#20: The harms of hacks and shortcuts

Find the people who synthesize information

Humans are curious creatures. We seek answers.

Our curiosity can be a source of wisdom and inspiration, but - if not kept in check - it can lead us astray. It can suck us down rabbit holes, filled with misleading, emotionally charged information, and before we know it - we can become suckers.

Information synthesis

Today, when Internet algorithms1 constantly push, pull, direct, and re-direct our attention, it’s easy to be a sucker.

Information - on its own - is just information. 2

We consume a bunch of information and feel a short-term high because our minds are working, but the information is only useful if we synthesize it - if we think about it, work with it, question it, and, as a final step, update or re-affirm our worldview.

When we are exposed to new information (which is all the time nowadays!) we need to ask ourself:

Does this new piece of information support or refute what I already know about the topic?

Information synthesis is hard.

No doubt, it’s compelling to find an easier way.

The hack trap

Hack is a a sexy word for shortcut.

There are plenty of hacks on the Internet: how to hack your mind, hack your health, hack your job, hack your relationships.

I want to show you that hacking merely gives you an illusion of knowledge.

Let’s dissect one big hack: Lifehack.

Lifehack is a website that claims to help you find your life’s purpose by giving you secrets about living a meaningful life.

The website targets smart people who are also interested in self-help and self-development. The homepage has a picture of the founder, Leon Ho, along with a laundry list of media supporters.

Immediately, the site starts selling you on something. Specifically, it sells you on a vision:

Many are conditioned to live within the limits of what the "average person" can and should do.

Maybe you were being told that to succeed in life, you had to trade off something important; be it your relationships or your health.

But the truth is, you don't need to choose between work and life. You can actually have them all and live a full life.

Find out what's holding you back from living a full life by taking the Life Assessment for FREE now!

You are sold on a vision of who you could be.

Immediately, the website makes the assumption that you are not good enough.

It taps into a feeling that you may already be feeling, that you are not good enough, and sells you on a vision of how much better you could be, if only you follow the neatly laid out rabbit holes on this website.

Well, that’s a pretty manipulative way to start a relationship!

The website continues to play with your self-worth.

Scroll down further and you’ll be sold on a course. Do you label yourself as a procrastinator? Perfect! This website will re-affirm that label for you, and even sub-label you will a procrastination personality.

Hack Your Procrastination

A 4-Day Mini Series to Break Your Procrastination Loop and Win Back Your Life

What you'll learn in the free workshop:
✔ Identify your procrastination personality
✔ Techniques to snap out of your procrastination rut and get things done
✔ FREE Interactive Workbook for this class

Once you’re done with the assessment, the website will hook you to buy something from its plethora of product offerings: brain supplements, more courses, clothes.

The thing that this website doesn’t tell you is that you already are good enough.

If you really want to level-up your thinking, don’t hack your way into knowledge; instead, practice critical thinking skills.

Smart vs. Critical Thinker

An IQ test measures how smart you are.

IQ tests assess your intelligence by measuring performance in math, pattern recognition, and vocabulary, but IQ tests are not predictors of life satisfaction.

As the world becomes increasingly more complex, our ability to think critically will trump how smart we are.

According to Wikipedia, critical thinking is:

self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities as well as a commitment to overcome native egocentrism and sociocentrism.

An important part of critical thinking is our ability to interrupt cognitive biases3, in other words, we need to be aware of the shortcuts that our brain uses to conserve energy. These shortcuts are helpful for body regulation, but harmful for critical thinking4.

We can’t hack our way into critical thinking.

Why are we so obsessed with hacks?

George Packer, in his book The Unwinding, depicts how in the 1960s and 1970s, Americans thought they could be and do anything: it was the American dream.

Con artists like self-help author Napoleon Hill profited by furthering this illusion.

Napoleon Hill influenced thousands, maybe millions, of American business people with his 1937 book, Think and Grow Rich, where he proposes thirteen principles, designed to help you unleash the power of your mind. Hill’s principles are eerily reminiscent of Lifehack’s promise to have everything you want in life - a great example of how modern gurus, celebrities, politicians, etc. use the same rhetoric from the past.

