To give or to take, to read or write, learn or teach? Input vs output, what’s more important? All good questions.
If you follow my examples and yearly goals, you’ll notice that I like to balance out my input activities with my output activities.
What exactly do I mean by that?
Well, I consider an input activity anything that brings new ideas into my head. Reading would be the most obvious. Similarly, language learning is largely an input activity.
Conversely, I call it an output activity any time I’m working towards new creation. Creative endeavors like writing songs or stories are classic output activities.
Make’s sense, right?
So for me, I’ve got a yearly goal of 400 hours of Spanish and 5200 pages of reading – input activities. I’ve also held myself to a pile of songs, writing, and blog posts, which are output activities.
So what’s the deal with this? Clearly, in this blog, I focus on output activities: on creating things. I seem to privilege the real production of stuff and the process that gets you there. If that’s the case, what role does input play? Why is it important? Should we care about it?
Well, I do, and I’m going to tell you why right now!
Input vs Output
The truth is that there really isn’t any output without input. Reading and writing go together like bread and butter.
Even at a micro level, inside of certain activities, I see this balance happening in my own goals. Taken language learning. I spend hours listening to pod casts, watching movies, reading in the language. All input activities. Literally putting the language in my head. But in the end, the point is to speak and write the language. Without that, why bother?
The important takeaway is that both sides of the coin are equally important. In fact, they compliment each other. You can’t have one without the other.
Really, the question isn’t input vs output, but why the two work together and how to get the most out of the relationship.
Connecting the dots
A funny thing happens when you consciously pair your input and output activities. They have a certain way of complementing each other. It’s funny that once you have a guiding principle in your mind, be it a theory, idea, or creative impulse, that everything you consume seems to string together to enrich that twinkle of an idea. I don’t know if it’s the universe conspiring for our success or just a matter of framing our environment, but whenever you hold an idea in your head, it seems like every piece of content you run into helps to enrich that idea.
If I force myself to remember graduate school, which I do so reluctantly, I can think of thousands of times that input, when filtered through an idea, led me to new and original insights.
In school, this was usual in the form of a term paper. But the point is still taken. Once it was there, I could swim down the rabbit hole of reading papers, historical documents, and books, and they all worked together to help me craft and create an original piece of work.
The same happens in our artistic endeavors. The more we listen to music, the more art we look at, the more books we read, the more tv we watch, or the more essays we consume, the better we understand our environment. In doing so, particularly in the context of our own creations, the better we inform our work by connecting those things pinging around our head with the larger world.
I talked about this concept a bit when I talked about art as a means of creating communities.
The thing about that, though, is it’s really, really hard to build that community if you don’t have a deep enough connection with the outside world. Input is what builds that bridge. It’s what ties you back to the purpose of your creation, which is, or probably should be, to express an empathetic concept to a larger community: the sharing of ideas, emotions, and experience.
Joining the Conversation
It’s pretty easy to dismiss input activities as the weaker brother of output. But I think that denies the fundamental way humans produce output.
All output, especially creative output, exists in conversation: ideas communicating in an artistic space. Just as in the sciences, where the research of one scientist rests on the shoulders of thousands of others, so too does art build off the foundation of predecessors.
Think of Picasso and his Las Meninas collection where he played on all the work of his country’s artistic predecessor, Velazquez. Or maybe for a more current example, think of the way Taylor Swift captures so many of the sounds of late 80s pop.
Honestly, it’s super hard to find any truly new idea and not see the strings it emerged from or the homages it pays. In fact, most of the real brand new ideas in the world are completely inaccessible because we have no context to understand them in. They don’t expand or enrich anything. They just sit outside the norm.
Nothing Happens in a Vacuum
As Mark Twain said:
There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.
If we are to create, think, and produce, we have to understand the context that it happens in. The best way to do this is to fill our heads with as much input as possible while in the process of creation. To use Twain’s metaphor, we need to fill the mental kaleidoscope. Pass those ideas through our own individual perspectives and the cultural zeitgeist we live in. Only then will it be possible for us to craft the most interesting and rich textures and colors in our output.