Why Self-Help Listicles Make Me Feel Like An Idiot

Here’s how it started. On social media and else­where, I keep bumping into arti­cles that promise simple solu­tions to intractable prob­lems, or instant insight into complex matters. Preferably in a conve­niently small number of parts or steps. You know, listi­cles. (Arguably, the word itself is as much as an abom­i­na­tion as the online content it describes.)

A few made-up titles will eluci­date what I’m talking about: “If You’re Not a Millionaire Yet, There Are 5 Things You’re Doing Wrong,” or “These Are the Early-Morning Habits of All Successful Athletes,” or “This Aboriginal Herbal Infusion Has Just 3 Ingredients And It’ll Cure Your Hangover Every Time,” or “How to Offload Your Anxieties: 10 Lessons I Learned from My Divorce” — that kind of stuff.

Posts of this ilk are the lifeblood of sites like BuzzFeed, Upworthy and Mental Floss. Social media thrive on the stuff. But even though my focus is more on the thoughtful exchange of ideas, and I find myself strangely drawn to the Siren song of such posts.

The Ambivalence Trap

Don’t get me wrong, I do see the allure of listi­cles and other click­bait arti­cles. They sound so attrac­tive, so confi­dent, so deci­sive. (I’m an intro­vert and a skeptic, you see, so I am by default in incred­u­lous awe anyone who has the chutzpah to step up to the world and say I’ve got the solu­tion to your problem and you’re going to love it.)

Also, I’m assuming that the authors are not char­la­tans, that they speak from expe­ri­ence, and that they honestly want to help. I know, I know: color me naive.

So I may have clicked on one or two of those baits, or a few, or a lot, or too many. But I’m still waiting for that promised earth-shat­tering reve­la­tion that’s going to completely trans­form the my life. Instant self-help heaven? So far, no dice.

Listicles Make Me Feel Like an Idiot — Part I

Even before I click, the baiting title already makes me doubt my sanity. What kind of dunce have I been if I haven’t figured out yet that achieving perfect health can be done in just six simple steps? You say that there is a sure-fire way to publish a best-selling novel in less than a year — I must be a total loser to still be plod­ding along like a clue­less novice.

Let’s call it the syndrome of “If it’s that easy, how come I’m not there yet?” It makes me feel inad­e­quate. It’s instant, just-add-doubt impostor syndrome.

The thing is that I know it’s a simpli­fi­ca­tion, I know the listicle can’t live up to its title, I know life is always more daunting than our hopes and fears want it to be.

And. Yet. I. Click.

Listicles Make Me Feel Like an Idiot — Part II

I get it, of course. The whole point of listicle click­bait is that it draws you in by over­promising, but the effect that has on me is just to leave me under­whelmed. You click, you read, and then real­iza­tion sets in. Who was I kidding? If it really were that easy, everyone would know the answer already. No one is going to post an article called “The 7 Best Ways to Put on Your Underwear.”

What I’m left with is the feeling that I should have known better. As a skeptic, I know not to trust extra­or­di­nary claims; and I know that the chance I’ll be presented with extra­or­di­nary evidence is very, very slim. So why do I keep wanting to click-click-click?

The Call of the Dark Side

To be fair, I’m being a bit of a curmud­geon here. Many of these click­bait posts are more well-consid­ered and nuanced than their head­lines let on. The titles, after all, are just meant to draw you in.

And they do. By contrast, my own posts get nowhere near that kind of atten­tion. Which is fine. But still.

Then I read a writing-advice listicle. It promised to change my life. It said that yes, I just needed to get over myself and do what­ever works. Get out of your ivory tower and give the audi­ence what it wants. If nobody clicks on your link, the rest is acad­emic. Hmmm. Before I knew it, I was feeling the call of the dark side. Cue Darth Vader’s voice: “Join me and together we can defeat the internet! The algo­rithm has fore­seen it! It is your destiny…”

Then again— nah, that’s not my cup of tea.

The Good Fight

So I’ll keep on chug­ging along. Fighting the good fight. In the tug of war between what and how, content and form both matter. But in the end, I’m in content’s corner.

Living, thinking, writing — these are hard work. It a messy busi­ness with no simple answers or short­cuts. One day I’ll write a listicle explaining why this is true in nine simple steps.

Now please excuse me while I go indulge in some click­bait.

• • •

PS. A quick shot-out to Brian Brewington’s article “Will All of The Medium Magicians and Miraculous Morning Makers Please Sit Down For Just a Moment,” which prompted this piece.

Top image credit: “The Piper” by John Everett Millais (source)

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