The Scourge of Listicles

I recently returned to Medium after a few years off when the team behind the app embarked on a slew of experiments that put me off the whole thing. It has been quite the experience coming back after so long. 

Just as I was getting used to the new digs, I noticed an avalanche of self-help content bearing down wherever I looked. You know the type: the optimised-to-be-clicked-on stuff that drives “engagement” (and thus dollars) by referencing the wonderful lives of famous people, new studies or bestsellers (or studies that become bestsellers), and everything you can learn from these people or studies or some famous over-referenced (and frequently unread) ancient text—The Art of War, The Mediations, that sort of thing.

The classic form of these posts is a numbered list of light condensed points designed to allow easy reading on a smartphone and ready sharing into the global stream of viral digital content. In short, a listicle.  

I cannot get away from listicles on Medium. And really, they are everywhere; the Global Order of Internet Content Producers appears to have resolved that this is the only way to write online and be read. It might just be that I am stuck on the wrong side of the algorithm (our new overlord), or I am only the latest person to discover that the entire site is a constellation of listicles with the singular purpose of highlighting my inadequacies and all the things I need to hack. To open the app is to be pummelled by unsolicited advice on every and anything: how to sleep better, eat better, exercise better (or eat and exercise better), earn more, write better, speak better, what books to read, what Steve Jobs and Elon Musk can teach us, 7 Quotes From Marcus Aurelius that will change my perspective on life

It is utterly ridiculous. Yet for a good part of my life, this was just the sort of cotton candy “wisdom” I clung to and allowed to govern my affairs. I was awash with feelings of discontent, believing I did not measure up, constantly looking to become someone other than I was, looking to people whose realities and contexts differed greatly from mine. I read a lot of books written by middle class Californians; but why should I relate to their experience except  in that vague way every human can relate to every other human? Why should their stories inspire me? The experience of a middle class Californian growing up in the 60s or 70s is about as removed from that of a middle class Nigerian growing up in Nigeria in the 1990s as it is possible to be. (Here we see the limitations of that oft-repeated, little understood economic term “middle class.”)

But here’s the thing: everyone thinks someone else has the missing link, the secret sauce, that hidden truth. We are captive to the notion that there is a system out there, unknown to us, that will enable us to have a better go at life. Never mind that some of these “things” are as basic as… sleeping or drinking water. Never mind that there is no way to tell what is good advice and what is just something that has worked in a very specific context that does not extend to our own unique circumstances. We are infinitely suggestible, and we latch on to anything that sounds vaguely like self-improvement gospel.

Let me give you a sense. For a time I was completely taken by the ideas from Napoleon Hill’s mega bestseller Think and Grow Rich. The book (and every motivational book before and since) explicitly assumes that there is some secret in the universe that the wealthy and powerful have discovered and tapped into which made them into what they are, and you too can experience the same outcome—*wink wink* you can be wealthy too—if you just imitate them. Note: this does not refer to a trade secret or an economic opportunity or arbitrage. Rather, what the writers would have us believe is that success is down to something far more mystical; some force invisible to people of weaker wills. Do what these successful people do and you will be fine. But if you fail, clearly you did not imitate them well enough—and whatever you get is on you. Hill, writing in the 1930s, uses famously rich men like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, J. D. Rockefeller, and a whole assembly line of 19th and early 20th century industrialists to make his point. It does not surprise me that in 2020 the subjects of this same genre are a new set of brash billionaires—Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Mark Cuban and others. And it isn’t just billionaires or celebrities; any popular figure or study can be established as an authority with which to condescend to us. Sometimes it is just a guy who lost weight and now has a god complex.

Now, not every listicle is garbage. If a post on how to get healthier makes a point as explosive and revealing as “drink more water,” for instance, well, you have to give that to the writer. But like essentially every post on the internet, there is just enough truth and useful advice to obscure the fundamental silliness of the entire message. And this is generally what a listicle is: a bulletpoint list of mostly bad advice with a sprinkling of something worthwhile.

