The Truth About '6 Harsh Truths'

The Accidental Savior

We were lost before we found you
Late last year, novelist, screenwriter and blogger David Wong (a.k.a. Jason Pargin) wrote a piece for Cracked called 'Six Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person.' SHT is, at its core, a tough love kick in the nuts to anyone who feels stuck doing what they hate; a take-no-prisoners lecture about personal accomplishment and self worth; a crack in the skull to self pity and entitlement. It conscientiously avoids new age tropes about self esteem and interpersonal value. It's also one of the most celebrated web articles, ever.

What makes the meteoric rise of 'Six Harsh Truths' so fascinating is that David Wong is an accidental savior, an unintentional guru. He never set out to change hearts and minds. He's had remarkable fortune as a writer, but he paid his dues for a long time before getting there. He clearly has a lot of passion about what he does, but was maybe a little sick and tired of people complaining and coming to him for advice. He was tired of hearing excuses. He'd given himself these same excuses before he hit the big time. Now he's swimming in the fruits of his labor, and he wants to pass the lesson along to anyone who will listen. SHT was clearly a visceral reaction to things he feels strongly about.

SHT caught fire the moment it landed. In just a few short months after its premiere, it became one of the most shared and lauded online articles in the history of the web. It hit a nerve. It jangled the cultural zeitgeist. People popped their serenity prayers out of their frames and slid in SHT instead. This anti-hippie, tough love pep talk to personal accomplishment and self worth garnered so much adulation that I am at a loss at how to begin in describing how it has changed peoples' lives.

SHT's thesis boils down to (as it turns out) six things:

* The world only cares about what it can get from you.
* Failing = not giving the world what it needs from you.
* Your contribution must be meaningful, or it's worthless. It doesn't have to be celebrated or well known, but it must change the world for the better in some way.
* Self hatred springs from inaction; value comes from creating things to offer the world - everything else is wasted energy and self pity.
* Who you are doesn't matter unless it directly correlates to what you do.
* It's human nature to resist self improvement, therefore, any resistance you feel, or any objection you have to being spoken to roughly is just your fundamental resistance to bettering yourself.

There are thousands of testimonials by people who have made SHT their way of life. A few real life testimonials about SHT profess:

"Tough, but inspiring. Just what I needed."
"David Wong saved my life."
"Wow best article ever."
"This article made angry to begin with, then slowly inspired." 
"I re-read this article regularly."
"My GOD it has totally improved my life!" 

More remarkable than the legendary article's fame is just how many disciples continue to rally around its message, continuing to heap praise on Wong's plat de rĂ©sistance. Anyone who has spoken out against the article's messages come off like envious sour grapes. SHT is a piece of work, no doubt. It strikes a tough stance with its absolutist tone, its fervent refusal to take prisoners or find middle ground, or acknowledge the existence of nuance and diversity. The praise it receives is similarly absolutist. Like all visceral reactions, it resorts to hyperbole and oversimplification to make its point.

Put That Coffee Down

A consistently misapplied and misunderstood scene 
The playright and screenwriter David Mamet, before he went all Dennis Miller on us and denounced his liberalism, wrote a wonderful little play called Glengarry Glenn Ross. The film adaptation of this play contained a scene that Mamet intended as grotesque satire. In the scene, Alec Baldwin proceeds to slowly bleed the life out of a group of mostly ne'er do well real estate agents with a rocket balls lecture about success. Unfortunately, Mamet did such a wonderful job at writing this scene, and Baldwin such a marvelous job at playing it, that it ceased to be what it was intended to be. No longer was it a denunciation of the values espoused by Baldwin's character, but a celebration of those values. It took on a life of its own.

The movie Boiler Room contains a scene wherein the stock traders gets themselves pumped up at a party by watching that very scene from Glengarry, and reciting every word by heart. Sales people and alpha dog types worship this paean to nut kicking abuse. They find it inspiring because it is so uncompromising. David Wong makes multiple references to the Baldwin scene throughout the course of 'Six Harsh Truths.' In fact, he lauds the scene for its tough, brave truth-telling. Never mind this is not the intended effect of the scene (and I doubt that Mamet, even today in his frothing hardcore Libertarian fervor, would deny it). That something meant to shed a light on something truly awful and can be turned on its ear as an inspiration is a lot like Ann Coulter celebrating the historical genius of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

When I first read SHT, I was entertained by its playful, harsh language and its Glengarry-inspired lecturing. It's a prototypical Cracked article: a list of relate-able things accompanied by cute stock photos. When I saw that the article was meant (and received) as a dead serious tome for living with a growing audience, rather than an entertaining rant, I began to wonder: am I the only one who has as problem with this?

