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What a scholar learned from studying the world of life-hackers

What a scholar learned from studying the world of life-hackers


From hacking motivation to hacking meaning

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Graphic by Michele Doying / The Verge

Joseph Reagle’s new book about life-hacking has the word “discontents” right in the subtitle, but he wants to be clear that it’s not a screed against the practice or the culture. In fact, Reagle, a professor of communication studies at Northeastern University, says that he recognized something of himself while writing the book.

“I’m a fairly geeky person and fairly hacker-y myself,” he says. For example, he wrote the book Hacking Life: Systemized Living and Its Discontents using the classic time-management tip of doing 50-minute chunks of work with 5- to 10-minute breaks in between. Hacking Life is a history and exploration of life-hacking, from hacking motivation to hacking spiritual meaning. It’s not meant to damn anyone who has ever used the Pomodoro technique, but rather to point out the unintended downsides of a very alluring practice.

The Verge spoke to Reagle about life-hacking as modern self-help, how life-hacking intersects with the reproducibility crisis in science, and the ethical line between hacking systems to objectify others and hacking systems to help yourself.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Your book argues that life-hacking is self-help and also that, specifically, it is self-help that really comes out of this current digital moment. How did that develop?

Self-help speaks to a moment in time when people are worried about how they want to move forward, and life-hacking is self-help for the 21st century. There’s a whole span of questions that we have now. For the “creative class,” we’re not really working on the clock anymore, but we often work more than we would like to, or our work bleeds into the other part of the day where work didn’t use to exist. In terms of health, we have so much information, and there are new stories about how chocolate is good for you and then chocolate is bad for you. When it comes to relationships, we have access to sexual partners and romantic partners at the touch of a finger.

I won’t go into all of the areas, but this milieu is characterized by having a lot of choices and a lot of complexity, a lot of freedom and flexibility. And you would think that all of that would make us really happy, but it makes us feel uncertain and insecure, and we’re looking for guidance on how to cope. So life-hacking is trying to systematize and simplify.

Author Joseph Reagle.
Author Joseph Reagle.

How exactly are we defining “hacking”? What traits or beliefs do life-hackers have in common?

The historical take is that the word “hack” goes back to the Tech Model Railroad Club at MIT. There was a group of people who worked on the railroad and train platform. They were the systems subcommittee, and they loved the wires and switches and were fascinated by the complexity of the systems. If you changed one thing over here, it might change something over there. And they define “hack” as avoiding the standard solution. [Venture capitalist] Paul Graham also says that both stupid and elegant hacks have the same thing in common: they break the rules.

I think hacking is both silly stuff like how to tie your shoes but also the bigger stuff about how to find contentment in life, be it material or spiritual. The things life-hackers have underneath are: fascination with the system and the rules and optimizing and maybe even subverting those rules. It’s an individual undertaking, and individualism is paramount. The people who have this ethos are fond of systemization, and everything is a system. They really like experimentation and tend to be preoccupied with rationality. That’s their cognitive style. They think there should be a rational approach and reason for everything.

You make it clear in the book that you’re not “against” life-hacking, even if you’re pointing out some of the downsides. One of the distinctions you make is between nominal life-hacking and optimal subhacking, which I found interesting. I understand “nominal life-hacking” — which you view more positively — to be “trying to get back to normal” whereas “optimal life-hacking” is “be the best you can be.” Is that correct?

Right. We can just say life-hacking is stupid or overly privileged or whatnot, but I want to make distinctions. On the one hand, I meet people who have severe migraines, and they’re trying to figure out a way to manage their migraines and that makes a lot of sense to me. On the other hand, there are people experimenting and pushing bodies, and when people are pushing themselves to the optimal edge for seemingly trivial things, I think that’s potentially dangerous. I wanted to distinguish between people I can appreciate trying to deal with immediate, real problems in their lives and the ones who characterize themselves as guinea pigs.

As a science journalist, I was interested in your discussion of how life-hacking can often be based on faulty science, especially because, as you noted, life-hackers tend to be rationally and scientifically minded. How does that happen?

Self-help is often associated with what skeptics call “woo,” crystals and eating sunlight and whatnot. One of the ironies of our current moment is that we think with the advance of science and technology that we have so much more certainty, but that’s not the case. Self-help drinks from the well of popular social science, but so much of what is there, we’re realizing, is not nearly as certain and reproducible as we like to think it is. It’s very easy for self-help and life-hacking to take over-credulously claims about “this is the thing that is going to make you more or less happy,” even though those studies are p-hacked or have low effect sizes and that sort of thing. Self-help and life-hacking are bystander victims of the weaker science that’s been around, and we need to be a little bit more skeptical about what we see.

One common critique of life-hacking is that it objectifies people. Relationships and such become systems to hack, which edges into the territory of pick-up artists. At the same time, there really are social rules that people can follow to help them become better with others. Where is this line?

Tynan, who is known as Herbal is Neil Strauss’ [book on pick-up artists] The Game, ended up publishing a book called Make Her Chase You. And Mystery, also from The Game, wrote his own book and it was about getting into women’s bedrooms. He’s trying to set up a ménage à trois with two HB10s — hot babes 10s — one Asian, one blonde, and he has a nervous breakdown. In that example, we can see the excesses of life-hacking and systemization approach. They rated women on a 10-point scale, completely objectified and optimized their libidinous desires and found out that these are not the things that lead to contentment.

But Tynan, his approach is different. It’s “make yourself more attractive, so people are more attracted to you.” Another person I profile, Nick Winter, was maximizing his productivity to 120-hour work weeks just to see if he could, but he was also including dates with his then-girlfriend, health goals, hanging out with friends. He was cognizant of the fact that he didn’t want to optimize one thing exclusively. That’s one of the mistakes life-hackers make. Sometimes they don’t understand the system they’re seeking to manipulate, and it’s really easy to optimize the wrong thing.

In another chapter, I talk about someone who hacked dating. She had these deal-breakers and ended up with someone who violated six of them. When you think about “I have to find the perfect person for me” — instead of “I’m going to meet people and have relationships with them and we’re going to negotiate back and forth” — that’s a static, objectifying approach to the world. There is also a married couple I discuss that have a very geeky marriage. They’re both into game theory and economics and bid on everything, but it’s still negotiating — they haven’t really objectified each other.

One of the book chapters is about “hacking meaning,” which I found interesting because of the trends of Stoicism and mindfulness we see happening now. What’s happening there?

As you move through chapters in the book, it’s following life-hackers from one insight to the other. First, they work really hard and are productive and make good money and buy a lot of stuff, and then they realize that’s not making them happy. So they get rid of everything and travel the world for a couple of years, and that’s not making them happy. I think a lot of people end up with spirituality hacking, and life-hackers, in particular, turn to Stoicism and elements of Zen Buddhism and mindfulness practice and we see some of the same biases and myopia as in some of the other chapters.

It’s ironic because the Buddha ended up taking the middle path. A lot of life-hackers have the impulse to systemize and optimize but I think ultimately a lot of them have also learned moderation in things and maybe that’s a good lesson to take away. That lesson’s been out there for thousands of years, but self-help is the thing that says, “I can take this lesson that’s been out there for a thousand years fit your cultural milieu.”