The Single Most Important Career Question You Can Ask Yourself

By the time I was 13 I had been selling candy and comic books to my classmates for almost 3 years. Though I did quite well, I was itching to try something bigger, and that meant extending my reach beyond the walls of Math class.

This was the late 80s, so resources were limited for a 13 year old living in the country. I ordered all of the free information available in the work at home section of the Penny Saver (a free newspaper consisting entirely of ads), and started going to the library twice a week to read up on entrepreneurship. I was searching for a business idea that I could pull off at 13, and after literally hundreds of books, booklets, and information packets I decided to publish my own booklet on comic book collecting.

“Smart”
Since I was seven years old I’ve been an avid reader. I consumed 2 or 3 books a week during my childhood, including a large collection of “crazy facts” books and the Guinness Book of World’s Records (every year). By the time I was 13 I’d been reading 2-3 books a week for 6 years, and the breadth of my knowledge was astonishing for someone my age.

I knew how the stock market worked, why Beta had lost to VHS, why Apple was losing market share to the PC, and how double-entry accounting worked (although I couldn’t do double-entry accounting). But I had no idea how to start a business. With all of my book knowledge about the business world, I had no clue how to execute an idea.

I’d read several books on self-publishing and writing non-fiction, and I could have a really good conversation about them, but I’d synthesized the information for knowledge-sake, rather than to act on it. That made a big difference.

And so it continued for months…I didn’t have the guts to start writing the booklet for fear I wouldn’t know what to do next. Instead, I visited more libraries and sought magazines that did nothing but rehash information I already knew. I filled my head with the same information from piles of resources, but I still couldn’t get things going.

After months I finally took the leap. I spent 60 hours researching and writing the booklet. I printed it at Kinko’s, placed a few classified ads, and sold 9 copies at $15 apiece, breaking even on the cost of printing and advertising. Financially it was a wash, but I learned a valuable lesson.

The Question
13 years later I went through a nearly identical scenario when I started my consulting firm, The Numa Group.

I’d read stacks of book about entrepreneurship, startups, management, leadership, consulting, and running a service business, but I had no idea how to get started. I was waiting for the one book that was going to kick me into action by telling me exactly how to proceed given my skills, strengths, goals, and financial situation. Alas, that book never appeared. I finally realized that I needed to take a leap of faith and go to a place where no one else could lead me.

Through these experiences I realized the following:

Some people are consumers by nature; they consume vast quantities of knowledge purely for learning’s sake. Others are producers; they consume knowledge with the intent of one day acting on the knowledge and producing something, be it a book, a song, a blog, a startup, etc… Neither is better than the other.

The key is to answer one question: which are you?

I want to say again that neither is better than the other. If we were all consumers we wouldn’t have anything to watch; if we were all producers no one would be reading our blogs or listening to our podcasts. What matters is:

There is a huge benefit to finding out if you tend to be a producer or a consumer.

Which Are You?
If you convince yourself that the zillions of books, blogs and podcasts you’ve consumed over the past 2/3/4 years are in preparation for that glorious day when you’ll tell your boss to stick it in his ear because you’re heading out the door to starting your own company, you are wasting your time. Don’t read another blog post about startups, Micro-ISVs, or the business of software. Once you’re done reading this post (or even before), go start building something (a product, a blog, a company…). Because until you do, the knowledge you’re gaining is all but worthless to you.

But if you realize that one of the pleasures in your life is to read about code/startups/entrepreneurs/music, then embrace that you are a consumer. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is not bad as long as you realize that you are not working towards an end beyond your own edification, which again, is not a bad thing.

Likewise, if you’re someone who has an unquenchable desire to produce something, then stop reading about other people, and start doing it yourself. Seriously, don’t read another blog post, tweet, or issue of Fast Company until you’ve made a visible move towards that goal you so desperately want, but think that reading and dreaming about will somehow make it come true. Once you’ve made that single action towards advancing your idea, you can come back and read a few more posts.

While it’s true it’s not either-or, that you are likely a mixture of both types and will experience fluctuation in your ratio of production vs. consumption from one month to the next, unless your name is Robert Scoble you really do have to choose one or the other.

To recap:

  • Consuming for the pure love of learning is absolutely ok.
  • Producing purely because you have a fire that won’t die until you do is fine, too.
  • But don’t kid yourself about who you are.

If you’ve been reading startup blogs for years and never started anything, it’s time to accept that your tendency is to be a consumer. It’s not to say you can’t break out of that classification by starting something, but if you haven’t done it thus far you’re not likely to do it soon without some external motivation (maybe this post?).