I re-read it a few times in hopes I could bottle what rankled me about SHT. I considered several possibilities: that I related to Wong and felt like a failed, unaccomplished version of him. I considered the possibility that I was merely jealous of his success and notoriety. I considered that I am one of the undeveloped beings that he targets. I resented it. I thought, how dare you talk to me like that! How dare you assume you know me and that all unfulfilled people need the same prescription in order to be 'cured!' What do you know, David Wong?

(The answer to that question, is, of course, that one of David Wong's brilliant stories was just made into a major motion picture. And he's sure to have more. So there.)

I Am a Loser

"Self worth matters... right?"
For getting defensive about SHT, I felt exactly like the kind of person that the article excoriates. By doing that, I fell right into the trap the article constructs. I became the self pitying loser that Wong spends two pages pinning to the wall. By even getting defensive about Wong's article, I illustrated his point for him. Game over. End of story.

But that can't be the end of the story. I couldn't let go. What bothered me about SHT went much deeper than the banality of Wong's message about 'taking charge of one's life' and 'making something of yourself.'

Had I not stumbled across this really amazing article by Rahul Kanakia of Blotter Paper tackling "Six Harsh Truths," I might not have summoned the courage to even discuss Wong's sacred text publicly. It was the first time I'd seen an articulately stated critique of Wong's missive. (Kanakia's follow-up is worth a read, too.) Kanakia, like David Wong, is a published writer with some nice accomplishments. It was, to be honest, galvanizing to hear someone other than myself express consternation about SHT's thesis.

"A large part of that article is devoted to mocking the separation that people have formed between their own self-worth and the societal assessment of their worth," Kanakia writes. He later goes on to say: "From society's point of view, specialness is unequally distributed. But that is no reason why you need to internalize society's point of view. From your point of view, you are special. Instead of engaging in a kind of guerrilla action to get society to agree with you, the trick is just to learn to live with this asymmetry." 

The truth is, I resent Six Harsh Truths because of the tone it strikes and the assumptions it makes. I refuse to accept the premise that negative reinforcement always works. I refuse to accept the idea that all the 'world' demands the same kinds of output from individuals. Or that all individuals (in order to feel constructive and happy) must all become heroes of the same 'makers' myth that Wong suggests turns the earth.

I reject the idea that people have to be spoken to like petulant children in order to learn to walk. The assumption that epiphanies must be forced on people in a funk in order to wake them up. SHT appeals to a vast, universal fear, one most of us share, that we haven't accomplished enough in our lives, then says 'this is the only way you'll learn to be a better person.' it offers little except tough love. Instead of acknowledging its thesis as a very valid piece in a broader puzzle, it says "this is all there is. These facts are absolute. There is nothing else. Deal with it."

Assumptions and Proclamations

Self Help-themed Top Ten Lists always abound with corporate stock photography
When you step back and take it all in one breath, SHT's message is actually pretty trite:

* Be productive. Don't be idle.
* Take responsibility for your circumstances.
* Contribute to society.

That's it. These things are obvious and uncontroversial  Even all six of Wong's 'harsh truths' are valid. So why is SHT so upsetting to me? I can think of three reasons offhand.

Firstly, SHT appeals to universal anxieties, then exploits them. By universal anxieties, I mean fears that a majority of human beings feel; anxieties about fear of being nebulous. SHT simplifies and mocks the slow, process-oriented recovery often prescribed for people suffering from feelings of uselessness and isolation. By verbally kicking our chairs out from under us, Wong mocks daydreaming. He mocks the process oriented-approaches to just about everything: self improvement and (in my opinion, unintentionally) places the focus entirely on output. What Wong's article fails to acknowledge is that for every universal truth you can glean from the human condition, the fact remains that we're a messy bunch, and our solutions to things like 'unhappiness' are as varied as the kinds of unhappiness we grapple with each and every day.

Secondly, SHT presents definitions it doesn't bother to elaborate on and expects us to go along with it. Anxiety and depression, for instance, are all blamed on the same root cause - idleness, self pity, lack of fulfillment. Every one of Wong's concepts and definitions - 'world, 'society,' 'value,' 'happiness,' or 'person' - are all predicated on false assumptions like this. Even this concept of 'what society wants from us' is painted with an enormous, broad brush, as if 'society' is a generalized entity, like God, expecting the same sort of performance from everyone. SHT doesn't stop to acknowledge that the world is a series of separate global value systems all demanding disparate behaviors and values of their citizens. None of Wong's definitions are clearly mapped out. They're merely presented, flippantly applied to a series of list items, then presented to the young, ambitious entrepreneurs for whom the article was intended. The problem here should be clear: the entire world is not comprised of Peter Thiel fellowship participants.

