What Promises to Make You Better Makes You Worse
Over the past fifteen years or so, "hack" culture has proliferated health, wellbeing, and performance. Examples: drink this special tea; take this groundbreaking supplement; build your personal brand; network across time, space, and geography; exercise, but only in a particular way. Buy this product, use that service, follow such-and-such guru and then you'll be happy, then you'll be great. Blah. BLah. BLAh. BLAH.
Just writing this I notice my eyes squinting, forehead tensing, and noisiness in my mind.
There's a phenomenon in medicine called a paradoxical effect. It's when you give someone a therapy expecting it to do one thing but it does the complete opposite. For example, in neurology, sometimes giving patients in comatose states the sleeping medicine ambien helps them wake up. Hack culture—the belief that there are specific tricks and shortcuts to health, wellbeing, and performance—is having a paradoxical effect.
Rates of clinical anxiety and depression are at all time highs. Some experts believe that loneliness and social isolation have reached epidemic proportions. Two-thirds of all employees report feeling burned out at work. We are trying so hard to be happy and so hard to be great. The effort is there; it's just that the results are not. Maybe this is because we are getting caught up in the last half-a-percent—the stuff that has marginal, if any, effect—and completely forgetting about the basics. We are trying to build a beautiful penthouse while ignoring the foundation. Any time rough weather comes, the whole thing topples.
It's time to start focusing on the foundation. Bright and shiny objects—whatever bro-science you heard being peddled on a podcast this morning—are tempting. But so is candy. And while there's nothing wrong with candy—at times, it's the best—it should come as the last thing on top of a nourishing, wholesome diet.
I don't claim to know what that nourishing diet is (and if I did, wouldn't I be a hypocrite) but after thinking and reading about this stuff for the last few months I believe the principles below are a start. These are all championed by the ancient wisdom traditions, and more recently, proven to be beneficial by modern science. Also: they all run counter to the current ethos, which makes me even more confident that they are probably true.
Acceptance (over delusional thinking)
Patience (over speed)
Presence (over distraction)
Vulnerability (over personal brand)
Community (over going at it alone)
Acceptance means starting where you are; not where you want to be; not where you think you should be; but where you are. Patience means giving things time and space to unfold, not expecting instant results. Presence is being there, both physically and mentally, for what is in front of you. Vulnerability is being real; it's eliminating the cognitive dissonance between your workplace self, your online self, and your actual self. Community, genuine connection and belonging to other people, is the supportive ground that holds all of this, through ups and downs.
The above capacities, in combination, comprise a foundational good; one we must take time to cultivate and then return to over and over and over again. Any effort to be great and happy must emerge from this place of good. As my friend Justin put it: these are the bass notes.
Screw the hacks. Practice this stuff instead. But don't just listen to me. I am far from a guru. Try it out for yourself and see what happens.
Hack Culture Keeps Us Superficial
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently outlined his experience on a 10-day meditation retreat, mainly focusing on the performance benefits of meditation. This included measuring his heart rate through a variety of tech gadgets and reporting on 'good' or 'bad' sessions based on time spent without his mind wandering.
He's faced some backlash about how he missed the point of meditation. That he's stuck at a superficial level.
The same phenomenon occurs in any activity we 'love.'
Take running, for example. For the serious runner, you can talk about it as a work of art, as Steve Prefontaine likened the sport to. Or, perhaps you think of running as an experience that allows you to go places that you can't find in normal life. A place where you feel "alive" when you are pushing the borders of fatigue. Or maybe the driving force is the sense of brotherhood and connection you feel to teammates or the world as you explore the depths of fatigue.
Pick up a copy of the cult classic Once a Runner and you'll get the picture. Running isn't just running. It's something more.
Yet, just like the Jack Dorsey's meditation, we could discount those who 'only' pursue running for weight loss or cardiovascular health reasons. Is that bad or worse? No, it's just different. And maybe, that introduction will lead to a deeper appreciation for the activity itself. Lots of runners piled on Oprah when she ran a 4:44 marathon. That got more people into the sport!!
This isn't meditation or running specific. We might as well be talking about writing or painting or restoring our old car. Appreciate something at a deeper level and it goes beyond the original kind of superficial reason we often pursued it for. Entering at a superficial level is just fine. Because that's just what it is: entering.
And herein lies another major downside of the 'hack culture'. It keeps us in that superficial level. It keeps our gaze locked on metrics, data, and, ultimately, performance when the true gold lies much deeper.
If you like this newsletter and want to learn more and support our work, please share it with your friends and consider buying our book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. You can get a copy from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your neighborhood bookstore.
If you want these newsletters delivered to your mailbox every week + membership to the Peak Performance book club + the most interesting links we come across each week, subscribe here!
To keep the conversation going, reach out to us online:
Twitter: @Bstulberg and @Stevemagness
Facebook: Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg
Instagram: Steve Magness
Youtube: Steve Magness
For past issues, view our archive.