An open letter to my students: Create more. Consume less.

An open letter to my students: Create more. Consume less.

Dear Students,

In my last letter, I urged you to “never surrender” your hopes, dreams, and desires. This letter continues our (one-way) conversation about the perniciousness of your (damn) phones—and presents a path to a more remarkable life.

Never have humans lived in an era so marked by comfort and passivity, where the vast forms of consumption are meticulously designed to be by people smarter than you and more motivated than you to be maximally tempting. Indeed, you are too often enveloped in a malaise brought on by endless scrolling on social media unable to resist a never-ending stream of tailored content.

Plus, there is the convenience of DoorDash and Uber Eats and the allure of vapes offering sweet flavors and no need to find a light. Who can resist the enticing world of streaming shows, films, video games, and sports (and sports betting)—all so high-quality that the notion of leaving the house, let alone one’s bed, is laughable. And don’t get me started on the pornography.

Consumption has never been so easy, so varied, so satisfying, and yet so unfulfilling.

Consider the modern couch: not just a piece of furniture, but a symbol of a sedentary, indulgent lifestyle The opportunity costs of these ultra-comfortable couches are staggering. Unlike the couch of yore, which was designed for upright sitting during tea, conversation or hosting guests, the couch of today is a hedonic bear trap positioned in front of a widescreen TV, surrounded by surround sound, inviting you to sink in and stay put.

How much more robust would our lives be if we just removed the couch from our residences? Forgive the digression. This is not what this letter is about.

This letter is about encouraging you to create more. To build. To make.

Creation makes the world and your life more vibrant.

Cities like Los Angeles epitomize the allure of creativity, drawing dreamers from across the globe. While most fail, this collective pool of talent fuels the creation of incredible art, entertainment, and culture. Win or lose, those dreamers will never regret taking their shot—unlike those who were too scared or lazy to leave the comfort of their couch.

Sharing your creations with the world opens you up to remarks from others. Indeed, creating is inherently challenging and fraught with the potential for (public) failure. However, vulnerability is part of the creative process, leading to growth, resilience, and, perhaps, achievement.

You have likely heard Theodore Roosevelt’s rebuke of critics in the speech “Citizenship in a Republic” delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, on April 23, 1910. Here is the most cited excerpt from the “man in the arena” passage:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Creators stand in the arena. Consumers sit in the stands. Who do you want to be?

In his book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield introduces the concept of Resistance as the primary obstacle to creativity and achievement. Resistance is characterized as an internal force that manifests in various forms such as fear, procrastination, self-doubt, and distractions (including consumption), which prevent people from realizing their true potential and accomplishing creative work. Overcoming Resistance is essential for any significant achievement—and evidence of the human spirit.

À propos, Pressfield has his own short version of Roosevelt’s speech, “It’s better to be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot.”

My version of this idea: So easy to criticize. So difficult to create.

Even if your creations are never scrutinized, by making things, you are making yourself better. Engaging in creative activities can create flow, a concept popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is characterized by a profound immersion in an activity, where time seems to stand still, and a person becomes completely engrossed in the task at hand. Engagement is not pleasurable per se, but satisfying and conducive to creativity.

In a previous letter, I urged you to do a particular form of creating: writing. Though the options are limitless. Pick up a guitar or lay down a rhythm on drums. Create community, whether hosting a game night that brings people together in friendly competition or starting a book club. Head to the gym or pick up a new sport; these activities not only build muscle but also resilience and excitement. Dive into the digital arts, like graphic design or video editing, to blend technology with creativity. Start a garden, where your efforts literally blooms. Learn to cook—and now you can feed yourself and other (and save that DoorDash money). Volunteer.

Here are four, brief pieces of advice to overcome the temptation of consumption, the challenge of Resistance, and the fear of criticism:

Identify your interests and assess your skills: Make a list of things you enjoy doing or topics you find fascinating. This could range from art, music, writing, technology, gardening, cooking to community building. Do your abilities match your interests? What do you already know how to do well?

Play and experiment. Einstein said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” Give yourself permission to experiment and make mistakes. The creative process can be about exploration and learning rather than a final product. Do things just because they feel right. Pick up a vanity project. Be curious.

Start small and schedule time to create. Make time to create, even if it is just 25 minutes a day. Consistency is key to developing creative habits. I like a little ritual to kick things off: turn off my (damn) phone, have a delicious cappuccino, and pop in some noise-cancelling earbuds. Then it is time to create.

Be tougher. Prepare for dirt, sweat, and blood—metaphorical or otherwise. Ayn Rand said, “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.”

Of course, there is no escaping consumption, but make better choices. Choosing your consumption wisely will be inspirational, restorative, and feed your creation process. In my first letter to you, I talked about one special form of consumption: books. I suggest you pick up some books related to your creative interests. Maybe start with the War of Art.

Good luck as you put down your phone and pick up your pen, instrument, or tool of choice and step into the arena, not as mere spectators, but as a creator.

Please write me and tell me what you are creating.


Peter McGraw