Think and Grow Rich worked. It worked to drive people into making really bad decisions.

A particularly prescient example of how Think and Grow Rich led people to make bad decisions is depicted in The Unwinding, where Packer tells the story of failed American business tycoon, Dean Price.

Like most American dreamers in the 1960s, Dean chased wealth, money, and power, as he opened business ventures throughout the South. Dean’s ambition was fueled by Napoleon Hill. The walls of his South Carolina house were plastered with inspirational quotes from the book, quotes about how thinking about success and money can wield success and money.

Initially, Dean did well: he made a million dollars; but, he quickly lost it all and got himself into a big ol’ pile of debt. In Dean’s lifetime, all of his businesses filed for bankruptcy; he filed for personal bankruptcy; all of his professional and personal relationships were ruined.

A common thread

Hacks seem to have a common thread: they promise you that by following their guidance, you can unlock your mind.

The book, Existential Kink, published last year, in 2020, is the final example that I’ll use to demonstrate the dangers of hacks.

Several people I follow on Twitter shared that they enjoyed the book, so I bought it.

Existential Kink is somewhat of a magical thinking book, just like Think and Grow Rich.

The author, Carolyn Elliott, a PhD, shares her secrets for how she beat the odds and learned to thrive after childhood trauma, financial devastation, and a drug addiction. She says that she’s proud of launching a 6 figure coaching business, and attributes her success to doing unconscious shadow work, the core of her book.

Carolyn’s teachings center on the idea that we do harmful things because, deep down, on a subconscious level, we actually want these things. For example, we may be poor because, subconsciously, we don’t want to do the hard work of escaping poverty.

She draws on psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow. Carolyn doesn’t mention this, but her philosophy reminds me of some ideas from Zen, specifically Ichiro Kushimo’s book, The Courage to be Disliked, where he tells the parable of an adult son who is still living with his parents because subconsciously he is afraid of moving out and facing the world.

The idea of having a shadow, a dark part of our subconscious that keeps us stuck, doesn’t seem crazy, but what does raise red flags is the way that Carolyn talks about the mind, specifically the persistent thread about wealth accumulation, and how we can our minds are capable of willing and thinking our way into wealth.

Let me demonstrate Carolyn’s approach with a question she answers on her website’s Q&A:

  • Q: And did your life become a Heaven? [after she realized her poverty gave her arousal]

  • A: Actually, yes, my life today is about as close to Heaven as earthly existence gets. I let myself feel that kinky pleasure in my poverty, and very shortly after, all kinds of ideas flowed to me that let me build a very successful business.

    In just the first three months after letting myself feel my experience as pleasure, I tripled my income and moved to Bali for a year.

    So that was rather heavenly, and as I’ve continued to do more Existential Kink work on more of my hang-ups, the heavenliness has just multiplied.

Quite frankly, I was appalled by how much emphasis the book placed on wealth accumulation, specifically willing your way into wealth with your mind.

Is Carolyn Elliott the modern-day Napoleon Hill?

All of this talk about money reminds me of what my friend Victor said, “America is not a country. It’s a business.”

Come on folks, we need to do better.

Dissemination of hacks

Linkedin is a mecca for shortcuts and has become a platform for disseminating hacks to a wide audience. It’s flooded with shortcuts for success. Here are just a few:

Where to go from here

Although we can’t change the past, we can study it and learn from it. We can shape our future. Life is complex and nuanced. Hacks may seem compelling, but be careful, they are just illusions of knowledge.

There’s plenty of good stuff on the Internet. There are people carving out good, healthy, vibrant places on the Internet for learning and intellectual discourse. These online havens are far away from the forces of the attention economy and search algorithms.

Seek out the healthy, intellectually rich and diverse spaces on the Internet. Look for the people who are good at synthesizing information, the ones who are good at connecting ideas, generating unique insights, and applying multi-faceted lenses to a problem.