Every now and then I hear about some new fad, and I wonder to myself: "Can people really be that stupid?" Almost always. the depressing answer is "yes. Yes, they can."
I thought about this when I read an article over at the Art of Manliness encouraging us to stop hacking our lives. Hacks, it seems, are the self help and self improvement books for the ADHD generation, and these 'hacks' suffer from the same troubles as the books: they almost always fail outside the laboratory. And yet, people seem genuinely surprised by this. Are they really that dumb? Yes. Yes, they are.
Why is that? Assuming that the authorial endorsement of "I invented this system, and, boy, did it ever help me!" is not a complete lie, why don't they widely work?
There are a few reasons for this. First, though, I would advise my readers to get down on their knees and thank God they don't work. A self improvement book that could really deliver happiness and contentment would be a catastrophe for Western Society. We are built on misery and discontent. Just look at any ad and you'll see why. Look around and wonder how many businesses would go belly up if we were truly happy and content.
One reason for Catholics and other Christians is obvious: man is fallen. There is no way for a secular world to repair the damage and return us to Eden, or some facsimile thereof. Self help is relatively benign in that respect: hundreds of millions were murdered over the last century trying and failing to establish an earthly paradise.
For the Catholic or the Christian reader, no further explanation is necessary. But some of my readers are not Catholic or Christian, so that reason will not swim for them. They need another reason, so here it is: these books do not universally work is because they mistake the difference between mechanical and a tactical problems and solutions.
A mechanical solution to a mechanical problem will always work. For instance, the Wright Brothers worked out the issues and principles of flight in 1903. Had they, or someone else, worked out those problems in 1902, it would still have worked. Or 1802. They were dealing with problems of aerodynamics that do not change. Those principles are still in effect, and their solution will still work. Their solution to the problem of flight is a mechanical solution to a mechanical problem.
A tactical solution is a different beast entirely: it will sometimes work, and sometimes not. Tactical solutions are provisional and context based. A mechanical solution will work always, everywhere. Tactics must be executed at the right time, in the right place, in order to be successful. Take the classic military mind game. You are to attack a town. There are two roads into that town: one is the main road, the other a seldom used goat path. For various reasons, you need to keep your force together, so no splitting them up and taking both roads. Furthermore, you know the defenders have only enough men to guard one of the roads. So: which road do you take? The obvious choice for attack would be the main road, but it would also be the obvious choice to defend. So then the obvious choice would be to take the goat path, but if the defenders know that you know the obvious choice would be to defend the main road, and that you would therefore take the goat path, then they will be defending the goat path. Which means that the obvious choice would be the main road. But if they knew that you knew that they knew, etc. Go far enough into it, and you end up sounding like Vizzini from The Princess Bride.
Or, take the game of chess. Each game is unique, as each player adjusts their strategy to try and overcome the strategy of their opponent. They are adjusting their tactics to the unique challenges of each specific game.
For me, the main problem with hacks and self help is that they attempt to give mechanical solutions to tactical problems. It is as though someone attempted to introduce a mechanical solution to a tactical situation. Imagine someone using the exact same set of moves to every single game of chess. It would not take long for their opponents to realize this fact and defeat him.
I imagine the people who post their lifehacks are sincere: they tried something and it works, but it does not necessarily follow that their successful solutions will translate easily to others. They offer solutions to problems isolated outside of their context. "What worked for me will work for you!' is a true statement inasmuch as we resemble each other and share a context, or if the solution is for a purely mechanical problem. If the difference between us is too great, and the situation a tactical one mistaken for a mechanical, the solution will inevitably fail. As human beings, we are simply too various for 'one-size-fits-all' solutions. And it is absolutely stunning to me that people still have not learned that.