Why Self-Help Listicles Make Me Feel Like An Idiot — Twice Over

I read some clickbait. You’ll never believe what happened next.

Image credit: Gratisography (adapted from source)
Before I go any further, I need to thank Brian Brewington for his soap-box rant par excellence “Will All of The Medium Magicians and Miraculous Morning Makers Please Sit Down For Just a Moment”. Brian gave me a wake-up call, and that prompted this piece.

Here’s How It Started

On Medium and elsewhere, I keep bumping into articles that promise simple solutions to intractable problems, or instant insight into complex matters. Preferably in a conveniently small number of parts or steps. You know, listicles. (I must admit that didn’t even know that word until just a few months ago.)

A few made-up titles: “If You’re Not a Millionaire Yet, There Are 5 Things You’re Doing Wrong,” or “These Are the Early-Morning Habits of All Successful Athletes,” or “How to Offload Your Anxieties: 10 Lessons I Learned from My Divorce” — that kind of stuff.

Posts of this ilk are the lifeblood of sites like BuzzFeed, Upworthy and Mental Floss. But on Medium, the focus is more on the thoughtful exchange of ideas, and I find myself taking such articles more seriously simply because they are posted here, sometimes in a publication I value.

Here’s Why I Feel Ambivalent

Don’t get me wrong, I see the allure of listicles and other clickbait articles. They sound so attractive, so confident, so decisive. (I’m an introvert and a skeptic, you see, so I am by default in incredulous awe anyone who has the cojones to step up to the world and say I’ve got the solution to your problem and you’re going to love it.)

Also, I’m assuming that the authors are not charlatans, that they speak from experience, and that they honestly want to help.

But… after having taken the bait and clicked too many times, I’m still waiting for that promised earth-shattering revelation that’s going to completely transform the my life. Instant self-help heaven? So far, no dice.

Here’s Why Listicles Make Me Feel Like an Idiot — Part I

Even before I click, the baiting title already makes me doubt my sanity. What kind of dunce have I been if I haven’t figured out yet that achieving perfect health can be done in just six simple steps? You say that there is a sure-fire way to publish a best-selling novel in less than a year — I must be a total loser to still be plodding along like a clueless novice.

Let’s call it the syndrome of “If it’s that easy, how come I’m not there yet?” It makes me feel inadequate.

The thing is that I know it’s a simplification, I know the listicle can’t live up to its title, I know life is always more daunting than our hopes and fears want it to be.

And. Yet. I. Click.

Here’s Why Listicles Make Me Feel Like an Idiot — Part II

The whole point of listicle clickbait is that draws you in by overpromising, but the effect that has on me is just to leave me underwhelmed. Then realization sets in. Who was I kidding? If it really were that easy, everyone would know the answer already. No one is going to post an article called “The 7 Best Ways to Put on Your Underwear”.

What I’m left with is the feeling that I should have known better. I’m a skeptic, so I know not to trust extraordinary claims; and I know that the chance I’ll be presented with extraordinary evidence is very, very slim. So why do I keep wanting to click-click-click?

Here’s Where I Almost Fell into the Trap

To be fair, I’m being a bit of a curmudgeon here. Many of these clickbait posts are more well-considered and nuanced than their headlines let on. The titles, after all, are just meant to draw you in.

And they do. Posts like these typically get hundreds if not thousands of claps. Their authors often have 1K+ followers.

That’s where I start to feel hopelessly inadequate. I’ve been rummaging about here on Medium for a few months now, trying to share something of value with the community. My posts get nowhere near that kind of attention. Which is fine. But still.

Then I read a writing-advice listicle saying that yes, I just needed to get over myself and do whatever works. Get out of your ivory tower and give the audience what it wants. If nobody clicks on your bait, the rest is academic. Hmmm.

Before I knew it, I was feeling the call of the dark side.

Here’s What I Decided to Do

Then I read Brian’s post about the Medium Magicians and Miraculous Morning Makers. I laughed out loud and breathed a sigh of relief. Apparently, I wasn’t alone!

So I’ll keep on chugging. Fighting the good fight. In the tug of war between what and how, content and form both matter. But in the end, I’m in content’s corner. Living, thinking, writing — these are hard work. It a messy business with no simple answers or shortcuts. One day I’ll write a listicle explaining why this is true in 9 simple steps.

Now excuse me while I go indulge in some clickbait.


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