Open Letter to Jon Westenberg, and Other Self-Help Blowhards

You wonder why some people don’t like you? Here it is…

Henry Wismayer
Mar 19, 2016 · 5 min read

by Henry Wismayer

Credit to Jon Westenberg for starting a conversation between himself — one of the zen masters of Medium’s countless life-hack writers — and those who set out to mock him.

Let’s start by acknowledging that, as many respondents have already highlighted, we’re only having this discussion because of your success. Truth is, if you were beavering away in relative obscurity like most of the writers on here, you wouldn’t be “copping the flak” (no ‘c’, Jon; sorry, I’m a pedant) you mention. Your articles are always there in the bottom right corner of the screen, and this scrutiny is the price.

However, while some of the hostility that your type of writing has provoked smacks of envy, much of it is measured and justified, and the reason is simple: your people are swallowing Medium, and we just don’t get it.

Why the dissonance? Well, there are two bits of writing I’ve encountered recently that illuminate certain characteristics of the life-hack genre, both of which get people’s backs up. The first, rather prosaically, appears in a parenthetical in the submission guidelines for The Awl. It reads:

The Awl receives the most pitches from the people who pitch the most — the same people who flood every open submissions box on the internet: dudes. Mostly white ones who are young but not that young, probably already working in the media or possibly in grad school, who have been taught from a very young age that not only do their voices deserve to be heard, but that people are waiting for them to speak.

As someone who writes for a living I think about this paragraph often, because that categorization — of the young-ish white dude working in media — describes me bang on. It’s a useful reminder to anyone publishing on-line, that before you inflict your writing and opinions on others, you should submit it to a simple acid-test: Do I have anything original to say?

Is this a question you guys ever ask before settling down at the keyboard? It seems unlikely, as so many of your posts read as though they’ve been lifted straight out of a viral marketing textbook.

Not all life-hack gurus are white dudes, of course (though most are), but the life-hack articles currently colonizing Medium are rife with that Silicon Valley entitlement skewered in this recent piece by Ross Baird, where the geeks have inherited the earth, and got a bit ahead of themselves. You’re telling people how to live, but where’s your authority?

Frankly, you could be writing a 21st century New Testament, but the genre is so over-subscribed and disproportionately represented that we, the cynics, dismiss it out of hand.

Weighing in on a subject without necessarily being qualified to do so is, of course, almost the definition of blogging. (I recently wrote something on the personality disorder of Donald Trump, but I’m not a psychoanalyst.)

So, whilst it’s the writers themselves who have to deal with the opprobrium, it’s probably more accurate to say that the people we anti-life-hackers don’t understand aren’t the writers at all, but their readers.

That leads me onto the other piece of instructive writing I mentioned. It’s this article in Aeon Magazine by Gordon Pennycook, a PhD student who has carried out “empirical research on bullshit.” Pennycook’s essay offers some theories on how some people derive meaning, even profound meaning, from hollow words.

Pennycook writes:

Bullshit receptivity [the degree to which some people find profundity in bullshit pronouncements] was more common among people who performed worse on a variety of cognitive ability- and thinking-style tests, and who held religious and paranormal beliefs. Put differently, more logical, analytical and skeptical people were less likely to rate bullshit as profound, just as you might expect.

The parallels with religious faith are interesting, because the self-help writer is, in many ways, a sort of modern-day preacher (some of you even call yourselves ‘digital evangelists’). Because just like the preacher offering promises of eternal life and God’s favor, the on-line marketer is giving the reader something they want, too: the promise that near-limitless self-improvement can be theirs just as soon as they ingest this particular brand of snake-oil. “Bullshit is much harder to detect,” writes Pennycook, “when we want to agree with it.”

So in an age of declining spiritualism, with Medium as your pulpit, you life-hackers are tapping into something rather tragic — not a yearning for the divine or life after death, but an equally urgent here-and-now thirst for success. And some credulous readers seem all too willing to gulp it down.

Yet the more of this stuff you peddle, the more it provokes the cynics to question what it is you’re trying to achieve.

More Pennycook:

For the bullshitter, it doesn’t really matter if he is right or wrong. What matters is that you’re paying attention.

And that, right there, is the kicker. Of all the mud flung your way, this is the stickiest. As Morgan Rock Loehr so hilariously parodied with his post, ‘Get 500,001 Stats On Medium In 29 Days!’, there’s a widespread assumption in Medium-land that all you really care about is the stats — this peculiar 21st century validation of clicks and hearts.

Our contempt for this kind of writing comes from the same place as our disdain for applying scientific techniques and social media trickery to bump up one’s exposure. It’s why we hate the word ‘content’, with its implication that writing is worth only as much as the social media traction it accrues.

In the Book of Genesis, before God came down to disperse people into their different languages, the Tower of Babel was a great self-contained city containing all the multifarious voices of humanity.

In an ideal world, that’s what Medium should be: a platform where everyone has a chance to hear, and to be heard. But your people are sitting on the pinnacle holding a mega-phone, drowning out all the voices murmuring below.

And it’s boring some of us to tears.


The Anti-Life-Hacktivists

UPDATE: Respect to Westenberg for his positive response to the criticism levelled at him above. I’ve subsequently clarified by viewpoint here:

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Henry Wismayer

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Essays, features and assorted ramblings for over 80 publications, inc. NYT Magazine, WaPo, NYT, The Atlantic, WSJ, Nat Geo, and TIME:

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