Cut Back On Creative Junk Food

I have always loved video games. They’re my ultimate “escape,” because unlike books, TV, or movies, they fully engage both my brain and my body. I even Googled this quote to support my own point of view:

“When people play games, she posits, they are ‘wholeheartedly engaged in creative challenges’.” – Jane McGonigal, totally unbiased game designer and author

Now that I’m an adult, I can buy and play video games whenever I damn well please. But there was a time before Google when people (read: my parents) thought playing video games was a waste of time and in no way contributed to my mental development. When I got Pokémon Red for my Gameboy Color in 1996 they quickly saw that my obsession was going to be a problem.

My dad instituted a new rule – if I wanted to play Pokémon for half an hour, I’d have to earn that time by reading for half an hour first. In his mind, that was a much more worthwhile and educational pursuit. But clever as I was at the young age of seven, I rigged the system in my favor. Each weekend, my dad and I would go to the library and I’d come home with a tall stack of Goosebumps, and during the week, I’d tear through them to earn my screen time.

Goosebumps makes me as nostalgic as the rest of you, but I think we can all agree there wasn’t much in the way of “educational content” hidden within those pages. When put on the literary food pyramid, Goosebumps falls in the tiny junk food triangle on the top with all of our favorite candy and chips. If anything, the mental puzzles presented in Pokémon were probably more nutritious for my developing brain.

Not a lot has changed since 1996 (other than the Internet, cell phones, and fashion). I haven’t given much thought to what books I read or what games I play other than what I find most entertaining at a particular time. That is, until I started keeping a Commonplace Book.

Originally, I read about this concept on Ryan Holiday’s blog about a year ago, but the Commonplace Book has a storied history that traces back to the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and down through Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon. Ryan Holiday describes it as:

“A central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.”

The concept is fairly broad, and you can put one together however you see fit, but I’ve finally gotten around to making one that mimics Holiday’s strategy – I record my favorite quotes, ideas, and observations on notecards that include the author and topic. Then, I sort them into a folio based on those topics.

my commonplace book

I personally advocate that you physically write down your notes as it helps you better process the information, but if you love digital, you should check out Austin Kelon’s blog for a great model to follow.

I’ve been keeping my Commonplace Book for a few weeks now, and I already have a growing repository of inspiration, quotes, ideas, etc that I can pull from for my writing or daily motivation.

The content, for the most part, is coming from my reading, and I can already see how this daily practice is shaping my choices about what I read. No longer am I just grabbing books that strike my fancy. I have become much more deliberate – cutting out all but the highest quality fiction and choosing books that match my future project goals or research interests.

I understand that, from your perspective, it might seem like I’m trying to make reading unfun. But please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to make reading unfun. I’m trying to make reading, movies, TV, video games…all the media you consume, unfun.

As I discussed last week, you only have so many hours in a day and so many days in your life. You need to make the most of that time. And being deliberate about the media you consume is one of those ways.

In improv, as in any creative art, the best way to improve is by living a full life that can enrich your art. But inputs beget outputs. And when your inputs are trash, what do you think is going to happen to your outputs?

Austin Kelon

Trashy fiction, reality TV and Call of Duty are nothing more than creative junk food for your brain. They spoil your appetite for media without giving you any nutrients in return. They’re fine in moderation, but they come after you’ve finished your main course of educational nonfiction, literary fiction, or well-written, smart TV.

Unlike broccoli or cauliflower, though, your inputs don’t have to be a chore to get through. If you don’t want to read Moby Dick, don’t. But find good books that align with your goals and interests and start your own Commonplace Book. Make conscious, deliberate decisions about what you put in your brain just as you do with your body.

It’s not 1998 anymore. Mom and dad aren’t here to make you do the things you don’t want to do, the things you should do, the things that are hard. You are responsible for your own education and growth now. And if you don’t want to take on that responsibility, well allow me to play the role of your father – I won’t be mad, I’ll just be disappointed.




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