You Are What You Eat, and You Think What You Read

How to cultivate an information diet that allows us envision the creative world we want to be a part of.

If the old adage is true—that “you are what you eat”—perhaps we should take seriously the idea that clickbait articles are the junk food of the internet. Meaning that, sure, it’s fine to consume a mindless feel-good snack every once in awhile, but as people like Clay Johnson argue in his book The Information Diet, too much can have legitimately negative effects on both our individual minds and collective consciousness.

Clay makes the case that just as the strong business incentives behind cheaply producing fast and fatty foods over the last couple of decades have set the stage for an obesity crisis today, the strong business incentives behind cheaply producing fast and addictive “churnalism” are having real physical, psychological, and social consequences. And he’s not the only one making this case; others include Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, who has similarly long been thinking about ways to help people get more of their news “vegetables.”

It turns out that a mindful information diet is important for more than just one’s personal health. Filling one’s belly with nourishing meals tends to allow for a healthier self with more energy for life. But filling one’s mind with nourishing information tends to open eyes to unseen possibilities in life. There is no shortage of reading on how exposure to new ideas allows people to think about themselves in new ways —and to imagine new worlds accordingly. In the book Where Good Ideas Come From, author Steven Johnson describes his version of biologist Stuart Kauffman’s “adjacent possible,” explaining that some ideas can only exist on the backs of others; in other words, these new ideas are only possible once one has been exposed to their adjacent pre-requisites. You can’t invent a toaster unless you’ve first been exposed to the idea of bread.

It seems, then, that our goal should be to seek out the most nourishing information, as a way to open our minds to adjacent possibilities. In this way, books like Cool Tools by Wired magazine’s co-founder Kevin Kelly might be thought of as a menu of nutritious ingredients. Perhaps surprisingly, Kevin’s book is often referenced as not necessarily interesting for technologists and avid Wired readers, but great as a high school graduation gift, instead. And not because students will go out and buy any of the things within this 400-page tome, subtitled “A Catalog Of Possibilities,” but because she will know that it’s possible to do ridiculous things like rent a backhoe, self-produce a low-budget movie, design and construct new instruments—knowing that all of the tools required to do so are available and accessible.

1-iT6L2VCjfqgnKViO9UMDPg_grandeAll of these things speak to the idea that being creative has less to do with being innately talented and more to do with consuming content that helps us find more than just something new to see—the right kind of content helps us realize what we couldn’t see before. As Seth Godin notes on his blog, the artist who can draw the owl (at right) can do so not just because they know the technical mechanics of how to draw; it’s instead because they can imagine the owl clearly in their mind, through and through—they know what it looks like.

So for those of us seeking to do our best work and build creative things in the world, our job is to learn to see. “If you can’t see it (in your mind, not with your eyes), Seth continues, “you can’t [build] it.” It’s no coincidence that the people behind creative businesses we admire have what we tend to call vision.

Composure is the brand I run, built around a line of scarves, but really it’s about the vision & virtues that foster creative independent business. I consider it my best answer to the rather complex question of how to help others learn to see, how to help more of an ambitious young generation find personally relevant vision. So perhaps the best way to end this reflection is with a few relevant things that inform my own work; consider them the information equivalent of fully cooked, nourishing meals. Enjoy.

Further reading:

  • 99% Invisible: A weekly story-driven design podcast about the largely unnoticed things that shape the designed world.
  • Dark Matter And Trojan Horses: A new vocabulary for crafting functional solutions to big, sticky problems (for a shorter read, check out the beautifully designed posters here).
  • The Unseen Emporium: Part museum, part curated marketplace, part performance space. A “magical world of science fused with design.”
  • Invisibilia: An NPR podcast that explores “the intangible forces that shape human behavior—things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.”

Photo by Flickr user lichtempfindlich.

holstee_logo_2Originally posted on Holstee’s Mindful Matter, the best place to read stories and tips on how to live life fully.

Kyle Studstill is the designer behind Composure — quality scarves in a rare balance of silk and wool, handmade in NYC. Alongside each scarf, the vision and virtues that foster creative independent business.