in a lot of my generation (whom are mostly at much earlier stages in their careers) and even more of that in the generation after me – there is the expectation of more coming easier and faster because success stories are magnified by social media, and failures buried and shamefully self-hidden. If anything, the range and quality of tools and knowledge at our disposal both career-wise and photographically means that it’s even harder to reach a level that stands out from your peers. It doesn’t help that once you pass a certain point, you’re competing on an international level, too, thanks to the internet. If anything, it becomes even more critical to have skills beyond the job. I’ve always believed that the best specialist is really also the best generalist, because to handle the edges cases you need to have seen all of the exceptions – and be able to deploy the esoteric knowledge from other disciplines.

It’s become easy – normal, even – to give up and try something else if instant success isn’t forthcoming; perhaps this may not be a bad thing because at least in the long run, more people will be doing things they enjoy and are good at (and hopefully this translates into more passion and quality across the board) – but it also means that there will probably be fewer people who a) achieve their full potential and b) are fully satisfied. I wonder what the split of career motivations between money and intellectual satisfaction as primary drivers looks like across time – my guess is social media, rising costs of living and the increasing wealth gap are driving it more and more towards the former in the present day.

Paradoxically, I think that’s why doing something you enjoy as a career is more important than ever now. Sensible working hours have gone the way of the dinosaur, median pay hasn’t moved in line with inflation*, and the only way to get out of that – other than by inheritance or sheer luck – is to be good enough at what you do that you occupy the thin percentage at the top that can set their rates. And the only way to do that is to care enough to go the extra mile to develop your skills, deliver additional value to your customers, and put in the extra effort to get out there. From personal experience, whilst I was good at my previous career and reached a position of fairly high status much earlier than most – my peers were in their 50s, I was 25 – I don’t think I’d ever have been exceptional or one of the wunderkind. I could feel myself dragging in the mornings; the inertia got larger and larger. If I didn’t leave, I’d probably have gone over the hill and been asked to eventually.

*For example, in Malaysia, the average house price to annual income ration has widened from 1:5 to 1:25 in the last 30 years; the actual average graduate pay has not changed much: 1,500 RM/month in the mid 80s to 2,200/month now. But a meal at a hawker has gone from RM0.50 to RM10.00. It has become harder than ever to earn a comfortable survival wage, let alone a good one.

The choice of doing something for oneself is actually a very difficult one. It’s selfish and selfless; by forcing yourself to do something society expects you to, you’re unhappy and land up burdening everybody else in a subtly compromising way. In picking your desires, you’re being immediately selfish but probably much better to everybody else in the long run. There’s a slight initial guilt that comes with it, but in the long run – well, five years later at least – I can confidently say I’m contributing far more to society now than when my responsibilities were primarily based around the number of colors I could successfully deploy in a powerpoint chart. In a way, though tomorrow marks a chronological 30 for me, I don’t feel it. I feel much older, like I’ve been through the wringer once and come around for rebirth. At the same time, I look at the 30-year olds around me and find most of them still trying to figure out what they want in life – not that most of us ever do – but the myth of stability and societal expectation and happiness is just that; working harder doesn’t mean a better title and that doesn’t mean anything other than endless steps on the hamster wheel. In a way, this generation has it right, if for the wrong reasons: there is no risk in change, and at least you might learn something about yourself in the process.

To bring this neatly back around to photography, we must first know why we shoot – at the core for most people, it’s the intellectual satisfaction of creating something that’s often not so easily attained in other parts of life. But that satisfaction only comes when a challenge has been surmounted: if something is too easy, the resultant payoff isn’t there. This of course means that pursuit of hardware improvments without matching knowledge is going to be an endlessly frustrating road, and one that eventually leads you further away from your actual desired outcome (even if that may not seem to be the case). Looking back, the one really important thing I take away is that greater happiness for me has always come on the back of greater challenges – and in the process, stretching one’s creativity. Of late, I’ve not been stretching that enough, and I’m occasionally feeling twinges of frustration and discontent. I think I might have to do something extreme to fix that…MT


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  1. Happy birthday Ming. It reminded me of what I was at 30. Not at all as insightful in thought as yours. Although I loved what I did for leaving (software engineer), I equally loved my life outside job. I guess if survival pressure is not that much (I am in USA) then one can afford to take longer zeroing on the selecting and growing in a “career”.

