Over time, a meme that has continually grown is that of the “life hack.” These neat little tricks — some effective, some poorly thought out — are supposed to score us those precious extra seconds throughout the day. That’s not to knock their usefulness: having a toolkit of knowledge for preventing life’s little annoyances is beneficial. However, in a more technical sense, “hacking” falls into one of two definitions: a quick, dirty trick that really shouldn’t be used, or a much more brilliant breach of a secure system.
The latter, thanks to malicious hackers, comes with rather sinister associations, even though services such as security penetration testing are crucial for judging the security of more complex systems. If there is any sort of “hacking” you should do with your life, it should be more in this vein: tactical, clever, and responsive.
Though my primary productive passion in life is software development (and technology in a broader sense), I have long had a love of creative writing. For years — from the time I was a teenager — I struggled to complete a full novel draft, even though I found things such as short stories effortless. A lot of resources for aspiring authors said your first manuscript will likely never be published. For over a decade, I insisted to myself that standard did not apply to me. Ultimately, though, whether it did did not matter. Eventually, I took it to heart and set out to write a book not only that I would be comfortable not getting published but I explicitly had no interest in publishing it. Within a few weeks, I had a manuscript.
I succeeded not in spite of the fact I set out to fail but precisely because of that fact. By removing that self-judgment from the equation, I was able to better focus on the now. When you fixate on the difficulty of a task before you, it’s easy to let your morale falter. When working on a side skill, you have the freedom to set the difficulty: you can play the game on easy until you better understand the nuances. You are the one who decides when you are setting out to prove something more than just to yourself.
The goal is not to start caring at some point. Rather, the goal is to care the right way from the outset. If a dream is important enough to attempt to realize, the probability of failure is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what you can do right now, here in the moment, to bring yourself closer to those goals. The idea of “living in the moment” isn’t a barrier to productivity like many superficial perceptions of the idea might make it seem. Contrarily, it is the very thing that enables you to focus on what is productive.
A little less than a year later, a few months ago, I set out again to write a novel. This time, I used a concept for awhile that I intended to publish. A few times, unlike last year, I had to fight the urge to be too hypercritical of my own work, but there was a familiar groove, a level of heightened but calm productivity that I had never experienced before my throwaway novel the year before. Focusing your care in the right places is difficult and takes practice, but that practice becomes self-sustaining.
The people who accomplish what seems to be impossible by and large aren’t the ones who are naive to think that they can make the impossible possible, they’re the ones who minimize how much they let that sort of thinking influence them.
This is a true “life hack.” Will it save you any time? Fuck no! At least not in the short term. But it is the sort of hack that is more than a couple of rungs above the word as used in the phrase “hack doctor” — it requires developing a deeper understanding the nature a complex system. In this case? Your life. The reward isn’t time saved but instead a greater level of accomplishment.
A lot of experts who pitch the mystical secrets of success talk about the importance of learning from failure. It’s a cliche, but they’re not wrong. What most don’t say is to seek it out. Go create a failure. It’ll be a great learning experience and equip you better for building something that isn’t.