Thirdly, in SHT's wheelhouse, value is an objective quantity not up for negotiation. It's worth and output jiggled into a quadratic equation and tossed out the other side. In truth, idleness and arrogance without purpose is truly a blight on human relationships and on society. I happen to agree with Wong on some of these points. I'm upset when people expect the world to hand them things because they're good people, or because they feel they deserve it. That's not how the world works. I've known people who felt the world owes them something because they have good hearts - these people are usually miserable, envious and constantly sabotaging other peoples' happiness. That kind of misery is toxic. Wong's not wrong about this. In fact, I can understand his strong emotions in discussing it. If you've ever known someone who feels useless, idle but entitled to great things, sometimes all you want to do is shake them by the collar. My problem, though, and let me make this clear: is with Wong's absolutism, his refusal to see his points as part of a larger discussion about value and worth and happiness. What he's telling us is, if you're not doing it the way I've told you, then happiness - or what you think might be happiness - will be an illusion. You see, I've also known people who have followed through on SHT's criteria, to the letter, and through no fault of their own, failed to produce anything that meets SHT's criteria. They also failed to feel useful or happy.

Let's Get Real

"I'm just sayin..."
I'm not here to crucify Wong. He is, by all accounts, a really fucking nice guy, a successful and witty and progressive voice. He did an AMA on Reddit recently that really impressed me. He's not out for page hits or fame - and much as he might wittily joke about it - and he clearly didn't set out to become a self help figure, but now that he's an accidental guru, the chickens in SHT are coming home to roost in ways that bother me. Wong (Jason Pargin) has arguably transcended his claim to fame as Cracked blogger and the author of 'John Dies At the End.' For better or for worse, and in an irony worthy of one of his plots, SHT is now his contribution to society.

I don't think that was Wong's intent. I think he wrote SHT to get something off his chest, and I think he wrote the piece because it fulfills what people expect from a Cracked article. I have no illusions about that. Cracked (or Buzzfeed, or any number of sites like it) are not springboards for discussion. They are places where pronouncements are made and lulz are handed out. That an article seeped in whose premise has become something of a holy bible for lost souls is truly a marvel. People who feel lost need to be told what to do. They need absolutes. They need rigidity and structure and discipline, and they need parenting. God knows I get impatient at people often for needing help with things they should be doing themselves by now. The simple truth is that humankind has a propensity for falling in line with whatever they're fed, if the manipulation is deft enough. This is what's called thought reform - and it ranges from subtle and harmless to batshit insane.

Drink the Kool-Aid

The line between tough love and abuse is thinner than you might think
The trick SHT pulls off, I think despite the intentions of its author, is a textbook thought reform tactic, albeit a mild one.

Step one: present a series of safe, obvious, self explanatory and non-controversial tropes - about purpose, about value and productivity, about popularity and usefulness, about love and loneliness.

Step two: wrap these tropes in a premise that implies general assertions and definitions without outright saying them: assertions about society, about the world, and about human nature and interactivity.

Step three: by the time readers get past the obvious and myriad assumptions and generalizations about the way the world works (and the way their own minds work), critical thought is already shut down.

Under SHT's surface, however, there are more insidious presumptions made. Among them:

* We are all wired for self sabotage.
* People with passion but no output are unhappy, because unhappiness is always caused by the same factors, no matter what.
* Mocking and insulting people often kicks them into gear.
* Luck is not a significant factor in success, or feelings of personal success.
* The things that stop us from taking risks are not to be negotiated or reasoned with.

Thereby, if you didn't like the article, or found its tone too absolutist or harsh or just downright fallacious, it's just, as Marcellus Wallace says to Butch in Pulp Fiction, 'your pride fucking with you.' Resistance to SHT is just your resistance to self improvement... so don't resist. By this premise, any of Wong's detractors are immediately defined as those for whom the article is intended. It's a beautiful circular shield around the piece that, at its core, resists criticism. Again, I doubt this was intentional on Wong's part, but it's brilliant. And it says more about Cracked's readership than about Wong.

People who are in a bad place need to be prescribed a quick fix that sounds harsh, and bold, and easy. People who are desperate for a way out from feeling stuck need to have an authority with an appropriately harsh tone condemn them for exactly what is wrong with them. This is human nature. It's human nature to an extent, in fact, that might shock you. We need sharp equations plugged into our dissatisfaction - the sharper and harsher the better - so that we can go about changing our lives.

