Life hacking as self-help: The hacker ethos and digital milieu

Joseph Reagle

Presented at ICA 2018 Popular Communication session on Technologies of the Self.

Abstract: A “life hacker” approaches life as a system to be optimized. What’s the most efficient way to fold a T-shirt? How can I better manage my time? Self-help is a genre of practical advice, written to the individual, produced for the masses, and premised on self-efficacy. Is life hacking a type of self-help for the new millennium? I show that it is, and that self-help itself is a type of practical philosophy. Additionally, scholars of self-help, like Starker (2002), reveal how the genre reflects and shapes cultural concerns about the self, work, and relationships throughout American history. I show life hacking reflects the ethos of a geeky contingency, enthusiastic and systematic, in a complementary digital milieu—characteristics exalted by enthusiasts and lamented by critics.

Keywords: life hacking, self-help, California Ideology, technophilia, entrepreneurialism, geek

Acknowledgments: Matt Thomas; Willow Brugh; anonymous reviewers


Self-help is a genre of practical advice premised on self-efficacy. You—one among many consumers—can succeed with a positive attitude and action. This is a message that has proven popular: there are over 45,000 self-help titles in print, and the American self-help book market is worth over $500 million—$10 billion when including audio, videos, infomercials, and personal coaching (Vanderkam, 2012). Just as the conception of success has changed throughout American history (Cawelti, 1965), so does the advice given. Do we succeed by being open to divine intervention, as in the 1890s, by following the examples of those who had grown rich, as in the self-help classics of the 1930s, or by adopting the secrets of the “alpha geeks,” who thrive amidst today’s information glut? As Steven Starker (2002: 38) wrote in his history of the genre, self-help books “reflect their sociocultural context, revealing something of the needs, wishes and fears of individuals of their period.” And as Rebecca Mead (2011) wrote in a profile of The 4-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferriss: “Every generation gets the self-help guru that it deserves.” I follow Starker and juxtapose the ethos of life hackers with their “sociocultural context.” In Mead’s term, I ask: what is the relationship between this moment and the character of its “gurus”? But first, I give a brief history of life hacking and position it as a type of self-help.

Life hacking

“I am a life hacker.” To an ordinary person, this might seem like a confession of lifelong criminality. A hacker is popularly understood as someone who breaks into computers: those who exploit system weaknesses for ill-gotten gain. However, those willing to publicly identify as a hacker likely mean something different. Yes, hackers often have a technical affinity. And they do like to understand and explore systems. But for most hackers, a hack means a clever improvement or fix, which is often shared.

Although sharing useful tips is not novel, “life hacking” as a subculture emerged among a handful of technically inclined writers in 2004. In February of that month, Danny O’Brien (2004) proposed a “life hacking” session at the O’Reilly Emerging Tech conference in San Diego, California. O’Brien, a writer and digital activist, noted that “alpha geeks” are extraordinarily productive, and he wanted to speak “to the most prolific technologists about the secrets of their desktops, their inboxes, and their schedules.” The idea caught on. Within the year Merlin Mann launched, named for way of organizing future tasks via folders, and Gina Trapani started, a site that remains popular today.

At the same time, Timothy Ferriss, a recent college graduate, was running a small online business selling “Brain Quicken,” a “neural accelerator” said to be used by Ivy League students and world-class athletes. Ferriss later wrote that the business had taken off, but the hours were punishing and he feared that he might go “Howard Hughes” if something did not change. In June 2004, he fled to Europe for a break: “I start my relaxation by promptly having a nervous breakdown the first morning.” But as his original four-week holiday turned into an extended absence, he was surprised that Brain Quicken sales continued to increase in his absence. Ferriss remained overseas to continue to experiment with “automation and experimental living” (Ferriss, 2009: 15), which he documented in his 2007 book The 4-Hour Workweek. Although Ferriss does not make much use of the “life hacker” moniker—he sees himself as a self-experimenter in “lifestyle design”—his books and podcast make him its most famous practitioner.

Lifestyle design is the most accessible label for life hackers who want to reach an audience beyond those who identify as hackers—or even know what hacking means. Other labels speak to different areas of focus. Those who focus on tracking their lives (e.g., steps taken or food eaten) might identify with the Quantified Self movement. Minimalists seek to pare down and live more simply, a goal often facilitated by technology, and Pickup Artists (PUAs) use systematic techniques and behavioral hacks to further their sexual interests (Thomas, 2015, ch. 2,4). What these groups share is an enthusiasm for improving their lives via a systematic approach.