I am hoping I escape the algorithm at some point. If I can’t, I may have to wish Medium goodbye finally. That would be a shame, they have some good stuff on there.

Covid Talk Run Amok

These are not normal times; nothing normal about an invisible world-killing virus run amok. You only have this one life and if everyone is freaking out, you are damn sure not going to just shrug and carry on like the world is not coming to an end. I understand.

But consider that the 24/7 saturation coverage of all the ways you and your loved ones are going to die shortly, and how the world as we know it is about to end may not be helping one bit.

I sympathise with those who are frustrated by a perceived lack of action by leaders and governments. It is hard to recall an event so threatening to every human being alive at the same time. We are nervous. We want something to be done about it. It is perfectly normal to want to know what is going on; to try to read everything we can about the virus; to believe what everyone is saying or what seems most plausible. But there is barely a line between keeping yourself informed and veering into a state of self-induced hysteria. Right now, the spread of false information relating to the virus may be as great a danger as the spread of the virus itself. It can lead us to act in ways which worsen the problem. Even if information is true, not all that is true is helpful, and rubbing your face in it while helpless to its action—as happens when we hang on to each byte of new data about infections or deaths home and abroad—can paralyse you with dread.

It is now more important than ever to manage our information feed—what we consume—and what we share. Before sharing—and it is terribly easy to share on our phones, is it not—ask: Is this true? Does this help? The point is not to wrap ourselves or others in a bubble of ignorance and become complacent, no. Rather, I would like to conscript you to the task of supporting your family and friends through an already challenging time. Let us not add to the pervasive mood of fear and panic. A lot is riding on this.

Monday It Is

By the end of this post you might have established that I am bored, anxious to post something, or horribly foolish. You see, I do not know what to write (or, sometimes I wonder, how to). When I started this blog I had the idea that my life was quite interesting and that it offered something worth writing about. It turns out that my life is pedestrian and notably normal. It goes as follows: home, office, home, office (repeat), with long interruptions of heavy traffic in between. There is hardly anything to write about.

So I came up with an idea to fix this. (My blog, not my life) I am going to start recommending articles! Every Monday, I will post the best articles, posts, essays, YouTube videos, tweets, whatever, the best content I read or watched in the previous week. Yes, I know that this is not new, others have done it before. But they say ‘copying well is an act of defiance.’ Actually nobody said that, I just made it up. I figure since I read a lot and struggle to write, it may not be a bad idea to share that content each week. That way I am forced to take this blog and what I read a lot more seriously, I can actually start writing, and, hopefully, I can start driving some traffic through this thing. (Though why I care for any traffic here is quite beyond me.)

I have one criterion for what I share: The content has to be worth my time.

That’s it. The world is full of posts that are too long, rehashes of old ideas, or just forgettable fillers. My aim is to make sure everything I put up is worth it. This means I am going to have to comb the internet for content. That sounds easier than it is—the internet is bigger than most people can imagine. Also, I am a husband, dad, poor salary-collector and an amateur gamer. I have got a lot going on without a blog which needs me to commit to posting something weekly. I will try to get to five articles at the start of each week, but that is not a target. I’d rather inform you that I read nothing worth sharing (or that I am really too busy at the moment) than put up an article which does nothing for me. That said, you would have clicked through to my blog—a true act of Faith in our age—and so I think you ought to see something. I’ll try.

So, Monday, starting next week. Cheers.

With All Your Might

In Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things there is this now famous passage on putting in work:

I will never forget the first team meeting with head coach Chico Mendoza. Coach Mendoza was a tough old guy who had played college football at Texas Christian University, home of the mighty Horned Frogs. Coach Mendoza began his opening speech, “Some of you guys will come out here and you just won’t be serious. You’ll get here and start shooting the shit, talking shit, bullshittin’, not doing shit, and just want to look good in your football shit. If you do that, then you know what? Turn your shit in.” He went on to elaborate on what was unacceptable: “Come late to practice? Turn your shit in. Don’t want to hit? Turn your shit in. Walk on the grass? Turn your shit in. Call me Chico? Turn your shit in.”

