Their applause wasn't thunderous, but when even a handful of strangers cheer for you, you feel like a rock star.
I had just signed the papers on my first car, bought with my own money; an electric-blue, four-door, four-cylinder Saturn SL2.
Back before General Motors discontinued the brand in 2010, Saturn was THE car to have. Not only because it competed with the stylish Honda Civic, but because of how their salespeople made you feel when drove one off the lot.
Sign the papers, take the keys, then walk through a procession of employees clapping and cheering you into your new vehicle.
Which is what I did.
With my new keys in hand, my girlfriend (now wife) and I found our way through the crowd of paid fanboys to my shiny blue hot-rod perched on a small ramp in a picturesque showroom leading out to the exit.
We shook their hands, slapped out a few high-fives, and soaked in the excitement.
Oh yes. I felt like the shit; a heavy metal singer walking on stage in front of 100,000 crazed fans.
Sitting down in the driver's seat, I breathed in the freshly scented interior and sensed the gentle push of the brake pedal on my right foot. Everything felt right. Everything but the 5-speed stick shift, mine and mine alone to master, pressuring me to succeed.
My uncle taught me how to drive stick a few years earlier. I remember cruising around in his manual Ford F-150, a beast of a vehicle for a high-school boy and hard as hell to get out of first gear. I'd stalled it only once, at a stop-light, with the entire city of Detroit waiting behind me to figure out what the fuck I was doing.
I'd never been more embarrassed, and never would be again, until now.
I closed the door on my new Saturn and started up the engine, slightly (but not completely) drowning out the employees' continuing applause. I pushed in the clutch, juggled the stick into first gear, released the brake, let off the clutch and...
I stalled that engine so fucking hard the car lurched forward like a pony slapped on the ass with a garden rake.
Our heads bounced off the headrest and snapped back into position where we found ourselves rolling down the ramp at two miles per hour; slow enough to watch (and hear) the Saturn employees try to contain their laughter.
They couldn’t. And I turned more red than an overcooked lobster.
There's No Magic To Success
I had desperately wanted to drive my new car off the lot like a Formula One racer, my gal in the passenger seat impressed beyond belief that I could master a five-speed stick amidst a cheering crowd of strangers.
But I didn't.
We rolled down the ramp as the laughter outside increased to a dull roar. I scrambled to restart the engine before ending up in the street, committed to playing off my mishap. You know, like when you trip on the sidewalk and pretend to start jogging even though you know damn well you’re not fooling anyone.
Much like the trip-jog technique, my stall-restart method was equally ineffective.
We slowly came to a stop in the lot, far enough from the showroom for them to slide the garage door closed.
Which was enough to finally drown out the laughter.
By all external measures, I should have succeeded.
I held the keys to a sparkling new vehicle. My girlfriend rooted me on from the passenger seat. And an audience of cheering bystanders encouraged my success in a sunlit showroom on a perfect summer day.
But by all internal measures, I was ill-prepared, overconfident, and unskilled.
It wouldn't have mattered if all 7 billion people on this planet were screaming in unison for my success. Nor would it have mattered how early I'd woken up that morning, how much water I drank, or if I'd eaten protein for breakfast. It wouldn't have made a bit of difference if I'd created a plan for my day, meditated, or drafted the perfect self-introspection piece in my journal.
I didn't know how to drive a stick-shift well, so it was unlikely I'd get it right. I would have stalled that son-of-a-bitch on the platform every single time.
Skills can't be faked.
Wanting to succeed is never enough.
And life-hacks won't give you some magical power to achieve more than you're already achieving.
The Lure Effect
We love life-hacks. Each one seems to contain some magical bit of wisdom.
Maybe because they’re novel. Or perhaps because they’re used by the rich and famous.
We are attracted to the idea of massive success, believe we're doing everything to achieve it, and don't understand why we're not rolling in the dough. So when we see a tactic claiming to make us richer, sexier, smarter, happier, we swim right up to it and bite.
If Elon Musk advocates meditation, our fear of missing out compels us to close our eyes and clear our minds.
If Dwayne Johnson wakes up at 3 am to pump iron for 4 hours, we feel (momentarily) motivated to do the same.
Life-hacks, in a sense, are like like sparkling fishing lures in a dreary ocean of grit and hard work, each a shiny morsel of potential that, once consumed, holds the promise of a happy, successful, fulfilling life.
