How to actually become something
part One — Hacking Your Way Forward (The Culture of Shortcuts)
“This product will change your life over the span of 10 years!”
Is not an advertisement you are likely to see on QVC or as a clickbait title in the self-help world.
In the age of Lifehacker, we want the immediate, impulsive solution — the option that skips “the process” for the sake of ease.
I believe this is why we see so many pills or concoctions or apps or self-help books (and lots of articles & blog posts about the 7 steps to success / productivity / getting what you want) that pose themselves as giving you the answer or result without the difficult work and discipline of learning and becoming that yourself.
Or why we would rather listen to an inspirational talk by a charismatic speaker that takes eighteen minutes and makes us feel better than to go to a psychotherapist for years at a time.
We want to win without having to develop.
We want the hack.
The quick, easy option.
Ours is a culture obsessed with cheat code living.
I once heard it said that giving someone an answer without letting them figure it out themselves is like stealing. You steal the journey that allowed you to discover what it is you are telling that person. If that’s the case, we are all a bunch of thieves…and we tend to prefer it that way. We live in a culture where talking about a process is only preferred if it exists in a stylistic font on a poster or social media image. We are very willing to talk about a process — a slow, incremental journey that leads to a particular way of being over time — however, in practice, we would gladly take a secret pill or know the circumventing trick that the click-bait article was going to give you exclusive access to. These are the days of the silver bullet.
We want to get ahead without having to get ahead.
We want the results without having to produce them.
We want the cheat code.
If we are to glimpse our recent historical arc, we might observe that not only has this culture been concurrent with the technological ease of industrialization — our access to resources, comfort, and information has made it much more likely to pursue such hacks — but, possibly in response to demand, an entire industry has been created to sell you such products and ideas. Because a shortcut just seems like a better use of time. Comfort and pleasure and the desired outcome? All at once? Sounds like a good deal that you just can’t pass up!
If there is any time in history where you can buy a product that will give you six pack abs while sitting in a chair, it is ours.
Whether we point to mechanization or industrialization or a comfortable economic landscape following WWII, it appears that the swell of modernity culminated in a transition from survival based living to entertainment based living. The goal is ease, convenience, and comfort. I would not argue that this historical development is the causation for our current cultural state and the ensuing market of products and ideas to bypass any sort of difficult process, I do believe they are correlated. And while, in the words of Wendell Berry, I am not going to complain about painless dentistry, I do believe we ought to at least approach such “advancement” with critique as opposed to blind participation. What began with labor saving devices and TV dinners that require as little work as possible has evolved to the dominance of ways to achieve a desired outcome without the difficulty that was previously associated with such a task. The assumption here is that labor is negative; that work, especially good work, cannot be pleasurable, meaningful, or constructive. Hence, we are left with aisles and stores full of such devices as well as bookshelves and an entire sector of the digital web devoted to abandoning such processes for the markers of our progressed civilization — ease, convenience, and comfort.
Most of these products and ideas are, if we’re being honest, garbage — an opportunity to make a dollar by convincing you that you need to spend your money on this to get this thing you think you want (or they convinced you that you want) by shortcutting how you thought you would have to get it. A majority of this norm is the result of a motivation to supply a salary, not to produce health. Not to mention that most of those articles you read or self-help books you see are rarely rooted in peer-reviewed science but are rather anecdotal, at best (someone using their experience and general thoughts to give you an answer), or, at worst, just an attempt for someone to sell more copies or get more reads.
Whether products or ideas, it seems that they are more about making profit on a cultural demand of hacks and shortcuts than providing real human beings with real help in living.
However, even if the attempt to promote a shortcut was to help you become more human, my anecdotal observations about the world question if this is actually possible. It might be that hacking your way forward won’t actually take you forward; that shortcutting the process might actually force you to not only miss the process, but miss the outcome.
In the elevation of cheat code living, we need to consider that cheat code living might not work.
Part Two — To what can this be compared?
How about a plot of land in your backyard where you want to grow food? Maybe a plot of land where your soil is more like clay and is not very suitable for growing plants other than weeds?
So you drive to the nearest mega-store, buy several large bags of conditioned topsoil, throw it on top of your clay, and then snag a few of the pre-grown transplants to stuff in the ground and you call it a garden.
