“Hacks” are the modern internet age term commonly used to refer to new and unique ideas to generate leverage, allowing us to be and do more.
As defined by Wikipedia:
“Life hacking refers to any trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method that increases productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life.
The term is primarily used by computer experts who suffer from information overload or those with a playful curiosity in the ways they can accelerate their workflow in ways other than programming.”
Why do we focus so much on “hacks” as a weapon of choice to get what we want from life?
Hacks are out-of-the-box, unconventional solutions to improve upon the conventional, or defy it altogether. It’s about finding a critical edge – leverage enables you to be the best version of yourself, discover greater freedom, and enjoy the best that life has to offer.
Let me give you an example.
In Super Mario Bros 3 for Nintendo, there is an item called the “magic whistle” or “warp whistle.” The “magic whistle” is a hack that enables Super Mario to skip to the last world by “warping” and fulfill his goals of defeating King Bowser and rescuing the princess.
The magic whistle was the first hack I’d ever discovered in my life, and I used it to beat the game for the first time. The lesson of the magic whistle was not lost on me.
If all of us are the equivalent of real-life Super Marios, toiling each day to realize certain goals, then we can use the magic whistle to get what we want with far less effort, struggle, and time spent.
How do we create our own magic whistles for real life, you ask?
A hack can take many forms, but to create one is a relatively straight-forward process. The key is that it helps us to gain greater leverage in life by multiplying our output, saving us valuable time, and enabling to solve problems in the most efficient manner.
It might come down to outsourcing work or applying certain applications, but it isn’t always about technology. It can also mean using soft skills to get the outcome we want in a certain situation.
Or it can come down to how we influence our own minds – the most powerful supercomputers currently in existence.
The name of the game is to optimize any and all areas of our life to get where we want to be. When we have a clearly defined outcome that we’re striving for, we can take a rowboat to get there or a high-speed jet.
We can go through all of the levels (and expend a lot of effort and resources in the process), but we might run out of lives, give up, and turn off the Nintendo without ever finishing the game.
Ancient Hacks in Action
Sun Tzu, the great 6th-century BCE Chinese strategist, was one of history’s foremost hackers – applying hacks to wage warfare in a smarter, more efficient way. Sun Tzu correctly pointed out that wars of attrition were costly, and ineffective at realizing the original aims of war, as they often left behind devastated kingdoms with no subjects left to rule.
Sun Tzu was the first to objectively analyze the conditions facing armies and their nation-states that either led to victory or defeat, to find both opportunities to exploit and situations to avoid. His treatise, “The Art of War,” has been so highly-regarded over the last 2,000 years that it has become the definitive work on military strategy and tactics.
Sun Tzu starts out the with his first lesson, “Laying of Plans,” which defines his philosophy and prefaces the chapters to follow:
“Strategy (vision) without tactics (hacks) is the slowest route to victory. Tactics (hacks) without strategy (vision) is the noise before defeat.”
In Sun Tzu’s mind, it was very simple. A clearly defined objective should be achieved in the shortest amount of time using the fewest amount of resources necessary. Each of the different tactics that he introduces in his book are hacks designed to help one gain a competitive edge and realize one’s ultimate objective in the quickest and least costly way possible.
In Western warfare, “hacks” usually came about as a result of innovations. It might be a technical innovation, such as the invention of the crossbow or use of gunpowder. Or it could simply come from innovative thinking.
Napoleon could easily see that lining up soldiers and marching them down the middle of a field was not the best way to win a battle. At the time, it was unconventional, because no one else could see it. His opponents were busy fighting the last war.
Sun Tzu and Napoleon were radically ahead of their time. They applied hacks to the realm of warfare to benefit their cause and achieve their goals.
What can we hack?
One of the things that make hacks so interesting is that in the majority of cases, they defy what conventional wisdom says is the best way of doing something.
There’s a popular saying that if you want to know the secret to success, “look at what everyone else is doing, and do the opposite.”
The average person who goes with the flow doesn’t stop to comprehend the significance of that statement.
However, if you and I want to join the likes of the people whom we feature on this website, we need to let the statement sink in and learn how to optimize every area of our lives and work.
We need to follow the example of Sun Tzu and Napoleon and look for ways to improve in every area. We need to discover the magic whistles that lets enable us to do more with the least amount of effort.
On a daily basis, areas that we can hack include:
In business, processes we can hack include:
To benefit from the most from hacks in our personal and professional lives, we need to transform the way that we think. We need to act as systems engineers, where we dispassionately and perpetually set to work on optimizing, iterating, and improving the processes that run our lives.
Identify the Sticking Points in the System
What are some of our common objectives?