    I did enjoy your article and it made me think when you said that in the past careers spanned generation due to lack of information flow. How true. It is a totally new world with information flowing freely. However, information flow is not everything. I still see walls around career around social groups (more whites in sales/marketing, Asians/Indians in engineering etc. etc.) that make it challenging for people to move around. Free information flow can’t break those walls. Only gradual social changes do.

    Anyway, enjoy your special day. Normally people bring gifts to you on birthday but instead, you have given us a gift in this thought provoking article.

    • Thanks Jayant. Yes, there are social walls – very much so in some countries, but I’d rather not reinforce those stereotypes by giving them credit. They can’t be broken otherwise. In a strange way, does that make some logical sense?

  2. Kathleen Bowers says:

    30! There was a time when if you were 30 then you were too old to be trusted! Birthdays ending in zeros and fives often make us stop and think about what was, what is, and what might be – which is generally a good thing. I have a feeling that your next 30 years will amaze and delight such that when you look back from that vantage point the world and your place in it will be transformed. Perhaps you will take time to write a note to future self now. Maybe curate ten images that say something about your journey thus far and put it all away to be dusted off in 30 years time. I wonder how close today’s predictions for yourself will match what actually happens. I wonder what your future self will think of today’s portfolio! Enjoy the journey!

    • Hah! Well, fortunately we’ve come a bit further…but to the opposite direction; now it’s too young to be trusted. At the point at which your age matches up with the rest of the world’s perceived credibility of you, one has to be ready to come out all guns blazing.

      The note is a good idea 🙂

  3. Ming I was made aware of this book at the start of the year. Interestingly someone on FB posted an article by Eric Kim also talking about this book. Have you read it? I haven’t but I might….all about why it’s not the best idea to follow what you are passionate about. Not sure I’d agree with it!

    • No, and honestly…I’d rather not read it, I think.

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      Neither do I :

      From the blurb about that book:
      “In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.”

      Putting the cart before the horse.
      They forget that it takes a good deal of interest in what you are doing for you to become really good at it – or you risk hitting the wall.

      • I looked at it anyway. I’m wondering if it’s a sort of ‘survival guide to life’ rather than ‘how to excel’ – I suppose not everybody wants to make the sacrifices required for the latter?

        • Kristian Wannebo says:

          Could be.
          But they have a point, interest, and even passion, can grow when you begin to become quite good at something.
          And it can be difficult to find your passion if you have many interests.
          ( I once tried to learn computer programming (assembler) on my first (ARM) computer.
          It fascinated me, and I found that I could probably become quite good at it,
          but I soon realized that I would sooner or later become fed up with it.)

  4. Kenny Younger says:

    Happy Birthday, Ming. 🙂

  5. Happy birthday Ming. I sympathize with your decision to leave business and I’m happy it’s working for you. I very much enjoy your blog and your cerebral take on photography, from why we photograph to what makes a keeper. Thank you for keeping this up for us to consume!

  6. Chris Huff says:

    I shoot because every once in a while I capture a passing moment that is uniquely beautiful or profound, be it an every day scenario or a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Saturday, I took a hike in the woods and out of 100 various images, there was one macro-photo that stood out above all others. A bee taking the pollen from a flower…no other bees around, just the one, and it let me enter its world.

    • That last sentence resonated with me. I think it’s because in every photograph we preserve a little world we experience ourselves and share that with somebody else…

  7. junaidrahim says:

    We’ve discussed this extensively in the past Ming – and I know where you are coming from. You’ll be fine 🙂

    I was thinking about that movement you designed the other day – who ‘borrowed’ it again?

    • Who didn’t? 😉 So far, elements have made it into HyT, Urwerk, Breguet and TAG watches…and those are only the ones I know about.

