The Real Problem with Hacks

Jay AcunzoBlog4 Comments

A “hack” is typically interpreted as some kind of cheap, efficient, perhaps less-than-pure way to execute a tactic. But really, what is a hack? It’s the use of a system in a way in which the system wasn’t intended to be used.

When you break into a car, rip out some wires, and start the engine without a key (you know, just a typical Friday), you’ve hacked that car.

When you gorge yourself on gluten-free-non-GMO-fair-trade-free-range-vegan kale chips, you’re trying to “hack” your biology to get a higher performance from your body. You’re also obnoxious.

When you create a series of short-form videos on your laptop to then upload to Instagram, you’re hacking the way those engineers intended you to use their product. They built the system for users to create their content within the app itself, and you’ve found another, perhaps better way to use that system.

When a hack becomes more common, by the way, the system often catches up to allow for that action more seamlessly, and both the ubiquity of the approach and the corresponding product features signal that the approach is no longer a hack. It’s just one way people use the system now.

Regardless of your examples, when you hack something, you’re just using it to achieve an end in a way the means wasn’t built to be used. And that seems rather benign as a theoretical concept.

So why am I so damn bothered by all the “hacks” being shared in our work?

Well, as it so often happens, the meaning behind the word is different than its definition. In our world, we often interpret a “hack” to mean an “easy way out.” Said more harshly: Hacks are tactics for people who don’t want to put in the work. The issue is not the hacks so much as the mentality of those who routinely seek hacks.

To seek a “hack” isn’t really to seek “an atypical way to use the system.” More often than not, if you’re looking for a hack, you’re trying to do something without actually learning how to do it.

This is dangerous for two reasons.

First, it prevents you from aspiring to do anything greater than what’s done before. Without a strong foundation or strong grasp of the basics, you’re limiting your options. There are countless possibilities for what you can do, but they haven’t all necessarily been tried or written about.

Second, obsessing over hacks removes YOU from the equation. The mentality that others can share some shortcut or secret places the power in their hands. THEY think. YOU follow. But YOU are the biggest variable in any work you do. If I did that same thing, it would turn out different because we’re different. That’s a weapon, if only you’d wield it.

Shortcut culture is everywhere, and it’s ruining the very same thing we need to do more than ever before.

Our love of hacks as silver bullets to save us time or money simply masquerades our reliance on the thoughts of others. Who cares what questions or aspirations you have? They have the answers. Just follow them. And if you call it “hacks,” you’ll still sound smart or empowered.

You know the feeling, I’m sure: Someone you admire and follow shares a headline claiming to reveal some kind of hack. You feel this internal urge to click it, to read it, to follow it. What if I’m missing the cleverest, sneakiest, easiest way to do this?

Someone else’s hack, cheat, shortcut, or even best practice is in no way more powerful than your own intuition. Your ability to ask questions and discover the answers within your own context is far more relevant, accurate, and successful.

In this information age, we face a downside: advice overload. So, sure, hack the system. Hack until you’re exhausted and can hack no more. The point isn’t to avoid “hacks.” The point is to avoid obsessing over the wisdom of others at the expense of yourself. The point is to deploy your own abilities, ideas, and aspirations against your work.

In an era overrun with conventional thinking, the point is to think for yourself.

Jay is an award-winning podcaster and dynamic keynote speaker. Before creating Unthinkable, he was a digital media strategist at Google and head of content at HubSpot. He’s built content marketing strategies from scratch for startups and produced attention-grabbing documentaries for brands. His work has been cited in places ranging from Harvard Business School to the Washington Post.

Today, Jay hosts shows and works with teams who aspire to be the exceptions to all the noise in their niche.

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4 Comments on “The Real Problem with Hacks”

  1. Jay, Great post! I am all about thinking differently and trying new things. Innovation and improvement can’t happen without it. But aren’t most hacks the result of someone thinking differently? If you hot wire a car to get it started, that could be someone not wanting to put the work in to get from point A to point B by stealing someone’s car that did put the work in to buy the car and have keys to start it with. Or!!! it could be someone thinking for themselves and hot-wiring a car to escape the zombies that are trying eat their brains! McGyver was the king of hacks right?

    I would say that not all hacks fit your explanation of “using it to achieve an end in a way the means wasn’t built to be used.” Hacks have their place in the world. Many hacks are the result of someone deploying their own abilities, ideas, and aspirations against their work. If someone hacks a “better mouse trap,” then I would benefit from learning about that hack if I had a mouse problem. There is also a lot to be said about learning from other people’s experience. If you are trying to make something better (product, process, service, etc.), I would think it would behoove you to look for previous “hacks” so you don’t reinvent the wheel.

    I agree with your thoughts – Think for yourself, put in the work, but look for hacks that might save you time/money/frustration in helping you achieve your goals.

    1. Hey Matt, great points, and I THINK we’re on the same page? It’s not that “hacks” lead to poor work, it’s that the way we APPROACH them does. The definition belies the behavior, know what I mean? Hacks can actually be quite ingenious. That I agree with. What I wanted to make clear above (paragraph 7+) is that it’s about your INTENT in seeking hacks. Too often, we call something a hack so that we sound clever, we sound like inventors and trailblazers, but what we really did was fall back on a short-term shortcut that has no bearing on our longer-term success, realizing our full potential as individuals, or doing right by our audience.

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