The Restlessness Of Betterment

A recent new (non-photography) purchase has led me down a path of additional experimenting and tweaking. It’s got me thinking about how I constantly strive to make things better, which on the whole I feel is positive.

But at what point do we need to just stop trying to improve every last aspect, and embrace what we have? 

In an effort to reduce my car travel (one of my roles at work is in a Sustainability Group, and it’s seemed incongruous with rolling up in a diesel car for a 3.5 mile journey every day), save some money, and rejuvenate an old passion, I’ve recently invested in a new bike.

Essentially it’s a mountain bike with an additional electric motor (so an “ebike”), so I can ride using pedal power as much as I wish, then rely on a boost from the motor when needed.

It’s a remarkably effective set up, and I’m enjoying it greatly.



Inevitably, all was not perfect out of the box.

The handlebars had too long a reach, so I rotated them (they’re curved) so now I’m not over-stretching.

Very similarly, the seat was too far back, so I’ve slid that forward a few centimetres, and I feel in full control of the bike. These are both great examples of a simple and free tweak that reaps rewards.

However, as I’m going to be sometimes travelling in darkness, I also needed to buy a set of lights. And because I’m obsessed with numbers (how fast, how far, how hot!) I also got a speedometer. And because I’ll be travelling on wet roads sometimes, I’ve bought some mudguards. And a waterproof cover for my backpack.

After trying a few trips with my stuff (lunch, jacket and bike lock is about all) in said backpack, I’m getting too hot, so decided to get a pannier rack. But this doesn’t fit that well with the rear mudguard, and if I try to put my backpack on it, there are too many straps and clips overhanging dangerously close to the wheels.

So I either carry on with it on my back overheating, or get another more suitable bag that fits the pannier rack better.

Also, the saddle isn’t so comfortable, so I’ve been looking at softer options.

And so the changes and possible “upgrades” go on.

But when does the exploration of genuine upgrades that make our lives more comfortable, efficient and enjoyable, reach a point where we just need to say stop and make do with what we have?

It’s much the same with cameras (yes, I hadn’t forgotten this is predominantly a photography blog).

The same questions apply – when do we stop buying and just get down to enjoying what we have, quirks and all?

I already have a sadly neglected non-electric mountain bike, and have thought about swapping any components I might prefer on one to the other. And, to my surprise, in researching that bike again, I came across a site called Retrobike which it appears is essentially a forum for people who love older bikes, rather than the latest and greatest shiny new ones.

Now I’m very tempted to research the availability of bikes I highly desired when I was first into mountain bikes in my teens, the likes of Specialized Stumpjumpers, Kona Cindercones and Orange Clockworks, which can now be had for relative peanuts.

In some ways, there are parallels to my camera journey, which has also heavily featured me exploring older cameras (especially digital) that I couldn’t afford (or couldn’t justify spending so much on) when they were new.

Once I find a new avenue, the possibilities explode and off I go…

I don’t really have any serious intentions of buying another bike (or the space for it), but I do have a few further adjustments to make on my new one before it feels right.

So, for now, I continue to feel the restlessness of betterment.

How about you? How long do you feel it’s ok to keep looking for ways to improve, and when do you decide to just embrace it warts and all and do the best you can with what you have?

Please let us know below (and remember to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too. If you’re interested, this is what my photography life looks like right now.

42 thoughts on “The Restlessness Of Betterment”

  1. Hmm… can’t help thinking you might not have been the best choice for the Sustainability group Dan! Don’t they have a Consumerist one where you can advise everyone to buy 30 different things to see which one of those might be best?

    But to answer “When do we stop buying and just get down to enjoying what we have, quirks and all?”
    The day after I purchased whatever it was and until it dies. 🙂

    1. This is really interesting, your perception of me, and I’m quite disappointed, as I see myself as pretty pro eco. We recycle loads, I’ve supported Friends of the Earth and the National Trust for years, and my general philosophy is to use stuff until it wears out (I feel cheated if a pair of shoes or trainers last less then three years).

      Phones aside, I think I’ve only ever bought one brand new camera, so all the others I’ve bought were already in existence, so I don’t feel I’m feeding the consumerist production lines.