But for every successful person who meditates, there's one who doesn't.
And, for every Instagram celebrity waking up at the crack-ass of dawn, there's one who stays up late and sleeps in.
It’s not that waking up early or meditating or exercise aren't important. They can be. But blindly biting hook line and sinker into a newfangled hack without consideration for the ramifications on your life can result in, at best, minor improvements and, at worst, a massive distraction to your goals.
The fact of the matter is, these life-hacks may have worked for someone at some time. But what the self-proclaimed experts fail to mention is that these successful people had already been grinding, climbing, and exerting a tremendous amount of effort to get to their destination.
In other words, while the life-hack may have taken them to the summit, it didn't help them scale the first 99% of the mountain.
Life-Hacks Aren’t the Answer
Life-hacks aren't the answer then. Rather, they are optimizations to a system that's already working. They are the high-performance oil to an engine that's already firing on all cylinders.
Otherwise, they are a distraction.
Why bother filling your car with racing-grade oil if it won't start to begin with?
Why wake up early if you don’t know what you’ll work on in the wee hours of the morning?
Why eat protein within an hour of waking up if you don’t understand how it fits into your health and fitness plan?
Why meditate if you don’t struggle with focus and clarity?
Because Elon Musk does these things and is rich? Because Dwayne Johnson does these things and is massively productive?
Not only since doing something because someone famous is doing it is a poor way to run your life, but also because there’s more to living than money and maximizing every waking minute of your day.
Which is what most of the life-hacks I see are all about—becoming a ridiculously productive and wealthy human.
But here’s something that may surprise you...
You Don’t REALLY Want to Be Productive or Wealthy
In the summer of 2016, I took my kids fishing on Ocqueoc Lake in Michigan about 40 miles south of Mackinaw. We rented a boat, and I spent 10 minutes rowing my two sons, Jack and Charlie, to the middle of the lake where we dropped anchor and cast our lines.
In less than 10 minutes, I could tell it was time to leave.
My youngest son, Charlie, complained about being “soooo boorrrred.” My oldest, Jack, said he was seasick and going to “puke everywhere.” Sensing that now was the perfect time to avoid catastrophic disaster, I began what should have been a short row back to shore.
Except the row wasn’t short.
Nor was it easy.
I rowed with all my might for 20 minutes, only to find that we had barely moved across the lake. The wind at my back wasn’t strong, but seemed to (at least in my mind) prevent me from going anywhere.
Hearing my strained grunts of frustration from across the lake, two fishermen motored over and offered a tow to shore. I accepted, but we didn’t get far before the fisherman pointed out that--wait for it--my anchor was down.
Yes, I was struggling to row my boat to shore because I was dragging 50 pounds of steel wrapped in 50 pounds of seaweed.
The embarrassment I’d felt in the Saturn dealership revisited two-fold.
For those 20 minutes, I was the hardest working person on the lake. Yet I wasn’t productive in the least. The aching back, blistered hands, sweaty shirt, and cuss words mumbled under my labored breath did nothing to move me closer to my destination.
I was on a proverbial treadmill; busy as hell but going nowhere.
Even if my anchor hadn’t been down, I didn’t want to be rowing. What I wanted was to alleviate complaints of boredom and threats of puking. I wanted to get my sons to shore as quickly as possible. Had I a motor on the back of our rowboat, I would have flipped that bitch into 6th gear and hauled our disinterested, nauseous asses back in 1/10th the time.
In other words, I didn’t care about being productive. I wanted what being productive could do for me: getting to my destination.
Getting a ton of shit done sounds awesome. The world values multi-tasking, immediate responsiveness, and round-the-clock effort these days.
Hustle. Grind. Work your tail off until there’s nothing left of you but a nub of a person. Then, tell that nub to "get to work." Only then can you call yourself productive.
But just as I didn’t really want to be rowing a boat, you don’t really want to be more productive. You want what productivity can do for you.
Maybe it’s time with your family
Maybe it’s respect from your boss
Maybe it’s the fulfillment of a good day’s work
Or maybe it’s simply the promise of more money
Speaking of money, you don’t actually want to be rich either.
Sure, having millions of dollars sounds fun and feels necessary to etching one's mark on the world. But you don't really, truly want money.
