A friend and colleague recently sent me a link to this excellent presentation by renowned computer hacker Johnny Long. Johnny Long was one of the first “ethical hackers”, computer scientists who are paid by organizations to break into their systems to find vulnerabilities. As his notoriety grew, Johnny struck out on his own, writing extremely popular books on novel, low-tech ways to hack into computer systems, including arguably his most popular and influential work, Google Hacking. Johnny is an extremely accomplished, engaging, innovative, and disciplined computer specialist who has advanced the field of hacking perhaps more than anyone else.
But his talk, and this blog post, have nothing to do with technical gobbledegook, Rather, they deal with something far thornier and challenging: how to lead a meaningful life.
I struggle with this all the time. Professionally, I don’t feel fulfilled at all. I’m trying to figure that out. I bet most people come to that point in their careers, that moment when they begin to wonder whether they are doing the right thing. I’ve got a bad case of it, and so I don’t have any good answers.
I will say, though, that this video has a lot to offer that I find inspiring. Johnny describes points in his life when he reached a low, when he felt terribly unsatisfied. Around the 16:20 mark in the video, he describes a kid with a beaming smile as “the happiest kid in the world, and he had nothing.” He contrasts that child with himself, who was finding success after success but was miserable. He describes how he “got to the top of the ladder, and the view sucked.” He recalls looking for the “immediate life-changing results button” on his computer but not being able to find it. It was at these times of longing, of searching for ways to fill the void, that he realized the “power of we over me”. When he re-centered his life around working to better the lives of others, applying his skills and knowledge in the service of those who most needed it, and sacrificing his own comfort in the process, he found happiness. His hackersforcharity.org website and its wildly successful food program resulted directly from Johnny’s quest to find happiness and peace.
I urge you to watch at least the first twenty minutes or so of this video. First, it’s a perfect example of how to do Powerpoint, as there isn’t an annoying bullet point to be found. More importantly, though, it’s a shoot-from-the-hip, practical inventory-taking of a lifelong quest to find purpose and meaning in life.
Johnny offers an equation for happiness: passion + higher purpose + the power of “we”. Right now, I fear I’m pretty far from being able to implement that equation in my life’s program. Workplace politics and associated frustrations have an uncanny ability to squelch passion and envelope higher purpose in a seemingly impenetrable fog of anger and escape-seeking. I’m sure I’m not unique in that regard. But I’m trying to break through.
Johnny Lang’s work applying his phenomenal hacking skills to help others provides an outstanding example of self-fulfillment that extends far beyond oneself. His story is somewhat of a beacon. It’s worth a listen.