When I was about 17 or 18, I did something that I now regret. I had noticed the success of a few websites like Zen Habits, and thought that I could probably make something similar without much effort. So, I started a website called The Daily Zen, which I don’t think there is a web archive of (and I can’t remember the URL). I think this might have been the Twitter account I set up, but I’m not certain that it is. There seems to be another website called Daily Zen - this was not the one I’m talking about. The Daily Zen was filled with all sorts of bullshit about how to improve your life. I wrote posts called things like ‘I gave up my smartphone and I’ve never been happier’ (a lie), or ‘Better sleep leads to better breathing’. They were depressingly successful - one post did very well on /r/meditation, and others got thousands of hits from other sources. I could write three or four of these posts a day with basically no effort. I made a small amount of money through the site by linking to products on Amazon (for instance, the sleep post linked to a sunrise alarm clock) and collecting some percentage of the money spent on the products I linked to.
I gave up the project after about a month I think, and probably made under £100, but I feel like I did learn a lot about how easy it was to convince people you were being insightful when you were just making stuff up. I remember sitting on the sofa with friends trying to think of stuff to write about. Someone would suggest writing about how giving up coffee makes meditating easier, another would chime in that I should write about the mindful advantages of ad blockers, and so on. The comments were generally extremely positive - I don’t remember any exactly but they basically went roughly like this:
This was an amazing post - I’ve thought about giving up my smartphone before but hadn’t really connected it to being more mindful or my meditation practice. I loved the part where you wrote about becoming more compassionate the day after you got rid of your phone.
I feel bad about this, although I do think that if people enjoyed the content and found some value in it, maybe it wasn’t that harmful. The more harmful thing might be admitting that I did this. Maybe this is why I’m especially cynical about advice and productivity stuff that seems enjoyable to consume. My posts about persuasive books being less enjoyable and about lots of advice being pretty bad are, I think, partially a result of my cynicism about ultra-consumable content. My guess is that very few people actually start advice blogs intending to write bullshit, but after they write 5 or 10 posts giving advice, they begin to run out of insightful stuff to say, and transition to bullshit. Scott Alexander once wrote a post about ‘pushing goals’ and ‘pulling goals’:
A pulling goal is when you want to achieve something, so you come up with a plan and a structure. For example, you want to cure cancer, so you become a biologist and set up a lab and do cancer research. Or you want to get rich, so you go to business school and send out your resume.
A pushing goal is when you have a plan and a structure, and you’re trying to figure out what to do with it. For example, you’re studying biology in college, your professor says you need to do a research project to graduate, and so you start looking for research to do. You already know the plan – you’re going to get books, maybe use a lab, do biology-ish things, and end up with a finished report which is twenty pages double-spaced. All you need to figure out is what you’re going to select as the nominal point of the activity.
When advice bloggers begin, I think they often have the pulling goal of giving their readers genuinely good advice. They have a few worthwhile insights they haven’t seen written about, and they decide to write them up. But when the blog becomes somewhat popular, they realise that they’ve basically run out of advice and now have the pushing goal of writing blog posts giving advice - they just need to think of new advice to give. I think if someone writes books about how to improve your life, the first one might be worthwhile, but it’s unlikely that the sixth book they’ve written contains much that is useful, because they probably would’ve given that advice in one of their first five books if it was particularly useful (although there are some exceptions to this rule).
So, I would like to offer an apology for The Daily Zen. I wrote a load of bullshit and made (very small amounts of) money out of my bullshit. I should say that I don’t think Zen Habits is anything like this, I just thought I could write a version of Zen Habits without any insight and would could pretty well if my website was even 1% as popular. It never became 1% as popular, but I have a slight worry that if I had kept it up for any serious amount of time, it might have been.
I’ll end with the kind of awful nonsense I might have conjured up when I was writing The Daily Zen:
An apology must come from the heart, not the brain. It must be something that you feel, not something that you think. To apologise is to feel the pain of another soul - and I feel the pain of those who read multiple posts from The Daily Zen.
All That is Solid is not filled with bullshit insights - it’s filled with my opinions which may or may not be just as idiotic.