Modern Maturity: Create More, Consume Less

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 6, 2010 · 135 comments

in A Man's Life, On Manhood

After doing the podcast on the “Making of Modern Immaturity” a few months ago, and reading the comments left on that post, I got to thinking about this question: “What makes a man mature anyway?”

Masculine maturity used to be easy to spot and define: a man got married, sired some progeny, and got a job to support his family. He knew he was a grown man and everybody else did too.

These days those kinds of markers are being put off more and more. There are a variety of reasons for this, some cultural, some economic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this trend. While I’m a proponent of working hard at your job and getting hitched to the right woman once you know she’s the one, these things simply don’t happen at the same time for every man.

And while I personally believe that getting married and having kids is one of the most effective ways to grow and mature as a man, I’m not comfortable saying that men who don’t do these things aren’t mature men. Otherwise, you’re stuck with the position that men who are Catholic priests or Buddhist monks aren’t mature men. If you believe that, you need to go say ten Hail Mary’s and then rejoin this discussion.

The problem is, in the absence of these old markers of maturity, guys don’t know how to transition from boys to men. They may not find the marriage/kids/corporate job gig appealing, but they also aren’t keen on remaining a perpetual adolescent. They feel stuck between these two guideposts-no longer boys but not yet “settled down”-and don’t see any models on how to proceed. The gap has become a life stage wasteland for men, where guys are drifting along like amoebas.

So I’d like to suggest a definition of maturity for our modern age. And it’s embodied in this phrase:

Create More, Consume Less.

Boys are consumers. When they’re young, their parents set up their experiences for them; their only job is to sit back and enjoy it. They live in their parents’ house, eat their parents’ food, and use their parents’ stuff. Their free time in used in amusement. They consume their parents’ resources and are passive and taken care of. They make little to no impact on the world and have little ownership of their lives. They are dependent.

The problem is that men aren’t outgrowing this passive role. Instead of creating, they go on consuming. They may not depend on Mom and Dad anymore (although sadly, they often do), but they’re still dependent on stuff for their happiness. Consuming clothes, movies, video games, cars, parties, fast food, and even travel to make them happy. They live only for their own pleasures and amusements.

But it is boys that live only for themselves; men fully enjoy life’s pleasure but also live for a higher purpose. Boys try to find themselves in what they buy; men find themselves in what they do. Boys base their identity on what they consume; men base their identity on what they create.

The failure of men to transition from being shoppers and consumers to producers and creators has four profound implications for the vibrancy of manliness.

The Weakening of Man’s Free Agency

As we’ve mentioned many times, men desire to be the captains of their destiny, to feel in control of their life. We want to be free agents and be able to turn our ship in any direction at any moment.

Consumerism feeds directly into this desire, but offers a simulated and easier version of it. Consumption, being able to choose between many options, a myriad of different products and services, is sold as the ticket to true freedom and sovereignty.

In truth, this kind of “freedom” is only an illusion. Mathew B. Crawford, in Shop Class as Soulcraft, explains:

“The activity of giving form to things seems to be increasingly the business of a collectivized mind, and from the standpoint of any particular individual, it feels like this forming has already taken place, somewhere else. In picking out your [Build-a-Bear's] features, or the options for your Warrior or Scion, you choose among predetermined alternatives. Each of these alternatives offers itself as good. A judgment of its goodness has already been made by some dimly grasped others, otherwise it wouldn’t be offered as an option in the catalogue. The consumer is disburdened not only of fabrication, but of a basic evaluative activity…The consumer is left with mere decision. Since this decision takes place in a playground-safe field of options, the only concern it elicits is personal preference. The watchword here is easiness as opposed to heedfulness. But because the field of options generated by market forces maps a collective consciousness, the consumer’s vaunted freedom within it might be understood as a tyranny of the majority that he has internalized. The market ideal of Choice by an autonomous Self seems to act as a kind of narcotic that makes the displacing of embodied agency go smoothly, or precludes the development of such agency by providing easier satisfactions. The growing dependence of individuals in fact is accompanied by ever more shrill invocations of freedom in theory, that is, in the ideology of consumerism. Paradoxically, we are narcissistic but not proud enough.”

