Conversation: Create or Consume?

I thought it might be interesting to try something new this week. I’ve wanted to bring additional perspectives to the site for some time and figured a good way to do that would be with a conversational piece. Hopefully this will grow into a recurring series. The core of this week’s conversation focuses on our consumerist culture and the challenges it presents. The following is a sequence of emails exchanged over the course of the past week between good friend, Coleman Bright and myself. Bright lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is a first year dental student at Oregon Health & Science University. For more from Bright, check out his music and photography.

Hughes: A couple years back we were having one of our weekly conversation-turned-emotional-rants and you dropped a line that stuck with me, "Produce more than you consume." I believe it stemmed from a tweet you posted about how passive and unproductive watching television is. And it is. A cornerstone of our culture has become constant consumption. Replace TV with sports, movies, music, you name it. The concept can even be applied to realms outside of entertainment when you consider our eating habits, the environment, or other global issues. Most people take more than they put in.

Living a life relegated to the confines of a "consumer" is unfulfilling, suffocating even. The fact that a significant portion of the population has become dependent on various prescription drugs that trick the brain into simulating some level of artificial happiness is a telling sign. We seek self-help books, counseling, anything to explain the void within. Sitting by as a passive consumer and never creating anything is devastating to the human psyche. It’s insufficient to live vicariously, and unfulfilled, through the athletes, characters, and stars on screen.

Bright: What’s really interesting is how the role of entertainment has changed in recent years. The days of teenagers uttering, “I’m bored,” every five minutes are gone. We aren’t even bored when we wait in lines anymore. If we sense any moment where we might have to sit still for more than 30 seconds, we pull out our phones and mindlessly tap the screen until something interesting pops up. Entertainment used to be a way for people to connect. Now it’s just an omnipresent fact of life. It used to be that everyone went inside to watch a TV show because that was the only time it was on. Now people spend entire weekends binge-watching seasons of their favorite show.

Since the Internet has become fast enough in the last several years, we’ve been given access to an abundance of passive entertainment via streaming music, movies and TV shows. As a music lover, having access to the history of recorded music at first seemed like a dream come true. After a couple years of trying to keep up with every new artist and discover old artists, I’ve become absolutely exhausted. I can call someone out all day for watching too much TV, but I’m just as guilty of consuming music in a way that actually prevents me from writing music myself. And that’s the problem. That’s where I get the idea that if I create more than I consume, then I am able to achieve some sort of balance in how I entertain myself.

Hughes: Exactly, balance is the key. I think it's important to admire the work and art of others in its various forms, but it can't end there. These should be catalysts for inspiration and encourage you to create something of your own and come out with something to show for it. It's much more fulfilling to go out and do it yourself, to produce. There’s no shortage of options here. The benefit of technology is that almost anyone can get their hands on the tools they need in order to create.

You mentioned music; I'm guilty of the same thing when it comes to movies and books. At times it can reach a point where it stifles my own creativity. The important thing is to be able to recognize this. The reason I started Of Curious Minds was to establish an outlet to write and share ideas I’ve formulated through reading and various conversations. Only recently have I begun to challenge myself to write fiction, which is a whole different beast. Learning how to create is a challenge, but incredibly rewarding. It's not easy to learn how to carefully craft a story, transcribe what you're feeling into music, or discover the intricacies behind the lens of a camera.

I think this initial challenge turns a lot of people off and leaves many thinking they're bound to a life as a consumer when that's just not the case. Everyone sucks when they start out. You have to learn to accept this. The instant gratification engrained in our society, as you alluded to above, doubles as a significant barrier that keeps many from trying for themselves, or at least sticking with it. When we want something, we expect it immediately. Entertainment being the ultimate example, all it takes is a click. In contrast, learning to create, at least at a proficient level, takes time and hard work.

Bright: You took the words right out of my mouth. The things we consume should inspire us to create. Art is out there for consumption as long as we’re inspired by it. We lose our balance when we see something great and think, “Give me more,” rather than “I want to do that.”

You’re right; the same technology that enables us to stay trapped in a world of endless entertainment can also free us by giving us tools to create. However, I’ve realized that not everyone has a gift for art, film, music, or writing. While I agree that a lot of people could be more creative if they put in the work, some are simply gifted in other ways. Still, that doesn’t mean they can’t be inspired to “create” within their field. A scientist might watch a film that inspires him/her to be more innovative in the laboratory. A coach might listen to a song that encourages him/her to take a different approach with his team.

