On Rumination and the false dichotomy of Production and Consumption

I came across a graphic online with the caption “Two ways to spend your time- consume or produce. Which one has a higher chase of success? The choice is yours.” 

Credit: @letsketchin on Twitter, letsketch.in

Now I know that simple graphics like this one get great traction on social media- because, well, you can mindlessly consume them, think about it for a moment or two, and then keep on scrolling. 

I feel like this graphic puts things into a false dichotomy. There is the false notion that you can either be producing things or consuming them, with the implication that creating things is a better use of your time. Graphics like these don’t take into account activities where you’re neither producing nor consuming. I can pick out a few examples in this graphic that I don’t think fall into this dichotomy, take meditation for example- but I digress. 

Here’s another graphic that gets so close and yet fails to move past this dichotomy. In this one, steps 3, 4, and 5 talk about recollection, observation, and assimilation, and go from assimilation to creation. While this may be a way of doing things, it over-simplifies the creative process in my opinion. So much of creation is re-doing and starting over. It fails to move beyond the dichotomy, the two-dimensional space, to consider the third dimension.

This graphic comes a little closer to how creativity works in my mind- but over-simplifies it.

The dimension these graphics fail to recognize is that of passivity and rumination. On the weekends, for example, I often find myself in a mental state where I am not producing or consuming anything, where I’m just ruminating on things, letting my mind wander as I do mundane tasks like cleaning my house. In those moments, I’m simply being, simply existing, simply letting my mind amble along imaginary fields. It is my way of rejuvenating and dealing with the stresses of daily life. 

I find that it’s in these moments that creativity tends to strike me. In a way, the creative process is similar to those moments when you try to remember something and it’s at the tip of your tongue but you just can’t remember it. It’s only sometime later at some random instance when you’re not actively thinking about it that you remember. 

It also reminds me of how Indian food tastes often tastes better a day after I’ve cooked it- because the flavors get more time to get to know each other when you just let them rest and give them time. 

This discussion makes me think of the diminishing returns of constantly sacrificing your mind and body at the altar of progress. The constant framing of things as activities, something to actively do or to participate in, while demonizing passivity in all its forms. Not allowing yourself the adequate amount of time to process and work through things both physical and mental, well that just leads to diminishing returns. 

I’ll give you yet another analogy. It’s like making sure your car gets regular oil changes. The oil’s there to lubricate the moving parts of the engine, and over time it accumulates all kinds of particles, that reduce its effectiveness. And if you delay it too long, you might start seeing larger and larger chunks of metal, and by that time you’ve probably already caused irreparable damage to the engine, reducing its overall life expectancy. 

To summarize, there are two aspects at play: 

One is allowing your mind to wander, to think of different things, to wander along all the grasslands and riverbanks and unknown paths to uncover new connections and interesting facets to things that you may not have uncovered if you kept walking along the same well-trodden path. 

The other is that constantly trying to actively produce or even consume without giving your mind and body a rest, can lead to diminishing returns and eventual burnout.  

I think Bill Watterson puts it perfectly:

For me, it’s been liberating to put myself in the mind of a fictitious six-year-old [Calvin] each day, and rediscover my own curiosity. I’ve been amazed at how one idea leads to others if I allow my mind to play and wander.

– Bill Watterson