      • junaidrahim says:

        hehe I’m sure they’ll be claiming it was their own design all day long. Maybe time for you to design something new – the Swiss need something new to ‘borrow’ 😉

  8. Interesting read!!!!

  9. Wonderful musings, Ming! I was particularly struck by the part about pursuing one’s passion professionally to be at first selfish but ultimately more productive for the collective well-being. I’m reminded of a dinner discussion a number of years ago during which our firm’s then-CEO asked each member to say why he or she had chosen our line of work and, for the veterans in the crew, why we continued at what can be a taxing, and sometimes demoralizing, career. I really hadn’t thought about it before that moment, but when my turn came to speak I simply said: “Because it pleases me.” I don’t think that he or others ever really understood what I was saying (and from the looks in people’s eyes, it was pretty clear that they thought my rationale pretty odd) but at the end of the day after 32 years in this particular professional pursuit the only possible reason for me to continue is my ability, from time to time, to delight myself — not clients or colleagues, but good ol’ GaryG.

    I do get glimmers of that from time to time with macro photography, but in my “hobby” life it’s also very much about the joy of improvement — which, as you say, requires effort and the ability to take criticism on board.

    Enough from me — this is really your thread, and your milestone. All best wishes, as always, for the future!

    • Gary – I think you’d enjoy ‘Atlas Shrugged’. But I see so much of the ‘I do to because I have to but I hate it and it shows’ attitude here in Asia and especially in big corporate that it’s clear there’s no way this can be best for a society to function. I don’t see why a lot of people continue to do it, either – they are not in the class of people who really have no choice; oddly those people tend to be pretty happy.

  10. Lucy March says:

    Happy Birthday, Ming.

    All turning is returning
    And this is no sharp corner,
    Only a moment on the border
    When, standing with your wife,
    You inhale deeply
    The loveliness of your life.

    All the best in years to come!

  11. Dan Boney says:

    Happy Birthday, Ming/great post! I just happen to share the same birthday with you, except I’m 58 today (interestingly enough, born in ’58 and 58 years old today so hopefully this is a year of “alignment”…). Your turning 30 made me try to recall what sort of cameras I was shooting with at the same age (good ole “’88”), I think it may have been a Nikon F2Sb (which I wish I’d never sold, how would you know back then that it was going to end up being one of the great Nikon’s of all time? Fortunately, some years later I bought a FM3A which I still have – suffice to say that they just don’t make them like they used to – and after the Df fiasco I don’t suppose they ever will again… Autofocus lead everything down a much different road, I’d be happy if they just gave us a modern camera with a proper manual focus screen at this point because the manual lenses of yesteryear were pretty much made to last forever… It was also a very cool era in that camera models were so well thought out that they continued for years – The Nikon F series, Olympus OM’s, Pentax MX/ME, Canon AE-1, Minolta X’s, etc. and there was a place in the market for all of them – these days the “typical” lifespan of a digital camera is like 2 years and then it’s “out of date”, *sigh*…

    Anyway, enough about the past – looking forward to your posts for the coming year and the inspiration that they will continue to bring…


  12. Just turning 30! I didn’t know you were so young. I was trained in the rites of this passage (30 years) by a Rosicrucian initiator, who would say to me that at thiry-three, ice melts…or the Christ died a 33 years, and so on. In astrology, 30 (29.4) is when Saturn (the limited or form) makes his first return in orbit. And we have the common saying “Never trust anyone over thirty. I have written many papers and a book or two about this transition at 30, this initiation.

    Like you suggest, when I was young, I too realized early-on that I could only “live” by doing something I love to do, and that is what I did for some 45 years, until I retired. I have been doing photography (for fun) since 1956 and will turn 75 tomorrow. In my estimate, you (Ming) are the finest photographer living today, at least in my opinion, and I have looked!

    So, by all means treat yourself to life by living by your wits and natural talent. Do what you love to do. That’s what I did and I somehow found a way, and went on to be the founder of many databases of popular culture, giving back to folks their own music, film, rock concert posters, and others, becoming an archivist of popular culture. I founded (largest music database in the world), (one of the two largest movie databases), (largest), Matrix Software, etc. I am told that I am a “polymath,” whatever that is, but I really had to work the edge to survive. You remind me of myself in this way.

