Curation is Creation

Last Black Friday I posted to Facebook:

I’m abstaining from buying anything today in protest of excessive consumerism. Make something instead!

And got a rather curious reply from a friend:

I wish I could make things

I mulled that over for quite a while. I struggled to put myself in the commenter’s shoes. It’s wildly foreign to me.

In my head, clearly creation is for everyone. It’s not the domain of some privileged class of individuals—it’s an essential act of being human. Everyone should—and can!—create. But I kept tugging at the thread because of a nagging suspicion that perhaps lots of people feel this way.

Now, obviously everyone can create something (yet another cat photo, a bad copy of a Mondrian, etc.), but I think what so many people are unsure how to do is to create something worthwhile. Worth is an inherently personal concept, so I can’t fully answer the question for you, but I think I can give a decent starting point: to me, anything that can be built upon is a worthwhile contribution to the human enterprise. And there are so many ways to do that.

I’d like to offer a few alternative ideas for creation in hopes of showing those who think they can’t create how they almost certainly can. I’d like to start with three broad categories of non-traditional creation that I think are especially under-recognized: curation, configuration, and workflows.


Let me ask a pointed question—who contributes more to the human enterprise:

It’s not my intention to downplay the pleasure of doing original work (even done privately!), but only to emphasize the importance of the curators, who amplify the great works of others. They may not have their names on the canvases, but if a piece of work has a valuable effect on its viewers, certainly those who curated / promoted / preserved deserve a hefty cut of the glory.

In this era, new music comes out at such a rate that no one can keep up with it (let alone know the existing catalog!). As of 2012, an hour of YouTube footage was uploaded every second. In the U.S. alone, 300,000+ books are published every year.

Obviously these numbers are dramatically higher than anyone can consume, yet great works are worthless unless discovered, so curation is just as critical as traditional creation.

Here’s a sampling of curation efforts I appreciate across a variety of subjects. Keep in mind that the common thread is that the authors did not create any of the underlying content. The (significant!) value they contribute is in selecting, aggregating, and promoting the work of others:


Another important form of creation is configuration. Creation through configuration means sharing how you’ve set up pre-existing tools to solve problems. This kind of sharing empowers future creators by letting them stand on your proverbial shoulders.

Some examples of things that fall into this category: config files for software. Pens in your ideal calligraphy set. Settings for your synthesizer. How you’ve wired guitar effect pedels together. Spice mix ratios. How you’ve arranged your kitchen utensils. Folder naming for iOS projects. How you’ve assigned shortcut keys in your accounting software. An ultralight packing list.

Shared configuration often doesn’t require much explanation to use, but there’s still a lot of opportunity to contribute additional value in its packaging—tell us what your motivations and goals are for this configuration, how you arrived at this arrangement, how it’s working out (including areas for improvement), your inspiration, alternatives we might explore, and if / how we can contribute back to the project.


Finally, the form of creation I most want to discuss is the development of workflows. A workflow is a process that you follow to achieve a result. Sometimes these come from an explicit checklist, but more often they come from our experience and aren’t something we think a lot about.

If you follow me on Twitter you might have heard me ranting about this over the years, my key frustration being that we often share the tools we use, but usually don’t bother to explain how we use them, and that piece is usually much more important.

It’s a little bit interesting for me to read that a Go developer uses Vim, ZSH, and curl. It’s much more interesting for me to read how they arrange their windows to be efficient, what keystrokes they hit to change contexts when the automatic tests fail, how they build and reissue API requests at the command line, etc. The question is not “how can X [possibly] be done?”, but rather “how do you choose to do X based on your experience and particular use case?”

These are the things we need to be sharing, not another “33 Test Frameworks for JavaScript” post. Walk us through how you actually do a thing you’ve done a looooot of times. That’s the kind of knowledge that’s hard to pick up, that we all spend ages reinventing because people rarely think to share it.

There’s an Emacs mode for Clojure? That’s not enough. What are the most important keybindings? What do you actually use? How does it fit into the tasks you set out to accomplish each day? Tools have no value on their own—they’re only valuable when they can be used to achieve something. What do you do with your tools? What’s your system?

Here are some examples of workflows for inspiration:

No matter who you are, there’s some kind of process you follow to do the things you do. You’ve probably spent a lot more time doing your favorite things than we have—you have something to contribute. Share your workflows!