Whether self-help and life hacking improve lives is debated. In Sham: How the Self-help Movement Made America Helpless, Steven Salerno (2005: 2) characterized the genre as “an enterprise wherein people holding the thinnest of credentials diagnosed in basically normal people symptoms of inflated or invented maladies, so that they may then implement remedies that never been shown to work.” Matt Thomas’ (2015: 210) dissertation, “Life hacking: A Critical History, 2004 – 2014,” concluded that life hacking is a “colonizing” and “technologized form of self-help” in which we seek to “master ourselves using technology, make do with less, ignore structural conditions, forget about the past, and work, work, work to make ourselves more productive like good little robots.” Although I agree with Salerno and Thomas that there is much to be critical of, I also find aspects of life hackers’ aspirations and methods admirable. Yet, this is not the argument I engage here. Instead, I make two historical arguments: (1) life hacking is self-help, itself a type of practical philosophy, and (2) the hacking ethos is well suited to the digital milieu. I make the case for the latter via the discourse of life hackers, enthusiasts, and critics alike.

Life hacking as self-help, an American practical philosophy

Since the early days of the recorded word, we find evidence of people giving advice. Hesiod wrote Works and Days, a progenitor of the farmers’ almanac; he advised timeliness, hard work, and avoiding risk. He thought it best to avoid enemies, treat relatives with care, and be on good relations with neighbors. The latter should be frequent dinner guests: in the event of tragedy “neighbors will come just as they are, but kinsmen must get dressed.”

Ben Franklin exemplified a secular and practical American spirit. His was a life of striving, recording, musing, testing, and advising; he’s been labeled a self-help author and life hacker. His daily tracking of thirteen virtues was an early post on LifeHacker (Trapani, 2006), and his method of planning his day in hourly blocks, with a morning and evening reflection, continues to be used. Franklin, like Hesiod, also dispensed advice by way of a farmers’ almanac. In the 1755 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack he advised “Be at War with your Vices, at Peace with your Neighbours, and let every New-Year find you a better Man.”

Of course, recorded advice is not limited to the Western tradition. In China, two centuries after Hesiod, Confucius wrote of virtue and also alluded to neighbors: “Virtue is not left to stand alone. He who practices it will have neighbors.” His philosophy influenced his society and culture for generations to come. But was Confucius a self-help author?

In his gloss of fifty self-help classics, Tom Butler-Bowdon (2003) included a sampling of “timeless sages” and “contemporary gurus.” This included classic self-help authors like Napoleon Hill and Dale Carnegie, current authors like Tony Robbins and Marianne Williamson, historical figures like Benjamin Franklin, ancient philosophers Confucius and Lao Tzu, and well known religious texts. This eclecticism is unusual for books about self-help, and I refer to Butler-Bowdon’s wider spectrum of works as practical philosophy. In William Irvine’s (2009: 226) delightful history and advocacy of Stoicism he wrote that practical philosophies have two components: “They tell us what things in life are and aren’t worth pursuing, and they tell us how to gain the things that are worth having.” Practical philosophies tell us what is worthwhile and how to realize it. Confucius valued social harmony and family loyalty, and he recommended how they should be maintained. His advice can be considered practical philosophy. But self-help is a smaller circle within practical philosophy’s ambit. Starker defined self-help as a work that accessibly instructs the lay reader on a topic of immediate and practical use (Starker, 2002: 9). Self-help provides plenty of “how to,” but what is considered worthwhile is rooted in the United States’ culture—“American” culture among those who write about the genre.

As Starker wrote in Oracle at the Supermarket: The American Preoccupation with Self-Help Books, “American individualism, I believe, is the wellspring from which nearly all self-help materials flow” (Starker, 2002: 170). Self-help is a manifestation of “American opportunism, self-reliance, and determination to succeed” (Starker, 2002: 7–8). In a 1954 review of instructional “howto” books, cultural critic Dwight MacDonald suspected that “something in the American soul” responds to these books because of America’s “frontier past” and “industrialized present”: “We are an active, ingenious, pragmatic race, concerned with production rather than enjoyment, with practicality rather than contemplation, with efficiency rather than understanding, and with information rather than wisdom” (MacDonald, 1954). More recently, Boris Kachka, writing for New York magazine, addressed “How self-help publishing ate America”: “strains of self-help culture—entrepreneurship, pragmatism, fierce self-reliance, gauzy spirituality—have been embedded in the national DNA since Poor Richard’s Almanack” (Kachka, 2013). Finally, Jessica Lamb-Shapiro’s recent memoir of growing up with the genre, her father was an author, spoke of American beliefs in “self-reliance, social mobility, and endless ability to overcome obstacles” (Lamb-Shapiro, 2014: 206). Although Scotsman Samuel Smiles’ lucrative Self Help (1859) was likely the first book to use the term, “self-help” joins apple pie as a European import that is now inexorably linked with America.