The warlords of Sun Tzu’s age each desired to rule over all of China.
For many of us today, a common goal is to get into great physical shape. It makes sense: being physically fit makes life better in many ways, such as making it easier to find a high-paying job or attract a quality mate.
Conventional wisdom would say that to get into great shape, you would have to go to the gym more often.
What if this wasn’t the case?
The real problem that most of us are not as fit as we would like to be is not that we’re not getting in to the gym enough, the problem is a matter of adherence.
If something is too tough, we quit. If we do not something that we’re passionate or feel strongly about, we quit. If we do not see initial results quickly, we quit.
Adherence is key to progress. Plain and simple.
There’s a well-known saying that “quitters never win, and winners never quit.”
There’s also a lesser-known saying that “You can outlast those who are lucky and outwork those who are lazy.”
Adherence beating luck or talent. It applies across the board: to our careers, skill learning, language learning, even education – as Malcolm Gladwell so eloquently pointed out in the book “David and Goliath.”
In a nutshell, Gladwell argues that while most high school graduates blindly aim for the most prestigious schools they can get in to, these top-tier schools do not always the best option for them.
In an Ivy League school such as Brown University, Malcolm argues that the best one can hope for is to be a “small fish in a big pond.” More than half of science and engineering students drop out after the first year or two, he points out. Whether you stick around and earn your degree comes down to how well you do in comparison to how everyone else is doing.
That’s why, Malcolm argues (whose thesis is backed by hard data), it’s far better to be a “big fish in a small pond.”
Enter into an environment or situation where success is easy, and you fix the problem of adherence.
In the realm of language-learning, for instance, it is well known that your odds of success when it comes to learning a new language has a lot to do with the similarity of the new language to languages you already know.
If you were a native English speaker wishing to learn Chinese, it wouldn’t make sense to focus on all of the ways that Chinese is different: from the use tones or the fact that there are over 50,000 characters. It would be far too daunting.
Instead, it would make more sense to phonetically learn specific words and phrases and write them out the way an English speaker would, so that they are easily accessible. As you gain practice with the language and memorize basic words and phrases, you begin to learn how the language works and can move on to more advanced steps.
Going back to the gym example, instead of setting a goal to visit the gym 4-5 times per week, set a minimum goal of one visit per week.
If you do it right, one intense workout covering the whole body can be all you need to get into the best shape of your life.
I’ve been lifting weights since age 13, my first year of freshmen football in high school. For more than a decade I became stuck on a plateau of diminished returns, where more workouts led to no progress.
It was maddening.
The only way I could continue to make progress was to do less. I stopped working out five times a week, and did one workout per week every five days instead.
As a result, I gained 14 pounds of muscle in one month.
This is life hacking in action.
How to Defy Convention and Discover Root Cause and Effect
Conventional problems and conventional solutions arise from surface-level assumptions. But if we dig under the surface… we can discover the real root cause of an issue and the best way to solve the problem.
Let’s assume that I’m struggling with my daily energy levels.
Conventional wisdom says that I need to get more sleep, exercise more often, and eat healthier.
All of these things can be helpful, but they are merely band-aids. They don’t cure the root of the issue.
What conventional wisdom – in this instance – fails to account for are the power of our emotions to create, or deflate, our energy.
For some reason we neglect to tend to our own emotional health – until we crash and burn completely and turn to extreme solutions like antidepressants to address the symptoms but not the issues that caused the predicament in the first place.
If emotions are a key player when it comes to our energy levels, even more so than sleep, exercise, and diet, then how do we fix the problem of low energy?
In a study, Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University collected data from 148 previous studies looking at the relationship between health and human interaction.
What she found was startling: People with active social lives were 50 percent less likely to die of any cause than their nonsocial counterparts. Low levels of social interaction have the same negative effects as smoking 15 cigarettes a day – and even worse effects than being obese or not exercising.
Anyone who has traveled extensively will tell you: people in poorer, less-developed countries often appear to be much happier than their counterparts in rich “developed” ones.
Why is this the case? It goes against everything conventional wisdom leads us to believe. In developed countries we all too often think that an overpriced organic smoothie will make us feel good and give us energy but ignore the fact that if we maintain low levels of social interaction it is the equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day!
Here’s the point – if we were given the following three options to increase our overall health, energy, happiness, and well being…
3) Social activity
…and we had to choose just one of the these three options and did nothing else, the third option clearly provides us the most benefit.
However, recent surveys tells us that millions of people today feel that they do not have one single true friend. On average, the majority of people claim to have only two real friends.
Far too many of us today focus far too much attention on exercise and diet but neglect the quality and quantity of our relationships.