It’s all good and well to do whatever it is that we do, but for the things which matter (and what matters is a deeply personal question), it is important to constantly ask ourselves the questions Coach Mendoza put to his team. Am I just ‘shooting the shit, talking shit, bullshittin’, not doing shit, and just trying to look good in [my] football shit?’ Or am I actually putting in the work. I think it is hard to deceive oneself for too long because the unconscious is simply too woke—It rebels against our conscious lies. But I suspect that it is quite possible to fool the world on this. To some degree that’s sort of what we have to do to get ahead, isn’t it. We embellish our qualifications, our experience, our network, our wealth, and so on. We receive, hopefully, some external validation in return, and this is comforting if temporary.

A more permanent satisfaction can be had from the personal knowledge that you’ve attacked your goals as completely as you could have. It does not come from the outcomes of this process, it is the natural consequence of this philosophy of living. Hard work is its own reward. It doesn’t matter if you put in twelve-hour days and still could not hit your target, you’ve hit your internal target. The sweet privilege of being able to say from the very core of your soul ‘I did my best’ is golden, and is a good deal more valuable that being told that you did well. Ralph Waldo Emerson shared this idea in his essay Self Reliance, when he said: ‘A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best, but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace.’ This relief is a wonderful thing next to the torment of knowing that you were just ‘bullshittin’, talking shit and not doing shit.’ We cannot externalise this validation. It cannot come from a performance rating for a bonus at your company, it cannot come from our boss or any other third party we look to for validation. This relief, this contentment, this peace, comes from putting in the work.

In the book of Ecclesiastes (9:10) it says: ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.’ It is a call to work, to work hard, and to acquit ourselves before God.

All the Memorable Things From the Internet in September 2016

The internet is remarkable. It is endlessly enlightening and just goddam funny. So I’ve decided to try to compile everything I’ve enjoyed in the past month in one place for… I don’t know why, maybe someone else will appreciate such a list. This is obviously not scientific so some of it may be quite obscure. I hope to make this a series, so if you like this be sure to give it a look at the end of this month. Oh, some of this material will have been produced in the period, others before. I share it as I consume the content. One last thing, the list is not ranked in any way, it’s just stuff I enjoy. Here goes.

  1. A blog post about an encounter between an African-American academic and the police. I think the author did an exceptional job of maintaining the tension in the story as things developed. But things are pretty fucked up in the U.S. man.
  2. An essay by Andrew Sullivan. Cellphones and social media have a darkside. This essay engages it thoughtfully. (If this gets you thinking and you want to read a little more about this area, the book Deep Work is not a bad book to read.)
  3. This is an old twosome by the same author. Read this first then this. The short message here is this: PERSISTENCE.
  4. An irreverent essay by Nassim Nicholas Taleb about intellectuals.
  5. Here is an article about travelling with an African passport. I don’t really have anything to add, it is terrible to travel on African passport.
  6. This is the only book Paul Kalanithi ever wrote. He died of an aggressive form of cancer shortly after finishing the book. It is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read and a powerful story about facing our own mortality. I remember reading the final chapter as his death was all but sure, my daughter kept running up to me to play just as Paul was describing the birth of his daughter while the cancer consumed him alive. I was crying like a child. I recommend this unreservedly.
  7. Some crazy freestyles and/or performances I picked up on YouTube. First the boy Lupe, Mos Def and Talib, Common, Luda, Luda again, and finally, Black Thought and ?uestlove.
  8. This is pretty funny.
  9. Here’s an awesome graphic that should come in handy in future.
  10. This is funny and weird. Who populated that list?

Enjoy!

The Obligatory Testing Post

So here I am, testing. I hope this will become my blog going forward. I am going to be posting stuff about my life, my work and anything that catches my fancy. I have no idea how this will work. It might be one of those thing I will abandon (and then regret later on) or I may be able to make something of it.

Whatever happens here’s to a great start.