Be a net exporter of thinking.
Do you feel overwhelmed by the flow of information? So do I. So does everyone. People complain about it all the time. These days, just keeping up with the news feels being a hamster stuck running on a wheel. There’s so much!
Instead of complaining, we should be grateful. Six hundred years ago, hardly anybody could read or write. What few books or parchments that did exist had been painstakingly written by hand and were cherished as treasures in the libraries of castles and churches. Because knowledge was so scarce, ignorance was rampant. Neither science nor the arts progressed quickly because information moved so slowly that any new innovation could not spread quickly and collaboration, if it happened at all, happened through messages that took months to deliver.
Can you imagine what it was like? If we complain bitterly about common ignorance today, could we have fathomed how profoundly backward those earlier societies were? Perhaps that smacks of chronological snobbery. But the right way to look at it, I think, is to appreciate those remarkable people whose overcame even these barriers and obstacles to bring to market those game-changing innovations that moved society forward.
Let’s recite a few of them. For old times' sake.
One of the most significant technology platforms ever built was the printing press in the mid 15th century. Newspapers didn’t begin in earnest until nearly two hundred years later, in the early 17th century. Typewriters didn’t come onto the scene till the 19th century, along with the telegraph and modern postal service. Then, in the 20th century, media exploded. Radio. Television. Personal computers, the internet, and email.
Giving yourself some historical context is an important exercise. Looking at the broad sweep, even with these few data points, it is obvious that the pace of innovation in media and communications platforms has both accelerated and democratized over time, creating an exponential proliferation in content to absorb.
Bring balance to the force
Let’s think about what’s happening in terms of trade.
Once upon a time, there was almost no trade in information. Very few people bothered to produce or share original content because it was difficult and expensive. Then, as technology gradually made it easier, more people entered the market who wanted to both produce and consume knowledge and thought. Now that technology has made it almost frictionless, the media market has become more fragmented and the growth in supply has totally outpaced the growth in demand.
Now, for what it’s worth, I think this is all progress, it’s great, and I’m happy.
What I struggle with is that the information overflow feels like drinking from a fire hydrant. I am so inundated with the thinking of others that I have to remind myself to create enough space and solitude in my life to get clear about what I think. Because reading is easier than writing, it is easy to just keep consuming the thinking of others, as I flip through stories on Flipboard, than to produce original thinking of my own. As a result, what I think gets drowned in the noise.
So, to put it back in terms of trade flows, we’re all net importers of thinking. We’re consuming way more than we’re producing. We’re running up a massive, structural deficit.
Now per David Ricardo, specialization is a good thing, and there are gains from trade. We may be a net importer of corn, but we’re a net exporter of cotton, and on balance, we’re even, but there’s more of both.
But I’d challenge you to ask yourself if thinking is one of those commodities you want to exclusively import. Domestic production is qualitatively different. It is strategic, but if you kill it, because other people can produce it more cheaply than you, it is dangerously hard to bring it back. Even a libertarian like myself can indulge in trade protectionism when it comes to something like national defense. And, in my estimation, this is that important.
Writing down, then sharing, what you think and taking time to formulate your ideas on a wide range of issues - from business to politics, art and science - with your social circle is so crucial to your intellectual and creative independence, that I would never give it up. To me, that would be an act of surrender. I will not abdicate sovereignty! I welcome the trade of other minds, but I will not be invaded by them. I will not let my own capacity to produce diminish just because my appetite for knowledge, information, and ideas is already entirely filled by the thinking of others.
Exercise harder, don’t eat less
Let’s shift the metaphor to diet.
We’ve all become gluttons of media. We listen so much. We watch so much. We read so much. We consumer information, knowledge, and ideas at a pace so rapid that most people hardly pause to chew and digest.
Right there, the metaphor almost prompts us to spend more time in reflection. We’re not being kind to our intellectual and creative digestive tracts, if you will.
The answer, I think, to our diet problem is not to eat less, but to exercise harder. Information is good. It doesn’t get stored as fat. It gets stored as synapses and nodes in your brain. It is healthy.
But what’s the point?!
Why bother eating if you never spend energy? When we consume information, we are absorbing intellectual energy and storing it for later use. But if we never use it, it is just a waste. It may be pleasurable, like eating, but gluttony is not an attractive quality.
Once I realized this, I felt sick. There’s something so wrong about how we’re living. Since my parents sent me off to pre-school, I’ve been absorbing information. In high school and college I crammed my brain full of good stuff. Incredibly thought provoking stuff! Stuff that sparked ideas. Stuff that made me think. But the more they forced down my throat, the less time they left for me to create anything of my own. When are we supposed to use all that intellectual energy that we’ve been storing? When are we supposed to exercise? Our education system has made us obese!
Once I realized this, my appetite for consuming media has gone down dramatically. I have to force myself to keep up with what my friends and intellectuals and the media are saying and thinking. The equal and opposite reaction: my appetite for creating original thinking soared. I have more drafts in my blog than I know what to do with.
Increase your intellectual exports
I encourage you to either start a blog or start creating expressions.
Because I’ve been so busy starting a business, I temporarily dropped all my discipline in other areas of life. But now, I’m starting to slowly bring it back. And it feels so good. It is such a release. It feels like getting out of debt. It feels like using pent-up energy. It feels healthy. It feels strong.
If you agree with this article, there’s only two rational responses, in my mind.
Make a commitment to blog. Make it a habit to turn all that information and thinking you’re consuming into something productive of your own.
Start creating expressions on something like The New Hive. Let all that restless creative energy take shape and share it with the world.
You’ll find, I think, how the more you embrace the flow and dare to be generative, the more generative you are.
May the force be with you.