    • Thank you, Michael. But one can only claim absolutes when one is sure nothing changes…and I’m sure there are better people out there, just that we haven’t found them yet. But we must always strive to be better…

      I think being a polymath requires expertise at three or more fields by definition, to a level that would be considered world class in any one of them…I don’t think I’d qualify on one, let alone three! 🙂

      • Well, one is enough, of course. I feel I had to live by my wits, thanks to the good taste of sense of discrimination that my parents put into me. My mother was a wonderful artist and taught that (to some degree) to all her five sons. I was so anxious to enter the world, that I never even finished high school, but just went out on the road. Those (1960), I wanted to be a painter of oils. LOL.

        • I’m not sure it is anymore – having more than one allows for balance and outside influences that are necessary to transcend merely ordinary. Sounds like you got a good training while growing up!

          • The training I got was by living way out in the country, with no one around for miles. Mother Nature became my teacher and I learned natural law rather than “Man’s” law. For grade school, I never could listen, except to someone I wanted to emulate, which were few, so I passed unnoticed through almost 12 years of school, with my “passion” for learning intact. Then, as we discussed here, I found that I was only happy when I followed my muse and inner intuition, so I did that. I was destined to be poor, but when I married and started having kids, I felt a responsibility to have their options open. And fate has been kind. I became (back then) I founded what today is still the 2nd oldest software company on the Internet, the oldest being Microsoft… and became the first person to program astrology on microcomputers (1977) and my programs were (for a short time) sold right beside the first spreadsheets (VisiCalc), and so on. I built a number of businesses, as you mentioned one does (or nees), my largest being AMG (All-Media Guides), where when I left there were 150 full-time staff members and over 500 free-lance writers all documeneting recorded music, film, and video games. That idea.

  13. Happy Birthday Ming, and best wishes for the future

  14. Nice cliffhanger 🙂

  15. Happy birthday Ming, and thank you for all the work that you do. It’s mainly because of you and your work that I developed a passion for photography.

  16. Happy Birthday from sunny Devon. Thanks for all your inspiration as well as the the technical stuff. It takes a brave man to share this much of his self to those who he hardly knows.

  17. And I guess we can say happy birthday now.


  18. I can’t remember where I heard it but somewhere in Buddhist philosophy is the idea that we are all like frogs, sitting and sunning ourselves on lily pads on the pond. We bask in the sun, and when we feel like a change, hop across to another lily pad for a further sojourn. And thus live our lives out in a flexible, random pattern, making the most of each new experience. To me, both philosophically, and experientially, this makes more sense and provides greater harmony in one’s life than the more traditional Western idea of striving ever upwards towards some perceived to be greater goal – a concept perhaps derived from Christianity with it’s more linear approach of aiming ever higher, with the ultimate goal being heaven.
    Certainly appeals more to me, and possibly reflects my later stages of life. Maybe time to hop across to a different pad.. 😉
    Happy birthday, and best wishes.

  19. Richard P. says:

    Happy birthday Ming – wishing you all the best and continued success following your passion! I just love these kind of articles that give us more insight into the man behind the viewfinder. 😀.
    Times have changed – job security no longer exists (at least in my domain) – we have to work on building career security (be the best you can be). Continuous improvement is critical to career security and seems less like work as long as you love what you do.

    Richard P.

  20. richard majchrzak says:

    happy birthday ,Mr. Ming , and thank you for your words, photos, information, thoughts. You accumulated a lot of knowledge in a short time already. Very surprising. i wondered sometimes when reading your technical explanations of technical stuff, how old the writer would be? Now we know…and it is great , You are so young , and know so much. I am more than double your age and can;t be bothered anymore with all the number games . Now let more emotions come into your photographs in the coming years…and may be you’ll be with the “immortals”..:-) my immortales are Kertesc , Duane Michals ….two of them , of course henry Lartigue , Man Ray ..
    thanks for your blog, inspiration and philosophy. People do not like your captions? so what? keep on keeping on

