A lark of a tweet I fired off last December that — somewhat to my surprise — went semi-viral, shared across a variety of social networks and blogs like wildfire.
Why is this surprising? And what does it say?
I was surprised because we live in such a meme, hashtag and shortcut obsessed culture. And what is the trending topic of the day? The meme that is beyond reproach, enjoying platinum status and irresistible staying power in every corner of the Internet?
#lifehack #lifehacker #biohack #fitnesshack #diethack #fithack #weightlosshack – and on and on, blah, blah, blah.
Go ahead and Google any derivation of the term and see what comes up. It’s amazing, actually. There are even entire health, fitness, lifestyle and technology conferences built around the idea.
Consistent with our shrinking attention span, demand for immediate gratification, intolerance for hard work, rebuttal of experiential value, and general (illusory) sense of entitlement to the good life, this hack ethos is emblematic of our obsessive modern imperative for immediacy — the drive to turbocharge, accelerate, optimize, scramble, quicken and hasten our way to maximum health, fitness, professional success and ultimately happiness. A hell-bent zeal to quick-fix ourselves to overnight six-pack abs, envious wealth, limitless free time, and in some ways I suppose, salvation. Finger-snap your way to nirvana. Don’t just keep up with The Jones’ – blow them out of the water!
Of course, in many ways this is nothing new – old as time actually. The hack a mere modern vernacular reframing of practices and marketing techniques dating back to the snake oil salesmen and carnival barkers of yore, promising everything from miracle cures to deliverance with a sharp preacher’s tongue and unconscious reflexive response that suppresses question and finds us impulsively forking over our hard-earned coin to the prophet of the moment.
But the acute nature of this modern rush is also something qualitatively new. And disturbing.
It used to be an insult to call someone a hack. Now it’s high praise. How did a term so historically pejorative suddenly become aspirational?
To figure this out, let’s take a step back.
KnowYourMeme defines “life hacks” as “tricks, skills or shortcuts that are meant to increase a person’s productivity or efficiency in their everyday lives.”
The term was originally coined by tech journalist Danny O’Brien in 2003, but it seems the idea really took off with the publication of Tim Ferriss’ wildly popular 4-Hour Workweek* – a New York Times’ bestselling primer on how to cut inefficiencies out of your waking hours, streamline your day and ultimately “hack” your way to professional and personal happiness. Tim followed up with two companion chart busters — 4-Hour Body* and 4-Hour Chef* – both highly entertaining and instructional roadmaps on shortcutting proficiency of a panoply of fitness and lifestyle skills on a fraction of the traditional time and energy commitment required for mastery. 80% of the results in 20% of the time.
Yahtzee! A movement was born. The rest is history.
And I have a big problem with this.
Okay Tim Ferris fanboys, calm yourselves before you attack me. I actually love Tim’s books. And have nothing but mad respect for everything Tim is about – an idea-generating energizer bunny of a forward-thinking innovator tirelessly upending tradition and plumbing the deep crevasse for creative, new modalities and approaches to do more and live better. That is pure awesome. I too count myself as a fan. As I explain at length in Finding Ultra*, I experimented with and relied upon many of the tools shared in 4HWW to reconfigure my life so that I could properly prepare for my performances at The Ultraman World Championships. They work. And my life is better as a result of reading that book. I am also forever grateful to Tim for allowing me to guest blog on his site on the day my book was released. He didn’t have to do that. But he did, and I will never forget the favor. But I digress…
In truth, a properly implemented hack is nothing more than leveraging a good idea (I guess #idea or #goodidea don’t really trend well when it comes to the meme-o-sphere). A way to cut wasted time so that you can invest yourself more fully in what makes your heart truly beat — a passion and pursuit that can transform your life by catalyzing a new journey.
I take no issue with this. It’s great, actually. And I think this is what Tim was actually trying to say.
But somewhere along the line I think even Tim would agree that we lost the thread. Somewhere along the line the hack has become the destination, rather than the tool. An end in and of itself. Kind of like becoming obsessed with a table saw rather than the process of using it to learn how to make a beautiful piece of furniture.
Moreover, the explosion of hack culture seems to inherently disrespect the paramount value of the journey – the true value in any experience — by supplanting it with an expedited rush to access to a result. And result is empty without grappling with the resistance that inevitably defines the battle.
Let’s assume for a moment that there really is a way to circumvent the time-tested notions of hard work, patience, dedication and passion to achieve prosperity, success, health and true satisfaction in life. Spoiler alert: there isn’t. But okay, let’s assume…
Would I take that path? Should you?