Speaking of sports, this is another area where fans are just as guilty of overconsumption. There’s a sporting event to watch every night of the year, and the remaining hours are filled with analysis. How many times do we really need to analyze every nuance of a sporting event? How great of shape would all sports fans be if they just worked out for 30 minutes after every game watched? If they were inspired enough by the athletes to try being active? The “create more than you consume” idea could also be framed as “actively entertaining yourself over being passively entertained.” That is to say you “produce” your own entertainment by engaging in your environment through exercising, exploring nature, playing sports, or creating art.

Hughes: Sports are probably the most pervasive form of passive entertainment. You're spot on with the analysis comment. Look at ESPN's evening line-up; it's the exact same show in a slightly different format six times in a row. The "countdown" shows have always been particularly humorous to me, with commentators making predictions and offering general "keys to the game" such as: "play solid team defense" or "get the other team on their heels" (and we'd thought it would end with John Madden). Their opinions have absolutely zero implication on the ensuing event. There is no more obvious drain of time than these shows, yet they're still on the air. Unless it's some sort of conspiracy at Nielsen, someone must be watching them. This is an issue of priorities. If you have time to watch hours of sports programming, you have time to be active. I am frightened that people feel justified in sacrificing their health and wellbeing for the sake of not missing a game on TV.

I should be clear in that I love sports. They’re a big part of my own life. I think they have a huge capacity to inspire whether in daily life or on a larger political scale. However, there is no bigger waste of energy than being a sports fanatic. "Fanatic" by its very definition is a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal. Keyword, “excessive.” Creating, in whatever form you choose, offers a sense of personal identity. That is why it’s fulfilling. Becoming just another obsessive fan has the opposite effect. It essentially strips you of your individuality and lumps you in as part of a larger, faceless mass. It's a poor allocation of energy that could be directed towards a better, more fulfilling passion.

You're right in that not all passions are artistic-based, but we all have them. For those unsure, spend some time thinking about what you're good at and what you enjoy doing, then go from there. One thing that's proved helpful in my own life is discerning interest from passion. I have more interests than I count. However, passions are fewer and much deeper. They are at the very essence of your being. Create from here.

Bright: I agree with your last point, and I’m going off on a tangent here, but I think it’s important to point out that your passion doesn’t have to be your profession. This is something that was tough for me to figure out as I was going through college, and I’m sure a lot of students are in the same boat as I was. There are very few people out there that are able to make a living from their passion. Those that do run the risk of losing this passion after having to depend on it to pay the bills; like a recording artist who gives in to pressures from a record label in order to sell better so they can keep the dream alive.

I like that you make the distinction between interests and passions. When people tell students to follow their passion, I believe this advice could be very misleading. Better advice is to do something you love. The difference here is that you don’t necessarily have to be passionate about a career path in order to love it. You simply have to find it interesting. Then after becoming knowledgeable and proficient in your career choice, you learn to love it more, and it can grow to be a passion. A passion you never knew you could have.

But the point is that you go after a job you’re interested in at first, as a means to enable you to pursue your passions and dreams. If you aren’t making a living at your passion, then you better be using that job as a way to open doors for yourself. Whether by financing a lifelong goal of traveling to Patagonia or paying for bagpipe lessons, a job is simply a means to an end. I think the “work to live” not “live to work” idea goes hand in hand with “create more than you consume.” Sometimes it’s not easy to find the time or resources to create in a way that satisfies you. You have to recognize that the free time and resources required to create great things come at a price. Find your passion, but also figure out a way to make it happen for yourself.

Hughes: That's an important point, you don't necessarily have to make a living from your passion, but you do have to find an outlet for it. Working to live and not the other way around involves a balance. Time should be set aside to create and engage with those who share a similar passion. As long as you build in regular opportunities, you're putting yourself in a great position to create more. The benefit then becomes two-fold, you avoid passive consumption and you are able to give time and attention to a core part of your being. Although, as you mentioned, there needs to be some level of interest in what you do for a living. If you are complacent and disinterested in your daily work, it becomes a burden and makes it significantly more challenging to achieve this balance.

The bottom line is that we all want to find happiness and fulfillment in our lives. The key to this is not spending another day simply going through the motions, but engaging and contributing in some way to the world around us. It's easy to get caught up in the abundance of entertainment available, but what we forget is that most of it serves only as a temporary distraction, offering nothing lasting in return. I'm not suggesting that we avoid it altogether, we need breaks, but a conscious effort should be made to draw greater inspiration from the art and entertainment we consume. Create more, consume less. Simple, profound, and a mantra we should all strive to live by.