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Create, Not Consume: A Mindfulness Manifesto

Creativity is not based on your artistic ability. It has nothing to do with your natural talent. It depends entirely on your perspective, and is vital to embracing an intentional approach to technology. We must all learn to flip the switch from mindless consumption to conscious creation if we want to reach our full potential.

But first, a brief story.

Some Background

In February 2013, Google product manager Tristan Harris put together a presentation calling on the tech giant to help people spend less time glued to their screens. (You can see the original presentation here.) In the presentation, he called for Google to be more socially responsible about how they designed their products. He wanted designers to feel responsible and called for a standard code of ethics across the company, much like the hippocratic oath for doctors (“do no harm”). He even compared the infinite feeds people mindlessly scroll through on their smartphones to slot machines in a casino.

The presentation sparked conversation inside Google, and then-co-CEO Larry Page even created a new position for him — product philsopher. His job was to make sure that the ethical principles he outlined in his presentation were considered in Google’s product design.

But then, nothing changed.

So, Tristan Harris quit. He started a nonprofit that would eventually become the Center for Humane Technology, whose mission is to create momentum for products and services based on humane technology principles.

But the issue still remains. The problem of mindless consumption of information on our technology devices hasn’t gone away. If anything, it’s gotten worse as the amount of information in the world continues to grow. It’s compounded by psychological factors, like the fact there is sometimes something we want to see (a variable reward scenario) and the fear of missing out on something important (FOMO), as well as the accessibility of information via internet-connected everything. In his book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport calls the struggle for intentionality with our technology “a lopsided arms race.”

But all is not lost. We can flip the script and dictate our own terms for positive use of our technology.

But we have to be intentional. We must set the tone for mindful use of technology ourselves.

Create, Not Consume

My pastor has a saying that he uses all the time:

Be a thermostat, not a thermometer.

The difference between the two is extremely important.

A thermometer merely reads the temperature. It can tell you how hot or cold something is, but it is powerless to do anything about it. A thermostat on the other hand controls the temperature. It has the ability to heat things up and cool things down. It doesn’t just default to the way things currently are — a thermostat has the ability to change the environment.

It’s easy to get discouraged when you look at all the statistics about how social media use tends to make us feel worse about our situation or how much time the average person spends each day dealing with email. But feeling helpless doesn’t help, and living in a bubble isn’t a practical solution. We can’t simply react. We must develop intentionality if we want to dictate the terms of engagement and facilitate positive uses of our technology.

One of the ways we can do this is to create, not consume.

I’ll be honest — it’s easier to consume. That’s a big reason why it has become the default for so many. Humans naturally seek the path of least resistance, and companies engineer the products in a way that we don’t have to even decide what to read/watch/hear next. The Algorithm continues to feed us from the information buffet, so we never have to stop and think about what we’re consuming, why we’re consuming it, or what impact it’s having on us and those close to us.

Teaching My Family to Create, Not Consume

My moment of clarity came when my kids were young. I remember being amazed at how effortlessly they navigated the touch interface of an iPad as they watched their favorite shows and videos. Even before they could talk, they figured out how to unlock the iPad, find what they wanted, and watch it on their own.

I knew then that I would have to teach them boundaries for how to appropriately engage with the technology.

As my wife and I thought about which uses of technology we considered positive or negative with our kids, we realized they could be summed up in a simple phrase:

Create, not consume.

From a very early age, we do our best to show our kids how they can use the technology in what we consider to be the right way. We teach them how to write stories, create songs using loops in GarageBand, and I even help them record their own “podcast” — just like dad.

It’s very rewarding to see their reaction to something that they’ve created. Every single one of my kids has been a little bit shy the first time I set them in front of the microphone, but their eyes always sparkle with pride when I show them afterwards what they made. It’s in stark contrast to the glazed over look we’ve all seen (and experienced) for someone who’s mentally checked out and staring at a screen.

Our goal is to teach them the joy that comes with creating. As they get older, the activities vary slightly but the focus does not. For example, my two oldest (12 and 10 as I write this) use BitsBox to write code and create their own JavaScript applications. They’ve also joined me in a daily Duolingo habit to learn a second language.

My kids give me a daily reminder that what I do matters. I know that my kids will reproduce what they see me do, not simply what I say, and I have to catch myself all the time. I know that I have a responsibility to model the right way.

But I’m Not Creative!

Yes you are. You just forgot how.

When you give a child a box of crayons, they don’t naturally ask for instructions. They know what to do. They are naturally creative. It’s easy for them to get lost in their own little world while creating, and they do so without judgment of the end result.

Over time, we are conditioned to think that we are not creative. If you don’t believe you’re creative, you have learned to listen to the voice of judgment. Along the way, someone disapproved of the thing(s) you created and it produced shame. Maybe it happened over and over. Maybe it happened only once, but that was enough to convince you to not try again.

But you must try again. You have something unique and beautiful to offer the world. Something no one else has — a gift that if you were to die tomorrow will never be regained.

You are called to be creative.

I understand how scary it can be. I too have struggled with thinking I wasn’t creative. I used to love writing songs on my guitar, and I would get discouraged when I realized that the melody line I came up with or the chord progression I discovered actually came from another song. Over time, I came to believe that I couldn’t come up with anything original on my own — all I could do was copy what other people had done.

Then I read the book Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon, and it gave me hope. Austin described the creative process as the collection and synthesis of the dots you collect. True artists simply connect pre-existing dots in ways that haven’t been done before.

For the first time, I viewed creativity as a formula. Austin gave me permission to accept what I created because it was the natural result of the dots I’d collected. I didn’t have to be ashamed of the fact that it was similar to something someone else had made. I just needed to collect better dots.

Ever since, I have been on a quest to curate better dots. I do this by being intentional about what I consume and using it to create something original. I don’t worry about the end result — it’s the process of creating that’s natural and valuable.

Everyone is born creative. It’s consuming without creating that’s radical and foreign.

How We Can Help

Our goal at The Sweet Setup is to help you make the most of your time and attention. It’s why we started this Mindfulness Monday series. We want to champion the intentional use of technology and help you create, not consume.

One of the ways we do that is by helping you leverage the apps and hardware at your disposal in intentional ways. Here are some examples:

  • Create a writing habit in Ulysses
  • Create a journaling habit in Day One
  • Created focused action by managing tasks in Things
  • Create lasting photographic memories using the iPhone you already own

If you want a little help in your creative pursuits, check out our Black Friday sale. It gives you all six of our flagship training courses at a significant discount, but it ends today.