    • Thanks Richard. I’m done with the numbers and the searching for hardware because I’ve found what works for me. I’m not an emotional person and that already precisely reflects itself in my images – I can’t force what isn’t there. And I can’t be somebody else in the hope of being a better me…

  21. Philip Brindle says:

    Happy birthday from the Philppines…best wishes…

  22. Hi, Ming,

    It’s interesting to see so many people are attracted to photography, quit their job and try to find “another” life. It reminds me the “Red pill, blue pill” scene of Matrix movie ; “You take the blue pill…You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
    I’m not blaming others who live their lives in their way ; I just want to say that it needs that much courage to take the “red pill”.
    Quit their job, pursue their dream while they have family to nourish, it’s a risky choice. And there is no guaranty that you’ll succeed in the end. Then why taking risk? Well, may be that is how the human nature is. Taking some physical risk, making some physical sacrifice to satisfy intellectual curiosity.
    I took the red pill 4 years ago, when I was 32. Before, I hated taking pictures. When I saw people taking pictures in front of Eiffel Tower or Versailles Palace, I always thought “ah, all those morons who know nothing about history and culture, just trying to immortalize their own ego by pressing on the shutter button”.
    Then, I got married, and my daughter came to this world. And I suddenly realized ; “All those people, that I treated as morons, they were not trying to immortalize the Eiffel Tower or Versailles Palace. It was the time, the atmosphere, the feeling they shared with their close friends, lovers and family, that they wanted to immortalize by taking picutres.”
    I realized how amazing the photography is, so I decided to find out how deep the rabbit hole, oh no, the viewfinder hole goes. I quit UNESCO where I worked as french translator for many years, and voila, here I am in Wonderland.

    Thanks for this wonderful article; recently I was a little unmotivated, and you remind me why I choose this way. Thank you.

    • Photography is the most accessible tool we have to share our imagination with others – I think for that reason alone it’s worth a shot, pun intended. Hope it’s working out well for you.

  23. Hi Ming, I’m Scott Wood living in Tucson Arizona and I visit your site every day. Happy Birthday!!. You’re a lucky guy in knowing early on what you want to do in life. I never did—it took me 53 years to figure it out. I am a graduate of Columbia Business School in New York City and joined the executive training program at Chemical Bank (which after I retired in 1987 merged with Manufacturer’s Hanover bank and then bought Chase Bank which is now JPMorgan Chase after their subsequent purchase of JPMorgan) I was a corporate loan officer with Chemical Bank for 33 years and quit voluntarily after becoming fed up with large corporation politics. I am now a professional fine-art landscape photographer am finally happy in what I do. My interests are mainly scientific (I am an avid amateur astronomer having ground my first 6-inch mirror by hand when I was 8 years old). My fascination with optics eventually steered me towards photography and, like you I eventually discovered medium format digital and I now am using PhaseOne’s recently introduced 100 megapixel camera with a host of Schneider lenses. I know you’re involved with Hasselblad and they will shortly be marketing their equally fine H6 camera using the same large sensor developed by Sony in collaboration with PhaseOne.

    Incidentally, my wife and I recently visited your home town of Kuala Lumpur on our way from Singapore to Dubai. It’s a beautiful city with many excellent photo sites including the spectacular Petronas Towers. We were only there for a day and a half so our brief stay there was tantalizing. We’ll have to return sometime for a longer visit.

    Anyway, I greatly enjoyed your thoughtful and interesting article. Regards & Happy Birthday again. Scott Wood

    • Thanks Scott – at least you got there in the end, many don’t 🙂

      Waiting for my H6-100, but it’s held up by sensor supply like everybody else; in the meantime, the -50 is just fine too (and I don’t have to rethink the angles of view of my lenses).

      Ah, I’ve always wondered about external opinions of places we live in – I find it somewhat a photographic desert, but I think most people say that about their hometowns…

    • Happy birthday, Ming. Passion is important in what we do. Many artists, hikers, volunteers to help others, etc., have that too.
      Hey Scott, when were you at the Business School? I graduated in 1971, left KL in ’78 and now live in Colorado..

