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 mystic 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. There has always been snake oil salesman ready to promote a gimmick and “fluff” disguised as legitimate answers in the field of self improvement. But, the internet age has ushered in a whole new era: The maddening proliferation of hope clouded in bro-science.

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 promise of the latest technological gadgets to transform our world has become a loud drum-beat. We can now use data and tech to hack our way to a better, more productive life. Unlike previous generations who had foolish 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 actual be founded in something theoretically possible…but then they go way too far…like off the walls too far…so they can claim that a breakthrough to solving our problems is just around the corner.

It’s with 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 all of 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’ sales-people 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 a MCT oil mixture will make them put on 10 pounds of muscle.

But the reality is, the onus isn’t 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 in more notoriety. Sometimes this belief is so powerful that the founding hacker him or herself actual deludes themselves into thinking their respective hack actually works. It’s a complete mess.

And while you may be sitting here thinking, “I’m smarter than that, I know this tropical elixir won’t really extend my life 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 that breakthrough you desire. The more desperate you become 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? Or why does the exact “perfect” weight (no such thing exists) for my kettlebell swing exercise matter when that’s the only exercise I do at all, and then proceed to spend 8 hours sitting in a chair at work? Or why do some use use intermittent fasting to delay cancer, and then neglect to put on sunscreen so they can “get some color.”

In athletics, we’ve slowly transitioned into a performance culture obsessed with the fine details and nitty gritty, seemingly forgetting all of the big picture items that actually make a difference. In our diet, we go nuts over whether 80 percent of calories should be carbs or fat, all while overlooking that a lot of what we eat—carbs or 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. Diet. 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 back 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 and create a solid foundation, we want to fast-forward to the finishing touches. We desperately need an answer. But as Ryan Holiday has so perfectly said, “there are no shortcuts besides HACKING IT every single day.”

A Better Way: Shifting the Culture

As athletes and coaches, we know how backward the hack culture is. To run faster we know that shortcuts and hacks don’t work. You’re not going to run your fastest marathon off CrossFit or high-intensity intervals only. (And, you’re not going to win the CrossFit games off running 70-miles a week.) You can’t eat (or starve) your way to a fast time, or take some legal supplement to get there. There is no new fangled training system that will get you there faster. Instead, you have to put in the hard work. Run lots of miles, grind through the hard workouts. Put in the work. Show up. Be consistent. Surround yourself wisely with good social support.

It’s for these reasons that I wrote my new book, Peak Performance. Am I (or my co-author) a self-help guru? No way! But we do feel qualified to bring the focus back on the concepts that actually do make a difference. The simple ideas that actually make a difference in your life, honed by time and individuals, and backed by legitimate research. Some of these might not be fancy, and might even sound like “of course that makes sense.” But the bottom line is they work.It’s my hope that we can send a message to the people spouting outlandish claims, the ones pushing further and further down the ‘hack’ highway. The ‘bros’ who tout all their stupid supplements, and neglect to tell us that they are synthetic testosterone and modafinil. We want to loudly and clearly remind them that what actually matters are time-tested principles; the ideas that might not sound sexy, but actually make a difference. 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 binging on stimulants. 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.


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    1. […] dat er niet zoiets bestaat als een quick fix. Dat is ook het punt van Brad Stulberg in zijn artikel ‘The problem with the ‘hack’ culture’ op The Science of Running. Alle hacks hebben dezelfde boodschap: als jij maar XYZ doet, dan zal je […]

    2. Christiaan on February 24, 2018 at 12:21 pm

      Great post! Fascinating because I am hacking a marathon. Not just by quick fixes but by using the compound effect of empowering habits which lead to outstanding results!
      And yes.. We have found some shortcuts, but we use most basic laws of nature.

      Most of the hacks you mention are like running a marathon in about 50 sprints.

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