      So I’m quite miffed to be thought of as a candidate to lead a consumerist group!

      I know you’re half jesting, but still, I do have quite a passion for being “light” on the earth and travelling light.

      This has been a major driving force in my camera purging, from having a ridiculous 50+ cameras two or three years ago – aside from anything else, is was so incongruous with my general quite simple and minimalist approach.

      Hmm, much more work to still do!

      1. Yeah sorry Dan, the tongue in cheek is difficult with text… need smileys on my proper computer keyboard as well!
        Still, nice to hear the tread lightly approach. I’m a cyclist and I’ve recently changed my diesel car for a hybrid one so all of my local pottering around journeys up to about 25 miles (which is the majority of my mileage down here) are on electric only.
        I guess my ‘use things until they die’ attitude also comes from having been effectively without income for about 10 years, no option to change means not changing even if you feel like it’s not quite right.

      2. I’ve been looking into hybrid cars for about five years too! : )

        Now I have the ebike (and a standard mountain bike too) I’m hoping that as a family we might be able to get away with just one car (my wife’s Touran) and I use a bike, or at worst in the future a small electric/hybrid car of some kind. I would like to think the Touran’s replacement (hopefully many years away yet!) would be a hybrid of some kind too.

        Your circumstances must have led you to be far more creative and focused with what you have than someone who perhaps has virtually unlimited access to any camera or lens that takes their fancy.

      3. Well, good question. Maybe three years ago I bought a (used) mountain bike, mostly to go out with the family on their bikes too, but partly for myself. I thought about the possibility of riding to work, but although it’s only 3.5 miles, it’s mostly either a fast (60mph) road with a few ups and downs that mean visibility can be poor, and the rest through a built up town with multiple traffic lights, roundabouts etc. So the possible threat to my safety put me off.

        Then through talking with people at work and a travel survey recently carried out by our sustainability group (I work for a Local Authority) I looked into ebikes, borrowed one from work to ride home and back one lunchtime and was very impressed at how easy it was. In rush hour it’s as quick, if not quicker than a car anyway, and much less frustrating.

        Rather than think “Hmm, I should try this with my mountain bike I paid £85 for three years ago and see how do-able it is”, I instead just took the plunge with an ebike (also a mountain bike).

        I work at the office four days a week, so as many as I can I want to ride in, mostly with the ebike, but sometimes with the good old Muddy Fox, which I dusted off today in fact and did the return journey, and it took only about four minutes more than the ebike. Somewhat tougher up the hills, but still very do-able. And it feels a much lighter, faster and more compact bike than the ebike, it just “fits” very well.

        There’ll be times I’m sure when it’s too wet and I’ll just give in and take the car. I do the school run most days too, so it’s a bit harsh making the kids walk in the rain for 15 minutes then return home myself, then ride in and get even wetter myself.

        I’m also wondering about getting a single speed chainset for the Muddy Fox to simplify things (I never moved from the middle cog of the three today, but a few extra teeth for the fast end would be welcome), and some hybrid tyres that’d make it faster on the road (it has typical chunky MTB tyres at present), then this might become as quick as the ebike, especially as I built my fitness. I just like the idea of a simple, stripped down, light bike, much as I do with most things. The ebike has the motor in the hub and the battery on top of the downtube, disc brakes, extra cables… I really like with the Muddy Fox today just having simple (and very effective) calliper brakes, no extraneous cables and so on, and am curious about minimising it further.

        Well, you did ask… : )

      4. Ha ha, have you research slightly different routes to avoid the fast road? Sometimes a slight detour only adds half a mile and can make the journey so much more enjoyable – the car route isn’t always the best for bikes.
        I guess I was a hardy rider back when I was in the UK and didn’t think twice about riding in all weathers (rain and snow) in shorts with pack on my back.

        Regarding trying single speed; I have ridden one a lot and they make a lot of sense if you are not doing massive hill; it’s a slightly different technique but is good to build power and stamina. You could just buy a chain and bypass (or remove) the derailleur and set it on the one speed as a non-destructive way to try it out before going full single speed.

