These are two words that you probably wouldn’t naturally juxtapose, but I promise it makes sense.
I’ve talked about actions and habits before, about how important it is to focus on tangible actionable things in order to move forward and affect change. Well, creating vs reacting is another helpful way to think about action, more specifically, what drives action. Here goes.
We’ll start with reacting because for a lot of us it’s more familiar, also it’s the lesser of the two options. A reaction is usually a response to some sort of problem or threat, it’s negatively sourced, something bad has or could happen, and you need to react to prevent it. A common phrase in the knowledge working world is ‘putting out fires,’ meaning problems constantly arise and we’re constantly reacting to solve them. A reaction doesn’t really move things forward, its main goal is to keep the status quo, keep the business functioning, keep the customer happy, etc.
Creating, on the other hand, is much more exciting. Instead of arising out of a problem or threat, creativity is sourced from vision and purpose. Creating is about solving problems before they show up, about creating solutions and possibilities. It’s pro-active action instead of reactive action.
Here’s a quick example: let’s say you’re working for a customer-facing firm who provides financial coaching and investments. Clients have been semi-regularly frustrated by poor communication from the firm, and your job has often devolved into smoothing things over with disgruntled customers. You’re a reactor. But, dissatisfied with this type of work existence, you remember why you’re actually doing all this: to serve people well with the best financial and investment advice in the industry. So if that’s the purpose, reacting to communications problems is incongruous with that purpose. What would serve that purpose? A system of communication and education designed not only to clamp down on the ‘frustrated customer’ problem, but to help customers think differently about money and themselves!
Creating comes from a different place (vision and purpose) than reacting (fear and problems). See, juxtaposition!
Goals are important. But everyone has goals, including people who never achieve them. The great thing about goals is that they can be whatever you want them to be, you can dream big, swing for the fences, aim for the stars, or any other colloquialism you can think of. The downside of goals is that, for some reason, most people don’t achieve them, that they more often end up dreams.
What would cause a person not to achieve their goals? The problem is rooted in action. For most of us, our actions aren’t in line with our goals. Our actions, bad habits, addiction to comfort, fear of people, put us on a trajectory that is not easily swayed, and certainly not by some fanciful ideas.
So how do we adjust our actions? Unfortunately, in order to achieve goals, our actions usually have to change in a less comfortable direction. Discomfort is really hard to get comfortable with. It’s one thing to do something uncomfortable once, it’s very difficult to make it a long term habit. Change is super hard, and there are a lot of things to go into it, but I think there’s one especially important component: identity. Deep down in the recesses of your brain are you a fat person or a skinny person? Are you a hard-working person or a ‘laid back’ person? A tough person or a weak person? A happy person or a ‘realistic’ person? Your actions can actually help you answer these questions, because what you’re doing (eating too much, working too little, etc.) is directly tied to how you see yourself, to your identity. Here’s my suggested hack: look at yourself differently. It’s far from easy, but it’s a start.
So here’s a question, why do we love motion so much? If motion isn’t what moves us forward, if it’s more like wasted time than productive time, how come we spend so much time on it? James Clear (author of Atomic Habits) has one more helpful suggestion here, he says it’s because motion lets us feel productive without risking anything. Action necessarily involves some risk of failure, which is obviously not ideal. Failure is the worst, or at least it seems like the worst. It’s super uncomfortable, awkward, humiliating, and generally terrifying as a prospect. It makes sense that we want to avoid it.
Malcolm Gladwell has some compelling thoughts on this topic. Based on the multitude of interviews he’s conducted with entrepreneurs and successful people, he discovered that a disproportionate ratio of them are dyslexic. Research backs this up, for some reason around 35% of company founders suffer from dyslexia compared to about 15% of the broader American population. Dyslexia is thought to be a great hindrance, what about a learning disability could push people to succeed? Gladwell suggests that the main reason for this implausible statistic is the fact that those who suffer from dyslexia have become so acquainted with failure. Take school for example, grade school provides an endless arena for dyslexic children to fail from early childhood. Reading, writing, test-taking, all of it is perfectly primed to flunk a dyslexic child. So while the rest of us were earning kudos and awards for our normal learning styles, those with dyslexia were learning a much more valuable lesson, how to fail again and again and again. People with dyslexia often demonstrate proficiency with verbal communication (because writing is very difficult), comfort with delegation (because they’ve had to rely on people for help), and other very helpful characteristics of an entrepreneur in a free market society. These characteristics are grown out of a response to failure and weakness. They’re more than a natural or genetic lean, these are learned out of necessity.
Gladwell is not the only one to theorize on the value of failure, Winston Churchill stated that “success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” C.S. Lewis said “failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.” Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps most famously, said “far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
Failure seems scary, but maybe it’s time for a new perspective. Failure is actually your friend. Failure means that you’re taking risks, that you’re in the game, that you’re learning. So let’s embrace failure, let’s get comfortable with it. No more playing it safe with endless motion, we’re here to act. Be a failure, and find success.
Full disclosure, I’ve been reading Atomic Habits by James Clear, which is hard to over-sell (it’s really good), and this writeup includes ideas I’ve gleaned there.
