The Dangerous Effects of Reading

I am working out of a massive office building in one of those little commercial compounds this week. The entire area has all sorts of nice things – a paper-printing shop, coffee, sushi, burritos, dry cleaners, even food carts most days. Cellphone coverage is near 100%, free WiFi is everywhere, lots of places to park and work, etc.  There is even a formal attire shop with adult prom dresses.

The entire area is optimized for staying there and working. Because it is optimized for this, it is hard to do other things: drive a car around, go jogging, throw a Frisbee, interview people on the street, walk your dog, violently start or stop a parade, etc.

In our personal lives we tend to optimize for one of two things: input or output. Reading or writing. Consuming or creating. The environment we live in – the prevailing culture – by default is optimized for consumption.   Even our personal computers are turning into devices that are optimized for consumption! This is terrible and dangerous.

A life optimized for consuming might look like this:

  • 45 minutes in the car listening to podcasts (at double speed) while driving to work
  • 30 minutes of blog reading in the morning.
  • Time in bathroom spent reading on your phone [Side note: how freaking scary would it have been to explain to your great-great-grandfather that people would carry around computers and look at them while in the bathroom or driving - he would have been terrified of this future]
  • Time spent waiting on someone for lunch spent looking at your phone.
  • Time in elevator spent reading a little screen with news clips.
  • Get home read email, watch TV, play on cellphone, Facebook, iPad.
  • Read eBook in bed until you fall asleep.
  • Dream of an Inbox with no Unread messages.

Consuming this much makes you get really good at filtering crap from gold. Everything you pick up to read or watch you are constantly thinking “Does this suck? Is this cool enough to continue doing? Is it cool enough to tell others people about?”

Is it bad to think like this all the time? Absolutely – it is like a bucket of glitter dumped on your head levels of bad. Come on – isn’t consuming just learning? Reading and learning are great – but over-consumption changes the way that you think:

  • I need to quickly judge things
  • I need to use other people’s work to make myself look cool through sharing them with my friends
  • I need more and more faster – the more you read blogs the more you think you need to read to get “The Top 10 Productivity Tips”
  • I need to hear what others think before I form an opinion (If you have ever read a review of a new gadget before it launches: think about how ridiculous this activity is)
  • I should accept the world as it is and just offer my opinion on it

I think we should all agree that getting faster at judging things is bad, but I think the real danger in having a super-efficient-filter is that your default mode is exclusion – you reject long enough and you lose the ability to create things that pass your own filter.  You stagnate at work for fear of everything you do being judged like every news article or viral video that you view.

So how do you break the power of consumption? By creating your own things.  All the things you consume - somewhere somebody is making all this stuff, right?

Adding anything (not just your opinion) to the world is creating – writing, drawing, dancing (not line-dancing which is not art but instead some sort of long-term psychological annoyance stress test). Normally when people think of ‘creating’ or ‘innovation’ they think of a naked hippie standing in the woods painting a tree, an alcoholic writer slaving away at a sad tale of a small town, or some tech geek coming up with some new way to annoy everyone by sharing every detail of their pointless life.

If the world overwhelms you with its constant production of useless crap which you filter more and more to things that only interest you can I calmly suggest that you just create things that you like and cut out the rest of the world as a middle-man to your happiness?

From where I sit creating things does the following:

  • Let’s you filter to something you like: You can create things that please you and you only.
  • Frees you:  Helps you let go of the downsides of quick judgment of others since it allows you to appreciate the absolute difficulty in making original things.
  • Makes you happy: creating is something that is core to human beings.  Just watch a child drawing pictures.
  • Plays to strengths not weaknesses:  Most people consume things to fix weaknesses like reading about how to better spend your money if you are bad with money.  When you create it flips around and you tend to draw, write, or make movies about things you are passionate about.
  • Changes the way you think: I can’t say it better than _why:

when you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. your tastes only narrow & exclude people. so create.

But how do you optimize for creating?

  • Cease input – turn your cellphone off, stop reading every stupid blog post about productivity, just stop.
  • Get off the popular train – teach yourself not to judge based on anything other than your own view.  Stop listening to the mainstream radio or to popular music channels.  Try college radio.  Browse an actual bookstore for books rather than the Suggested for You or Popular sections of some website.  Stop only reading popular blogs.
  • Have a system for capturing ideas - no matter where you are – a paper notebook, your phone, whatever.  You think it you capture it.  When you have an idea, any type, any quality, record it without judgment.  Separate idea generation and filtering into two phases.
  • Put some structure around making things – give yourself some time to write, to record, to photograph, to think.  Schedule a lunch break to just sit and think.
  • Change your mind about your mind – overcome common mental barriers to making things.

If you quiet your mind and allow yourself to stop judging everything you will find that you have more potential for innovation (at work, in the kitchen, in the garage, in the bathroom [this just got weird - bringing it back], with your hobbies, with your thoughts) than you thought before.  You were using the same brutal quality filter on yourself that you used on viral videos, talk radio, and blog posts.  You deserve better.

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.
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