  24. Tom Vincent says:

    Congratulations! Not many people are able to “do what they love and love what they do” at your age.

    • Thanks Tom. Perhaps they need to work a bit harder? What you don’t see are the sacrifices, sleepless nights, piles of vitriolic email, rejections etc…

  25. Thierry says:

    Ten years ago, I took the same decision than yours. At around 30, I left a promising career of management and took the decision to write/produce/directe my first short film. After few years of learning, I made it. I invested all my will, my time and my pension saving. I was quite satisfied about the result. As odd as life can be, right after the end of my project, I had a chronic illness that rendered impossible any new production despite a long list of ideas. Four years later, with very limited energy, I switch to photography: it easier to manage my efforts than a day of shooting! But had to begin the learning curve again… In french, we have an expression saying: “Slow train goes far!”…

    Happy birthday to you Ming! You’re a source of inspiration…

    • Thanks Thierry! I too looked at the transition to video a few years back, but the size/lumpiness/risk of the projects plus having to let control out to so many other parties meant that I was never really comfortable or able to do everything myself…so, back to photography it is.

  26. Sunny Tan says:

    Thank you Ming for all the hours you put in your posts and images to share with us. You are inspirational.
    Happy Birthday from Perth.
    Sunny Tan

  27. Happy Birthday Ming!
    How about doing some Pt/Pd alternative printing of some of excellent B&W work? 🙂 About to try some myself soon. Maybe not the creativity you are looking for though. 🙂

    • Thanks Wayne – sadly nowhere to do that anywhere near me, and sending files off without any direct input is rather hit and miss…

  28. Ryan Kimball says:

    Happy birthday Ming! As a follower of this blog and a current student of yours you have had a very positive impact on my photography which ultimately has enhanced my enjoyment and quality of life. You do make a difference in the lives of others and that is something to be very proud of. I’m sure it gets difficult at times but there are a lot of us that are greatly appreciative of all you do and the wealth of knowledge you selflessly share. Enjoy the day!

  29. As along time lurker, I am writing to wish you a Happy Birthday. You are an old soul and your work has to my eyes always been exceptional. Today, too many photographers have to write volumes to explain to the viewer what they are seeing. You have never had that problem. But more importantly, your writing informs what you create with your camera. It is a combination that few can match. Keep up the good work and enjoy your day.

  30. Happy Birthday, Ming. I can’t believe you’re just 30.

  31. aramdavid says:

    Ming. You’re story is exactly mine. I worked at Chase in a miserable but stable and “accepted” position, and was slowly suffocating. I quit (despite a mortgage and baby on the way) and became a photographer – and a watch photographer at that! Now a few years later I have major clients, and contribute more than I ever did and have never been happier. You have always been an inspiration to me (despite me being 5 years your elder) in a purely visual sense and I realize now we have so much in common when it comes to this outlook on life. I never follow the norm and I would be doing this no matter what anyone said, but to great to hear your story and know that you have followed the same path and in doing so inspired me before I even knew that we have the same philosophical roots. Happy birthday. Never stop your photography, and please never stop writing and sharing with us. If everyone could read this, digest it, and live by it, the world would be a better place. We should be showing you with birthday gifts but on your birthday you have given us all a gift in the form of this article. Thank you

  32. Brett Patching says:

    Happy Birthday Ming! This piece resonates with me too. “The choice of doing something for oneself is actually a very difficult one.” The hardest part for me has been giving myself permission to be selfish enough to do this. After battling depression, I’ve begun to understand that this is actually the only sustainable way forward.