Clear structures the book in a really helpful and practical way. He deals with both the creation of good habits which you’d expect, but also the opposite side: disrupting bad habits. Perhaps as important as establishing good habits is getting rid of, or at least minimizing bad habits. Most of us have gone through life accumulating all sorts of habits with hardly a thought to why. They’ve become so automatic we don’t even think about what they are, let alone why we do them. Some are certainly good (brushing your teeth before bed), but oftentimes many of them are bad (see a cookie eat a cookie), and the bad ones are the ones that are tough to deal with. Clear points out that we fall into habits because they’re easy. Many of them develop as a response to some sort of stress because they offer some sort of relief, like Netflix binging after a long day at work, but they begin because they’re easy. By now these bad habits are so ingrained it seems almost impossible to dig ourselves out. As easy as it was to fall into these bad habits, to break out of them seems incredibly difficult. Clear offers a remarkably simple idea here. If we fall into these bad habits because they’re easy, what if we just made the habit a little more difficult? An example from the Netflix binge example would be to unplug the TV every time you turn it off, which would require that you plug it back in next time you want to watch. That one little step does two things: 1) It simply makes it harder to follow through on the routine. Adding difficulty to anything makes us less likely to do that thing, humans follow the path of least resistance. 2) Perhaps more importantly, it disrupts the automatic habit loop that takes over when you step into your living room in the evening. Breaking the habit loop is critical. The simple act of plugging in the TV, which is not part of the normal routine, takes you off autopilot. It forces you to think about what you’re doing (do I really need to watch more TV right now?) and gives you the chance to choose to do something different (maybe I’ll grab a book instead!). Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, points out that people who simply put some thought into their routines are much more likely to complete the desired task (I wrote a little bit about this here). Conversely, when people are forced to put some thought into the routine they want to break they become much more likely to find success in breaking that routine.
So the moral is, set up a few roadblocks for your bad habits. Clear helpfully fleshes out the idea that in order to change our habits we need to make good habits easy and bad habits hard. A little extra friction between you and your bad habits could make a lot of difference in your pursuit of good habits.
On its surface, distinguishing between consumer and creator might seem to imply that you should stop watching Netflix and start writing a blog, at least that’s what comes to my mind. That’s an incomplete picture, but I do want to think about the difference between consuming and creating, and how we can be better creators.
A consumer is someone who maximizes intakes. Watching too much TV, eating too much food, or buying too many unnecessary things could all be symptoms. At its base, it is excessive, wasteful, and unfulfilling. That’s not to say consuming is all bad. If you don’t consume food you’ll die, we’re made to consume things. But the definition of a consumer here is someone who is addicted to over-consuming, who lives to consume, and that’s generally bad. You could say the point of consuming is to take.
A creator is someone who focuses on outputs. Creating doesn’t necessarily mean writing or drawing or filming, it can be almost anything that’s contributory. When you engineer additional efficiency into a process at work, or cook a meal from a new recipe, or finish your latest house project, that’s also creating. You could say the point of creating is to give.
None of us are only a creator or only a consumer, but people do seem to shade one towards or away from the two. If you find yourself too far over to the consumer side, which is where we tend to fall by default, it can be tough to dig yourself out and start creating. But here are a couple tips to get started:
- Think about your purpose. What are you here for? Who do you want to be? What do you want to accomplish? When you give those questions a good mulling over you’ll probably come up with answers that include creating. Write your answers down, set goals around them, keep reviewing them. A connection between purpose and goals, even between purpose and specific activities, is your guide. If a goal or activity doesn’t match up with your over-arching purpose you can cut it out, if it does match up, go after it. Without the clarity purpose brings, you’ll be tossed around and most likely end up settling back into comfortable consuming. The best way to start moving from consuming to creating is to know why you’re doing it.
- Read good books. This could technically be considered consuming, but it’s the best type of consuming, even a necessary type of consuming, in order to be able to create. If you’re not learning and growing it’s tough to have anything to share. Think about a preacher, they do lots of creating, to the tune of a 10+ page document (or two) per week. How can they possibly produce that kind of output? They read, a lot. They fill themselves up with ideas and information which they bring back to their congregations. The same is true for this blog, I wouldn’t have anything to write if I wasn’t reading. Reading should include articles and blog posts, but I specifically mention books because they’re the best way to interact with whole ideas and complete thoughts. Instead of only picking up bits and pieces of information, a book can change the way you think.
- Separate your consuming and creating tools. I’ve made multiple attempts to switch to an iPad only workflow in the last few years. One of the main problems I’ve run into is a confusion of purpose. My goal was to use the iPad for both creation and consumption, thereby reducing my technology loadout. It was a noble goal, but one which resulted in a lot of consuming and not much creating. For whatever reason, my mind has a hard time creating on a device that I also use for consuming, regardless of its capability or functionality (which is a whole other issue). Instead, when I use my MacBook mainly for creation (work, writing, projects, etc.), and my iPhone mainly for consumption (news, information, games, etc.), I’m much more productive.
- Carve out the time. This is where we often get stuck, who has the time to create things? You might have to get creative before you can create. The most important thing you can do here is to block out a chunk of time on your calendar. This time is sacred. During the block, turn off as many notifications as you can. Choose a place that will minimize distractions. I like to be somewhere other than my desk where normal working habits kick in. A coffee shop could be a nice change of pace, plus it provides a little extra motivation to commit to the time block. The point is to decide on a time and a place where you can focus. It takes some work to create a successful time-block, but it’s surprisingly enjoyable and energizing when you do it.
- Start small, continue daily. You don’t have to change your life to create something. Just pick one small thing and do it, today. Then do another small thing tomorrow, and then the next day. Your first time block could be 10 minutes deciding what or how you want to create. It can be directly related to your work or it could be the start of a new side hustle, as long as it involves creating. One thing I’ve committed to is writing 250 words per day. Before I set this goal for myself I had already been writing, but mostly in fits and starts, nothing consistent enough to build upon. That one small daily goal has been critical for me to remain consistent. It’s a lot easier to write 250 words per day than to write one blog post per week. Many small achievements performed consistently over time, one day at a time, will beat a big breakout effort one hundred times out of one hundred.
I will be the first to admit that I don’t have this all figured out, I still spend too much time consuming, but these are a few things that I’ve learned and found helpful. Consuming is easy, let’s do something hard.