Consumerism offers so many choices that we fail to see that they all reside within a predetermined box. The great paradox in the struggle for modern manhood is that we simultaneously feel adrift because of anomie and cripplingly trapped because of consumerism.

The Suppression of the Urge to Create

Men have an inherent desire to be creators, to change the landscape, to turn wood into furniture, to transform a blank canvas into a work of art-to alter the world and leave a legacy. It’s the denial of this aspect of manliness that is perhaps most plaguing modern men. Young men are taught to think of life past 30 as a certain death, a time when they have to stop being selfish and live for others. The paradox that’s never talked about is that consuming is the real dead end when it comes to happiness. Your mind gets caught in an fruitless cycle-new experiences initially give you intense pleasure, but the more you consume of it, the more saturated your pleasure sensors become until you have to ratchet up the intensity and quantity of the experience to get the same “high” you used to. And the cycle endlessly continues.

But when you create instead of consume, your capacity for pleasure increases, as opposed to your need for it. Being a creator gives you a far more lasting and deeply satisfying happiness than consuming ever will.

The Weakening of Discipline and Commitment

The problem with consumerism is that it heavily emphasizes choice, to the complete exclusion of the idea of living with that choice. Choose, choose, choose. But what happens after your make that choice? Of course, this isn’t a concern of consumerism, because the answer would be to start thinking about the next choice. We are never asked to move on from consumption to commitment.

That might work with your toothpaste, but the most important things in life can’t be replaced on a whim. They require the discipline necessary to build something strong and valuable and special, the ability to stick with something through thick and thin. The shopping around mentality is devastating to true manhood.

The Distraction from What’s Truly Important

Consumers are driven by the desire to find products and experiences which will allow them to experience in reality the things that they has been dreaming about. Of course the new product or experience can never bring the level of pleasure that the person had imagined it would. The person then becomes briefly disillusioned before conjuring up a new and improved daydream about another item or consumable experience that they believe has a better chance of consummating that longing. Yet the imagination is always one step ahead of reality; no matter how fantastic the acquired good is, the imagination will have always been hoping for something even more perfect. Thus a cycle of longing-acquirement-dissatisfaction-longing, is perpetuated.

While the gap can never be closed, this does not discourage the consumer. The consumer actually derives more pleasure from the longing, from imagining and anticipating the next purchased product or experience, than acquiring the actual product. Pleasure is found in the tension between imagination and reality, anticipation and climax.

This “pleasurable discomfort” is not a bad thing; it’s the hunger that drives us towards all goals, from the shallow to the worthy. The discomfort comes from the gap between how you want your life to be and how it is; it’s a vital feeling that drives us forward. Studies have proven that we actually get more satisfaction from the striving towards a goal then we do from the attaining of it.

The problem with consumerism is that it satiates our discomfort with passing and superficial pleasures, distracting us from what that hunger is really calling out for. We should be seeking to alleviate our “discomfort” by improving ourselves, our virtues, and our strengths, forever trying to become more than we are.

Create More, Consume Less

I’ve taken some flack for being too hard on video gamers. In truth, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with playing an occasional video game. The reason I frequently mention video games in connection with the problem of arrested manhood, is not the games themselves, but what they symbolize.

Whereas men once fought as soldiers, they now pretend to be ones. Where men used to play baseball and football, they now control avatars who play for them. Where men used to play an instrument, they now press buttons on a plastic toy. Where we once created, we now consume.

Why play a plastic guitar for hours instead of learning how to play the real thing? The answer of course it that doing the real thing is harder. Struggling with something tangible, something without a reset button takes dedication and commitment. So why bother?

The labor one performs transforms something in the environment, which in turn transforms you. The act of creation shapes you as a man, refines your sensibilities, improves your strengths, hones your concentration, and builds your character. Passive consumption leaves you untouched and unchanged. Consumptions breeds indifference; creation begets empowerment.