If you have 50 software product ideas and your hard drive is littered with folders containing 30 lines of code from each, you tend towards being a consumer (or at least a producer who has trouble finishing things).

And if you figure out that you are a producer, stop daydreaming about the day you’ll make things happen. Start making it happen in the next 30 days, or forever hold your peace.

 

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50 comments ↓

#1 Jordan Sherer on 05.19.08 at 12:28 am

This post was spot on as my childhood was similar to yours. Great post!

Cheers.

#2 Sam Jack on 05.19.08 at 4:52 am

I had a moment similar to yours two months ago, when I finally decided to take the plunge and start a blog!

What is interesting is that the idea takes on a life of its own that you couldn’t have anticipated while it only existed in your head.

#3 Comments on My Password Protected Article | Software by Rob on 05.19.08 at 1:01 pm

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#4 Sean Tierney on 05.19.08 at 4:18 pm

Rob,
I like the gist of what you’re saying but I’m not sure the producer/consumer roles are as mutually exclusive as you’re making them out to be. I produce blog posts, songs, podcasts, movies, products, events, etc. But I also consume all of the above and I know my creations would be considerably weaker if I didn’t listen a lot more than I talk.

That being said- the one key thing I wholly endorse from your post: CONGRUENCY. I’ve seen people work themselves into a funk of cognitive dissonance by holding this idea that they’re a closet entrepreneurs that just haven’t acted on their ambitions yet. I agree that it’s okay to learn for learning’s sake and not everyone needs to implement stuff and become a producer. What’s unhealthy though is to live a perpetually conflicted life with these pipe dreams that you never act on. So bottomline I would echo your charge of:

“don’t read another blog post until you’ve taken some small concrete step towards achieving your dream, if you’re really going to do it. Otherwise, admit you’re not really going to do it, be okay with that fact and shed the cognitive baggage that makes you feel guilty about not doing it.”

sean

#5 Firefox–the new distraction generator | Jeff Widman (.com) on 05.19.08 at 4:48 pm

[...] Time Tracker extension but it was small and unobtrusive. Now I recognize I am 50% split between consumer and producer. So I work to create a lifestyle that ties them together. And I regularly evaluate major timesinks: [...]

#6 Arjan`s World » Blog Archive » LINKBLOG for May 19, 2008 on 05.19.08 at 5:02 pm

[...] The Single Most Important Career Question You Can Ask Yourself – Rob Walling Are you a producer or a consumer? ‘ If you’ve been reading start-up blogs for years and never started anything, it’s time to accept that you’re a consumer ‘ [...]

#7 Jeremias Kangas on 05.19.08 at 6:35 pm

I think that thinking this way is dangerous. You are what you want to be, not what you were “born to do”. You just have to want enough.

#8 Thomas Hansen on 05.19.08 at 6:37 pm

Nice reading, though I don’t think it’s an XOR equation ;)
But you definitely struck a nerve which I can recognize myself in regards to if I travel 5 years back in time :)
I think though (for me) it was more out of FEAR than not knowing where to start…

#9 Rob on 05.19.08 at 7:58 pm

@Sean & Thomas – While I agree the roles are not mutually exclusive, producers will consume a lot less than consumers, and making the commitment to be a producer requires sacrificing a lot of your consumption time. From the post:

“While it’s true you’re likely a mixture of both types and will experience fluctuation in your ratio of production vs. consumption from one month to the next, unless your name is Robert Scoble you have to choose one or the other.”

@Jeremias – I don’t think it’s a “born to do” situation…wanting to be a producer can certainly push you in the right direction even if you aren’t predisposed to produce. Likewise for consuming (though I would argue we’re all predisposed to consume). If you have the desire you can play either role, it’s not a genetic certainty.

#10 Andrew on 05.19.08 at 9:36 pm

What about those that don’t actively produce or consume knowledge? I would say that is a much larger divide than between producers and consumers.

#11 casey on 05.19.08 at 10:57 pm

One thing I will admit, when you are really producing, you don’t have time to be much of a consumer. I think the exclusive nature of being a producer or a consumer has to do with which mode you’re in at a given point in time.

I think it takes a certain special unpredictable combination of experience, knowledge, inspiration and opportunity to make that switch happen.

