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O Me of Little Faith

Yes, of course I want an iPad. Who doesn’t? They’re sleek, cool, “magical” little computery things. My Austin friend, Shuey, has one and keeps handing it to drooling strangers who can barely keep their hands off it, and who barely maintain their hipster Austin coolness once they start gliding around on its touchscreen. 95% of the people on earth would like to play with one and the other 5 percent are lying.

But there’s one thing about the iPad that strikes me based on the early reviews, most of which are singing its praises: the iPad is wonderful for consuming stuff, like videos, photos, and books. You don’t exactly need an iPad, Farhad Manjoo writes. No one needs one, but “the iPad is the best media-consumption device ever made.”

It’s beautiful when you need to consume stuff people have produced. But it’s hardly ideal for moving a step backward along the chain, and producing stuff yourself.

That’s something to think about.

The one writing-related question I get asked more often than anything else is “How do you find the time?”

Since 2003, I’ve written eight books solo and contributed to several others, but I am not a full-time author. I’ve had another full-time job during the writing of each of these books. It’s a flexible job, but it’s one that has demanded my focus during the typical 8 to 5 office schedule. Which means my books have all been written late at night and early in the morning, while most of the other people in my house have been asleep. Even now, as a full-time freelancer, I dedicate business hours mostly to client work. No time for writing books until later.

Writing books, it seems, is my hobby. It’s an organized hobby. If you don’t ever sit down and compare the income to the number of hours spent writing — that’s an hourly wage no one wants to calculate — it’s an occasionally profitable hobby.

But how do I get it all done? How do I find the time and discipline to do it?

A few weeks ago Seth Godin linked to a transcript of a talk given by Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody. It’s from a fascinating conference speech Shirky gave in 2008, and is called “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus.” He talks about how amazed he was once when a television producer questioned someone’s productivity by asking “Where do people find the time?”

Shirky: That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

He then describes Wikipedia as a great example of this “cognitive surplus,” which where we get the millions of blogs and twitter feeds and Flickr accounts and YouTube videos and other productive ways people are passing the time. If you were to do a back-of-the-napkin calculation of the amount of time it took to produce Wikipedia (and this is from two years ago) — every page, edit, discussion, line of code, language, etc. — then it has to total something like 100 million hours of human thought.

Which is crazy. But how valuable is Wikipedia? You shouldn’t cite it in your research paper, but as a starting point for learning about anything, it’s ridiculously helpful.

Where do people find the time for those 100 million hours? Consider that every year, Shirky says, Americans watch 200 billion hours of television. That’s enough TV to use our cognitive surplus to create 2,000 Wikipedias. We watch 100 million hours of ads — one “Wikipedia unit” — every weekend.

We totally have the time. We just aren’t using it. We have what Shirky calls a “cognitive surplus” — most of us have more knowledge and time and talent than we are able to use — until we waste it consuming stuff like TV. What if we carved out just a small portion of it not for consumption, but for creation? Integrating that surplus into something creative rather than watching sitcoms is how Wikipedia gets built, and how books get written, and how societies get transformed. It’s how you find the time.

The truth is that I have the time — and you have the time, too. We all do. The difference is how we choose to prioritize our time. I like to ask a simple question when I’m deciding how to spend the next hour:

What’s better for me: an hour working out or an extra hour watching TV?

What’s better for my career: an hour writing my next book or an extra hour watching TV?

What’s better for my family: an hour of the four of us playing Sorry! or an hour of the four of us watching Minute to Win It?

Sometimes I watch TV because it’s a good way to unwind. I love Lost and Castle and 30 Rock and Chuck. But I limit how much TV I watch, because I’d rather my life be defined by the things I create — a list of finished triathlons, a roster of books I’ve written, a lifetime of great memories with my kids — than a list of the TV shows I mindlessly consumed.

So go ahead and splurge on your iPad. Someday I’ll probably get one, too. Consume some media with it, but keep it balanced. Shut down your iPad and turn off your TV and go do something. Create. Sell stuff on Etsy. Post on your blog. Say something on Twitter. Play a game with your family. Take a jog. Learn to cook.

You have a slice of the cognitive surplus, too. You can use it to create Wikipedia or you can just watch TV. Which will it be?

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