      5. Yeh, I have looked at other routes, and once I’m into the town I’ve been darting down a couple of much quieter residential streets rather than going through the high street, which is good. The main road in though is the only option without adding miles. You can come in the other end of town, which I’ll try, but again this doesn’t avoid the main fast road to get to the town in the first place.

        There is a rural lane that begins dead opposite the end of our road, which takes you into town also, but it’s significantly longer, very up and down and windy, and in a car I’ve had a number of close encounters with tractors and even one or two combine harvesters coming the other way. Don’t really want to have to dive into the hedge once a week. : )

        I don’t mind getting a bit sweaty, wet or muddy on a bike at all if it’s at my leisure, but don’t want to do this just for a 15 minute commute to work, then have to change etc. It’s just not worth the effort and extra time I’d have to make up. This is one reason I got the ebike, less effort means less sweating ha ha!

        Re the single speed, I meant just the front chainset which currently has three rings on my Muddy Fox. I’d like to try changing it to a single ring that’s slightly bigger than the current middle ring (which I never move from), then I can ditch the front derailleur, shifter, cables etc, and just use the 7 speeds on the rear wheel. I should need to change the chain then either. Currently using just the middle front ring, I have at least a couple of gears at the low end on the back wheel that are lower than I need, but at the other end I’m maxing out pedalling down bigger hills. So I’m thinking if I had a single speed cog on the front somewhere between the current middle and large rings in size, it’d give me all I need, and be lighter, simpler etc.

        Thinking about some more road/trail oriented tyres too rather than chunky MTB ones.

      6. Ah, we went with an Outlander PHEV, similar size to the Touran I think? Clever system.
        Anyway, enough about cars on a photo blog…

        Yes, in some ways I’m not getting on with the handling of my A6000, it’s almost to small and I find the controls too close together and easily pressed accidentally.
        But it’s the camera I’ve got so that’s what I’m using until my pennies can be saved and I test the new alternatives out more carefully next time with that in mind.

      7. I had a Sony NEX 3N which I think is a predecessor to your A6000. Fantastically capable but I never liked how it handled, I never really bonded with it in the way I’ve done with much simpler and more compact cameras.

  2. For me, I guess the answer is, when you find something that suits your wants and needs the most. Like my Nikon FM 🙂 There is literally nothing else I want from a camera. And after trying out desktops, laptops and tablets over the years, I’ve come to realise that a laptop suits my needs and wants the most as well. I guess there’s no time limit for me. I will keep trying new things until I’m happy or run out of money lol.

    And I guess the key is not to nit pick. Like, using my FM as an example again. It would be nice if it had an aperture-priority mode and a waist-level viewfinder, BUT I get along perfectly well without those things, and I don’t need them. I enjoy using the camera as is. So, once you are enjoying something, it’s best to just focus on that enjoyment, rather than the few little things that would make it “perfect”.

    1. I guess the “problem” we have, especially with used cameras, is there is so much available.

      If your Nikon FM is say 95% ideal for you, how do you know there isn’t a camera that’s 97 or 99% ideal for you?

      It’s finding that “good enough” threshold then committing to it.

      And of course, with cameras, bikes and indeed people, it’s often those little “imperfections” that make them special and endear them to us more than something clinically perfect in every way.

      1. Oh there’s definitely a camera that is probably more ideal for me, like an F or F2 😉 , but that extra 3% isn’t a deal breaker for me, especially when my FM was an absolute bargain and I love using it so much. My concern now is that going after that last 3% would end up with me just getting disappointed with another camera again. I guess the disappointments have piled up enough that an almost-perfect camera is more than enough for me now. After a while, you just get sick of chasing the elusive “perfect” item.

  3. Life is about the journey not the destination. The process of bettering yourself (or in this case your bike) is more important than the end result, as you’re enjoying the process of doing it.

  4. My camera journey has showed me that when I find that thing that’s pretty darn close to perfect, to stop, because I could spend the rest of my life piddling about with things that are 1% better or maybe 3% rather than just enjoying the thing that’s pretty darn close to perfect.