I think the problem with taking an article like 'Six Harsh Truths' and using it as a life tool is that the article is meant as entertainment, and it skips over a lot of the messy stuff. The important stuff. The nuance. The gray areas. The pitfalls and traps of taking one catchy, bold idea and spreading it out over the vastness of a messy existence. It's too cut and dry. It's too easy. It's not all worthless, but it's not all there is, not remotely, thus making some of SHT's proclamations, in fact, useless.

Because of the way we consume web content, and because of how the Internet has made information so accessible, we - as a species - are becoming more and more receptive to absolutism and sensationalism. Our distracted minds demand the uncompromising harshness of articles like SHT, because nothing else will hold our collective attention. Nothing else will slap us around suitably enough for us to pay attention for more than a few minutes.

The Cracked Factor

Many people get their news from comedy and tabloid sources now
The site Cracked, which hosted SHT, epitomizes the ubiquitous SEO approach to web publishing. Full of 'list oriented' articles on everyday topics like work, relationships, and pop culture, sites like Cracked and Buzzfeed embed their content - both visible and non-visible - to rank high on search lists, thereby generating a maximum amount of clicks and revenue. People get used to these sorts of articles to the point where they begin to adjust their amplitudes to absorb information that way.

SEO-applied content appeals to a publisher's need for monetization of every last piece of content. Readers want to be informed, to absorb chunks of knowledge that will make them feel unique, and most importantly, to be entertained while this happens. We've all been weaned on the anti-academic approach to wisdom. Anyone who has sat through college philosophy (or watched Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) learns soon enough that 'true wisdom results in knowing that you know nothing.' SEO revolves around lists and easily digestible content. It's not 'nothing,' but it's junk food - an overly simplistic definition, but it's essentially true. These sites are entertainment, plain and simple.

This SEO model issue came up most recently when two articles (one incidentally on Buzzfeed) slammed the Oatmeal (a.k.a. popular comic artist and blogger Kevin Inman) for his alleged origins in exploiting SEO routines to generate hits for his content. I found these criticisms of the Oatmeal wholly unnecessary and a bit mean. I like the Oatmeal. He's been around a long time. He's generated all kinds of populist top ten lists, but his art and writing style are charming and marketable, and he seems like an all-around great guy. What he does, he does very very well. He's a web success story, and any major criticisms directed at him are dumb.

What I found disingenuous about the authors 'exposing' Inman were the ways they sought to find higher ground from their own practices. Sites like Buzzfeed are predicated on the same exact SEO routines they accused Inman of exploiting. That's not to say their content is never meaningful, but for them to take Inman apart for his success in branding himself is the height of hypocrisy.

The web is where people seek to monetize everything they publish, in some form or another. It's a business. The blog you're now on, Starkraving, is not monetized, nor is it a business, but I'd be a fool to say I have no interest in expanding once I reach the right transition point. And that's my point - that I haven't reached the mountaintop is no reason for me to feel bad. I push myself every single day to making something of myself through my writing. It's a tricky process. Some days I don't want to write about anything. Other days, my heart feels like it's going to explode if I don't get it out. There is no point A to point B to point C. I suppose it's easy, when you've found success, to sit back and judge others for not doing enough, but that's really an obnoxious thing to do. Who are we to tell others what it means for them to be better people? Who are we to objectify the worth of strangers? Unfortunately, that's what SHT does.

Harsh Truths About Me

This is basically me
Incidentally, I once wrote a Top Ten List called The 10 Douchiest Movie Characters. This list was really the stuff of Cracked and Buzzfeed. I stuffed it with popular movie references, character names and images. I made broad proclamations. I judged peoples' actions with a broad brush to humorous effect. I wrote it solely to entertain. I wrote it offhand - a fluff piece, a diversion from weightier content. This article, The Ten Douchiest Movie Characters, has generated well over ten times as many hits as anything else I've done. Is it my favorite piece? No. Is it the most noteworthy, noticed-by-others things I've done? Yeah. Does it define me, my self worth, or what I want to make of myself. Not remotely, and that's the problem with SHT. It doesn't leave room for anything else.

What "Six Harsh Truths" really did was shine a light on how directionless and unmotivated younger people (particularly those thirty and under) feel. It revealed to me how much work there is to do in improving society and getting people to contribute in meaningful ways.