Life hacking is now a piece of that self-help pie. Before moving on to new ventures, Gina Trapani published three books of hacks culled from Ferriss authored three best-selling books, maintains a popular blog, and hosts a widely listened to podcast, all under the the “4-Hour” brand. Half a dozen authors have published works on minimalism, including The 100 Thing Challenge (Bruno, 2010) and Everything That Remains (Millburn and Nicodemus, 2014). As Matt Thomas (Thomas, 2015: 92–93) chronicled in his dissertation :“Digital minimalism circulates by way of these figures’ exemplary do-it-yourself minimalist blogs, but also beyond these blogs in the worlds of books, print journalism, radio, and television.” There are also many smaller life hacker titles that don’t reach the mainstream audience. Still, despite being published via independent presses or as ebooks, they receive dozens, sometimes over a hundred, Amazon reviews. This includes Nick Winter’s (2013b) Motivation Hacker, Tynan’s (2010, 2014) many titles, including Make Her Chase You and Superhuman by Habit, and Colin Wright’s (2011, 2013) dozens of titles, including How to Travel Full-Time and Act Accordingly: A Philosophical Framework.

If practical philosophy speaks to what is worthwhile and how to achieve it, self-help’s what is rooted in the American character, and its how is associated with a pragmatic and profitable genre of books. Life hacking maintains and amplifies many of self-help’s values: “American individualism,” “pragmatic,” “entrepreneurial,” and a “endless ability to overcome obstacles” are all to be found among life hackers.

The hacker ethos and digital milieu

If, life hacking is self-help for the twenty-first century, what does life hacking tell us about this moment and its practitioners? I show that the hacking ethos of life hackers is well-suited to their digital milieu. The hacker ethos, the mindset, is enthusiastic in spirit and systematizing in its approach. The digital milieu, the environment, is entrepreneurial in spirit and systematic in its arrangement. To establish this, I make use of those who embrace these characteristics as well as those who criticize them. My purpose is not to adjudicate whether neo-liberalism and entrepreneurialism are good or bad, nor whether being an outlier in enthusiasm and systematic thinking is excellent or excessive. Rather, I sketch these traits to show their complementary alignment.

Entrepreneurialism & enthusiasm

California ideology

In 2004, European scholars Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron (2004) raised an alarm: “At this crucial juncture, a loose alliance of writers, hackers, capitalists and artists from the West Coast of the USA have succeeded in defining a heterogeneous orthodoxy for the coming information age.” This “Californian Ideology” is “an anti-statist gospel of cybernetic libertarianism: a bizarre mish-mash of hippie anarchism and economic liberalism beefed up with lots of technological determinism.” More recently, Thomas characterized the minimalist sub-genre of life hacking as “a new cultural formation of mostly young white men confronting … new kinds of socioeconomic anxiety since the Great Recession.” He characterized life hacking as a “colonizing discourse,” one “structured by the race, class, and gender hierarchies of petty bourgeois producerism, a social vision of economic free agents striving to make something of themselves while interacting with each other via the Internet” (Thomas, 2015: 92–93, 22). Although the use of “alliance” and “colonizing” presume far too much agency, the historical and demographic characterization are apt. Life hacking is an emergent cultural phenomena, of geeks being geeky in a technological and entrepreneurial milieu. As such, the culture does reflect characteristics—including race, class, gender, and ideology—of that milieu, which are an object of critique.


Whereas critics decry these features, life hackers seek to survive—and even thrive. The subtitle of Ferriss’ Four-Hour Work Week is to “Escape 9–5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.” Ferriss recognized the contours of the new economy and that “The vast majority of people will never find a job that can be an unending source of fulfillment, so that is not the goal here; to free time and automate income is” (Ferriss, 2009: 9). One way to escape 9–5 is to adopt the same ideology and market trends that contribute to contemporary anxieties. Rather than lamenting the state of things, “Becoming a member of the NR [new rich] is not just about working smarter. It’s about building a system to replace yourself” (Ferriss, 2009: 128). Without any apparent irony, Ferriss excerpted an Esquire article by A.J. Jacobs to explain. The premise: If outsourcing has harmed American workers, why not use it to their own advantage? As Alice Marwick wrote in Status Update, an ethnography of Silicon Valley culture, “Neoliberalism, or the infiltration of market logic into everyday social relations, requires a willing subject … and rewards those who adopt such subjectivities” (Marwick, 2013: 5). Consequently, Ferriss recommended his readers delegate all manner of chores to “virtual assistants,” who can be hired for as little as $4-10/hour in India and China.