    I will buy more cameras. I will buy them so I can enjoy them — not so I can try to achieve some higher perfection any longer. (And I will sell most of them after using them a couple times, because I just don’t need to own so much stuff.)

    1. Yes Jim, and sometimes we explore a different camera because it’s nothing like the one(s) we consider close to perfect and use day in day out, just for a change!

  5. I think continual improvement is always good but it should be targeted at the improvement of the person/skills. If the equipment is being ‘upgraded’ it should be with a tangible benefit that the person has identified as a limiting factor in their enjoyment/performance. Only when the technology is holding you back should you look to upgrading as a solution. That being said, it is fun to try different things and (ignoring collecting as a pursuit) if your budget allows for this kind of (frivolous is too strong a word) trial and error approach, then why not. Just don’t expect technology and features to overcome lack of skills :). I think that if you are considering a camera because of its features you have to look at it and really work out what you need that feature for, what will it do to make your life/work/enjoyment better and is that worth the cost which you could spend on something else like film or books or workshops (for example).
    A camera after all is just a dark box with a hole that opens and closes for a given amount of time; with a lens to help focus and some sort of light sensor/film. Everything else is a bonus to make things easier for the operator to achieve certain things. A bike is a pair of wheels and a seat that is powered along; gears, materials and seat/frame design just make it easier or more comfortable for the rider.
    The only thing about bikes is that if they are wrong there is the potential for harm to the rider either through mechanical failure or poor ergonomics and attention to comfort and appropriate construction is important (less so with cameras).

    1. This is all makes a lot of sense, you are very much the voice of reason. Especially about only upgrading if your current kit is holding you back. Fortunately I’ve never got into the new camera world where it’s far more intensely marketed. So for example I couldn’t really care less if Sony or Canon or Nikon or Fuji have a new model that’s 100MP instead of 92. I’d be more interested in their 12MP model that was £900 new a decade ago but can now be had for less than triple figures.

  6. I did get into the new camera market but never fell for the upgrade upgrade, better better! marketing. I bought an entry level Canon DSLR, then when I needed something more a few years later I did look around and upgrade (in my own time) then, when that was causing me issues and I kind of downgraded (buying a mirrorless). technically my choice, wasn’t the best, fastest or even cheapest option in my range but it was the right choice for what I felt I needed. I cannot see any reason for me to replace that camera as it is (almost) everything I want from a digital camera and what it doesn’t have I don’t really need.
    As a bike rider, a few years ago I bought what was the best I could afford at the time, it wasn’t a well known brand and it came from Asia but it had the right specs for the level of rider I was; I have had the urge to replace/upgrade it a couple of times but when I looked at it I really couldn’t justify it as, although cheap it really was a good bike and suited me perfectly. I did buy a backup bike last year (this time a ‘vintage’ bike) and ride both regularly, they compliment each other well. Like my digital camera, with the bikes I can’t really see any good reasons why I would need to replace any of them; I’m not a racer or pro and I’m not training to traverse the world so they are good enough.

  7. Hi Dan
    Compelling reading .. especially SilverFoxes comments who “nailed it” in so many ways, there’s very little to add to what’s already been said, other than personally I have now decided to focus…. pun intended…. on getting the very best ” I’m ” able to find with what little experience I have from the 2 cameras I’ve chosen to use….
    I’m done with “chasing” the ever ending dream of acquiring the best camera, I’m also done with “chasing” the spec race…. it’s appealing at times but boredom soon sets in…
    I think far better to be honest with yourself and your own abilities and draw the focus into getting the composition and such like to a position that means you’ve given your all to a picture….

    BR Lynd

    1. Yes, good points, and I don’t think we can give our all to a picture if we’re unfamiliar with the equipment. We need that discipline and to invest in time to reach this point, rather than using a different camera every time we go out.

  8. All we have to do is see equipment or tools as an end to a means. Everything should then fall into place.
    If we don’t see the destination as the main thing (not a bad thing) then the journey can be as fulfilling. But the 2 should NEVER be confused. A cycle is for a journey. A camera is to make an image… (trying not to get bogged down in semantics here)

    1. Ah but what if we view a camera or a bike as a tool to enhance our enjoyment?

      A bike is both a mode of transport to get you from one place to another, plus a tool to increase your fitness, plus a tool to get you out in the fresh air more, plus a tool to help improve your ecological impact. And more.