#12 Timmy Jose on 05.19.08 at 11:25 pm

Interesting and concise assessment Rob. Very informative. I figure I am a mixture of Consumer-Producer but tending more toward Producer, so forgive me if I enjoyed reading this blog ;-). I do agree with you assertion that it is far worthier to start off with enough information to know that one is not screwing up and proceed to action and FINISH things that have been started. Excellent refresher mate. Thanks.

#13 phipster » Blog Archive » Produce, or consume, produce, or consume… on 05.20.08 at 1:19 am

[...] Produce, or consume, produce, or consume… The Single Most Important Career Question You Can Ask Yourself [...]

#14 Joseph on 05.20.08 at 3:55 am

A good read and probably pushing me to decide.

At the same time, as like other commentators, I agree that you could be both consumer and producer (in some areas different products/entities; in some same entities)

Joseph

#15 Esther Schindler on 05.20.08 at 5:18 pm

I agree with you — sort of. Yes, you need to know what your primary purpose is, and to grow where you’re planted. Just as you need to figure out what it is you’re good at (which is a process of naming your talents, not a list of technologies).

But as @sean said (Hi, Sean!), few people are only consumers or only producers. And people who are only one or the other suffer from an inability to serve or understand the other viewpoint. “I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read,” said Samuel Johnson, and that quote can be generalized far beyond writing.

In other words, I don’t think you can be a producer without also being a consumer. Whether it’s possible to exist the other way around… hmm, maybe.

#16 James Coletti on 05.20.08 at 8:24 pm

Great article Rob, and very well put together. Probably one of the most accurate and quality blog posts I’ve read in a long while.

#17 David Abrahams on 05.21.08 at 3:50 am

I totally agree if you want to produce something the first step and often the hardest is to actually stop thinking about it and start doing. Just like with software development you can get stuck trying to gather all the possible user requirements and create the perfect requirements document. There comes a point where you just have to start writing code otherwise you will never get anywhere. I think 37 signals sum it up in their book Getting Real

#18 Stephane Grenier on 05.26.08 at 11:31 am

That’s where sayings like ideas are a dime a dozen come in. Most people never execute. And if they do, it’s rarely past 3 months. Just look at blogs, the blogosphere is littered with blogs that are 3 months or less in age. It happens all the time.

You need two traits to start and succeed in business.

1. The ability to execute. That is make the decision to start and actually start.

2. Perseverance. Going back to the 3 months. You need to persevere, even through the tougher times. Nothing is free.

#19 jorge on 06.18.08 at 12:51 pm

well I think there is another category which is the producer without an idea. I believe this is true because I’m right there. I have come up with a lot of great ideas but only to find out someone else already implemented it and it’s what I was thinking of. In today’s world ideas aren’t that new everything is a mix of something else or a redo of something else.

So I guess this third group will be call the “uninspired” or something :)

PS: kudus, on the theme it seems we stole it from the same place :)

#20 thecapacity : How speed pitching ends up as slow pitch softball on 06.19.08 at 2:42 pm

[...] I’m a planner by profession and have a consumer nature, I’m naturally a “less talk more do” kinda person. So this aligns with the [...]

#21 thecapacity : What if stocks were movies? on 07.07.08 at 4:27 pm

[...] off to “investigate” and actually “apply” something. As a rampant “consumer” I naturally error towards the “more data” side of things rather then being able [...]

#22 Free Cleaning Business Seminars on 08.12.08 at 2:17 pm

Wow. I never thought of it that way. To tell you the truth, I can totally see how many common businee problems have risen from failure to identify my personal intentions and identity.

Nice work.

#23 thecapacity : What do I win… ? on 09.25.08 at 11:14 am

[...] are great debates about “Generalists vs. Specialists” and “Consumers vs. Producers” and I’m sure a ton of other “Mavens, Connectors, etc…” [...]

#24 Anonymous on 01.11.09 at 7:15 pm

Awesome post, it hit the spot…thank you!

#25 William on 01.11.09 at 11:23 pm

Excellent post. Action is much better than sitting there thinking about what you are going to do but thinking things through before you start them can be hugely beneficial.

I think that the reason most people don’t start more of their ideas is due to a fear of some description, for example a fear of loss.

I have found if you reduce the ideas down to ‘what could possibly go wrong and what could that cost me’ and when you discover that the cost of not doing it is more expensive than actually taking action, then you are on to a winner.

#26 Pekuja on 01.11.09 at 11:36 pm

So with the story, are you saying that you were consuming all this information from books because you wanted to learn how to produce, but eventually you realized the only way to learn how to produce is to start doing it, and really the books are only there for the people who enjoy the consuming itself?
I tend to consume a lot of information myself, so this essay really made me think about the utility of all that consuming. I do feel like I am — or want to be — more of a producer than a consumer.

