What is Mind Hacking?
Hacker: "A person who enjoys learning the details of programming systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary."
- The Hacker's Dictionary1
One of the greatest moments in computer history occurred, as it so often does, in an ordinary office cubicle.
Steve Wozniak was working late. After clocking out of his day job at Hewlett-Packard, he would often stay into the night to work on a secret side project. It was the mid-1970s, and he and his buddy Steve Jobs had recently been inspired by a demonstration of the Altair 8800, a build-it-yourself computer kit aimed at hobbyists. They had the radical idea that they could offer a similar computer already built. The user would still need to add a keyboard, video display, and a case -- but the motherboard would be fully assembled and ready to crunch.
That computer, which would later be known as the Apple I, was the project that Wozniak was working on whenever he could find a spare moment. To finance their invention, Wozniak had sold his beloved HP-65 calculator, and Jobs his treasured Volkswagen Bus. Of the two, Wozniak was the technical genius, so into the night he toiled, long after his co-workers had gone home, in pursuit of this groundbreaking computer.
One night, he hooked up a keyboard and a video display to his prototype, and something amazing happened: it worked.
"I typed a few keys on the keyboard and I was shocked!" he remembered. "The letters were displayed on the screen. It was the first time in history anyone had typed a character on a keyboard and seen it show up on their computer's screen right in front of them."2 Today, we're surrounded by screens, so it is difficult to capture what must have felt like magic to Wozniak. It was like opening a portal to another dimension, discovering an entire world that we had the power to manipulate.
I sometimes still have that same sense of wonder and excitement when I'm using computers, even while doing something as ordinary as typing this paragraph. How is it that I can punch a cluster of plastic keys, and have these words show up on a glowing screen? How can I speak into a phone and instantly have access to the complete store of human knowledge? How can I swipe my finger and launch a ham into orbit?
For the first time in history, we humans live in two worlds: the physical world of objects, and the digital world of websites, apps, and videogames. We may still call the physical world "the real world," but that's just a figure of speech: the digital world is no less "real" than the physical world, just
Similarly, our mental world is no less "real" than the physical world, just different. Computers have given us an excellent model for thinking about the mind. Our thoughts are like bits: they're transient, ephemeral, invisible. And with some basic tools, they can be manipulated to do new and amazing things, an epiphany like Woz had in his cubicle all those years ago.
Mind hacking is like hooking up a keyboard to your head.
The Early Hackers
"Most of our generation scorned computers as the embodiment of centralized control. But a tiny contingent--later called hackers--embraced computers and set about transforming them into tools of liberation. That turned out to be the true royal road to the future."
- Stewart Brand, writer and hacker3
If you were a computer user in the 1970's, there's a good chance you were a hacker.
Hackers flourished on the campuses of schools like MIT and Stanford, as well as hundreds of defense contracting companies and research laboratories around the world. They were as obsessed with learning as they were unconcerned with hygiene. Hackers were often solitary creatures, typing with pizza-stained fingers at unfathomable speeds.
They might have been lonely, but they weren't alone. In the early days, hackers communicated through a high-speed global network known as ARPAnet, an early precursor to the internet. This strange new medium let them exchange ideas, information, jargon, and jokes; it was a creative, collaborative community of like-minded geeks.
"Hacking" was a badge of honor. It meant you not only loved technology, you understood how to use it to innovate and explore. You could write new programs by manipulating lines of obscure code; you could build your own motherboard; you could make a computer do something no one had imagined before.
As their numbers grew, hackers became a tribe, complete with their own language, values, and humor. As the tribe grew, so did its power. ARPAnet eventually became the internet, which transformed every aspect of modern life: education, government, finance, sex, even our view of the world. After the smoke clears, historians will agree the Digital Revolution made the Renaissance look like a picnic lunch.
And it was all started by hackers.
Today, a similar revolution is beginning, one that takes place not on keyboards and screens, but entirely in your mind. Like the Digital Revolution, which couldn't be "seen" but was profound in its impact, this revolution is a silent meteorite hurtling toward Earth, a massive shift in human thinking. Just as the early hackers overturned the world with technology, mind hackers are overturning the world of thought.