Personal outsourcing is but one indication of neo-liberal “infiltration.” For instance, Thomas rightfully connected the digital minimalists with what The Economist called “authorpreneurs”: a new class of writers who must be their own publicists, court “influencers” (such as Winfrey and Zuckerberg), game the best-seller lists (by encouraging pre-orders and releasing in a quiet period), and engage in public speaking (Economist, 2015). (We can add hosting or regularly appearing on podcasts to that list.) This is true beyond Thomas’ minimalists. Trapani describes herself as a “developer, founder, and writer”; Mann is a writer and podcaster who “speaks and consults” on productivity; Ferriss is a podcaster and an “angel investor/advisor (Uber, Facebook, Twitter, and 40+ more) and author”—and a dogged self-promoter (Tweney, 2008). Each also has lived in California’s Bay Area. Other sub-genres of life hacking are no different. The pickup artist scene was constituted by men wrote online and in print; they then offered their services as relationship coaches. And scholar Whitney Erin Boesel coined the term quantrepreneur for “someone who turns up somewhere in the Quantified Self milieu because he or she is looking to capitalize on the growing interest in self-tracking” (Boesel, 2013).

Such is the entrepreneurialism of life hacking’s digital milieu. As noted, this is associated with the digital economy, neo-liberalism, and the California Ideology. One can draw even more connections with broader critiques of modernity and instrumentality. For the critics, this is lamentable. For others, it is an inescapable necessity—or even opportunity.


If anxiety is a motive behind life hacking, as Thomas claimed, so is enthusiasm—if not more so. Hackers can be understood as geeks, and “to be geek is to be engaged, to be enthralled in a topic, and then to act on that engagement” (McArthur, 2009: 62). Fans act on their enthusiasm by consuming and discussing media, or by cosplaying their favorite characters. Hackers are enthusiastic about the challenges of understanding, exploring, and improving technical systems (Himanen, 2001: 3–4). As a survey of 164 attendees of a computer hacker conference concluded, hackers “demonstrate a particularly high confidence in their ability to reach optimal decisions through a rational deliberation process” and “enjoy solving problems that require hard thinking more than the average person” (Bachmann, 2010: 652). This is what I refer to as the hacker ethos, understood as the “characteristic spirit” of a people. Life hackers, then, bring the same enthusiasm to improving their lives, and this enthusiasm is seen in an appreciation for challenge.


Challenges are frequent topics of life hacking blogs and can be about work, health, or relationships. Often, life’s larger challenges are decomposed into smaller, achievable ones—giving momentum towards additional success. Much of this is common to self-help, where people are looking for a specific result. As part of a year-long effort, Lifehacker challenged its readers to “cut your restaurant spending to zero for the entire month of January” (Wong, 2016). Similar challenges are frequent a feature of the site. And those who read Ferriss’s three best-selling books want to be effective (“The 4-Hour Workweek”), fit (“The 4-Hour Body”), and skilled in the kitchen (“The 4-Hour Chef”).

Beyond hoped for results, challenges also yield insights. The author of the Lifehacker challenge conceded that avoiding restaurants for a month was ambitious, but “even if you slip up, you’ve still saved some cash and hopefully learned a thing or two about your habits.” For example, one reader realized that “When it is a social thing, I am happy to go out and enjoy a nice meal, but I want to cut out the lazy drivebys.”

Perhaps the greatest effect of a challenge is to inspire and motivate. Like many of the life hackers I discuss, Nick Reese characterizes himself as an entrepreneur, a “rogue mentor who challenges you to take the path less traveled so you too can start living life on your own terms.” His challenge of taking cold water showers is an exercise in “learning to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations,” which is said to “dramatically change your life for the better” (Reese, 2016). (Practicing discomfort is also a principle of Stoic philosophy, which many life hackers identify with, especially Ferriss.) Joel Runyon, Impossible HQ blogger and entrepreneur, developed the challenge further. For those that feel stuck in life, Runyon “used to be there too”: he had been laid off from work and felt listless. So he “decided to get unstuck.”