#27 Rob on 01.11.09 at 11:49 pm

@Pekuja – Yes, I was consuming all of the information because I wanted to learn how to produce, but was never producing anything and realized the only way I could produce was to start doing it.

The books are not there solely for people who enjoy consumption; they are for producers and consumers alike. However, for some of us it is all too easy to over consume these books.

An example: When I’m learning a new subject I devour it. I buy every book I can find on the subject. This often leads to me receiving 10 or more books on, say, PPC Advertising within a few weeks. This is over-consumption and always winds up being a waste of time because so much of the information is duplicated.

What I should do instead (and have begun doing since I wrote this article), is to spend much more time researching the best authors/books/blogs on the subject and spending sufficient time studying them. I spend 25% of the time reading only a couple books, and learn more succinct and valuable information about a subject.

And I start putting it into practice (producing) so much sooner, which leads to accelerated learning of the new subject.

#28 Art on 01.12.09 at 12:18 am

Wasn’t that Nasrudin who said that people reading tons of stuff are just mules loaded with piles of books? No real knowledge, just illusion?

#29 Evanalyze » Consumers vs. producers on 01.12.09 at 12:24 am

[...] This is a really good post that is awfully autobiographical for something I didn’t write. I’d read several books on self-publishing and writing non-fiction, and I could have a really good conversation about them, but I’d synthesized the information for knowledge-sake, rather than to act on it. That made a big difference. [...]

#30 sid on 01.12.09 at 1:39 am

Thank You. This was spot on.

#31 Vincent van Wylick on 01.12.09 at 8:47 am

I like this post, not because I agree with you, but that it’s causing one hell of a discussion and forcing all of us to think about ourselves.

I think it ignores evolution, in the sense that the more you consume, the more critical / opinionated you become. A long-time film-consumer could become a film-critic, for instance; a long-time reader an author. The difference is indeed to jump off that ledge, but I find your classification of consumers vs. producers lacking, because it doesn’t offer answers for being happy in either. Just, “if you’re a consumer, accept it and consume.” and “if you’re a producer, take the leap and produce.” That’s not an answer as, particularly the first option is not a sustainable modus operandi in this day and age.

#32 Susan Payton, The Marketing Eggspert on 01.12.09 at 10:05 am

Hm. I guess I am a consumer, although I read about entrepreneurship, marketing and blogging also to internalize it and use it in my practice. My question is: what do you do with this information next?

#33 Pharaoh on 01.12.09 at 10:08 am

You make an astounding amount of sense.

#34 JeremiahTolbert.com » Blog Archive » Links for 2009-1-12 on 01.12.09 at 1:32 pm

[...] The Single Most Important Career Question You Can Ask Yourself | Software by Rob Are you a producer or a consumer? If you’re reading this, I imagine you’re a producer. (tags: workproductivitymotivation) [...]

#35 On the 8 Spot » I Am A Producer! on 01.12.09 at 2:23 pm

[...] The Single Most Important Career Question You Can Ask Yourself | Software by Rob. [...]

#36 Dan on 01.12.09 at 2:42 pm

Rob,

This post really crystallized and spoke to the process I’m going through…starting a series of business blogs.

As you can see, I’ve not posted a linked through website, purely a reflection of the current state of analysis-paralysis I’m in.

I agree that there are 2 types of people. I like to think of myself as a producer, but one who has maybe spent too much time doing leg-work and research, for now.

Thanks for the post.

#37 sundeep on 01.12.09 at 3:43 pm

Interesting article. But I don’t agree with the notion that in order to be a producer you just have to jump into that role without a plan. I think people read as much material as they can to be knowledgable about a certain topic (ex. starting a business) in order to setup a reasonable plan and successfully execute.

It wouldn’t make much sense for someone to start a business without knowing too much about the market as well as where they would get funding. Statistically, a high amount of startup companies fail (and this has always been the case).

People might read hundreds of blogs/books/articles, but that doesn’t mean that every single one of those sources produces meaningful and useful content.

Also, I don’t think the problem is “not getting out there and start producing”; I think the problem is producing something of value which people would actually pay for.

#38 Raven on 01.12.09 at 6:27 pm

You sound like me when I was kid. I think in some cases we are all producers and consumers. It’s a matter of what we are more interested in consuming and what we are more interested in producing. I think the either/or option is too limiting.