Principle #1: Mind Hacking is Free
"To be a hacker, one had to accept the philosophy that writing a software program was only the beginning. Improving a program was the true test of a hacker's skills." - Sam Williams, "Free as in Freedom"4
If there is one man in the world who does not get enough credit for his contribution to society, it is Richard Stallman.
Stallman deserves to be up there with Charles Babbage and Alan Turing and all those other stars in the geek constellation. Maybe even with Gandhi and Mandela and King. A complex and controversial character, Richard Stallman has influenced your life and the technologies that you use, in profound ways.
And the thing that set Stallman off on his history-altering crusade was a printer jam.
In 1977, Stallman was a programmer at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab. Whenever he wanted to print a document from his workstation, he had to send the print job to the shared printer, which was located on another floor. After trudging up the stairs, Stallman would often find the printer was jammed, stuck in the middle of someone else's 50-page print job. He'd clear out the paper jam, then babysit the machine until it jammed again. This would happen over and over, and then the printer would run out of paper.
The brilliant 27-year-old had recently graduated from Harvard, where he had quickly become a fixture in the hacker community. As he stood over the printer, stewing over another paper jam, he began to approach the problem like a hacker. He couldn't keep the printer from jamming, but he could motivate his co-workers to clear the jams.
Rushing back to his desk, he cracked open the source code of the printer program and came up with a brilliant hack. Who would be the most motivated to clear out a paper jam? Someone waiting to print a document. So whenever the printer jammed, he instructed the central computer to send out this alert to everyone waiting for something to print:
> The printer is jammed, please fix it.
By sending the alert to people with waiting print jobs, he crowdsourced the solution (before that was even a word). The solution was simple and elegant, and it worked ... until the day the new printer arrived.
The new laser printer was donated by Xerox's PARC lab, the research and development unit responsible for world-changing innovations like the graphical user interface, Ethernet, and the personal computer. But in this case, Xerox made one world-changing mistake: they refused to release the source code to the printer program. This meant Stallman couldn't reprogram it. Now, when the inevitable paper jams occurred, Stallman was back to banging his head on the printer, his blood slowly boiling as each excruciatingly slow (but laser-crisp) page was excreted from the printer.
Most of us can relate to the scene in Office Space where the three geeks take a printer out into a field for a gang-style execution. Small technology annoyances can build up over time until one day, your rage explodes, and find yourself in a field with a baseball bat, your hands stained with toner.
So you can understand why Stallman tracked down the programmer of the printer software, who had now taken a job at Carnegie Mellon, then flew out to visit him. Stallman asked in a friendly way, hacker to hacker, if he could have a copy of the source code. The programmer refused.
Something inside Stallman snapped.
"I was so angry I couldn't think of a way to express it," Stallman recalled later. "So I just turned away and walked out without another word."5 To Stallman, it was a betrayal of the hacker ethic, a violation of the shared code that everyone should share code.
This started what can only be called a holy war. Stallman became an outspoken activist that all software should be free to use, study, distribute and modify. He began publishing manifestos, started the Free Software Foundation, and invented a new alternative to copyright called "copyleft." His revolutionary idea was that software with a "copyleft" license could be freely modified and copied, as long as the resulting software was also free.
In other words, programmers could rest assured that the work they put into improving software -- like hacking a solution to the printer jam problem -- would forever benefit the world, not be locked up and patented by some bloated software corporation. (Read more about his philosophy here.)
Stallman's "copyleft" license, and later variants of it, had world-changing effects. It spawned GNU and Linux, which currently runs a third of all web servers.6 It gave rise to Apache, which is used by over half the servers in the world.7 It birthed Firefox, which is used by a quarter of all people on the Web.8 PuTTY. GIMP. Bugzilla. Thunderbird. Bitcoin. You could list literally thousands of projects, millions of developers, and billions of users benefiting from open source software.
And it all started in Richard Stallman's mind.
The mind hacking movement is free. It's called mind hacking, not Mind Hacking™, because we all own it. The online version of this book is under a Creative Commons (copyleft) license, available for free.9 The tools and techniques you'll learn in this book are also free, which means they can be copied, modified, and improved.
