Here’s a very broad definition of success:

“Success is getting what you want.”

So, how do we become successful? How do we get what we want?

There is the “normal” way. For example, The System of education, career and retirement has a script that says that financial success can be achieved through “hard work”. Blogger Jason Rodley did a great job of describing some of the steps of this cultural script as:

  • Apply yourself in school
  • Go to university, college, or some sort of technical training
  • Get a job
  • Work hard in your career
  • Save money
  • Work until you’re 65+
  • Retire

That all sounds reasonable to those who were raised to believe in the virtue of hard work. But is it? Recently, one of my friends said something at a party, which was very jarring to conventional sensibilities.

“I want to make the most amount of money, in the least possible time.”

Does that statement sound strange to you? It did to me. But the more I thought about it, the more it struck me as incredibly profound. There’s nothing wrong with working hard to achieve a goal, but valuing hard work (for its own sake) might mean that you have been indoctrinated with an unhelpful belief, which favors effort over results.

There is almost always an alternative to The System’s way of doing things. There are shortcuts. Better, faster, or cheaper ways of getting what you want, which aren’t being done by most people. This is what digital nomads and lifestyle designers call “Hacking the System”.

As put it:

“Life isn’t meant to be lived like everyone else does. There are ways to get ahead in any situation, if you think outside the box.”

“Hacking” is a term which is most strongly associated with the world of computers, where it means identifying and exploiting weaknesses in a system, often to gain unauthorized access. This ‘identifying and exploiting weaknesses in a system’ is a useful definition of “hacking” in many other fields beyond computer networks, which explains why nomads have co-opted it for themselves.

Some of the most-favored digital nomads “hacks” include:

  • Bio-Hacking: Use smart drugs, unconventional diet choices, and other little-known secrets to produce dramatic health improvements.
  • Geoarbitrage: Have your expenses (living, hiring) in an inexpensive place, while earning in a high income place.
  • Points Hacking: Sign up to multiple credit card schemes for the airline miles, and travel for free.
  • Flag Theory:Pick the company and bank account setup with the lowest taxes… which might not necessarily be the same country as you were born, or where you spend most of your time.
  • Growth Hacking: Whereby attention is gained for a product or service by any means necessary.

Hacking the System encourages finding the pressure points which produce big results with low effort. As Richard Koch, author of The 80/20 Principle put it:

“When you realize that it is small causes that have big results, life becomes an exciting voyage of discovery. Suddenly, every day brings a liberating quest – to find the small things you can do, in very little time, with very little money or none at all to have a big impact.”

But Is Hacking The System Ethical?

The main question I want to explore in this article is: “Is Hacking The System smart, or is it cheating?”.

People’s views on this will, of course, vary on a case-by-case basis. For example, I don’t think anyone would begrudge a person who finds a more efficient way to become healthier. If you really can achieve fat loss and muscle growth without spending hours in the gym, then go for it. Similarly, if you can find a way to speak to the right decision-maker by bypassing conventional gatekeepers, and use that to grow your business – it’s just more effective. No harm, no foul.

But the waters become a bit murkier in cases like points hacking, flag theory and growth hacking. In those cases, whether it’s “smart” or “cheating” depends a lot on on who you ask.

Most digital nomads don’t feel any sense of guilt about “hacking” the credit card companies to get air miles. If those big, rich banks are going to offer them the equivalent of a free flight just for filling in a few forms, then they’ll gladly take the gift. It feels more like mischief-making than wrong… like a kid who steals a cookie from the cookie jar, and gets away with it. Tee hee.

The Dark Side

The undisputed digital nomad “bible” is Timothy Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek. As the title indicates, the book is all about how to get what we want, without following a conventional path. This book has much to recommend it – it forces the reader to think differently, and has inspired many people to live more intentional lives. But it also contains a story which reveals a kind of selfishness which can be part of Hacking the System, if we are not careful.

In the book, Ferriss relates how he entered the Chinese Kickboxing National Championships, and won the gold medal in his weight division. Here’s how he did it, in his own words:

“It wasn’t because I was good at punching and kicking… I won by reading the rules and looking for loopholes, of which there were two:

  1. Weigh-ins were the day prior to competition: Using dehydration techniques I now teach to elite powerlifters, I lost 28 pounds in 18 hours, weighed in at 165 pounds, and then hyperhydrated back to 193 pounds*. It’s hard to fight someone from three weight classes above you. Poor little guys.
  1. There was a technicality in the fine print: If one combatant fell off the elevated platform three times in a single round, his opponent won by default. I decided to use this technicality as my single technique and just push people off. As you might imagine, this did not make the judges the happiest Chinese I’ve ever seen.

The result? I won all my matches by technical knock-out (TKO) and went home national champion, something 99% of those with 5-10 years of experience had been unable to do.”

Strictly speaking, Ferriss hadn’t broken the letter of the rules, but he had surely broken the spirit of them. He had beaten a lot of athletes who had presumably trained very hard in the hope of winning – but did it through identifying and exploiting weaknesses in the system. It seems he decided to place his own desire to get what he wanted, above the ethical way of getting it. Maybe that’s “smart”, but is it admirable? I don’t think so.

Perhaps in part due to Ferriss’s influence in digital nomad culture, the same kind of thing manifests itself in Growth Hacking. As in, how can you squeeze a buck out of the Internet, without a big brand or budget?

To name a few of the more morally-questionable ways:

  • spamming affiliate links in the comments of other people’s blogs
  • getting fake reviews to improve a product’s visibility on Amazon, and;
  • using Private Blog Networks to make a website artificially rank highly in Google.

Now, to be clear, this kind of Growth Hacking is not something that all digital nomads are doing – but some certainly are. And in (partial) defense of the growth hackers, it can be convincingly argued that everyone else is doing it, in which case, “it’s all just part of the game”. Maybe Lance Armstrong would have said the same thing to himself to justify taking performance-enhancing drugs to be victorious in 7 Tour De France cycling races.

So, Is Hacking The System Smart, Or Is It Cheating?

There are no easy answers here. The point of this article was to point out that “living life on your own terms” can have a way of resulting in a very low regard for all rules which have come from The System. To this way of thinking, if the rules get in the way of our own freedom (the highest of all digital nomad values), then we shouldn’t feel bad about hacking the system to find workarounds to avoid them. But I’m not so sure that this is quite right.

There are definitely inefficiencies which are worth avoiding, but we should not regard all rules as ethically hack-able.

There is very little black-and-white morality – only different shades of grey. Even so, I still think it’s worth having the debate around what constitutes ethical vs. unethical hacking-of-the system, so that we don’t become too selfish in our quest to live our unconventional lives.

The story of digital nomads & the Internet gold rush. It’s in my upcoming book: Citizens of the World. Click below to receive updates & sample chapters!
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