By critiquing SHT, and expressing my opinion about its wrongheaded premises, I in no way want to undermine that people feel lost and need a sense of direction. I don't mean to undermine that people took solace in SHT's tough love approach. The last thing I want to do is mock something that I've accused of mocking. I like Pargin. I like have no issues with Cracked. But I had to say something. For the thousands of people who benefit from 'Six Harsh Truths,' there are another thousand who might be hindered by it.. who might feel small because of it, or 'less than' as a result of its uncompromising absolutism. And those people deserve to have a voice too.

I wanted to close this with a quote from Rahul Kanakia, because he said it better than I did:

"Accomplishment does not cure self-hatred . . . when you start to rely and trust in that feeling, then you're lost. Because your status isn't actually real. It's something that exists mostly in your head. It's basically just a list of all the reasons why you're better than anybody else. And eventually those reasons will be undercut."


Unknown said…
This article really helped me. Thank you, you don't know how much better I feel now. I think I'm going to go play the keyboard now, and later I'll tell a few friends about this wonderful piece.
Unknown said…
Sooooo basically you're offending because it probably applies to you. Whaaa.
Starkraving said…
Erica, I'm so glad you loved my piece enough to respond so passionately! I don't really deserve the praise you heaped on me, but I appreciate it! I'm flattered you enjoyed it. You have a promising future as a literary critic and I encourage you to keep up the good work!
kole w. said…
I think this one must be going around again, because I've gotten it on my Facebook a couple of times today. Unfortunately I never saw it the first time around, so everyone's probably tired of talking about it, but I had an pretty immediate negative reaction. I mean, really, the only possible response to Alec Baldwin's speech in GGR is bitterness or motivation? It certainly motivated resolve to never work for a guy like Alec Baldwin's character and to try really hard to never *be* that guy.

The main (and most pernicious) failing of his article, as you rightly note, is that the rhetorical approach pretty much precludes any argument. If you disagree with any of his points it's not that he might be mistaken or lacking nuance, it's that your ego is getting in the way of taking his advice. It's pseudo-pop-psych bullshit.
Anonymous said…
Awesome and wonderfully written; I would add that while I realize the audience is men, it troubled me as a woman for several reasons which i do not have time to elaborate on. Suffice it to say, I gather once again that my worth is measured by men and on the criteria of my sexual attractiveness and availability (as well as ability to please) above all else. I mean, should elderly women like my mother just be eliminated because they aren't "producing" stuff? Now that I am 40, I am seeing more clearly how much I have internalized this measure of my value, among other things. Loving kindness and giving time don't require a degree, and from what I have seen in my own work with alcoholics (which cannot be put before the world for applause and should not be), those two things are the most valuable things you can offer someone. Well said, and well done.
Anonymous said…
Anonymous said…
I am afraid you missed the point. Loving and kindness do not require a degree but they do require action. It seems as though you act on those two impulses by working with alcoholics and most likely caring for family. That is what you produce, what you DO to add value to yourself and your life but most importantly those around you.
An interesting take.

I think I find myself somewhere in between your article and his. I found his article quite valuable, but also had some of the same problems as you with it's absolutist tone.

I noticed some people dismissed everything he said because of their problems with a few aspects of it (which you did NOT do), and I do think some of those people might indeed be the kind of people he says most need the advice. At the same time, the fact that the article "protected itself" by putting anyone who disagreed with it in a box of "the losers this is intended for" was not lost on me.

So basically, I have a few of the same problems with it that you do, but I still consider it to be valuable advice, at least for me. The same goes for your article. It did not occur to me until reading this article that someone diagnosed with chronic depression would get nothing valuable from that article at all, thankfully, I am not such a person.

One can never find one-size-fits-all solutions.
Lore said…
I'm not sure why there seems to be so much expectation that a single article contains universal truth. Is it not a self-help article?

I found the message to take a step in any direction a powerful one, but not one that defines the entire road and worldview ahead. The view is alot different after even just a few steps when you were standing in a hole.

Yes there are deeper philosophical issues, and I appreciate that discussion, but I feel that there needs to be more recognition like AlphaBetaParkingLot's above - that it's valuable advice for some people. For those who are capable of participating in the above discussion, by and large you're probably also capable of developing a robust version of self worth and introspecting reasonably on your own.

The article was not written for those people, it was written for those who have developed independent self-worth as a defence mechanism against accepting that they are not good people.

"You are what you do", isn't just a judgement of absolute economic value. Being a nice person may not have intrinsic value, but the alcoholics who fought their addiction with the compassionate support of Anonymous above might make a different judgement of the value of that character quality. Because it motivated and enabled you to do something for someone else. And ultimately that's the foundation of our society - doing the things we're good at for each other achieves far more than doing everything alone.

You are what you do.
Starkraving said…
Lore, thank you for adding your voice to the discussion. :)

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