Despite the ever-present warnings not to be too personal in the internet wilderness, I’m ready to admit that I’m guilty of overconsumption — of books, articles, Facebook feeds, and just about anything else you can think of. I consume relentlessly, each day, almost without exception and often without measure. I gorge on new, mostly digital information and, if there isn’t any available, even old information I’d already consumed will do.
I consider this excessive consumption to be damaging to the person I am now and to the person I hope to be in the future.
Consumption is the starting point. We cannot do anything without having consumed beforehand. We cannot run when suffering from malnutrition and we cannot create anything of value if the information in our heads is outdated. We run on externalities — food, water, and information. All of it is necessary to exist, and exist well. Without consumption of food, we die. Without consumption of water, we die. Without consumption of information, we die of ignorance.
All this consumption is contrasted by our wonderful ability to create. We, unlike anything else on this planet, are able to take something and reflect it in a different way, like the crystal prism reflects light. We consume food and then construct buildings, or travel, or wage war, or make love — all with the energy the food gave us. Similarly, we’re able to consume information that then informs our decisions, changes them, and through them, we recreate whole environments. Consuming and creating are integral parts of the same game — being human. One balances the other and one cannot take place without the other.
Why is consumption overrepresented in our daily lives then?
Whether its food, or information, or entertainment — we acknowledge no limit, while our capacity to produce, create, and make collects dust somewhere under all the noise we expose ourselves to every day.
I love nothing more than the act of writing. It’s my hobby, my passion, my dream, my calling, my craft — whatever you want to call it. If I think about my future, I see myself writing. It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that. And yet, I find myself spending more time reading about writing than actually writing.
I’ll spend hours upon hours pouring through books other people wrote about writing, compared to the single hour I spend on my own writing. There’s nothing wrong about this per se — I’m consuming information about my craft from those people who I feel can teach me the most. But, if I take a step back, I have to admit that the most of my time I spend consuming. If I take another step back, while remaining wary of generalization, it’s relatively easy to see that nearly all of us spend most of our time consuming.
We constantly consume shallow, incessant bits of information, engaged as we are in this crazed hunt for the next show, next movie, next book, next notification, ping, post, update, follow, and like, forcing our attention to flitter and flutter like a butterfly on amphetamine. There’s too much to consume, and we consume too much, all of it at the expense of our innate ability to create and add value to the world we’re a part of.
Why do we consume so much?
The most immediate reason is a rather practical, pragmatic one. We consume so much because there’s much more to be consumed than ever before. Books, movies, tv shows, news, podcasts, and social media are everywhere, all of the time. None of it takes more than a few clicks, making this constant stream of novelty possible and so irresistible. The information is right here, in front of me. If I happen to miss out on something, then I’m reminded by push notifications. Novelty is the name of the game, or the constant renewal of what’s already new, thus feeding my hunger for ever more information. After all, am I not better prepared if I know more beforehand?
I am, but only to a certain point. Much like literal digestion, there’s a limit to everything. The stomach can only take so much before it begins hurting, and the mind can only take so much before it needs to create something to help ease the pressure. Mastering something — anything — takes both learning about it and then doing the thing. Reading one book about writing is enough for years of actual writing, rather than closing it and reaching for the next one. And yet, I reach to consume the next one.
Availability of information and entertainment is one reason, but there are others, more subtle reasons. We consume more because it’s easier and less frightening. There’s no risk in consumption, no fear of rejection, no fear of failure, no challenge. It’s safer to read someone else’s book and tweet about it than it is to write one yourself. It’s easier to watch a show on Netflix than it is to create with your hands, and your mind.
We suffer from a severe case of overconsumption — more so than any other generation before us. We’re far removed from a more balanced act of life where consumption is the grounds for creation, rather than the reason for its absence.
And yet in me, just like in whoever you are, lies the ability to bring something of ourselves into the world. To take what you’ve consumed and offer it back with that particular flavor that makes you…well, you. You are quite literally unable to create anything lousy because anything lousy is in itself a good experience. The more I write, the more experience I get. By the time I die, I’ll have learned more from the lousy pieces than all those that had come out of my pen the way I wanted them to. But the only way to have these lousy experiences is to make them myself — to create as much as I can, whenever I can, as Danny Gregory, an author on art and creativity, had put it.
Carve out the space, by force if necessary, to engage in acts of thorough, deep, mindful creation. Help yourself by stepping back from all the incessant consumption and interruption that today’s modern world so easily affords. Take back your time, because we don’t have enough of it to accommodate everything. Allow yourself to learn about what interests you before deliberately dropping the study material and implementing your understanding of the subject into the world around you. Learn both by consumption and by creation, taking care that the latter occupies the most of your time because there’s no learning like the learning afforded by doing.
Whatever you want to know how to do — do it — and then you’ll know how it’s done. The point is not to achieve some nirvana-like state where you create 100% of your time. That’s likely impossible, and definitely pointless. You need to consume — you need to watch that episode of Stranger Things, to listen to the golden collection of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and to read that romance trilogy in one week. But you need to do it with full intention to use that information to bring something new to the world.
“Write it. Shoot it. Publish it. Crochet it, sauté it, whatever. MAKE.” Joss Whedon
Carve out these spaces not only to create but to learn the extent of yourself. Nothing in life is as terrifying as being alone in these empty spaces, faced with the very real prospect of failure. Every blank page I open makes me remember how small I am, how weak, and how lost I feel navigating the treacherous waters of becoming a wordsmith. It will be the same for you, whatever you choose to do. There’s no way around it, it’s part of the deal. We get to create only if we’re willing to face this void inside. It can, and often will be an ugly place full of apparitions of our own making that howl and point mocking fingers at our work and laugh.
And yet, this is where you finally get to find yourself. Which brings to mind a cousin of mine who had once proclaimed he’ll travel to Cambodia to find himself. My father, a man of quick wit, brilliantly retorted:
If you bump into me while you’re there, let me know.
It was a good natured joke, but he made a point he wasn’t even aware of making: that the only place to find oneself is within oneself. All the books, and all the travel, and all that we consume should aid us in that journey, instead of getting in the way and distracting us from stringing together a few moments to look inwards, take a deep breath — and create.