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

“The Dip”, Revisited

A few years ago I addressed my sporadic writing behavior in a blog post called “Getting Through The Dip“. I decided to revisit that post and see how my opinion about it has changed.

To start, I feel like calling that phenomenon “The Dip” shows the youthful optimism I had back then. If I’d have written that post today I would probably have referred to it as “burnout” or “fatigue”. There’s a sense of transience that the phrase “The Dip” brings to my mind- a passing phase, like a stalling airplane, or a bird pf prey dipping into the water to catch a fish, as opposed to the dour permanence that the word “burnout” suggests, something like a burned out candle.

Here’s what I had to say about it back then:

“It is a terrible period of time where you are out of ideas, and the vacuum is often occupied by negativity. Everything I thought about or penned down sounded too mediocre, run of the mill, overdone or just simply, “not there”…”

I think I got the definition right back then. Although I’d add to it the fact that not only are the results of writing mediocre, the only things you do seem to want to write about are mired in and centered around this negativity that has permeated your head-space.

At that time I concluded that the only way to get out of this phase is to keep writing. “The only way out of this is right through the thick of it”, I said, and I am not sure whether that was simply my naivete or my attempt at cheering myself up and getting out of the mental state that I was in.

Here’s what I think about it right now— it’s not about plowing your way through it like you’re digging a tunnel till you see the light on the other side. This is a creative process, and it requires energy and effort to create, even if it’s something you do in your free time and isn’t related to your occupation. Your mental faculties need time to rest and recuperate, and attempting to power yourself through may not end as you would want them to.

I think that one of the issues I face is the fact that the blog is always on the back of my mind. I always want to keep updating it, keep putting something out there regularly. I want to keep feeding the content machine, I want to see those bar charts rise up on my WordPress stats page. Somewhere along the way I’ve decided that being a writer is something I attach a sense of identity to, and what am I if I don’t write anything? The first thing to be done is to let go of the sense of guilt that I feel when I see that I haven’t updated in a while.

The other thing to do is to challenge myself to write in ways I haven’t written before. I’ve been trying to find other ways to express myself creatively and try and experiment with different styles of writing. I read a post on LinkedIn that said, “the way to be a better writer is to write like you talk, and learn to talk better”. That sounded like a great idea to me and thus I decided to see how I fare with public speaking. What I found was that writing affords me time to think and craft sentences in ways that speaking extemporaneously does not. Writing and crafting a couple of prepared speeches has definitely been a refreshing experience as time limit constraints and the fact that how many words you can speak in a given time is much lesser than how many you can read in the same amount of time, has given me a lot to think about in terms of brevity and structuring.

Last but not least, it’s important to find ways to relax and “let life happen”, as they say. It’s important to rejuvenate the mind, whether it be through letting go of innate compulsions, trying new things, or just taking the time to live and experience life.

To conclude, I think I got a lot of things right about this mental phase back then. I was pleasantly surprised by my optimism about it though— I guess I’d lost track of it somewhere along the way. I don’t care about things like AdSense or money anymore, though I do care about writing and wanting to give something to the world that’s worth reading. Before I set out to write this all I could think about was how I was in a state of burnout, but going back through that old blog post really helped bring some levity back into this entire circumstance.