    • Thanks Brett. I was seriously miserable most of the time in corporate for that reason: you spend all of your time making somebody else happy, and they couldn’t care less. Spending your limited time on the planet that way seems rather depressing, so the best thing we can do is decide to make that choice for ourselves…

  33. Being of this fast paced generation myself and having been through 4 careers already at 43, I get what you mean and feel. One thing I realize for myself is that some of these careers that I abandoned out of a feeling of lack or because I thought something else better was around the corner were more satisfying that others. Don’t give up on your blog or photography. Adapting to meet the new demands of your life may be required but keep going for us that benefit from your generosity. Thanks

    • Well, there’s always the archive…ultimately, I have to get something out of it too – the day it doesn’t become satisfying or there are other things that are more so and demand fewer of my limited resources will be the day things must change…

  34. gordon says:

    ming delete my comment i am going to bed i am too many drinks not too sure about what i said now save me please cheers

  35. gordon says:

    ming please don’t post my reply as i an in queenstown yessss and late just had a lot to drink and will read the post fully when sober
    don’t think too hard on turning 30 its good happy birthday i am older good to see you are a dad this is a great moment but just remember the moment . consider the family always but follow your hear as much AS MUCH AS YOUR LIFESTYLE ALOWS
    do not let age or other peoples opinion of your age control your future ,
    most people would be shocked if they new my age . but i follow my heart and creative urge . it does help that i have been single now for 10 years this may end in a year or so .
    i hope you can get something from what i say it is late in q town and a lot of drinks under the table so if my note does note is not so good in the morning please forgive me ming , and goodnight.
    ps congratulations on being a dad and lucky enough to have a lovelly wife i have not met either of you yet but thought i took a pic of you queenstown once .

    not easy to post on a few too many drinks
    you may find some of my personal work on digital revcom/freddy. gordon frederick. goodnight.

  36. Dear Ming, A Very Big Happy Birthday to you from India! I hope you have a great year ahead and may God shower His blessings upon you.

  37. Amazing post, loved reading it. Your wise beyond your years and that knowledge and insight will take you far. Thank you for inspiring me to write and expand on your thoughts. I’m one of those older folks who has spent 40+ years in one industry. Actually 2 20 year stints at 2 newspapers. But before, during and after that, I’ve always had a passion for photography and always will. Just as I’m passionate about the IT work I do. But creating my own images and trying my hand at writing is so fulfilling that I’m sure those passions will carry me happily in my future years. As I reflect back sometimes I’m sorry I didn’t follow that passion when I was your age and younger, but when I look at the choices I’ve made for family I’m cool with it. I’ll just have to work my butt off as an older man in becoming the successful artist I wanted to be when I was 20. I hope you have a wonderful birthday and thanks again for writing such a great piece.

    • Terry B says:

      “…but when I look at the choices I’ve made for family I’m cool with it.” Success!

    • Thanks Mike – I too would have taken bigger risks earlier on, but often at that stage one is too afraid of missing out on something and as a result by the time you have the confidence to do it, the opportunity cost and risk are simply too high. That said, we can’t be where we are now without having been through where we were previously…

  38. Good article with a lot to think about. Hope your third decade is as productive and fulfilling as your second.

    Concerning the time spent in any given job, my father once said to me “your generation won’t have careers, you’ll have jobs”. I’ve actually spent the last ten or so years in the same field, but that’s not by choice : I emigrated, and until recently my visa status limited my choice of jobs. That being said, there is something to be said for staying in one field and (hopefully!) getting better and better at it.

    And on the matter of ever-improving technology, I’m getting more and more tempted to sell off some gear and get an Epson RD-1 for the very reasons you mention. I shoot mainly with a Sigma DP3 Merrill, and the output never fails to blow me away. But the process is rarely fun. I recently picked up a Fuji X100 for peanuts, and using it like a manual camera has really brought the enjoyment back into the actual process. The RD1 takes that idea even further.

    Anyway, whatever the future brings, your blog (and work) has inspired many people. That in itself is something to be proud of.

    • The perils of posting after a long day at work : that should be fourth decade, really!

    • I hope so too. Your dad was right in a way – my generation has jobs not careers – but we’re also often doing things that didn’t exist even ten years ago and making the job as we do it. I certainly don’t think being a successful professional photographer now and in the 90s or early 00s has that much in common…

      Glad to have been an inspiration!

  39. Kristian Wannebo says:

    in the few years I’ve been following your blog,
    I’ve watched your photography grow, sometimes in sudden large steps, way beyond my right to comment.