Cold Shower Therapy(TM) is a personal 28 day email challenge course that combines one part inspiration, two parts bootcamp, and one part self-administered pure ice-cold shower therapy to get you inspired and to help you shed the excuses that you’re convinced are valid. In four weeks, you’ll move from excuse maker to excuse smasher. From passive existence to purposeful action. From stuck to unstuck. (Runyon, 2012)

Runyon wanted a life to be worthy of writing about, and so he wrote about overcoming a significant, but arbitrary, challenge. This is similar to the fire walk ritual that occurs at the end of self-help retreats. Even if cold water plunges have no health effects, those undertaking the challenge benefit as much as those walking on hot coals: they’ve done something they did not think they could do and this imparts a newfound sense of perspective and efficacy.

So far, these challenges are typical of self-help. But life hackers also pursue challenges that are more unusual or extreme. Ferriss’ (2014) “No booze, no masturbating (NOBNOM)” 30-day challenge was unusually candid—and entrepreneurial: over 6,000 people have signed up for the challenge at <>, a site in which Ferriss is an investor. Software developer Nick Winter exemplifies the enthusiastic approach to achieving goals. In his book The Motivation Hacker, Winter documented his application of research on motivation to his own life. His goal? To write the book in three months “while simultaneously attempting seventeen other missions,” including launching a hit iPhone app, learning to write 3,000 new Chinese characters, running a four-hour marathon from scratch, and a dozen other non-trivial challenges (Winter, 2013b: 3). The result is a system for fulfilling one’s goals, including starting small with “success spirals” and making commitments that if broken result in a loss of face or cash.

Granted, Winter is unusual even among life hackers in his zeal and comprehensiveness, but he is an awesome example of the hacker ethos in many domains of life.

maximize happiness
For years, Winter (2013b: 65) has recorded his “happiness level” every three hours. He learned that weather has little effect on his mood, but reorganizing his music so as to increase the “density of enjoyable songs” increased “my overall positive happiness by 10%. Not bad for two days of effort.”
maximize productivity
Winter (2013a), and a few others, have tested themselves to see how many hours they can work in a week. Winter posted an “epic time-lapse video” showing that he “clocked in at 120.75 hours” of programming. This inspired Bethany Soule (2014), a “hacker and cyclist,” to undertake her own “maniac week,” which prompted a small discussion on the site Hacker News.
minimize material goods
some life hackers attempt to minimize their number of possessions—Winter (2012) maintains a public list of the “99 Things.” This practice even received popular attention by way of books like The 100 Thing Challenge (Bruno, 2010) and Everything That Remains (Millburn and Nicodemus, 2014).
amplify social interaction
“Rejection therapy” has been popular among life hackers, including Winter (2013b: 53). It was begun by Jason Comely (2010, 2015), who sought to overcome his fear of rejection by purposefully courting it every day. Comely now sells decks of cards as a game to help others be rejected in novel ways.

That said, more Americans have walked on hot coals than have jettisoned most all their belongings, worked 120 hour weeks, and sought out daily rejection—self-help guru Tony Robbins can have 6,000 fire walkers at a single event. The life hacker penchant for extreme or unusual challenges is deeper: it is a reflection of personality (Bachmann, 2010: 652). Winter equated excitement with ambitious challenges (Winter, 2013b: 79). Joel Runyon, the cold water challenge proponent, wrote that “I’m fundamentally happier when I’m pushing myself, learning new things, taking cold showers, looking like an idiot, hurting myself and sometimes figuring it all out” (Runyon, 2016). Tim Ferriss identifies as a self-experimenter and is happy to be described as “the world’s best guinea pig” (Ferriss, 2016). Indeed, undertaking challenges was the premise of his TV show, The Tim Ferriss Experiment.

Life hacking is a self help for the twenty-first century, and it does reveal something of its practitioners and their moment in time. Modern life is challenging, and life hackers attempt to hack those challenges—sometimes by reconstructing them into something more manageable and playing the part of entrepreneur. One can become demoralized with anxiety, protest and seek change, or, as life hackers do, seek to hack this for their own benefit. The digital milieu enables and rewards this ethos, which then normalizes itself as the accepted path towards success.