This is simply one example of an assumption that leads us astray. All too often, we rush to make immediate snap judgments which are completely off-base.
To optimize our lives for growth and leverage, it’s important to train ourselves to consider other perspectives and challenge our assumptions about cause-and-effect.
Always Start With Why
One exercise to train our objective cause-and-effect deduction muscles is to apply the “Five Why’s” technique to any instance where things do not happen the way that we would like them to.
This exercise trains us to start thinking differently, and take on the role of an objective systems engineer. The way it works is simple. Whenever something clearly isn’t working: ask “why?”
Come up with an answer, and then ask why again. Answer the next problem, and keep asking why until you arrive at the root of the issue that causes all of the subsequent issues to occur.
Every hack that you or I can come up with always starts with a problem and our overall objective. The hack becomes the form of leverage that solves the problem we are facing and enables us to reach the objective.
How to Use Hacks to Accomplish Huge Lifelong Dreams
I recently just interviewed an extraordinary man, Tony Mangan, for my podcast. Tony has crossed the world TWICE – he cycled around the world once starting at 21, and then ran across the entire world at 53.
For years Tony held his dream of running around the entire world, and he thought about it every single day. While at work, he would constantly think about all of the different ways he could make it happen.
When he finally set off, the “world run” took four years. He had only 20,000 Euros when he started. Many of us can’t survive for one year on 20,000, let alone travel the world for four years. But he did it, mainly by being smart and applying certain hacks.
For example, he would carry a bunch of postcards with him that introduced himself and his stated mission to run across the entire world, and every time he arrived at a new town or village, he would go around passing them out. Many people offered to help, and he often got free accommodation this way.
Tony’s idea to use postcards to save costs and acquire supporters in his long journey is a perfect example of using unconventional means to make your dream a reality.
Several example scenarios on an ordinary (daily) scale:
1) Problem: I don’t have enough time to consume content, or listen to podcasts.
Solution: I can use VLC player to fast forward through podcasts at a rate of 2.0 or 1.5 (preferred), and reduce the time to get through each podcast, and still take in the parts that I want to hear.
2) Problem: In the Information Age we have become overwhelmed with TOO MUCH information, so we spend so much time learning and reading, always reading, but seldom taking action. I was guilty of doing this for years.
Solution: When it comes to personal improvement, reading is useless unless we act upon the information.
But it gets worse.
Too much information leads to analysis paralysis, which is fatal to getting things done. That’s why I almost exclusively practice “firing range exploration” versus “free range exploration.”
When seeking information, if we know exactly what information we are looking for before we begin, and ignore everything else, is called “firing range exploration.” It’s key to our time, and our sanity.
Aimless perusal of information, such as browsing the internet without any clear objective, is “free range exploration.” Unfortunately this is how far too many of us consume content.
3) Problem: I don’t have enough self-confidence.
Solution: We can say affirmations, we can do meta-affirmations (more powerful), or we can do that which we fear – and take small steps outside of our comfort zone. There’s a saying that “movement beats meditation,” and nothing will increase our confidence more than doing.
4) Problem: Social media (and e-mail) is a huge time-sucking distraction
Solution: I use the URL facebook.com/messages to bypass the newsfeed and save my attention span when logging into Facebook.
5) Problem: Many of us believe that travel is too expensive, so we don’t do it.
Solution: There are a variety of “travel hacks” we can use, if we’re willing to think a little bit outside of the box.
Examples include credit card rewards programs to earn free flights. Or using CouchSurfing, Workaway, Camp In My Garden to find free accommodation (leveraging technology). Or reaching out to guesthouse and independent hotels and offering a trade, such as a free website, in exchange for a free place to live (leveraging soft skills – what I did in the beginning).
6) Problem: Recently I arrived at the airport late (after midnight). There were no buses or trains running at the time, and there were nearly a hundred people lining up for a taxi.
Solution: Instead of blindly “going with the flow,” I waited near the front of the line by the airport exit. Then, as one person after another booked a taxi and began to leave, I approached each one and asked if they were heading to the same area as I was. Might they be interested in sharing a cab?
Conclusion – start today and optimize your life
Hopefully by now you get how the process works. Observe the patterns as they unfold around you, and if there’s some sticking point – some obstacle – that makes things more difficult than it needs to be, find or create your own way – above, around, or under.
To make all of this work requires action. A lot of it.
Always remember that you have nothing to lose, and imperfect action is always better than no action.
The rule of success that I live by comes from a decades-old audio recording by Tony Robbins: I am successful at anything I try, if I give it my very best effort and I learn something.
With these standards, I am successful at everything I do. It is impossible to fail.
And that’s the mindset that you need to optimize your life and continuously improve in every area.