Can We Please Stop Trying to ‘Hack’ Everything?

There has been a trend I’ve noticed in recent parlance, and I think it’s quite absurd. I refer to the idea that everything has to be “hacked” in order to make it easier. Language hacking, body hacking, life hacking, study hacking. Really, it’s getting old.

Language hacking

This term has been popularized by a certain polyglot who is actually a very nice person. I enjoy reading his blog, but I do not like his use of the term “language hacking.” See, I am of the view that there is no easy way to learn languages. (However, if you truly enjoy the language you are learning, learning it will not be a chore in the least.) Unless you speak a language that is extremely similar to the language you are trying to learn, there will be a lot of hard work for a long time involved.

Those who claim to have discovered some key to “language hacking” are usually being lazy and redefining the term fluency. To me, fluency means being able to use the language accurately and without difficulty in four areas: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. If you can only speak and listen but cannot read or write, you’re not fluent. Likewise, if you can read the language well but cannot speak it or write it, you’re not fluent.

I realize that different people learn languages for different reasons. Many academics learn to read a language so they can access scholarship published in that language. Other people want to be able to talk to the natives when they travel somewhere. But let’s be honest: complete fluency in a language is very difficult to achieve and there is no way to “hack” your way to fluency.

Body hacking

I associate this term with Tim Ferris and his book The 4-Hour Body. The description of this book on its official website says: “The 4-Hour Body is the result of an obsessive quest, spanning more than a decade, to hack the human body.”

Personally, I think the whole thing is silly. I have not understood why so many people think Tim Ferris is so great ever since I started reading The 4-Hour Workweek in a bookstore and saw how he won a Chinese kickboxing competition by cheating. He managed to weigh in 28 pounds lighter than he actually was (by dehydrating himself), then “gained” that weight back before competing. By exploiting a technicality (the rule that people who fell off the platform three times would automatically lose to their opponents), he “won” the competition. See, to me that’s cheating. I stopped reading the book right there. And frankly, I do not anticipate reading any of Tim Ferris’ work in the future.

Life hacking

There is even a website called Lifehacker. It does have interesting stories. But I think the site’s name is silly. Though, to be fair, the founders probably wanted something short and unique for the site’s name.

Study hacking

Of all the different types of hacking I’ve mentioned, this one bothers me the least because I learned about it from a website called Study Hacks, which happens to be one of my favorite websites on the internet. When I first started reading it, the author, Cal Newport, was a Ph.D. student at MIT. He has since graduated, done some postdoc work at MIT, and been hired as a professor at Georgetown. While it would be an exaggeration to say that the blog changed my life, it has had a definite influence on the way I study and on my thoughts for future careers. So while I do not completely approve of the site’s name, I am more willing to excuse use of the word “hack” in this case (partly because I love Study Hacks so much and partly because I don’t have any suggestions for an alternate name for the site).

There it is – my rant against hacking. If this post were a fable, the moral would be: there is no substitute for hard work. Admittedly, there are some people who are born with certain advantages (billionaire parents, perhaps) but even they have to work hard to learn foreign languages and musical instruments.


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