Like open source software, together we are inventing a science of self-improvement. Our goal is to be able to say with a high degree of confidence, "If you do X, then you can expect result Y," tested and retested with hundreds of thousands of volunteers. These should not be vague and nebulous instructions like, "Think positively," but specific things you can do. And they should work for the majority of people who put in the effort to actually do them.
Stallman didn't know how to fix the printer, so he found a hack that let him work around that limitation. Mind hacking should have that same spirit of creative problem-solving. It should let the majority of us hack our minds via the simple, elegant solutions dreamed up by smart people like you.
Principle #2: Mind Hacking is Experimental (And You Are the Experiment)
Seth Roberts, like so many of us, had acne.
Before he became the Emeritus Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley, a respected scientist, and a bestselling author, Seth Roberts had zits. His dermatologist prescribed the antibiotic pill tetracycline, a typical acne treatment at the time. Roberts was a grad student studying experimental psychology, so as practice for his class, he began experimenting on himself. He varied his daily dosage of tetracycline, from zero to six pills, then wrote down the number of pimples on his face each day.
To his surprise, he found the dosage of his medication made absolutely no difference.
One day Roberts ran low on tetracycline pills, so he tried an over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide cream instead. To his surprise, the number of pimples decreased. When he stopped using the benzoyl peroxide cream, more pimples. When he started back up, fewer pimples.
This simple self-experimentation showed him that tetracycline didn't work for his acne, and benzoyl peroxide did. He learned something that his dermatologist, the "expert," didn't know. (Later research studies would show that certain types of acne are antibiotic-resistant, but of course Roberts already knew that.)
"My experience has shown that improve-your-life self-experimentation is remarkably powerful," wrote Roberts in Tim Ferriss's masterpiece of self-experimentation, The 4-Hour Body. "I wasn't an expert in anything I studied ... but I repeatedly found useful cause-and-effect relationships that the experts had missed."10
The exercises you'll read in this book can be done on yourself: in fact, the only way to prove they work for you is through experimenting on yourself. By working together, we can also pool our self-experiments. We can show, through millions of personal tests, what works for the majority of us, making the program even better. You benefit from all the mind hackers who have gone before you -- and you in turn help the generation to come. By helping stress-test this system, you reduce your own stress.
Because the mind is such an intimate, personal experience, you are the only person who can determine if it works for you. The nature of the mind means that you can't take someone else's word for it; you have to discover it yourself. You're the scientist, and your mind is the experiment.
Principle #3: Mind Hacking is Mastery
Think back to the beginning of your geekhood. Whatever your geek obsession, whether you're into computers or comics or candlemaking, try to capture that feeling of first discovering the thing you loved so much. You probably weren't being paid to learn it, you were just learning it because you couldn't help yourself.
It was intrinsically fascinating and intellectually stimulating. But more than that, there was a feeling of what I can only call joyful power in conquering everything there was to know about that subject. Can you stop reading now, close your eyes, and try to recapture that feeling?
If you had to put that feeling into one word, it was probably mastery.
In Daniel Pink's Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he argues that mastery is one of the great motivators of human achievement.11 This is why we spend hours detailing our maps of Middle Earth, or memorizing a complicated riff on the ukulele. No one is paying us: the satisfaction of mastery is greater than any monetary reward.
The one thing that defines geeks is that we want to conquer a tiny piece of the world. We turn our death-ray intellect on a small subset of the world, desiring to possess it utterly: whether that is hand-forging a battle-axe for the Renaissance Faire, folding the world's largest origami crane, or learning all the lyrics to The Music Man. We want to bring order to chaos, to control the uncontrollable.
In a word: mastery.
To master your mind is to master your life. There is no more worthwhile pursuit. As satisfying as it is to find 100% of the hidden weapons in your favorite videogame, or to commit to memory lengthy poems in Klingon, if a fraction of that time can be spent mastering your mind instead, you will have a master key that can unlock all doors.
Approaching your mind with that same geeky mix of curiosity and craving, that spirit of conquering and completion, is what we're after. Remember that feeling; it is your fuel. As Nerdist founder Chris Hardwick has advised in his excellent book The Nerdist Way, see if you can take your laser-like powers of geek focus, and train them on your own mind.12
Mind hacking is free. Mind hacking is experimental. Mind hacking is mastery.
We've learned the ground rules. Now, let's learn how to hack.