That’s how long 6-year-old Stephen spent bedridden at home instead of attending the first grade. His problems started with the measles and progressed to repeated ear and throat issues.
To entertain himself, he’d read comic books—tons of them. From time to time, he’d also copy the books he read panel by panel. But he wouldn’t just copy them. He’d add to them. He’d modify the stories to introduce his own ideas, twists, and plotlines.
Stephen showed one of these copycat hybrid books to his mother. She was impressed. She asked him if he had written the story himself. Stephen said no—he had copied most of it from another book.
“Write one of your own, Stevie,” she said. “I bet you could do better. Write one of your own.”
“I remember an immense feeling of possibility at the idea,” Stephen recalls, “as if I had been ushered into a vast building filled with closed doors and had been given leave to open any I liked.” He took his mother’s advice and wrote one of his own. He then wrote another. And another. And another.
He went on to publish over 50 books that have sold more than 350 million copies.
His name is Stephen King.
What jumpstarted King’s writing career is a seemingly simple insight from his mother: Creating is more valuable than consuming.
We talk about information as if it’s food. We focus on how we can consume more of it and how we can process it faster. While we’re busy stuffing ourselves with ideas from the outside, we lose sight of the nourishment already inside. The internal nuggets of wisdom get crowded out by the high decibel voices crashing into our eardrums at 2x speed.
This was a problem long before the internet came along. “Just as a coiled spring finally loses its elasticity through the sustained pressure of a foreign body, so too the mind through the constant force of other people’s thoughts,” the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote. This was “the case of many scholars,” according to Schopenhauer, “they have read themselves stupid.”
This doesn’t mean you skip all the reading and completely ignore the insights shared by people who came before you. But it does mean being comfortable with imperfect information, with not clearly seeing the path before you start walking the path.
There’ll always be one more book you can read, one more podcast you can listen to, one more credential you can acquire, and one more course you can take. Some awareness—not too much, not too little—is a good thing.
It also means striking a balance between consumption and creation—between reading other people’s thoughts and generating your own. If you’re like most people, this ratio is skewed heavily on the consumption side (even if you call responding to routine emails and Slack messages “creative,” which they aren’t).
Work on balancing the ratio. Make a habit of writing down what you think—whether or not you intend to publish it—a part of your daily life. Create beautiful things that are unmistakably yours—whether it’s your own business, your own nonprofit, or a new strategy at work that reimagines the status quo.
One final note: Criticism isn’t creation. It’s easy to point fingers. It’s easy to complain and then wonder why things don’t magically get better. It’s easy to jump on Twitter to argue with people you don’t know and tell them to “do better” (while secretly telling yourself to do just that).
Criticism, in other words, is cheap. Creation—that’s what’s valuable.
People who raise their hand and lead the way.
People who say “Let’s go over there” and blaze a trail into the unknown.
People who write one of their own.
P.S. My friend Alisa Cohn wrote one of her own and recently published her book, From Start-Up to Grown-Up: Grow Your Leadership to Grow Your Business. I got an advance review copy and really enjoyed it. It’s essential reading for entrepreneurs.