Creating can take many forms. The traditional ones are still some of the best: creating in your job, creating a life of love with your spouse and friends, and creating children. But there are other ways to create as well. Service to your community. Hobbies like gardening, blacksmithing, art, and music. Inventing, writing, blogging, political participation. Creating experiences for other people. Creating a spiritual life. And simply creating your character every day.

Growing up doesn’t have to mean donning a gray flannel suit. It really means taking an active role in the world instead of a passive one. Making an impact. And creating your world instead of consuming it.

{ 116 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Valerie May 6, 2010 at 1:16 am

VERY well-said! I’ve always said that the decay of personal and social maturity is a byproduct of capitalism. Capitalism, which relies on consumerism to function, promotes the materialistic growth of the self rather than the spiritual/mental/emotional growth of the self. This leads to selfishness, a desire for more and more tangible property, and a loss of focus on things that bring us lasting happiness – material goods can’t do that when they’re purposely made to be replaced.

102 Gil May 11, 2010 at 1:22 am

There may be some truth to that Valerie – children in the olden days had no consumer distractions and, quite frankly, there wasn’t much fun being a child because adults would boss you around and there were only chores to be done. So children in the olden days wanted to grow up and be mature as soon as poosible hence people were very mature before they reached the age of twenty.

On the other hand, having spare time to indulge in juvenile cosiness and fictional worlds is a relatively modern phenomenon. Nowadays being mature and working hard is a boring chore when you can laze about and upgrade your various online avatars. Then again the stereotype of the divorced man working hard for child-support payments (e.g. Alan Harper in “Two and a Half Men) doesn’t help either.

103 Jeremy May 11, 2010 at 5:08 am

Who do these authors think they are, intimating that men will burn in hell for buying things from the store instead of producing things from scratch? This article, as well as the lemming-like, fawning reviews, reflects a luddite mentality. How is it possible for men living in urban areas, especially Jewish men who have a strong tradition of intellectual learning, to be able to produce their own materail needs? These authors are definitely Christians who hate book learning, as well as closet luddites who are divorced from the hard reality of life in a capitalist order, where production is necessary for consumption. What do these authors and fawning reviewers want, that all men should live in rural areas, engage in time-consuming and expensive creation, and avoid book-learning?

104 Deuce May 11, 2010 at 11:34 am

Jeremy is in denial, but trying to be manly. Look how he created a massive straw man all by himself. I don’t recall reading anything about Christians, or burning in hell, and I’m sure he doesn’t understand that his Luddite reference is quite out of context. Fact is these are standard co-opted arguments consumed from a million other blogs covering all topics. Despite the impressive straw man its not hard to see why he takes such offense to the article.

David (Apr 6) I think nails it best. The Corporate Culture of America has brought us here. There is no more emasculating job than a worker bee in corporate America. I don’t disagree with those who say that American creativity is what gives us the things we consume. However, this is exceedingly less and less true, and true for less and less folks. Look at our industrial output over the last 100 years. Only the personal computer and cell phone in the last 2-3 decades can compete with things like toasters, cars, phones, refrigerators and the endless bevy of other life changing things created in the first half of the century. Save for the few people pioneering advances in PC and medical technology, anyone else in corporate America “creating” anything is likely working with a fixed envelope where there is only the capacity for a 1% change. They add one predetermined feature to an existing product. They must keep the price the same, the shape the same, the color the same, etc etc. Furhtermore they do it in a sterile corporate environment where you can’t talk about politics, religion, money, race or that secretary’s sweet boobs. You have to be in your desk at 8:00 and stay there until 5:00 (or 6:00 if you want to impress the boss and be promoted to an even less creative position). Everyone dresses the same, uses the same lingo, and wastes the same 30% of their time with “team building”, goal writing, or trying to get 45 different computer systems to integrate. All this not to revolutionize anything, but to beat their compeitor to market with the EXACT same “creative upgrade” to their common product. Notice that with all the technological advancement we’ve seen in the last decade all we have to show for it is bigger TVs and smaller cell phones. And this is not surprising given that everyone “creating” these products wears roughly the same clothes, yet believe theirs to be the most unique. Everyone has the same crappy cell phones, but each feels theirs is superior. Everyone drives the same midsize sports coupe, but each feels his is the fastest and most reliable. Everyone knows who will be promoted and when. Everyone knows who will get a raise and when. And seldom is it ever about merit, but rather the point where someone else fiscal plan meets another person’s plan to keep the employees “satisfied”. Its utterly pathetic and brutally emasculating.

