The Three Cs: Consumption, Creation, and Contemplation

The writer is considering how they should spend their free time, and divides actions into three categories: consumption, creation, and contemplation. Consumption is about taking in media for entertainment or education, creation is about putting something out, like creating art or building something, and contemplation is deep thinking. The writer argues that many people spend most of their time on consumption, and that true value comes from the other two categories. They suggest that consumption is appealing because it can present itself as accomplishment, because the education system focuses on regurgitating facts rather than creativity, and because it is easier than actively creating or contemplating. They also argue that the constant availability of media to consume denies people the opportunity to have “dead time” for creative thoughts to arise, and that true education requires creativity and contemplation in addition to consumption.

This document explores the three Cs - consumption, creation, and contemplation - and how they should be balanced in our lives. It discusses why we tend to focus on consumption, and how education and boredom can influence this. It also provides tips on how to increase creativity and contemplation, and how to make the most of consumption.

How do I spend my free time? And how should I?

These are the questions I’ve been pondering recently. If there is nothing urgent to do, or nothing important to do, what do I choose to do?

Many actions in life can be split into three Cs - consumption, creation, and contemplation.

Consumption is about taking something in. Beyond the obvious (food), we consume media, for entertainment (TV) and for education (reading non-fiction).

Creation and creativity are about putting something out. This can take many forms, from visual and performance arts to writing, from making or building (a house, an app, your body) to idea generation and project planning.

Contemplation is neither in nor out; it is simply deep thinking, either unguided/open, or with specific inputs and/or outputs in mind.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say most human time is spent on consumption - I surely do. And yet real value comes from the other two. Contemplating to understand and find a problem, creativity to come up with a solution, and then providing it for others to consume.

There are (at least) three reasons why the amount of consumption surpasses the other two Cs.

Firstly, consumption alone can present itself as accomplishment. Reading, or watching an edutainment YouTube video, makes you feel you’ve made good use of your “spare time”. Listening to a podcast or audiobook while cooking or cleaning makes you feel like a productive multitasker. Plus, you can humble-brag about how many books you’ve read and by extension appear learned.

But this is only consumption, not complete learning (more below). It’s a bit like travelling to countries purely to say you’ve been there.

Secondly, the education system. Most classes in school, especially technical ones, are more focussed on learning and regurgitating facts, or using formulae to reach a pre-determined result, than creativity. In fact, at school, you’re told off for daydreaming (that is, thinking!) And at university, not once did a professor tell me why we needed the solution to a formula - the goal was only to get the answer, not use it.

And thirdly, it’s simply easier. Reading, listening, watching - they’re all easier passive activities, whereas writing, thinking, drawing are active and require more energy.

We have a number of problems in the modern world, from global pandemics to depression and loneliness to climate change. But we also have a less commonly-discussed problem: the lack of boredom.

Boredom is often an uncomfortable feeling, so when there is nothing to do, we instinctively try to replace it with something more fun.

In the past, this would have involved thinking and coming up with something creative (or at least productive!) to do. Look at any kid (who hasn’t been given an iPad to shut them up) for a clear demonstration of this.

However, these days, we have an unlimited availability of media to consume - if you’re bored, it’s easy to fill the time. You can even trick yourself into thinking you’re being productive by reading or listening to a podcast or audiobook or watching an edutainment video or documentary. Sure, this is better than watching pure entertainment, but it’s still consumption. And this constant consumption doesn’t allow the “dead time” for seemingly-random thoughts to arise - often the source of true innovation.

As Eckhart Tolle said, “enlightenment is the space between your thoughts”.

If you’re like me, when you consume, you try to spend more time on education than entertainment.

However, education does not consist purely of consumption. Education, to be truly effective, needs creativity and contemplation.

This is a trap that I have found myself falling into - completing the consumption stage of education while ignoring the other stages. I don’t remember the bulk of what I’ve read or watched or listened to over the years - because I never actively chose to reflect on it, internalise it, and use it.

(I know I’m not alone in this - one thing I do remember from a podcast was James Altucher saying he only remembers ~5% of what he reads).

I’d never considered myself a creative person, as I’ve never been very arty or musical. However, on reflection, I was - but in a different way. As a child, I, like many others, dreamed of what I could do. Nothing was impossible. I had ideas. The reason I studied engineering was so I could create that would change the world.

Unfortunately, university destroyed my idea that engineering was about creativity, and post-university jobs further reduced my creative outlets. And, of course, part of growing up is realising that, yes, some things are impossible, at least for me. As I reached my third decade, these thoughts culminated in a form of sadness.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, if I choose otherwise. I can create. I can write (as I am now). I can dedicate time to coming up with novel ideas. I can learn visual or performance arts

(When these thoughts first started coalescing in my mind late last year, I realised I needed to bring more art into my life. So I bought a piano. While I will initially need to invest a lot of time in consumption and practise until I can become truly creative, it is still a creative outlet.)

This is easy. Simply stop. And think.

Meditation also helps. Sure, meditation is about being present and releasing attachment to thoughts and emotions, not thinking, but it is an activity consisting purely of you and your mind. Meditation is clearing the land for contemplation.

There is no optimum mix of the three Cs. While in this post I have emphasised the negatives of consumption, you can’t remove it completely; after all, consumption is the food of creation and contemplation, and much can be learnt through consumption. However, it’s clear to me that I need to increase contemplation and creativity and reduce consumption.

So what will I do?

I will spend more time in contemplation, and write or record my thoughts - like this post.

I will allow silence instead of filling it, encouraging ideas to spring into my mind - and I will document, discuss, and develop them.

And when I consume, I will be more proactive about taking, and then reflecting upon, notes relating to the content - in particular, how could I use the knowledge?