    ( “.. a bit younger than most in the audience, ..”
    It will take me – with luck – another 9 years to reach double your age – but I’ll still be just a happy amateur, hopefully still with critical eyes.)

    Wishing you another Happy New Year!
    And a Happy Birthday!

    and thanks for sharing your to the point analysis!

    • Thanks Kristian! The nice thing about photography is its fully subjective, so every opinion is as valid as any other…

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Not quite, not quite.
        Eyes need experience, and insight …
        But as to taste you are, of course, right!


  40. Coisas EM'adeira says:

    Very profound!!!
    Wait and see when you reach 40’s, 50’s and so on :p
    I believe an ancient Asian philosopher (maybe Confucius or Lao Tse) said something like this: at the age of 30 character, 40 resolution, 50 wishes of the sky, 60 nothing disturb him and 70 his way of thinking flue in the sky.
    This was a very good reading, thanks!
    Happy Birthday!

    • Not sure I understand the last bit, but maybe I’m just not old enough yet 🙂

      • Terry B says:

        I believe it should have been “flew”.

        A flue is a duct, pipe, or opening in a chimney for conveying exhaust gases from a fireplace, furnace, water heater, boiler, or generator to the outdoors. In old usage it could mean the chimney itself.

  41. Richard says:

    Happy Birthday Ming. A good time to reflect about where one has come from and think where one aims to go.

  42. A very Happy Birthday. A very resonating piece, thanks for sharing.

    I think with social media you’re quite right. We only see others’ show reel, not their behind the scenes – the trials they have to go through day to day are seldom seen, after all who wants to share that. It’s hard to judge preceding and succeessive generations since age and experience alters our objectivity (and not always for the better!).

    I still see the focus on craft amongst the young people I see coming into my industry (software) and I myself spend hours each week studying and honing my skills outside the day job. I wouldn’t worry too much for our or the next generation – I think ambition and desire to persue mastery of something are immutable traits in every age. Ours is no exception.

    • There are always going to be people at both ends of the spectrum. The distribution however matters. And I think as few people want to show the hard slog as want to see it, so it’s almost complimentary in that sense…

  43. Hi Ming, Whatever else you do don’t give up your blog writing. I enjoy your photography but love your writing, especially philosophical pieces like this. I’ve no idea how you find enough time in your week to create so many great posts but keep it up if you can. Best wishes and Happy Birthday, Pete

  44. Romel V says:

    Happy birthday! What sort of ‘extreme’ thing are you thinking of? Can we expect a new type/style of photography from you this year?

  45. Happy Birthday!

    And what of the future? Another change of career?

    • The future has a very distant horizon. I think it would be impossible to say we do the same thing until we die…especially given this pursuit is so technologically driven, who knows what form it might take even ten years from now?

  46. I think I nodded with agreeance at every paragraph 🙂 Happy birthday indeed!

  47. Happy Birthday Ming!!! Best wishes to you and your family. – Eric

  48. happy birthday, sifu, take it easy for a while, chill out; with your intellect and will, i am sure you will figure out the next challenge, something extreme – outer space/deep sea photography? :).
    you are absolutely right about the escalating cost of living in kl these days, without family backing/support o some inheritance in hand, its an extremely tough landscape for the young ones to survive on a starting/basic income – jialat! have a good weekend. regards, ken.

  49. Happy birthday Ming. May the coming year be a fortuitous one which will have new challenges to excite and invigorate you.

  50. jknikman says:

    a good read it is. And recognizable. Happy birthday to you!

  51. Happy birthday, dear Ming, and many happy returns!
    Kindest regards from Switzerland,

  52. Calvin Yee says:

    Happy Birthday Ming, and thanks for sharing with us. I’m an old man, but still able to learn more and improve because of your generosity! Many Thanks, calvin.

  53. I feel with any level mastery comes a similar level of fatigue. Or maybe simply boredom, which in modern time is simply unbearable.

    • Fatigue yes, because one has to invest so much of oneself to drive further and get those results; boredom, no – you can always find something else to do or choose to be busy…

  54. Happy Birthday for tomorrow!

  55. It is always good to take some time out, or risk burning out.


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