Produce, Don't Consume

Posted on 2024-01-21

This post is following the somewhat more philosophical trail as my previous post: Programming is hard. If you’re here for the technical stuff I plan to return with more technical content in the next couple of posts.

Prelude

I grew up with the internet.

It’s mind-boggling how much it has changed since the first time my dad and I plugged in our brand new i486 computer into some dial-up modem in the early 90s. We had no idea what we were doing, and I have very few recollections from this first household machine. Ironically, back then I was too physically active, too much into sports and outdoor activities. My pre-adolescent ants-in-my-pants attention span wouldn’t let me learn enough about computers to have them ensnare me.

Fast-forward to today: While short-form dopamine-triggering micro-blogs and reels on X, TikTok, Instagram et. al. are eating away our attention span, the siren song of hours-long podcasts, streams and in-depth blog posts lure us into never-ending rabbit holes of deep knowledge and insight. Short-form is addictive. Long-form is addictive. But we need to set our own boundaries because we can’t ever consume it all.

Back in the early 90s this internet thing was new to basically everybody. You had to spend significant effort actively seeking relevant content, given you knew where to look. I mean, just getting and staying online was a challenge:

Martin, are you using the … internet!? I need to make a phone-call!

A little under a decade later the situation had improved, slightly. Me and my high-school friends – at night-time, on our home ISDN connections – would round-robin share the responsibility of downloading the last week’s Futurama episode (in RealMedia) and burn it out to a CD-R(W) and bring it to school.

These days content jumps into our face and we seem to have an insatiable appetite for it. A thirst that’s driving a gold rush of content producers, many only in search of fame and fortune. As a consumer it’s a wild luxury to have instant news, knowledge and entertainment at our fingertips. However, self-regulation is vital to not lose ourselves indulging in this luxury.

Perhaps our relatively new-found superpower of having incomprehensible amounts of human knowledge, culture and talent directly accessible is overstimulating and perverting some age-old survival trait. There was a time where not learning certain abilities, latest events or social movements within a tribe would in the very least reduce our likelihood of mating success. In the utmost consequence ignorance would lead to exclusion or an inability to self-sustain and ultimately a certain death. Knowing meant surviving.

From the start of the information age and beyond the consequences of not knowing much less so imply our own personal demise. It’s just that our genes and brains have not had the time to adapt. Meanwhile, the content produced and the technological advances making it accessible show little sign of slowing down.

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But enough about me waving my proverbial stick and waddling my way through some intuition-based reverse engineering of anthropological behavior. Hopefully it’s illustrative for where I’m coming from and helps back up the underlying motivation for what’s to come below.

Produce, Don’t Consume

I don’t remember exactly when, but somewhere within the last couple of years I felt an urge to set myself a strategic long-term goal: Default to produce rather than to consume.

I meant this in a general sense, basically to focus less on being an active or passive receiver of input and focus more on trying to be a producer of output (or outcomes). It would imply engaging less with multi-media: Less TV and shows. Digesting less social media and to a certain degree blogs. In social settings to be engaging and a driver of conversations1. Another example could be to spend less time in awestruck paralysis watching virtuosic guitarists, more time “violating” my guitar. And obvisouly actively programming more than consuming programming content.

What’s wrong with being a consumer, you may ask? Well, in a way, nothing.

And here I need to be perfectly clear: My motivation never stemmed from any idealistic standpoint against the state of the modern internet nor the World in general, as the prelude might have lead you to believe. Yes, there is enough content out there to drown everybody tenfold. But I don’t necessarily have an issue with that. In fact, looking back I don’t know what made me set myself this goal in the first place. What I do know is that it was my intuition trying to tell me something. It was definitely a deep and vague sensation. A gut feeling.

Content inflation

“But, all this talk of information overload” – you may wonder – “wouldn’t urging yourself and other people to produce more simply lead to an acceleration of content inflation?”

First off, I did just state that I don’t necessarily have a huge issue with the amount of content on the internet.

Secondly, well sure, if we keep sharing everything we do or create then we’re obviously contributing – perhaps negatively – to the cacophony. As producers we should do everybody else a favor and self-censor content created only for our own fulfillment, given it’s obviously without external appeal.

That said, knowing what and what not to publish can be difficult. A piece of good work should fill us with a sense of pride, and few other things are as inspirational and likely to spawn new ideas as reciprocal engagement. It’s important to distinguish between what’s sensible self-censorship and what’s self-deprecation due to a lack of confidence. Sharing and getting feedback is how we learn and improve, and as we improve we also gain confidence2.

