Ignore the gurus (including me)

Would you take me by the hand
Would you take me by the hand
Can you show me
The shine of your Japan
The sparkle of your China
Can you show me

Steely Dan

One of the unfortunate tendencies that the internet encourages is outsourcing your decisions and beliefs. There is no shortage of fitness experts, diet gurus, lifestyle designers, smug early-retirement stoics, and armchair quarterbacks ready to turn you into a believer. Why? Simple: it’s never been easier for someone to present themselves as an established, credible authority. The Wordpress blogs of today look like multi-thousand dollar publications of 10 years ago. Distribution is, definitionally, a piece of cake: rapid information sharing is what the internet was designed to do. Humans, on the other hand, haven’t kept pace and aren’t as good at making sense of such a large volume of information.

I fall victim to this as much as anyone else. It’s intoxicating to stumble across some website that appears to have all the answers: a single guide you can faithfully read and follow to achieve your health, wealth, happiness, jump shot, whatever. It’s easy and it’s comfortable to listen to someone else tell you how it is.

I caught this in a big way with the paleo community. For two years, I uncritically carried out everything that guys like Mark Sisson and Chris Kresser advocated: a strict paleo diet, lots of heavy lifting and slow movement, standing desks, meditation, coconut oil out the waz. After all, these guys were well-researched, right? Every article was heaped with citations and publication references. A heavy Google Scholar fetish cemented in my mind the legitimacy of what these guys were saying.

And in most senses, they were right. My circulating cholesterol was awesome. I looked great; probably was in the best physical shape of my life. Colds and semi-yearly bronchitis became things of the past. But there was one factor that swamped those benefits and more or less trashed my life: anxiety.

Of course, I went down the various guru-approved rabbit holes to try to combat the anxiety: more meditation, caffeine abstinence, getting religious with salmon oil and methylfolate supplementation, more heavy lifting. I even moved out of New York City to get back to somewhere more “natural” (which, in all honesty, probably has helped in the long run).

None of this stuff knocked out the anxiety. The meditation was a definite help, and moving out of NYC was probably the right move, but I was still plagued by hypochondria, panic attacks, heart palpitations, head pressures, and a slew of other bizarre symptoms: all worrying stuff, but classic markers of anxiety.

Then I had a huge breakthrough; something that all the paleo gurus had lampooned constantly and wailed against, citing the ills of “chronic cardio.” At the advice of a friend, I swapped out the heavy lifting for running: old-fashioned vigorous cardio. To my surprise, many of the anxiety symptoms abated within the first week that I started running for 30 minutes every other day. The difference was dramatic. I was humbled.

The paleo gurus may have been right in advising against cardio for most people, but for my particular situation it was a necessary move, and in tunnel-visioning for two years, I’d ignored a solution that was obvious for some.

Additionally, I brought back the caffeine, another no-no that turned out to be helpful in lifting me out of the anxio-depressive hole. With it returned some of the pep, energy, and optimism that makes me a person I actually kind of enjoy.

First hand experience

I don’t want to paint these guys in a completely negative light. Again, most of what they advocated is good advice. I’m glad that I’m spending more time outside, walking more, eating food that’s less processed and closer to what my body’s genetically accustomed to fueling with. But I fell into a pitfall that I think is a common trap: because these guys mostly made sense, I took their word as gospel and stopped relying on my own instinct and experience.

These creative, critical muscles have to be maintained and flexed. As soon as you stop examining lifestyle choices critically and on your own judgement, that process calcifies and it becomes more difficult to think for yourself. Ironically there’s no quicker way to do this than to deluge yourself with other people’s opinions on how you should live — something in no short supply on the internet.

A part of me could feel that capability decaying, and as a result I lost confidence in myself. Ayn Rand sort of referred to this condition as secondhand living, and it’s a very real thing in the internet age. For people like me who are trained as engineers and always on the hunt for the “optimal” solution, having a search engine and an RSS feed at hand is a tantalizing and dangerous way to put your own mechanisms for exploration and judgement in the passenger seat.

Another major pitfall is the religion of statistics. Many articles advocating this diet or that exercise regimen are justified using this or that study, which examined a population of people doing this or not doing that and drew a conclusion based on average outcomes.

Statistics is a great tool, but it’s just a tool and it isn’t ironclad. Experiment design could have ignored any number of the infinite factors that might make the findings irrelevant for a particular individual, just as my severe anxiety made the plethora of studies advocating anaerobic (vs. aerobic) exercise nearly irrelevant for the purpose of my overall health.

The use of statistics and gurus

Just like statistics, these internet gurus are good tools if you keep in mind the limit of their value. Both statistics and blogs are excellent hypothesis generators. If you are convinced or even just intrigued by someone’s argument for a particular diet, lifestyle, or technique, the best thing you can do is try it out with a neutral mindset for a while, then abandon it. See if it works for your purposes right now, and in any case index it as another item in your toolbox. For example, someday I will return to the heavy lifting as a way to build muscle and bone density once my psychology cools off. It’s just not the right tool for the job facing me right now.

The difficulty is then not falling into cult worship that often accompanies early success. Just because internet guru X was right about idea A doesn’t mean he’s right about idea B; and even if he is right about idea B for most people, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right for you. Of course, the natural tendency is to cast a halo on blogger X and assume comfortably that you can follow his lead, and that if idea B isn’t working for you that you’re somehow doing it wrong. This anti-pattern is something that’s been observed in people over and over again.


The title of this essay is incorrect. Don’t ignore gurus (or me!), but be sure to keep the self-help books, blogs, and vocally promiscuous “experts” in the pantry alongside the sea salt. Develop your inner voice. Listen deep down inside yourself. This is where the good stuff come from. Even if you make huge mistakes and rediscover the conventional wisdom that people were pushing on you in the first place, that wisdom will be yours because you’ll have earned it.

When I gave up caffeine in an attempt to heal my anxiety by following other people’s advice, I sank into a depression. I think, though, that the depression had been lying in wait and was only triggered by the lack of stimulants. I’d turned my life into a set of constraints imposed by self-help material, prescriptions for how to live life the “right” way. My spirit paid the price for outsourcing judgement to other people. Luckily, I got a strong whiff of that and decided that it was high time to stop paying so much attention to experts and start trying things for myself.

Self-help books, the internet, and statistics are great things for hypothesis generation. But ultimately it’s on you to test how well your life tolerates and incorporates each practice. You’re the only person that can do that, despite how easy the internet makes it to think otherwise. There is no substitute for first-hand experience. Seek it out and listen to the results with honesty and sensitivity.

What am I going to do? I’m going to stop spending so much time looking for answers from the internet and play outside a little bit more. For now, I’m going to mostly restrict my internet reading to trashy, funny nonsense that I know won’t change my life, lower my blood sugar, or optimize my sleep. I’m going to make more decisions based on whim and do a little less thinking and worrying, and I’m going to try to listen to myself.

But I won’t forget what I learned from the gurus.