Venture down the self-help aisle of any bookstore and you’ll see it littered with titles about hacks, quick fixes, burning fat, and accessing mystical sounding theta brainwaves. We’re told that a ‘superfood’ can cure cancer, that a new routine will fix our motivation problems, and that a brain-training program will teach us how to learn a new language in 5 hours.
None of this is new. In the field of self-improvement, there have always been snake oil salesman ready to promote gimmicks disguised as legitimate answers. But the internet age has ushered in a whole new era: The maddening proliferation of hope — clouded in broscience.
The 7 ways to transform your sex life. Use polyphasic sleep to hack your energy levels. Dump a stick of butter in your coffee to energize your breakfast and keep you feeling full all day (no shit — you just dumped a stick of butter in your coffee). All of these hacks carry a similar message: If only we did XYZ, then our bodies, minds, and entire lives will transform for the better.
The internet age has ushered in a whole new era: The maddening proliferation of hope clouded in broscience.
The promise of the latest technological gadgets to transform our world has become a deafening drum-beat. We can now use data to hack our way to a better, more productive life. Unlike previous generations who had dreams of finding an actual fountain of youth, the new-age techno-utopia culture promises “scientifically” designed elixirs and technologies, many of which may be founded in something theoretically possible … but then go way too far … like off the walls too far … so that they can claim a breakthrough to solving our problems is just around the corner.
It’s a mix of arrogance and perhaps naïve optimism. Yet the cost is that we so often throw out common sense and age-old wisdom to pursue the latest and greatest hack to a better life. Shortcuts are the way. The goal is no longer the path, the goal is the finish line as quickly and easily as possible. The Buddhist motto “chop wood, carry water” has been replaced with “hack your life.”
The problem with all of these grand promises? The vast majority of them are bullshit. Complete, utter bullshit wrapped in complex sounding bro-science.
Falling for the Baseless Promise
The promise of a quick fix exploits our innate human desire to save energy in finding a simple answer to cure our ails. It’s not like people want to be fooled; rather, they set out with good intentions — believing that someone has truly discovered something new and is there to offer a helping hand and some guidance on an issue they are having.
And therein lies the tragedy: so many of the ‘hack’ salespeople are exploiting those in need.
It’s easy to sit back and blame the buyer, to laugh at those who really think that a homeopathic pill — filled with water, saline, and god-knows-what-else that hasn’t been clinically tested — will cure their rare cancer, or the dude who thinks that an MCT oil mixture will help him put on 10 pounds of muscle.
But the reality is that the onus shouldn’t be on the consumer of information; it should be on the writer, speaker, or influencer who has the power to make a difference. When you have a platform, you have a responsibility. Too often, that responsibility is left by the wayside, and the pull of more followers and more money tempts someone into hawking whatever new fad will bring them more notoriety. Sometimes this belief is so powerful that the founding hacker actual deludes himself into thinking his respective hack actually works. It’s a complete mess.
The Buddhist motto “chop wood, carry water” has been replaced with “hack your life.”
And while you may be sitting here thinking, “I’m smarter than that, I know this tropical elixir won’t really extend my life by a decade,” the true danger is in the more nuanced claims. The idea that if you just adopt some kind of exact routine or add a specific new exercise to your regimen you’ll reach a breakthrough you’ve long desired. The more desperate you are for an answer, the more plausible in your head do the hacks become.
The Wrong Focus
For too long now, we’ve focused on the details, the finishing touches, the small things that may or may not work: Why am I concerned with whether or not I put cream or butter in my coffee but OK with binge drinking at the bar a few times a month? Why does the “perfect” weight (no such thing exists) for my kettlebell swing matter when that’s the only exercise I do at all, and then proceed to spend 8 hours sitting in a chair at work? Why do some use intermittent fasting to delay cancer, and then neglect to put on sunscreen so they can “get some color.” In our diets, we go nuts over whether 80 percent of calories should be carbs or fat, all the while overlooking that a lot of what we eat — both carbs and fat — comes wrapped in plastic and bears little resemblance to anything found in nature.
It’s not that some of these ideas aren’t important. Diets. Routines. Habits. Exercises. They all matter, but the context is what we miss. We are seeking the silver bullet when the reality is we need to zoom out and nail the basics before we even consider the final 2 percent.
The hack culture has flipped our priorities. We no longer make sure we put in the work required to create a solid foundation. Instead, we want to fast-forward to the finishing touches. We desperately need an answer. But as one of my favorite thinkers Ryan Holiday has so perfectly said, “there are no shortcuts besides HACKING IT every single day.”
A Better Way: Shifting the Culture
Anyone who knows anything about high-performance knows this. To get better, you need to put in the work. Show up. Be consistent. Seek social support and surround yourself with people who will push you and hold you accountable (now perhaps that’s something new technology could actually help with.)
It’s for these reasons that I wrote The Passion Paradox and Peak Performance. Am I a self-help guru? No way! But I do feel qualified to bring the focus back on the concepts that actually make a difference. The simple ideas proven by time, honed by world-class performers, and backed by legitimate research. Some of these might not be fancy, and may even sound like common sense, but the bottom line is they work. And these days, common sense is uncommon.
We are seeking the silver bullet, when the reality is we need to zoom back out and nail the basics before we even consider the final 2 percent.
It’s my hope that I can send a message to the people spouting outlandish claims, those pushing further and further down the ‘hack’ highway. The ‘bros’ who tout all their supplements (stupid at best, dangerous at worst), and neglect to tell us that they actually contain synthetic testosterone, HGH, and modafinil. I want to loudly and clearly remind them that what actually matters are time-tested principles; ideas that might not sound sexy, but that actually make a difference. Principles backed by real science, not bro-science.
Forget the hacks! Stop trying to sleep 4 hours a night. Don’t worry about detoxing your diet, just eat less fast food. Stop wasting your money on supplements. Instead, get back to the basics: Challenge yourself to grow. Rest and Recover. Find meaning and purpose in your endeavors. Set yourself up to perform. And above all, realize the journey is what it’s all about.
It’s time to move on from the hack culture and just do the stuff that actually works.
Brad Stulberg researches and writes on sustainable excellence and wellbeing. He is bestselling author of the new book, The Practice of Groundedness: A Path to Success that Feeds—Not Crushes—Your Soul.