      A camera, similarly, is a tool to make a photograph with, plus a tool to enable you to see and appreciate the world around you better, plus a tool to inspire you to get out and walk more, and so on…

      They’re not really just tools in the way a hammer or a spanner might be seen (though I know from my dad and brother’s previous experiences there are many degrees of quality and enjoyment with these simple tools too!)

      1. Hiya mate (great morning for the ducks) 🙂

        What I was trying to get across was that we could wax lyrical about almost anything in relation to how we perceive and use ‘tools’. But I think we still need to see it as the ends to the means… I guess this is because I’ve never been much of a collector of gear. Trying to make images that I want to see has always led me to choose what tool I use, not the other way around.

        And this leads back to your question I guess. I think I will continue to strive to improve. Gear has nothing to do with it. I’m not sure The Bard was troubled by which quill he used when creating his sonnets. But rather by expressing his feelings and thoughts, within the structure of the iambic pentameter. My continuing journey is to successfully (in my view) make a physical representation of my relation with the scene/object I see in front of me. And to successfully create those images within the structure of photography. Unless warts are the subject, I think I will continue to push myself to improve.

      2. The ducks have just appeared here, but I got into work early and avoided them!

        I think these days you are in the minority with gear, it’s nearly all about the camera being a tool to make a photograph. There are so many who love collecting cameras for the tactile joy of using them, the way they’re built and so on. And then another group who I would suggest simply like to have the latest and greatest gadgets, cameras being amongst them, and who are a marketer’s dream to sell to. (Maybe the same people who buy all those hair care products called things like “Elvive Fibrology Filloxan Thickness Creation” (I’ve not made this up!))

        I’m somewhere in the middle. Yes I want a tool that gets out of the way and let me make images I love the look of. But I do appreciate the intelligent design that allows this (hello Ricoh!) and can also appreciate the quality of a film camera like a Spotmatic F or Contax 139Q.

        Good point about Shakespeare, and these days there are people who just want to write, whether with a pencil that cost pennies or a decade old laptop. Then there are others who collect pens and never actually write with any of them.

  9. Hi Dan,
    I can relate. When I first took up cycling again as an adult about 10 years ago, I went to my local bike shop and bought a lovely Raleigh that was on the floor. It spoke to me and was my size. I took it for a ride and loved it. Over the next few months I brought it back numerous times for modifications I was certain I needed. My friend Glenn who works there gently tried to discourage me, but I didn’t listen. I had the gear changed (Single speed bike), had the handlebars swapped out and raised, etc. As I became a more proficient cyclist I came to realize that Raleigh had done a pretty good job specking that model, and I have since had to have virtually every “improvement” put back the way it was. Luckily I saved all the original parts, and Glen is too much of a gentleman to say “I told you so…” I have put so many miles on that bike that the mechanic at the shop recently showed me that there is absolutely no paint remaining on the undersides of the fenders. (sorry, mudguards) Beware the slippery slope, it has been joined by a few companions in the shed, yes some vintage models too. I once commuted to work 15 miles year round here in Connecticut for two years just to see if I could. And long rides on weekends too. I haven’t been riding quite as much recently mostly because of a lack of time, but I just love it. What a great hobby! By the way, you people get free bikes don’t you? That makes it even sweeter.

    1. Jon, thanks for sharing your experiences, very interesting. You do come across many people who have the joint passions of photography and cycling, or perhaps it’s just because they’re both popular pursuits there’s bound to be a lot of overlap.

      I remember Raleigh well, and had a number of their bikes in my childhood and teens (mostly BMXs!) with the heron head emblem and proud “Made in Nottingham, England” statement. Quite surprised you have them over there, I thought you’d have a Specialized or Giant or Scott, there are so many renowned US bike manufacturers.

      My Muddy Fox MTB I bought for £85 about three years ago, and it was at least five years old then. It’s not high end by any stretch of the imagination, but it fits really well, it’s light, nimble, fast, and I greatly enjoy riding it.