#39 Newly Ancient · Educating Producers on 01.12.09 at 6:52 pm

[...] students identify whether they are a producer or consumer. This is as easy as asking a simple question: Some people are consumers by nature; they consume vast quantities of knowledge purely for [...]

#40 Nilesh Babu » Top 10 things to learn on January 12th on 01.14.09 at 1:25 am

[...] The Single Most Important Career Question You Can Ask Yourself | Software by Rob – Some people are consumers by nature; they consume vast quantities of knowledge purely for learning’s sake. Others are producers; they consume knowledge with the intent of one day acting on the knowledge and producing something, be it a book, a song, a blog, a startup, etc… Neither is better than the other. [...]

#41 Matthew Cornell on 01.16.09 at 1:22 pm

There are two reasons to take something in: To learn (change your state) or to act (change your behavior).

#42 Consumer vs Producer « jazzynetsolutions.com on 01.25.09 at 2:21 pm

[...] recently read an article, tagged by a fellow blogger. The Single Most Important Career Question You Can Ask Yourself. The author comes to the point: Some people are consumers by nature; they consume vast quantities [...]

#43 Jabari on 02.02.09 at 8:46 pm

I understand what you are saying, however like some other commenters, I don’t see these as mutually exclusive categories, nor do I think that if someone is a consumer, they should consign themselves to being unproductive. I would be a consumer, under your categorization, however, more due to the face that I have ADHD than anything else. I have a drive to read and learn new things and a million ideas floating around in my head that never get implemented because I can’t follow through. However, for the person with a million ideas and an inability to implement them his/her self, there is a role in which the person may still be productive. Many people who are see-ers or thinkers rather than doers are extraordinarily more adept than most at seeing and thinking. They have an ability to approach problems from novel directions. If the consumers of knowledge surround themselves with those who love to produce, this is the blueprint for success. Everyone has a niche. The trick is finding how to best exploit your strengths.

#44 Marketing is Design: Three Words that Increased My E-commerce Sales by 1000% Overnight | Software by Rob on 02.10.09 at 1:56 pm

[...] I read piles of books on internet marketing, web analytics, and copywriting. Of course, actually doing something lead to the real leaps in my understanding of how to help people move from browsers to [...]

#45 Eric on 03.17.09 at 7:51 am

That seems like a totally false dichotomy. Sometimes ideas need to percolate and reading, thinking and dreaming are fuel for the fire.

#46 Mario T. Lanza on 07.01.09 at 3:14 pm

If you endlessly consume knowhow but never put it into practice, it’s all but pleasure reading, just a bit better than watching too much TV. This is perhaps why I’ll be as bold as to say producing—where producing is just one means of serving—is at least a little better than consuming. It parallels the proverb: It is better to give than it is to receive. Yes, both are necessary, but for the pure consumer the world ends up less well off. If we’re talking about consuming knowhow, why not selectively take in that which is intended for use and actually use it. I say this as someone who has failed to make the most of all the books I’ve read. I used to think it wise to take in so much information before venturing out, but now I think it folly. Consuming and producing should follow breathing, inhaling and exhaling until the very end.

#47 Mark Rendle on 08.03.09 at 9:53 am

This is true of the nuts-and-bolts coding as well as the big stuff. You can read all the books you want on TDD, refactoring and so on but that won’t make you a better programmer. But the first time you actually practise something from those books, you become better.

I’ve been learning Python recently by writing code targetting AppEngine, and Googling the things I didn’t know as I went along. I already know it far better than I know Ruby, for which I own two big fat books, but which I have never used in real life.

#48 Joel on Software is Shutting Down. Long Live the King. | Software by Rob on 03.18.10 at 12:37 am

[...] know he’s not going away for good; he’s a producer and producers have to produce or they go crazy. Maybe one day someone will find reams of [...]

#49 lar on 03.24.10 at 1:29 am

i like theory. and possibly theory alone. maybe i am a consumer after all.. but how can i live without producing anything & therefore not making money? :S im troubled

#50 asimpleinvestor on 03.25.10 at 5:30 pm

This post was spot on as my childhood was similar to yours.

One thing I will admit, when you are really producing, you don’t have time to be much of a consumer. I think the exclusive nature of being a producer or a consumer has to do with which mode you’re in at a given point in time.

I think it takes a certain special unpredictable combination of experience, knowledge, inspiration and opportunity to make that switch happen

Interesting and concise assessment Rob. Very informative. I figure I am a mixture of Consumer-Producer but tending more toward Producer, so forgive me if I enjoyed reading this blog