Inputs and Outputs

December 24, 2019


According to Lewis Hyde in The Gift there are three steps in which the “gift” (as it relates to art) can occur and move through society. First, we have the initial gift: a work of art, an intuition, a dream, or a vision that in some way deeply affects our Self, inspiring us. Then, this Gift is transformed through the self by our own “gifts”, our talents, our labor. When we speak of someone being “gifted”, this is the process by which those gifts are used. Finally, there is the finished work: a new gift. The whole process can be boiled down to more reductive terms: input leads to transformation leads to output.


I’ve been thinking more and more, as this year draws to a close, about how our inputs inform our outputs. And how, more than ever, we need to ensure we have high-quality inputs. In this age of information overload, our input can affect everything from our health to our creativity to our inner peace.

Information is like food. If you have too much low-quality, crappy food, you will get sick. It’s a similar thing with information. We need to focus on having more nutrients and less junk. If you stumbled onto a buffet of food you wouldn’t think of “food overload”. Instead, you would identify that some things would be bad for you, some things would be OK, and a few things would be great. With the endless buffet of the internet, it’s important to pick and choose. (And of course, indulging in junk food once in a while is also a wonderful treat.)

Most people have access to an incredible amount of information. But it can be difficult to sort through it all if you don’t have strong filters. Strong filters---which never come through the algorithmic glaze of AI-curated playlists---enable perspective, which is one of the most valuable resources in the internet age. The ability to step back amidst the mountain of inputs, and offer perspective on what actually matters. This perspective is a type of output.

It’s essential to remember that creative output is tied to input. Sebastian Junger wrote that “writer’s block just means I don’t have the ammo”. Junot Diaz said to “read more than you write, live more than you read.” Whenever I’m stuck, I look at my inputs: what am I consuming? Am I scrolling through Instagram and fiddling with web games all day? Or am I reading great writing, going to theatre and movies, walking through art museums, listening to inspiring music? There’s a huge difference there.

I loved what music and culture writer Ted Gioia said on a recent podcast episode:

If you don’t have good input, you cannot maintain good output. The problem is no one manages your input. The boss never cares about your input. The boss doesn’t care about what books you read. Your boss doesn’t ask you what newspapers you read. The boss doesn’t ask you what movies you saw or what TV shows or what ideas you consumed.

But I know for a fact, I could not do what I do if I was not zealous in managing high-quality inputs into my mind every day of my life. That’s why I spend maybe two hours a day writing. I’m a writer. I spend two hours a day writing, but I spend three to four hours a day reading and two to three hours a day listening to music.

Which brings us back to the gift. In order for our own “gifts” (whether they be writing, acting, composing, performing) to be working, we need to be open and receptive to the possibility of new gifts to make an effect on us. And that means paying attention to what we pay attention to: ensuring we’re exposing ourselves to new things, broadening horizons, consuming high-quality inputs. It’s not always easy to do this---Spotify playlists, for instance, are a feedback trap, basing what to recommend you based on what you’ve already listened to. In an endless echo chamber, how do you discover something truly new? By stepping outside the algorithmic trap, following intuitions, swapping recommendations, and seeking out new, exciting art and experiences.

The richness of the full human and artistic spectrum is incredible. But in order to create new things we need to be in touch with serendipity, by exposing ourselves to high-quality inputs.