With resounding conviction, I say no.
How dare you – that’s just plain anti-American!
Is it? The entire ideal of the American Dream (which is problematic in it’s own right and basically an illusion, but that’s the subject of another blog post) was founded upon the aforementioned principles. Anything is possible if you work hard. It’s inherent in the very value system of manifest destiny. It’s what makes America, well, America.
Yet to contravene and devalue the meme of the moment by suggesting the admittedly unsexy notion that hard work, patience & the paramount value of experience over short cuts and quick fixes – in many ways the “anti-hack” — isn’t just iconoclastic, it’s anathema. Our principles have become inverted. A myopia eroding the core value system and the essence of what gives our lives meaning.
If you want to achieve the minimum aptitude threshold in a discipline so that you can tell others you did something, hack away. Implement the short cut, rush to accomplish the task and check the box. Bucket list item #54 done. Moving on to the next hack.
Now ask yourself: how did that experience make me feel?
If you’re like me, probably not much of anything.
Now let’s examine what happens when you try to be the very best you can be at something you are inherently passionate about. Suddenly the heart beats faster. The palms begin to sweat. Maybe it’s excitement. But more likely it’s fear. That’s right, fear. Commitment — total dedication to the core — is about as scary as it gets. It’s not just hard. It’s without a doubt the most difficult thing imaginable. Because if you take that risk, truly put yourself completely on the line and fail (or succeed — yes fear of success plagues more than you might imagine), then you will have to reckon with yourself. Terrifying!
But that is the whole point and purpose. Failure (or success) – or at least the prospect of failure (or success) – is what gives the journey proper context, rich consistency, and towering emotional, physical, financial and spiritual stakes that fertilize the soul for quantum growth irrespective of outcome. And growth is everything. But it can only result from earnest investment in experience. So fear and commitment aren’t things to be avoided, but rather embraced with a bear hug of everything.
This is to say that the inherent value of any given experience is directly proportional to the extent to which you are physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually invested in it. Using a hack to short cut the journey only robs you of the rich texture presented by the opportunity. In a word, it’s the difference between winning the lottery and earning that ransom by weathering the blood, sweat and tears that come with total fidelity.
So it’s the experience you should be seeking, not the short cut. It’s the voyage you should embrace, not the destination. It’s the path that elevates the soul, not the destination. It’s the process that ennobles, not the result.
If you’re with me so far, then congratulations. I submit that you are on the right track.
A track that has no tolerance for hacks.
On a personal level, I could have competed at the Ultraman World Championships on 20% of the training I put in and still finished the race. But I didn’t. Instead, I put everything I had into those races because I had a yearning to answer a question for myself – what am I truly capable of? That query and yearning that could only be answered to my satisfaction by eliminating shortcuts and investing completely.
I could have banged out my book in 20% of the time it took to write it and likely it would have still found it’s way onto the Kindle. But I couldn’t say that I did everything possible to tell the story I wanted to tell to the best of my abilities.
I could be out having dinner with friends right now rather than pulling my hair out trying to figure out how to make sense of these ideas swimming around in my head. After all, I’m not getting paid for this. I had dental surgery today and should be in bed right now. Nobody asked me to write these ideas down. Quite possibly (likely?) you might all dislike the offering altogether. And ultimately writing is hard. Really hard. Much harder than riding my bike. I already tweeted the notion, so it would be easy to rationalize watching House of Cards instead. But I would be repressing who I am. Denying my passion to express myself. Saying no to experience.
And that is simply unacceptable.
Today I enjoy tremendous satisfaction knowing that on a daily basis I strive to invest absolutely everything I have in what makes my heart beat hardest. Looking back, it seems to all make perfect sense how events unfolded to take me from where I was to where I am today. But in the midst of it all, it was generally a chaotic, terrifying madness often teetering on disaster and punctuated by countless lows and gut-wrenching come-to-Jesus moments — I risked everything to the journey on a level beyond any relationship to rationality or acceptable norms of sanity.
And yet I rarely think about destinations. What it was like when I crossed a finish line. What I was feeling the day my book finally hit shelves. What I was doing the day I finally was able to hang up the suit and stop practicing law for a living. Or where I was when my little podcast project surpassed a million downloads. But not a day goes by that I don’t feel tremendous gratitude for the process endured to arrive at those seminal moments in my life. The unbearable pain of that 40-mile training run. The countless all nighters spent writing my book at the 24-hour Kinko’s sitting next to the homeless guy using a desk as a bed (I had no office at the time and for whatever reason I can’t seem to write well at home, but again I digress). It’s the vividness of those memories that give me a profound sense of fulfillment and gratitude. A sense of trudging a path of deep personal meaning. Simply put, you just can’t put a dollar value on that. As trite as it may sound, it truly is priceless.
