The Problem with “How To”

Being a big fan of Medium and also an employee of the company, I spend oodles of time reading in the app and on the site. Like, way more than is okay to admit. (Fine, I’ll admit it: last weekend, during my mother-in-law’s birthday brunch, my husband caught me reading Medium at the table. Guilty.)

There are a lot of amazing How-To stories on Medium. People get a lot out of them. They circulate widely, are shared broadly, are recommended highly, and garner many responses.

This morning, I was reading a story about how to continue healthy habits, even while traveling. As someone who travels a ton for work, I found myself nodding quietly while reading while also somehow feeling like I should write a response as some sort of (for lack of a better word) retort or rebut the advice.

And then, it came to me, and I opened up this tab and started pontificating immediately.

The problem with how to stories lies in the second-person view.

Advice, by default, is imparted by one person on another (or group of others). As such, it’s dealt out in the second-person view. You should do this. You can do that.

We’re all humans, and much as we like to deny this fact, being told what to do rankles us. There’s a reason very few people can pull off second-person narratives (except N.K Jemisin in The Fifth Season — amazing book, please read it). The view point feels stilted, comes off as demanding, and generally, doesn’t work.

Yet, second-person finds a natural home with the how-to story because that kind of writing lives and dies by someone telling someone else what to do.

But… We don’t really want to be told what to do. Yes, we all have some semblance of awareness in our deficits, our areas of laziness, the places we want to improve. We want to grow, we want to learn, we want to hear from those who are successful where we are not, yet want to be.

But we don’t want to be explicitly told.

How to fix the problem with the how-to? How to life hack with a little less overt life hackery?

Remove the second-person; replace it with the first-person.

At least, that’s what I do. Me? I write how-to’s all the time. Y’all read them. You think of them as inspiring personal anecdotes, and perhaps, if I strike the right cord and have a strength where you desire to improve, I help you find a path for how to do something.


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