The Consumer and the Producer
January 10, 2016
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Every day, we answer questions about ourselves with actions. While a single choice does not define us, our habits and mental models paint a picture over time about the type of person we are. Whether you are a pure existentialist, or a believer of the notion that people’s lives are predetermined in some way, we at very least express ourselves to others through behavior and actions regardless of their origins. When it comes to self-improvement, two of the most critical questions we answer with actions are “how do we spend our time?”, and “how do we utilize other resources like money and education?” We all have an array habits for coping and enjoyment – humans are complex creatures. However, when reflecting on my life and my goals, I tend simplify things. In my mind, time and energy can be channeled toward creating a life I want. Alternatively, they can be used to create the life that someone else wants, or wasted altogether. You and I have the choice to think and live like a producer, or to lead the life of a consumer. Words like consumption or production are tossed about in the world of money, but they are also good descriptors of how we govern ourselves.

Now before you write this off as another rant by a mechanistic spreadsheet jockey, bear in mind that this doesn’t strictly pertain to finances or quantifiable results. While money and success are important, they don’t supersede deeper values like security, companionship, or purpose. When I look at myself through the lens of a consumer versus a producer, it’s essentially a judgment of whether I’ve been wise in the way that I’ve spent my days. As a producer, I’ve used the things afforded to me in ways that yield abundance, either right away, or in the future. Thinking and living like a producer allows me the time to see my family, be with my girlfriend, have the money to do things I enjoy, and gives me the time to reflect on what truly matters in my life. As a consumer, I use my money on things that do not fulfill me, or anyone close to me. In this case I choose immediate gratification over longer term satisfaction. Our lives are so much more than a medley of consumption and production, but it is healthy to take a step back and ponder which side we lean toward.

Our world is full of reinforcing feedback loops. The more time you put into relationships, the more others make themselves available to you, solidifying bonds further. As you purchase items in greater quantity, sellers offer better deals, making it easier to buy more of that product. Loans are more readily available to people with plenty of money, while they are harder to come by for those who need cash most. When it comes to our time, talents, and dollars, the way they are used has a reinforcing effect on future outcomes. In a world dominated by shortlists and actionables (Ten ways to kill dating in your twenties… number nine will rock your world!) I think it’s important to acknowledge that broad mental frameworks inform our living – habits and practice are the media we employ to manually tweak our operating systems. Moral codes aren’t the only frameworks we adopt, and thinking like a producer is a simple lens through which we can approach dilemmas or choices.

Adopting a producer’s worldview lies on a simple premise, closely tied to a set of fundamental values. Producers look for opportunities to grow, leverage, or at very least maintain the resources in their. They use smarts, industry, critical thinking, frugality, and a number of other qualities to achieve growth in their lives, whether that is in a spiritual, financial, emotional, or other respect.

Conversely, the consumer mindset results from an opposing claim that the resources one has at a moment in time are best used immediately, irrespective of future potential. The consumer mindset is not evil across the board (we must literally consume to survive); it is simply not conducive to abundance, and leads to an impression of scarcity. Everyone has their own steady state, and plenty will happily prefer instant gratification to personal growth. Consumers are generally reactive, unquestioning, and rash. I refrain from calling consumers spontaneous, because from my viewpoint, their behavior actually limits choice by exhausting future options, and they are dictated by impulse.  

Simply put, producers use a dollar, an hour, or anything else available to give them more dollars or hours in the future. They don’t always succeed, but this is how they think. Consumers, look at a dollar or an hour today with respect to what it can afford them in the moment. They get a $50 a month raise, and they buy fifty more dollars’ worth of things they don’t need each month. Consumers live for the weekend.. The point is not to obsess over utilization of resources every waking moment, but instead to view the world in terms of opportunities and risks, rather than an alternation between pain and relief. I only write this article because in my own life, I’ve been hurt by stagnation, and uplifted by goals, future plans, and wonderful experiences afforded to me by work and critical thinking.

Things are changing rapidly, and it’s unnerving to most of us. America’s biggest retailer now has no stores (Amazon), and the largest taxi service owns no cars (Uber) – so much convention has been flipped on its head. In that same vein, safe is the new risky when it comes to lifestyle. To stop learning, and to cling to a job at a big company are no longer secure endeavors like they once were. This is only one perspective, but living days in a complacent haze is a form of consumption. Perhaps you have a cushy position, and you’d prefer to cash the checks as long as they come in. However, letting the days blur into each other can be incredibly easy in most corporate cultures, yet just about every person past middle age speaks of how much they’ve grown to value their precious time. Could we better set ourselves up for more time to reflect, to travel, and to love along the way?

 

At the risk of sounding trite, I’ll summon one of the most well documented accounts supporting deferred gratification: The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. Young children were presented by an administrator with two choices. They could either have a small reward conferred instantly (usually a marshmallow or cookie), or they would be granted two small rewards later on (usually after a short period of fifteen minutes or so). The administrator would then leave the room, with the two choices in sight. The child could take the single marshmallow at any time, and in many cases, they did. The results showed, that after a multiyear analysis, those who chose to wait for the larger reward went on to achieve more extensive education, higher SAT scores, and lower BMI readings than their more impulsive counterparts.

Of course, I am of the opinion that deferring gratification is a choice, and that we are not doomed for a life of impulsiveness or destined for a life of puritanical postponement at birth. This is not a question answered by the study. What seems evident to me, is that I can go to my cabinet and eat a donut, or I can hold off. No matter how impulsive I am “naturally” inclined to be, I can try to resist the initial urge, and at very least be less willing to buckle than my momentary desire might coax me to be otherwise. Before I pass the point of no return into an intractable discussion about free will, I’ll pull back from the precipice to round out my point. There are countless examples of how our lives can be benefited from controlling our inner consumer, both explicit, and implied. Our whole economy (based on interest/discount rates), naturally rewards those who are prepared with resources on hand when opportunities arise. Pawnbrokers, payday lenders, and many financial institutions exist to exploit those who are short of money or time (not enough time to make money), and therefore must liquidate valuables, to come up with any sort of cash (or to buy time). Those who are unwise or not adequately conservative in their thinking are often stuck with these tough choices, which can have a cascading negative affect. More abstractly, those who don’t make use of their time forego future opportunities, by never learning a skill, or developing an outlook that sets them apart.

 

This piece doesn’t serve to discredit downtime and enjoyment of life, after all, what is left at the end of our lives other than our integrity, memories, and the ones we are closest to? However, we are rewarded on this earth for uniqueness and exceptionalism, both of which tend to be harnessed over time, and with the help of practice, training, and education. Those who squander and spend at the expense of building something, are more likely to deal with the pain and suffering of loss and the stunting of identity. In extremity, consumers are left with the things they buy and spend on – producers have the auspices of progress, personal growth, and purpose to carry with them, regardless of any material payout.