Don’t misunderstand. I like goals and I like achieving them. They keep me focused and act as powerful drivers that lend structure to my day. But it’s crucial to emotionally detach from the end result or third-party reception to your efforts. Let it go. It’s none of your business. It’s also irrelevant. But what is relevant is signing up for the journey. What is crucial is showing up at the starting line. What is essential is taking that first step, followed by a second, on what I can only hope will be a pilgrimage that will last the remainder of your days in this short life. Irrespective of success or failure (subjective terms anyway), you are guaranteed to experience what it is like to be fully invested in something, anything. This is what it is to be completely alive. And that is the gift.
Just the other day I published my podcast interview with filmmaker Casey Neistat. I am a big fan of Casey’s work – in my opinion one of the most interesting, unique and culturally relevant populist filmmakers working today. But I’m an even bigger fan of his ethos and perspective. A life premised on embracing adventure, for Casey it’s all about the journey. Not to the manor born, Casey raised himself out of his trailer home welfare plight to where he is today by tackling incomprehensible odds head-on; by relentlessly investing in himself and doubling down on his passion; by embracing the hard road; by circumventing the gatekeepers and refusing to wait for permission; and by making countless bold, fearless choices.
Near the end of our conversation, Casey said something really compelling that catalyzed my desire to write this post. His roadmap for those who ask how he has built the creative, fulfilling life he currently enjoys. A recipe for success he guarantees to work:
All you have to do is commit your entire life to something, which will result in one of two outcomes. Either you will succeed, or you will die trying, which is in and of itself it’s own form of success.
This people, is the very essence of the anti-hack.
No shortcuts. Just a good, solid Malcolm Gladwell-esque 10,000+ hours of downright busting your ass on something that means everything to you. Toiling in obscurity. Failing relentlessly. Picking yourself up off the floor when all is lost and going the extra mile when nobody is looking. Slow, incremental progress. Tiny hard fought victories along the way that begin to take form. And ultimately congeal to lay the foundation for a life and legacy that has true value.
It’s sexy and easy to frame a narrative of the overnight success story – WhatsApp, Instagram, and American Idol are perfect examples of how the media can twist reality to multiply page views and amplify ratings. But take a peek behind the curtain on any so-called instantaneous triumph and you are certain to find an objective truth that doesn’t fit the neatly packaged narrative. Because every genuine, sustainable success is birthed only from incredible persistence, interminable patience, invisible defeats, rabid dedication and unrelenting passion.
Hacks are about a short cut to a destination. I don’t give a shit about destinations. But I care deeply about showing up and suiting up for the journey. And what I have learned about myself and others by embracing the pain, toil failure, tears, fear, mistakes that go hand in hand with the hard road less travelled is what gives everything meaning, context and value. A deep gratitude for a life lived well – to the fullest, and without compromise.
There is nothing sexy or meme-worthy about the journey. It’s hard. It’s painful. It’s not glossy and doesn’t lend itself to a hashtag or a glib tweet. It will never trend on Twitter.
This is not news. Deep down we all know it to be true. It’s why my tweet struck a chord despite being at odds with the savory meme-o-licious flavor of the month.
So if you have a passion and aspire to greatness — if you want to see what you are truly made of, or just how far you can go and what you are truly capable of — forget the hack. Commit to the daily pressure that compels infinitesimal progress over time. Wake up before dawn and apply yourself in silent anonymity. Practice your craft — in whatever shape or form that may be — late into the evening with relentless rigor. Embrace the fear. Let go of perfection. Allow yourself to fail. Welcome the obstacles. Forget the results. Give yourself over to your passion with every fiber of who you are. And live out the rest of your days trying to do better.
I can’t promise that you will succeed in the way our culture inappropriately defines the term. But I can absolutely guarantee that you will become deeply acquainted with who you truly are. You will touch and exude passion. And discover what it means to be truly alive.
In my opinion, this is the legit definition of success. And the essence of greatness.
Because the seat of genuine value, beauty and satisfaction lies in the experience of getting there. That’s the truth.
A promise no hack can give you. Not now, not ever.
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