To all posters I say this. This article is not about leaving the grid, living in a handmade log cabin, and oil painting for the rest of your life. It is just about getting out of the denial. About understanding that empty feeling that you are left with after every ‘first world conquest’, is because you have only succeeded at something someone else created for you to succeed at or get some fabricated ‘satisfaction’ from. The same is true with your corporate job. The same is true with our elections. This is not something to be argued, its a fact. This article is about accepting it and seeking to enjoy your life on a higher plane of existence, or denying it and spending the rest of your life working in a dead end job to buy little nuggets of unfulfilling satisfaction until you die a carbon copy of a billion other people. You don’t have to quit your job, just don’t make it the model for your life. You don’t have to paint a Rembrandt, just understand why a Rembrandt is so remarkable. Get in touch with who YOU are and what YOU enjoy. Not what someone else wants you to buy to fit some cookie cutter persona. That is no different than Mommy dressing up her little man to look like Daddy, but not act like him. Go out and make or do something that matters TO YOU, do it simply because it matters TO YOU and do it so well that you are proud to be you when its all done. It saddens me to think that so few men regularly get to experience this genuine and manly fulfillment. You can tell by the anger in Jeremy’s post that he NEVER does…

105 Big Ben of the South Carolina lowcountry May 11, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Right on, my brother! Like daddy taught me..’carry a clean hankerchief, a pocketknife & a pistol.’…the journey is the THANG, seeking ‘it’ 24/7! Live it up, and ‘create’ a life of fun and service, preferably in the saddle of a Harley, your face in the wind!

106 J C May 11, 2010 at 1:52 pm

I think the comments from teachers (or future teachers) about education were interesting. It made me think: does our current model of education encourage people to be passive consumers, rather than to build up their own knowledge? I personally found school very constraining, and loved when I had the free time to read the books that I wanted to read (frequently science books), build things, take things apart, write computer programs, etc. Maybe we need a new educational model wherein the job of teachers is only to give students what they need to educate themselves (basic literacy, help with difficult concepts, etc.). My father is an experienced teacher, and he admitted to me that you mostly teach yourself anyway. If this is the case, then why do our schools resemble assembly lines attempting to turn out uniform products?

107 Liberty Watchtower May 11, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Our future is anarchy, chaos and dead. The pussification of everything, the political correctness, the femi-nazis, the rampant greed, the control by the system, the corporate capitalism.

There are a lot of pissed off alpha males getting ready to end this whole thing called civilization. Good luck with your manliness book.

108 Barbara Frank May 11, 2010 at 9:20 pm

JC askes, “….why do our schools resemble assembly lines attempting to turn out uniform products?”

Because that’s what they were designed to do. Ever hear of John Taylor Gatto, New York State Teacher of the Year who quit his job and now pushes homeschooling? Here’s his answer: http://www.homeschoolnewslink.com/audio.asp

109 Big Jay May 12, 2010 at 2:05 pm

This was a great article. I’m presently (at almost 37) becoming mature. I’ve made the transition from “is this going to be on the test” to trying to gain a deeper understanding (I’m pursuing a second bachelor’s degree).

As for the debate on consumerism, there is nothing inherently wrong with being a consumer; what I drew from the article is what I’ve found in my own life: The problem is constant, excessive consumption coupled with no creativity whatsoever.

To use music as an example, there is nothing wrong with owning an iPod. The problem comes from discarding your perfectly fine iPod for the newer, bigger model, simply because it is newer and bigger.

Ah, just my own thoughts on that.

