On creation without consumption

I do two podcasts on 5by5 (Systematic and Overtired), but I’ve admitted many times that I rarely listen to podcasts. I’m often asked why (and how) that is, and I’d like to share the results of some self-examination.

In short, my brain isn’t wired for consumption. I’m happiest creating. It’s difficult for me to concentrate on what others are saying once I begin to have ideas of my own. You could say my mind wanders, but I don’t think that’s an accurate word to use. It’s not a meandering path, but a determined course of exploration.

My entire life I’ve been “bad” at school. I can’t sit through lectures, and I can’t concentrate on reading assignments. I can read, and I can comprehend, but it takes great effort to focus on what is being said and to block out my own thought patterns. I learn by doing, and I only learn things that are of interest or immediately applicable to me.

In my elementary years I was placed in a school that catered to this. It was based on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ideas, and followed Henry David Thoreau’s methods. I was encouraged to develop the curriculum and answer my own questions. I returned to public schools in 5th grade, and never really made the transition. For the same reasons I’d been “excused” from standardized education for a few years, coming back to it was a horrible experience for me.

Despite this, I maintained a B average all through secondary and higher education. I rarely did homework, and I never did reading assignments. I managed to absorb enough contextual information in any given course to make intelligent deductions on exams.

I scored quite well on my ACT test in my Junior year of high school. Well enough to spend most of that year and my senior year in PSEO (Post Secondary Education Option). That meant that I was attending classes at the local college instead of at the high school. I did much better in an environment that rewarded creative thought, but there were still a lot of concepts my mind was unwilling to learn. I only passed microeconomics because the curve was skewed.

Computers and programming have always been of interest to me, but only on the creation side. I can’t play video games for lack of interest. I read about 10% of what comes through my RSS feeds, and then usually just skim articles. I’d rather be writing than reading. I could never even play D&D with my nerd friends because I got bored with other people’s stories.

I can watch movies, and I can listen to music, but I do it from an analytic point of view. I’ve studied filmmaking, and I’ve been playing music my entire life. When I watch a movie, I find myself studying shots and considering why I appreciate them or how I would have done them differently. It’s the same when I listen to music.

One thing that the collegiate environment provided me with was dialectic conversation. In classes I could debate, and I could inject my own questions and thoughts into the dialogue. I found friends who would stay up late with me and feverishly discuss concepts and ideas. It was brainstorming versus learning. Discovery versus study.

Basically, I think too much to be of any use as a consumer of content. I think so much that I spent eight years of my life doing everything I could to stop it. Out of school, though, I’ve started learning to cope with it. I’ve accepted that I’m incapable of absorbing all but the details most pertinent to my current endeavors. I consider it a disability, and a frustrating one, but I’ve found that I can succeed in spite of it.

I can’t create output without input, though. I can’t start from scratch. All of my best work has been the result of seeing what someone else is doing and letting it spark ideas for me. I find myself scouring GitHub late at night. It’s an ideal learning platform for me because I can find things that interest me and immediately determine how they work. In the process, I find pieces that I can build on to create something new. I compile a toolbox that lets me turn ideas into realities.

Whether I’m evolving existing work or doing something contrary, I’m lost without other people’s ideas. I believe that all of human discovery works this way, not just me. If you live in a bubble, you don’t learn, you don’t change, and you don’t invent. For all of my inability to focus and study, I’m always able to get excited about ideas and discoveries.

None of the technology and knowledge we have would be possible without what came before it. It’s a skyscraper of innovation that we’ve built since the first art on cave walls, the first inventions, the beginning of problem solving. I only survive in this world because I love learning how things came to be. If it weren’t for this, my inabilities would leave me living on the street, wondering how other people manage to be productive members of society.

Despite the many things I’m incapable of doing, I’m always able to be interested in learning the chain of concepts that led to an amazing idea, and to put them to use in solving my own problems and pursuing my own creative endeavors. My intelligence, however you quantify it, gets me in a lot of trouble if I don’t have creative outlets for it. I would destroy myself quickly if it weren’t for the ability to convert ideas into tools.

When Dan Benjamin contacted me a couple of years ago to ask if I wanted to do a podcast, I said “sure.” I started doing what I thought a podcast was supposed to be, and learned as I went. Not knowing what a “normal” podcast was like served me well in the beginning. I did some things slightly outside of the norm, and found that there were people that it appealed to. I’ve gotten to a point, though, where growth is stunted because there’s no influx of new ideas. I need to listen to other people, and I think I can do it because I’m hungry for ideas. This is when my mind latches on and I can focus.

I’m starting to listen to some of the podcasts done by people I respect and admire. Even if it’s in the background while I do other things, eavesdropping is allowing me to generate new ideas. I look forward to seeing where things go with my own podcasts in light of new input.

Brett Terpstra

Brett is a writer and developer living in Minnesota, USA. You can follow him as ttscoff on Twitter, GitHub, and Mastodon. Keep up with this blog by subscribing in your favorite news reader.

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