“Create more, consume less” is an oversimplification

“Create more, consume less.”

That phrase has reached near-gospel stature in the tech/business world, and is championed by countless blog posts, tweets, and op-eds. These pieces typically promote the idea that our problems result from an excess of consumption and a lack of creativity.

While I agree with the basic premise that many of us would benefit from consuming less in some areas, I think “create more, consume less” is overly reductive. It ignores the meaningful differences between forms of consumption.

Not all consumption is created equal: as a blanket term, consumption covers everything from eating a Choco Taco to reading a textbook on rocket science, from watching The Office to watching a physics lecture.

When I first heard the expression “create more, consume less,” it initially struck me as true, and I started feeling guilty about all forms of consumption: technical blog posts, build threads1, and Instagram became equal wastes of time in my mind. If I wasn’t creating something―which in my case usually involves writing code―I felt stagnant.

But I eventually realized that creation vs. consumption is a false dichotomy. Looking across disciplines, there are many people who by most objective measures are extremely successful, and are outliers in their extreme information consumption just as they are in their work. Bill Gates reads more than 50 books a year, and says that “reading is still the main way that I both learn new things and test my understanding.” Patrick Collison, cofounder and CEO of Stripe, is a crazily prolific reader. And Steven King, who is about as creative as they come, says “the real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing.” Similarly, it seems pretty safe to assume that the best film-makers watch a lot of movies, the best chefs taste a lot of food, and the best musicians listen to a lot of music.

In my opinion, what divides productive and unproductive consumption is engagement. Our default is to consume passively―to read or watch or taste or listen halfheartedly, without giving our full attention to the experience. It’s hard to imagine top performers doing this, though…you better believe that when Kendrick Lamar listens to a verse, he’s thinking hard about every sound he hears. Gordon Ramsay doesn’t just put food in his mouth―he really tastes it. Consumption isn’t a waste of time or resources if you eke out the most value or information you possibly can from what you’re consuming. If consumption was inherently bad, what would be the point of making anything for others to consume?

So before you beat yourself up for reading another article instead of working on your project or business, think about where your goals place you on the spectrum from creator to consumer. You might realize that taking in more information is a critical step in reaching those goals. That’s not something to be ashamed of.

Hopefully, you can now start to distinguish between productive and unproductive consumption. You might even realize that much of the consumption you’re already doing is productive. If that’s the case, give yourself the leeway to occasionally sit down, eat a Choco Taco, and watch the Office guilt-free. And really enjoy it.

1 Build threads are usually found on online forums, and document the process of someone making or fixing something, be that a car, a house, or a watch. I’ve learned a huge amount about design and fabrication from these, but usually feel like I’m procrastinating when I read them. Here’s a website that compiles build threads, and here’s one of my personal favorites. Beware: if you like making things with your hands, this is a deep, dark rabbit hole.

(Thanks to everyone from Compound Writing for their feedback on earlier versions of this post.)