Systematic & systematizing


Traditional self-help makes use of metaphors (“Men are from Mars, Women from Venus”) and lists (“The 7 Habits of Highly Effect People”); this makes the advice accessible and memorable. Life hacking is no different. Some self-help books suggest a method (“Master the Game: 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom”); this makes advice implementable. And this is where life hacking distinguishes itself: life hacking is a self-help preoccupied with systems. The world, and one’s life, is a system; as a system, it can be broken, fixed, and exploited—often through the application of another system. A great example of this is David Allen’s (2001) Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Although the book precedes the coinage of the term, it is life hacking’s founding text. If the life hacking wave crested in 2004 with O’Brien’s neologism, Allen’s 2001 book served as its motivating current. The book was discussed and recommended at O’Brien’s first life hacking meeting (Doctorow and O’Brien, 2004). When Merlin Mann saw the notes from the meeting: “I knew I was with my people. I had been using GTD enthusiastically for a couple months at that point and immediately saw a bunch of common ground” (Mann, 2004). GTD inspired the name and much of the content of Mann’s 43 Folders. And although Allen never mentioned hacks, he did speak frequently of “tricks”: “the highest-performing people I know are those who have installed the best tricks in their lives” (Allen, 2001: 85–86). It was also, a common topic on Lifehacker; in fact, Trapani chose Allen’s “tricks” comment as the epigraph of her 2011 Life Hacker book (Pash and Trapani, 2011: xxiii). GTD is life hacking in all but name: it is a system for processing “all of the me ‘inputs’ you let into your life” so as to lessen anxiety (Allen, 2001: 3)—basically, transfer all the stressful items in your head into the “GTD” system. Allen would later comment that geeks were early adopters of his system because they “love coherent, closed systems, which GTD represents” (David Allen, quoted in Andrews, 2005). Merlin Mann agreed and considered GTD “geek-friendly” for eight reasons including “geeks love assessing, classifying, and defining the objects in their world”; life hacking was really just “a superset of GTD” (Mann, 2004; McCandless, 2005).


Of course, the twenty-first century is not the first one to be taken by the metaphor of the system—the machine, in particular, has been a powerful metaphor for millennia. To understand life hacking’s relationship with systems, consider two other moments in the 20th century: Taylorism and digital utopianism.

In journalist Nikil Saval’s (2014) critique of life hacking, he likened the “cult of self-optimization” to the Taylorism of early 20th-century American capitalism. Taylor wrote in his 1911 treatise, The Principles of Scientific Management, that in the future “no great man can (with the old system of personal management) hope to compete with a number of ordinary men who have been properly organized so as efficiently to cooperate.” Saval quoted a subsequent line from Taylor so as to be damning: “In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.” This sounds calloused, but in context, Taylor’s written intention was positive: he claimed that labor and management need not be antagonistic, and that his system could yield “maximum prosperity” for the employer and employee. For the employee, this meant higher wages doing the “highest grade of work for which his natural abilities fit him” (Taylor, 1913: 7–9). In hindsight we know that this belief was unrealistic, at best. Even so, I find little in common between Taylor and life hacking—even if it makes for a useful rhetorical barb.

Stewart Brand

Life hacking is closer in spirit to a different band of systems enthusiasts, whose history is described in Fred Turner’s (2006) From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Turner argued that early proponents of cyberspace where influenced by Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics, Buckminster Fuller’s “Comprehensive Designer,” Marshal McLuhan’s “global village,” the USCO art collective, and the LSD- and road-tripping Merry Pranksters—as noted, a culture characterized as the “California Ideology.” For many of these thinkers, systems were a powerful frame for understanding the world. They moved beyond earlier mechanistic notions and looked to environmental, biological, and communication systems instead. It wasn’t concerned with workplace productivity; rather, it focused on on ideas and things that were globally important and personally useful. This can be seen in Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, regularly published from 1968 to 1990, wherein he listed tools for the independent person, be it a desktop calculator, boots, “Indian tipi,” or a book on self-hypnosis. The catalog was conceived as a tool itself, “an evaluation and access device,” that helped its “user” know “what is worth getting and where and how to do the getting” (Brand, 1986); it was practical philosophy in print. When the personal computer arrived in the 80s, Brand and his cohort cheered that it was personal. Brand extended the Catalog’s coverage by way of the Whole Earth Software Catalog and co-founded the Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link (WELL), an early online community.