Or, imagine you are hungry. The lack of glucose getting to your brain is telling you that a form of starchy, sugary content is the best consuming option. You have a plate full of vegetables and then a plate full of candy. One is going to offer a quick satisfaction followed by a lack of nourishment, the other will not be as immediately satisfying, but will nourish your body in a much more fulfilling way and have long-term effects that should make the candy option inconceivable.
And yet, chances are good that we will still choose the candy.
This is what I mean by “Cheat Code Living.”
Because, when you play a video game, there are options for cheat codes — basically a way to manipulate the software of a game and modify how it plays…often to your advantage.
So if you buy a new game and you want to learn how to play it, there is a tendency to look up the cheat codes because, honestly, it will be much easier. You can literally enter right into an incredibly difficult level, hack the game process with your cheats, and dominate with no problem.
However, in doing so, you won’t actually be very good at playing the game.
This, my friends, is what we might call “unsustainable”.
There are two problems to this process of living:
First, what happens if the cheat codes are no longer functional? The software blocks it or, as is the case for many multiplayer games, if you try to play with other people, the modifications or cheats are no longer available. The lifehacker way you learned to play within is fragile because it could be taken away at any moment and you have no larger foundation for which to carry out your process.
Which leads to the second problem — cheat code living might produce immediate and satisfying results, just like candy, but it fails to create long-term, sustained gains because it is not rooted in anything. You don’t actually get good at playing the game.
Just like the topsoil over your clay in the so-called “garden,” it will grow those transplants for a bit, but unless you actually change the nature of the soil, you will keep coming back to the same problems year after year and you’ll just have to keep buying topsoil and transplants to hack and shortcut the clay soil.
While the process, the long-term building of a way of life that produces results that will hold themselves, might seem daunting and overwhelming and not preferred for the satisfaction that you desire right now — cheating your way to the desired results might leave you in an even larger predicament.
Your garden will struggle to continue.
Your body won’t have the nourishment it needs.
You won’t be very good at the game.
And whatever you skipped for those immediate results may not be able to produce the outcome you initially wanted.
Part Three — The Short Game & the Long Game
Cheat code living skips development for ease.
And it is incredibly fragile & vulnerable to sustain itself as a way of life.
So in a culture where we’ve been told that what is easier, what is faster, what produces the most immediate result, is somehow better — what do we do?
Because, again, this is the dominant voice — from advertisements, to education, to how we eat, to the way we involve ourselves in relationships — we have been offered the candy — the quick, easy, satisfying, seemingly productive option that skips what might actually be beneficial to us long term because we would rather win in the short game than become a master of the game of life in the long game.
We have seen the story (or film or cartoon) where a character gets access to some hack or shortcut and seems to be ahead until that item or magic fails in its fragility and another character who seemed destined to lose actually ends up in the better situation. Art seems to have offered critique of this impulse and the warning is clear: Cheat codes are not only risky, but they also don’t often solve the problem or bring forth the solution.
What we are invited to realize is that a short-term solution will give short-term satisfaction, but will fail to produce long-term sustainability. Long-term solutions will fail to produce short-term satisfaction, but will actually create a foundation upon which a new way of life can stand.
Is this why the impulse to lie is such a dangerous decision? Because, in the immediate future, the lie may easily produce your desired outcome. I can tell you that I was the one who came up with the idea about that party that is getting thrown or I could tell you that I wasn’t actually the one who broke your grandmother’s vase, but then, in order to continue the fiction and allow the relationship to transition to the next scenario where you are about to walk up to the person who actually had the idea about the party or when you are about to confront the person who I claimed broke your grandmother’s vase, there will have to be inputs of additional lies or I risk losing the short-term satisfaction that my initial lie had bought.
Lying is a great short game hack.
Lying is, however, a dangerous way to create the foundation of your life.
Because you eventually need to recant on the lie which will now put you back where you started, if not a little behind, or you will have to continue the hack whose satisfaction will diminish over time. You eventually have to continue to develop short-term lying shortcuts just to stay alive and keep the story going.