For the teachers/future teachers here, I wish you all the luck. Burn out, lack of support, even being directly undermined by administration is why I’m taking my life in a different direction. It’s easy to say “we need great teachers” (which we do), but my experience is that it’s lip service. Go beyond “Stand and Deliver” and read up on the true story of Jaime Escalante. (I’m also working on letting go of my bitterness, but it’s still, sadly, the truth.)

110 David R. May 20, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Profound and entirely well written; great article.

111 thetoast May 27, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Excellent article as usual. You have quite a talent at recognizing a relevant topic, and stirring thought.

I just wanted to comment on the few who took issue with how reading is a form of consuming — of course it is a form of consuming. If one may be so inclined to read between the lines of the article’s topic, it could be seen that it is more a judgement on the value (product/by-product) of what we consume — not on the act of consuming in itself. If “consuming” this blog or a book helps you to create or otherwise improve yourself or some aspect of this world, then surely it is beneficial.

112 Greg Nepini July 16, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Great article! I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without the creative endeavors that I’ve pursued over the years. Living a “virtual life” will NEVER cut it for me.

113 Brett H. May 7, 2013 at 12:21 pm

This is my favorite article thus far on AoM. I think many are assuming that creation is only material, however, I think Brett is mainly referring to the creation of immaterial things such as ideas and relationships.

In fact, I think that the core idea of creation vs. consumption is the very purpose of AoM. Many other popular men’s magazines/blogs are overly superficial and materialistic. These sources try to convince men that a great body, models, cars, clothes, watches, etc., etc will fulfill their desires and are ends in themselves. In contrast, AoM is really about teaching young men to create their own happiness/success through the improvement of oneself. The articles that Brett and Kate write are guides to lead men on the path to creation.

As a 22 year old college grad, I find myself constantly having to check myself when I’m imagining how much my life would improve if I only had [insert product name here], and this article really puts my internal feelings on the subject into words. Thank you Brett and Kate for this great article and your fantastic website. Your success is proof that you are helping individuals lead a more virtuous and fulfilling life.

-Brett H.

114 Maid Mirawyn July 9, 2013 at 6:21 am

Excellent article! But I think it applies to women, too. Though I didn’t necessarily enjoy growing up lower middle class, it had one big advantage: we couldn’t afford to buy, buy, buy! We repaired stuff, cooked mostly from scratch, and made what we could. I ended up a graphic designer with an art degree, and an avid fan of DIY.

My husband, however, never learned a lot of what I took for granted as a kid. But he was able to study music, and even majored in piano performance. He still finds both piano and clarinet very satisfying and plays regularly. Unfortunately, his dad who can fix anything didn’t teach his sons that. His mom also never taught them to clean or cook. He was eighteen before he discovered he loves to cook as much as I do! He also enjoys writing short fiction.

We both derive great pleasure and satisfaction from our ability to make things, whether it’s cooking, music, or tangible objects. A benefit is that we’re able to make gifts for friends and family, or feed them great food whenever they visit. So it provides us with an excellent way to show them we care.

115 Sh0 August 29, 2013 at 11:29 am

What a wonderfully written article by AOM. I really enjoyed reading this especially the following which goes on to say:

“Men aren’t outgrowing this passive role. Instead of creating, they go on consuming. They may not depend on Mom and Dad anymore (although sadly, they often do), but they’re still dependent on stuff for their happiness. Consuming clothes, movies, video games, cars, parties, fast food, and even travel to make them happy. They live only for their own pleasures and amusements.”

thank you for taking time to write the article. I always leave AOM learning a lot of in depth and life changing information this is what makes this site stand out against others. (just my opinion) Thanks a million.

116 Not Actually a Man November 13, 2013 at 1:24 pm

I agree so strongly with everything in this article — except that I don’t think it’s a gendered issue at all. Women, if anything, are expected to derive even more of the satisfaction and meaning in their lives from buying stuff than men are. And not coincidentally, the current ideal being marketed to women is to be infantile, irresponsible “princesses” who need and deserve to be “taken care of” and “spoiled.”

I don’t think I’d ever made the link between consumerism and infantilism before — but you’re absolutely right that they are facets of each other. Even entertainment is supposed to be spoonfed so you don’t have to work hard to enjoy it.

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