You want what money can buy you.
Maybe, for you, it's travel. Maybe it's the latest gadget. Maybe it's safety or status or the ability to say "fuck you" to your boss without giving a shit.
Like productivity, money may be the promise to that end goal, but it’s not the goal in and of itself.
The latest focus on life-hacks is squarely aimed at living others’ vision of success. We are lured into believing that, if we just try this one new thing, we’ll finally live a happy, productive, cash-rich life.
But we forget that cash isn't the goal and productivity isn't the aim. As such, if we haven't defined what success means to us, it's impossible to use these hacks to accomplish anything of value.
So you must define your version of success. And this requires that you find your zenith.
Finding Your Zenith
My first computer was a Zenith.
By today's standards, it was a dog. My son’s smartphone has (quite literally) one million times more power. Even so, this black-and-white computing wonder changed my life.
While the company Zenith no longer exists, the word zenith still has meaning. It’s the word for an imaginary point in space directly above you.
“ze·nith [ˈzēnəTH] | astronomy | The point in the sky or celestial sphere directly above an observer.”
If you were standing on the North pole, your zenith would be the North Star. If you were standing under an overpass, your zenith would be the bridge above. If you're trying to steal a kiss from your honey on Christmas, find some mistletoe, make it your zenith, and take first base.
Zenith was an appropriate name for what that computer became to me: a beacon overhead, a guiding light.
Once a friend showed me how to program it, I was hooked. I spent every waking minute learning how to create video games. I consumed every book I could find on computer science. And, like a total nerd, I requested an assembly language compiler for my birthday.
Programming became my why, my purpose, my reason for being. It became my zenith.
With computers as my zenith, I had no need for life-hacks. I could stay up late and wake up early just to spend a few more minutes coding. I could ignore TV and avoid parties for the chance to develop one more feature. I could eat protein (or not), drink water (or not), and I’d still feel like a massively productive and successful human being.
In other words, I didn’t need a life-hack to be successful. I didn’t need money to be happy. I just needed time to focus on my zenith. I just needed to spend energy working on what mattered.
Work on What Matters
Life-hacks point you in every direction (meditation for your mind, water for your hydration, protein for your hunger), but your zenith clarifies your every move.
You can spend time and energy focused on your that which makes you happy, that which gives you momentum, that which brings you the kind of success you seek. Once you focus on it and spend energy moving towards it, you'll crush each and every day. More so, you’ll be able to create a plan to get from where you are to where you want to be.
You’ll be able to establish metrics to test your progress along the way, guaranteeing that if you get off track, you’ll learn of it early and often so you can put the train back on the rails.
You’ll be able to exert consistent effort. Effort learning the skills necessary to capture success. Effort taking action on those tasks that will move the ball forward.
Better yet, you’ll develop confidence in your path and a thick skin for when times get tough, finding the energy and motivation to keep rowing when the rowing gets hard.
Life hacks are lies.
There are no shortcuts, tips, tactics, or hacks to achieving massive and lasting success. There are only time-tested principles—all of which start with finding your guiding star overhead.
Once you’ve found it, you can create a plan for your future. You can establish metrics to measure your progress.
Then (and only then) you can get to work.
You Are Here to Kick Great Amounts of Ass
Finding your why, your purpose, your zenith is a big task.
I don’t know why you’re here. Maybe neither do you.
But I do know that you’re not here, alive, on this planet to rake in cash or grind tirelessly on things that don’t matter.
What matters to each of us is different, and if we don’t spend our time and energy working on it, we’ll live an unhappy, unsuccessful life... even if we’re filthy rich and wildly productive.
Life-hacks don’t work without the “why.” Don't be lured into thinking they do.
But, with your zenith, a plan, a measuring stick, and hard fucking work, you can have all the success and happiness you crave without having to wake up at 4 am, lift weights for 3 hours, and drink a gallon of water every day.
Furthermore, when you do come across a juicy new life-hack promising a bad-ass life, you'll know if and how to incorporate it into your day instead of mindlessly biting hook line and sinker into (yet another) great big distraction.
Question: “If we do not know our role in this world, then why are we in it?”
Answer: “I cannot speak for you, my friend, but I am here to kick great amounts of ass.”
— Awesome scene from Altered Carbon