Food, though, might be the best tactile representation of the short game versus the long game. You could begin the process of changing your eating habits which will be unsatisfying to your glucose cravings in the short game, but will begin to rewire your physiology so that, in the future, your cravings will have been traded for your new eating habits you’ve developed over time. Or you could continue to satisfy your immediate eating compulsions while your body, then, continues to diminish in health and you are eventually left making the decision to satisfying the craving you’ve developed or starting over again. The process of change is a slow journey that takes time altering your neurological patterns by strengthening the myelin sheath that passes along the information each time you do something until it becomes normal. But if you choose the short game, you are also strengthening those patterns of your myelin sheath and it will be more difficult to sustain those decisions in the long run. This is why addictions are so prevalent and so difficult — because the short game was played and, while it produces short-term outcomes, it created a long-term mess.
Cheat codes are the short game.
What we need is the long game.
We ought not to be like carpenters who throw together materials haphazardly to create a building. Their product will be finished sooner, but it will be more dangerously destined to fail. To construct a building correctly will take longer, but its outcome will reflect the process. Maybe this is why homes built a hundred years ago are still fine homes and why IKEA products are often replaced relatively quickly in comparison.
We need less of the quick, distilled, simple tricks to get what you want & we need more of the disciplined several year long processes that actually change the soil of our lives to a healthy foundation that sustains itself naturally and indefinitely.
Part Four — The (Dis) Satisfaction of the Long Game
The invitation of responding to the soil of your life would be the equivalent of this:
If you look at your clay soil and instead of the ideal option of growing food in it this year — what if you, instead, set a goal of having a beautiful garden in 3 years? Well, you would begin by enriching your plot of land with compost — which, of course, takes time. You will have to create compost and fertilizer that is ideally from natural means to slowly decay in the soil and reframe the entire biological ecosystem of bacteria and insects. Then you will plant some cover crops which will take an entire growing season. In comparison to the person who started growing their transplants in pre-bagged topsoil, you will be behind. But the tortoise and the hare cliche has a gem of truth — eventually, your garden will have the foundation to thrive that the immediate results cannot compete with all because you honored the process.
Because if you do this intentionally & consistently over time, you will have turned that clay into dark, nutrient-rich soil that will require almost no work in years to come and will grow anything years down the road.
But it will take time.
And giving up the short term.
It is the difference between watching a film of a beautiful place and actually going there yourself. Those will involve very different processes.
There is a reason the 10,000-hour rule of deliberate practice is true about mastering something because what we know about change is that it is hard and it happens, not quickly, but slowly. It begins not with satisfaction, but rewiring your existence in a way that will produce indefinite satisfaction and health. Becoming human is not something that you can be handed in a transaction through an idea someone says or a product someone sells you. Especially with leaders and speakers (and if you are one, take note), rhetoric doesn’t change people, experience does. If you are being handed an easy answer then it will feel good initially, but won’t produce anything. If you are being handed a question that you will now have to intentionally own, then it will produce in you a means, a skill, and a weathered maturity that will truly lead to you being different even though it will happen much slower than you might want it to.
We need to be more aware of the value of the initial difficulty of healthy, long-term change. We need to realize that developing a skill is like mastering a game…and the person who doesn’t use cheat codes will become exponentially better. Maybe, at first, the cheat code user will dominate, but through time and development, the vegetable far outperforms the candy.
Be aware, then, of your potential to seek out the quick fix.
To buy the product that gives you a short term solution rather than changing your lifestyle.
To gravitate to the motivational speakers who give you the answer that feels good and keeps you from discovering the process for yourself.
If it smells like it belongs on QVC and looks like the weight-shaker or the belt that you wear around your waist to give you a six pack while you sit on the couch — it is candy & topsoil to pour over your clay and avoid the process.
Be careful of anything that doesn’t put you through “the process”.
If there is not a tension of dissatisfaction where you yearn for something to be complete though it is taking a little longer than you want, then run away. The new vitamin, the new eight secrets to success, the self-help book full of clickbait and high selling anecdotes, the dopamine hit from that entertainment or drug or relationship — if it isn’t difficult then it might not be worth your time in the long run. The short term hacking, shortcutting, and skipping of the process may satisfy you now, but you might be left with a consequence of becoming someone you never intended to be; of the short-term fix that won’t actually give you the outcome you set out to achieve in the first place.
Instead, be open to the long game of becoming something that can only develop through the difficult, intentional, slow process of change.
If it is going to take years to establish, it is probably the right choice.
Whoever you want to become, I urge you:
Play the long game.