This systems thinking originated in what Turner referred to as the “military-industrial-academic complex” of the 1950s, but came to be applied to understanding nature, people, and the self. Also, as Turner noted, the catalog was “masculine, entrepreneurial, well-educated, and white.” While it celebrated systems and (even simple) technology: “It avoided questions of gender, race, and class toward a rhetoric of individual and small-group empowerment” (Turner, 2006: 97). This largely continues to be the case for life hacking today (Thomas, 2015: 61, 116).

Turner’s history stops in the late 1990s with the conclusion of two stories. The first is that of the remarkable technical success of the Internet as a global information system. Second, conversely, is the story of a “countercultural dream of empowered individualism, collaborative community, and spiritual communion” (Turner, 2006: 2) that fell short. Nonetheless, the dream continued into the new millennium.

Kevin Kelly

Whereas Stewart Brand bridged the counterculture of the 60s with the cyberculture of the 80s, no one better exemplifies “digital utopianism”—and the continuation of the Californian ideology —more so than Kevin Kelly. Kelly was an occasional editor in the later years of Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog and a co-founder of The WELL, its online counterpart launched in 1985 (Rheingold, 1999). In recent years, Kelly continued the Catalog’s mission by way of the Cool Tools blog and book. He has also explicitly linked the Catalog to life hacking, characterizing it as “a paper-based database offering thousands of hacks, tips, tools, suggestions, and possibilities for optimizing your life” (Kelly, 2015). This is not an over-extended attempt to be relevant. Kelly focused on the import of hackers early: he helped launch the annual Hackers’ Conference in the 1980s (Tenney, 2015) and was founding executive editor of WIRED. More recently, he co-founded the quantified-self (QS) movement, which can be thought of as the metric—often gadget—focused branch of life hacking. In an early post from 2007, Kelly wrote that QS might help us answer questions, big (“What is a human?”) and small (“how do I get through all my email?”). Again, we see the global and personal go hand in hand. He remains resolutely optimistic about technology and systems—embracing them with an almost religious zeal (Kelly, 2010: 358–359). His longstanding pinned tweet is that: “Over the long term, the future is decided by optimists.” (Kelly, 2014)


Kelly’s optimism is not always shared; indeed, many find things like pervasive self-tracking and lifestyle optimization frightening. Given his invocation of Taylorism, Saval (2014) worried that despite the “gonzo attractiveness” of life hacking, it substitutes human management with the faceless management of apps. Jana Costas and Christopher Grey worry that life hacking is a technique for the privileged (predominantly white and male): Ferriss and others like him can “outsource all the work of exploitation, leaving themselves free to enjoy the creativity and fun of exploration” (Costas and Grey, 2012: 223). Melissa Gregg fears this approach mutates individualism into a type of alienation: “GTD continues a legacy of thought that is content with the mission of elevating the status of a few especially brilliant people above the struggles of others” (Gregg, 2015: 189). Worse yet, we have fallen prey to the aphorism that “When you have a hammer, all problems look like nails.” That which can not be seen as a nail is simply unseen, a notion Evgeny Morozov refers to as solutionism:

All these efforts to ease the torments of existence might sound like paradise to Silicon Valley. But for the rest of us, they will be hell. They are driven by a pervasive and dangerous ideology that I call “solutionism”: an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are “solvable” with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal. (Morozov, 2013: 19)

Again, I can’t resolve the argument between the utopianists and critics here. Nonetheless, both groups demonstrate the systems character of the digital milieu, even if they disagree on its implications. For better or worse, our environment is increasingly viewed and managed as a system.

Systematizing ethos


To appreciate the systematizing ethos of the life hacker, consider a 2009 blog post from entrepreneur Paul Buchheit, Google employee number 23, lead developer of Gmail, and coiner of Google’s early motto: “Don’t be evil” (Buchheit and Livingston, 2007). In a post entitled “Applied Philosophy, a.k.a. ‘Hacking’,” Buchheit wrote that hackers are philosophers because they seek to understand reality: “Every system has two sets of rules: The rules as they are intended or commonly perceived, and the actual rules (‘reality’). In most complex systems, the gap between these two sets of rules is huge” (Buchheit, 2009). Hackers are adept at discovering these sets of rules and taking advantage of the gaps. This could be for good or ill, but it is not limited to computers: “Wherever there are systems, there is the potential for hacking, and there are systems everywhere. Our entire reality is systems of systems, all the way down” (Buchheit, 2009). Granted, “Not everyone has the hacker mindset (society requires a variety of personalities),” but those with this mindset are the ones who “transform the world” in governance, religion, and industry. For Buchheit, “Hacking is much bigger and more important than clever bits of code in a computer—it’s how we create the future” (Buchheit, 2009). Bucheit’s claims for the hacker mindset are ambitious—grandiose even. Nonetheless it is demonstrative: the world is a system to be understood and exploited.