      On one hand I’d like to make it more suitable for commuting use (hybrid tyres, one speed crank) but I’d need to spend probably twice what I paid for it originally to do that. Then I think what else could I get for that money (like a Specialized Rockhopper which I always wanted) that would have better quality components all round. I should probably just get the tyres and try that for a few months.

      What do you mean by “you people get free bikes”?

      1. I think he’s referring to the ‘Bike to Work’ thing where employers can pay for your bike (and some accessories to allow it to be more comfortable to commute on it more often) and you pay a value back for it over time through your wages. Your employer would have to be a member of this scheme. If it’s a local authority Dan I would be surprised if they’re not in it so think it’s worth you asking for details on it.

      2. Thanks Bear, yes we are a part of that scheme, that’s what sparked my initial interest in an ebike.

        Whilst you do get a discount and the ability to pay back over a year, I felt there were a few too many hoops to jump through (minimum requirements of how often you use the bike to commute, limits on how much you can use it for personal use outside of commuting, a final lump sum to pay at the end of the loan period) so I used an alternative way of financing it in the end.

        If they were giving away free bikes I’d be right at the head of the queue! : )

      3. There are criteria now with the ride to work scheme? When I did that at the start it was very lax, “you want a bike? here have one and pay this much per month”. Back then they probably hadn’t thought it through as we got the VAT off, the income tax off and no one cared if you didn’t use it more than once per year – for me it was every day so I at least used the benefit appropriately.

      4. SilverFox (I just remembered I had a Silver Fox bmx in the mid 80s, fantastic thing, so fast, I loved it!), yeh you have to commit to 50% over your commutes over the year on the bike, plus you can’t use it for over 50% of the time for leisure. And they say after 12 months “you may be offered the option to purchase the bike at market value”. I didn’t want to pay hundreds over the year then them say they want another two or three hundred at the end of it. Without that final payment it remains the council’s property, as I understand it. I guess because they’re pushing these schemes much harder now they have to be more stringent so everyone doesn’t use it just to get a new bike cheaper for their son/daughter/wife/aunty/whatever!

      5. Ugh that is not so much of an incentive. The first time I did the scheme, the bike was mine after the payment period; no ‘purchase’ at the end – like a hire purchase if you like. The second time they had implemented the purchase part but left it open to the employer as to the value; mine put it at about 10 pounds I think 🙂 Seems like the idea is getting lost somewhere in the bureaucracy.

      6. Yeh I just didn’t want to jump through that many hoops and not know how much the “fair market value” final payment would be for 12 months. At least now I know how much I paid and the bike is all mine. I did still get 10% off through joining the Easit travel scheme (free), so better than nothing!

      7. Silver Fox BMX? I’ve heard of Muddy Fox but don’t remember the Silver variety. Kuwahara was the brand the cool kids were riding when I was that age 🙂

      8. Similar to this bad boy…

        It wasn’t new, and I can’t remember where my dad bought it, but it was certainly a major step up from the Raleigh Mag Burner and rather awful Mag Styler I had previously… And so much faster to ride.

        Don’t remember Kuwahara, I remember Diamond Back and Mongoose being the coolest BMXs…

  10. That’s no fun, I thought it was a straight rebate like we do here with solar panels and electric cars. Booo. In my experience Dan, it would be more economical to sell an old bike and get a new one rather than make more than minor changes. I don’t know what the shop charges are like over there but here they are pretty high. I personally hate working on bikes so I opt to pay the shop to do it. The owner of my local bike shop has been a fan of Raleigh bikes since he started out in the 70’s so he always had a good selection and stocks parts for the older models. People come from all over to have their vintage Raleigh’s serviced and he sells them also – sadly above my pay grade. My two were made in Asia and the company has been sold at least once recently. The last time I was in the shop I didn’t see any on the sales floor.

    1. I’ve been in touch with a highly rated local bike mechanic, and yeh just to get it one speed on the front will cost about twice what I paid for the whole bike (£85) so not worth it in my eyes. I’ve got some hybrid tyres today and cleaned and lubed it, and it’s so much faster on road. So I don’t really need anything more. Famous last words!

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