Furthermore, consuming content is voluntary. Producers shouldn’t feel a responsibility catering for the (potential) lack of self-regulation of their consumers. I mentioned that consumption is addictive to a degree – and some people might require help to escape it – but in the end it’s our responsibility to regulate and protect ourselves from information overload. Algorithms try to “help” us, and do to a large extent, but also trap us in echo chambers of monotony in order to drive engagement. I sincerely hope we continue to evolve the tools that help us navigate the information jungle, discovering new pockets of friendly people and relevant-to-us content, without click bait sensationalism.

Practice makes perfect

As I’ve further reflected around this strategy3 I’ve started forming an understanding of what my intuition was trying to tell me: “Produce, Don’t Consume” really was derived from the famous saying Practice makes perfect.

I wasn’t imposing on myself to create more content, be more visible or aspire for anything in particular. Rather, I was urging myself to try to stay active and constructive. I wanted to make sure I continued to apply my existing knowledge while picking up some new along the way. It was the kid in me remembering the joy of learning through experimentation and creation. And I was protecting myself from stagnation.

By defining myself as a producer I was forcing myself to actively do stuff™. “Repeatedly doing stuff” is what we commonly refer to as practicing. The acts of producing and practicing relate to one another, although the two are definitely not synonymous. Depending on what you produce, you end up practicing in various ways:

  • Repeatedly producing similar things, you practice and maintain the skills that go into producing that thing.
  • Producing something you have not produced before practices your innovative and problem-solving ability.
  • By adopting a producing mindset, you generally practice staying active and constructive.

Another way to look at it is that production is an offensive strategy – you take the initiative and act. Whereas consumption is defensive – you react based on external events or stimuli. This directly maps to the concepts of active and passive learning.

I can’t stress this enough: You learn better by doing, and by doing you produce. So in reverse, by choosing to produce you effectively practice; be that existing skills or learning new ones. Doing both you maintain and evolve.

One can evolve ones abilities through consumption and passive learning too, but I find it serves best as the catalyst to inspire and ignite the much more effective skill building that comes from practical application. Some skills simply can’t be learned solely through consumption.

Nobody learns to swim or drive a car just by reading a book. Likewise, you will never achieve programming fluency by reading programming books and blogs alone. Good books are essential learning tools, but you are yourself responsible for internalizing their intuition and knowledge into your brain through doing.

Outcomes?

So what’s the result of this? What did I produce?

Honestly? My public-facing output has not changed much at all. From a tech perspective my blogging frequency has stayed equally infrequent. I have not made any significant public contributions to open-source. I have not engaged more on any social medium. But that’s what you see (if you were looking my way).

Professionally I can look back at a couple of years with new job opportunities where I’ve been able to significantly increase the impact of my own efforts towards engineering progress. Privately I’ve enjoyed some simple home- and personal-improvement projects, like woodworking and picking up my guitar almost every day – if only for a few minutes. I’ve also been spending considerable amounts of time on private and personal coding projects4.

The “produce, don’t consume” strategy has been defining in how I’ve chosen to spend my time and manage my interactions over the last few years.

In my opinion it wasn’t that much about what I ended up producing. What I have realized, however, is that simply by having a simple strategy I’ve been able to maintain a steady course and make decisions with a new level of confidence.

As a final disclaimer: It’s hard for me overstate the importance of maintaining a balance. I still consume significant amounts of information and entertainment on a weekly basis. “Produce, don’t consume” to me is about ensuring that balance. Without staying conscious about it I fear I’d be the slowly boiled frog, growing increasingly passive without noticing.

Somewhat defensively (and it might be just me), but with the onset of popular micro-blogging services we seem to have lost some of our ability to consider nuance. Agreed, with polarizing titles like “Produce, Don’t Consume” it might seem hypocritical to call for nuance in the first place.

However, these three words define my strategy. It’s one of the orienting arrows on my compass to keep me on course. I want to steer myself away from total consumption complacency, because in the end it doesn’t bring me real joy.

Making stuff and engaging with my environment does.


  1. But still to respectfully remember to hear people out on their opinions and focus on listening. I don’t believe driving conversation necessarily mean to “speak the most”. Rather show your engagement through active listening and have that input fuel further discussion and exchange of opinions.↩︎

  2. Not entirely true. I remember being a reckless “invincible” youth in many ways, where I would attribute my confidence to ignorance. As I’ve evolved deeper skill I’ve often felt myself losing confidence in my own abilities as I’ve become more aware of all the things I don’t know. David Dunning and Justin Kruger has a word or two to say about this phenomenon.↩︎

  3. I call this a strategy because I intend to maintain this mentality as one of my long-term guiding principles. To me, it makes little sense in the short-term. I believe in the good that comes out of the consistency of doing over time.↩︎

  4. Almost to the point of a mild obsession I’ve finally been able to spend a non-trivial amount of time building a Rust project. I hope to be writing about that experience in not too long.↩︎