LH Definitions as systematic

Thinking of the world as a system among life hackers is readily seen in their own words. In a Lifehacker interview by Gina Trapani, Danny O’Brien defined “hacks” as “a way of cutting through an apparently complex system with a really simple, nonobvious fix” (Trapani and O’Brien, 2005). When Trapani was interviewed for a 2010 documentary, she explained life hacking can be thought of as a “systematic way to get something done in your life” (Trapani and Daoud, 2010)

Computer programmers have a very systematic way of looking at life, so I think that life hacks come from them taking that mindset and applying it to anything that they do, not just writing computer programs. If you think about it, the purpose of computer programs is to automate things or tasks, so that actual humans don’t have to do them. So the idea of a life hack is you kind of reprogram the way that you perform tasks, to make them a little faster and a little more efficient. That’s why I think it’s very popular with the tech crowd, because it applies a different way of thinking to everything. (Trapani and Daoud, 2010)


Of course, one not need not be a Silicon Valley software developer to have a systematic approach. Timothy Ferris is a Silicon Valley “angel investor,” but he doesn’t code. Nonetheless, the whole premise for his advise towards “becoming a member of the new rich” is about “building a system to replace yourself” (Ferriss, 2009: 128). “Mystery,” the famed pickup artist , is a not techie either. But Mystery did write his own book, The Mystery Method, which is dependent on realizing that we are “elegant biological machines embedded with sophisticated behavioral systems(Mystery, 2006: 7). This metaphor of life as a mechanical system is common in self-help—especially the masculine-leaning—and its roots go back to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), a pseudo-science of the 1970s. NLP proponents believe they can manipulate others’ behavior through subtle language patterns. NLP inspired pickup authors for decades (e.g., Ross Jeffries in the 80s (Almog and Kaplan, 2015: 5–7)), as well as self-help authors including Tony Robbins and Scott Adams (2013), author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big—but better known for Dilbert. (Adams discussed the wider influence of NLP in an episode of Ferriss’ podcast (Adams and Ferriss, 2015).) In his review of fifty self-help classics, Butler-Bowdon wrote of NLP that “a psychology that sees the mind and body as machine-like and open to manipulation is appropriate for the technological culture in which we live” (p. 20).

Clearly, there are different ways of thinking about the world. Not surprisingly, computer hackers show a preference for the systematic style—as well as enthusiasm for challenge. There’s been no empirical survey of life hackers specifically, but in their discussions and self-reports, systems-thinking certainly comes to the fore, whether they program or not. The life hacking ethos is to see the world, and life, as a system: one that can be broken, fixed, and exploited—often through the application of another system.


As Mead and Thomas suggested, life hacking is a type of self-help, which itself is a practical philosophy, telling us what is worthwhile and how to realize it. What distinguishes life hacking from traditional self-help? Scholars and critics suggest that self-help is characterized by “American individualism,” a “pragmatic” and “entrepreneurial” attitude, and an “endless ability to overcome obstacles.” Life hacking takes these self-help characteristics and amplifies them with an added dose of systematizing—while expanding the genre to include blogs and podcasts. Life hacking is self-help 2.0, for a geeky constituency.

If, as Starker (2002) claimed, self-help reflects and shapes cultural concerns about the self, work, and relationships, life hacking does the same. Life hacking reflects the ethos of geeks, enthusiastic and systematic, in a complementary digital milieu. It arose among a collection technically-inclined authors in California’s Bay Area, and this is reflected in the technophilic and entrepreneurial character of the genre. It also the continuation of systems enthusiasts from decades prior, especially by way of Kevin Kelly.

The digital milieu is manifestation of our networked neo-liberal economy, of the California Ideology. This prompts anxieties and opportunities, which life hackers seek to manage and exploit. The hacker ethos, the mindset, is enthusiastic in spirit and systematizing in its approach. The digital milieu, the environment, is entrepreneurial in spirit and systematic in its arrangement. Modern life is challenging, and life hackers hack those challenges—sometimes by reconstructing them into more manageable 30-day challenges. The digital milieu rewards this ethos, suggesting that this is an accepted path towards success. Even so, it is difficult to fault individuals for wanting to improve their lives. In this, life hacking is a self-help, inextricable bound to self-help’s legacy, for better and worse.


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