How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success

Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success by Shane Snow, 2016

Shane laid out the nine critical ingredients for rapid success, with plenty of real-life examples. Contrary to popular belief, hard work does not always pay off.

3 Jul 2020

We’re multiplying our capabilities as a civilization and yet we still accept the notion that important societal progress, like combating inequality and crime—or even innovating in government and medicine—must take generations.

Despite leaps in what we can do, most of us still follow comfortable, pre-prescribed paths. We work hard, but hardly question whether we’re working smart.

On the other hand, some among us manage to build eBay in the time it takes the rest of us to build a house.

PRETEND YOU ARE DRIVING a car in the middle of a thunderstorm and you happen upon three people on the side of the road. One of them is a frail old woman, who looks on the verge of collapse. Another is a friend who once saved your life. The other is the romantic interest of your dreams, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet him or her. You have only one other seat in the car. Who do you pick up? There’s a good reason to choose any of the three. The old woman needs help. The friend deserves your payback. And clearly, a happy future with the man or woman of your dreams will have an enormous long-term impact on your life. So, who should you pick? The old woman, of course. Then, give the car keys to your friend, and stay behind with the romantic interest to wait for the bus! This dilemma is an exercise in lateral thinking. It’s the kind of puzzle in which the most elegant solution is revealed only when you attack it sideways. New ideas emerge when you question the assumptions upon which a problem is based (in this case: it’s that you can only help one person).

Lateral thinking doesn’t replace hard work; it eliminates unnecessary cycles. Once they’ve shortened their path, overachievers tend to look for ways to do more with their effort,

Leverage is the overachiever’s approach to getting more bang for her proverbial buck.

Good fortune and talent are both ingredients of success, but like any recipe, they can be substituted with clever alternatives. The one irreplaceable ingredient I’ve found, however, is work.

It’s clear that switching ladders can help bypass “dues” and accelerate the Bigger or Better cycle.

Hard work and luck are certainly ingredients of success, but they’re not the entire recipe.

DATA INDICATES THAT those who train with successful people who’ve “been there” tend to achieve success faster.

Jimmy Fallon’s mentor, one of the best-connected managers Jimmy could have for his SNL dream, served him up on a platter to SNL auditions in a fraction of the expected time it should take a new comedian to get there.

The mentorship study data conflicted, it turned out, because of the difference between structured mentoring programs, which were less effective, and mentorship that happened organically. In fact, one-on-one mentoring in which an organization formally matched people proved to be nearly as worthless as a person having not been mentored at all. However, when students and mentors came together on their own and formed personal relationships, the mentored did significantly better, as measured by future income, tenure, number of promotions, job satisfaction, work stress, and self-esteem.

The problem is that two people can study the same business model, watch the same video, or even take the same advice from a mentor, and one person might pick up critical details that the other misses.

Siegel cared more about his long-term journey than his short-term paycheck; she screened every offer through the lens of, “Will this help Jimmy get SNL one day?” He said “no” to television sitcoms, “no” to acting jobs that might take him too far away from SNL.

As we’ve learned, mentorship doesn’t always yield success. But when we look at superlative success stories throughout history, the presence of an in-person mentor (in Jimmy’s case his manager) or a world-class, long-distance mentor (in Jimmy’s case, great comedians whom he copied) with whom the mentee has a deep, vulnerable relationship is almost always manifest.

In business, the more socially acceptable it is to fail, the more likely smart people will try crazy things, the geeks argue.

It turns out that after you adjust for statistical margin of error, an entrepreneur who’d failed in a previous venture was not likely to do better than someone who’d never run a business in her life. Expecting to be suddenly great at business after running one into the ground is akin to losing the first basketball game you ever played and expecting to win the next game because you lost the first.

According to the study, successful entrepreneurs, on the other hand, are 50 percent more likely to succeed in a second venture. The more you win, the more likely you are to win again. So, failing in business doesn’t make us better or smarter. But succeeding makes us more likely to continue to succeed.

People explain their successes and failures “by attributing them to factors that will allow them to feel as good as possible about themselves.” Remember what the Startup Funeral founders said? “We ran out of money.” “People didn’t want it.” “The ‘gray hairs’ had no plan.” Look at what they did. They each attributed their companies’ failures to external factors. Things that made them feel better about themselves.

On the other hand, we tend to pin our successes on internal factors. Think back to the last competition you won. It was your hard work, your skill, your quick thinking in the heat of the moment that won the day.

“Even though an individual failure experience may contain valuable knowledge,” Staats says, “without subsequent effort to reflect upon that experience, the potential learning will remain untapped.

Experts—people who were masters at a trade—vastly preferred negative feedback to positive. It spurred the most improvement. That was because criticism is generally more actionable than compliments. “You did well” is less helpful in improving your bowling game than “You turned your wrist too much.”

THE SECOND CITY MANAGES to accomplish three things to accelerate its performers’ growth: (1) it gives them rapid feedback; (2) it depersonalizes the feedback; and (3) it lowers the stakes and pressure, so students take risks that force them to improve.

ISAAC NEWTON ATTRIBUTED HIS success as a scientist to “standing on the shoulders of giants”—building off of the work of great thinkers before him.

A traditional software company might have built Twitter on a lower layer like C and taken months or years to polish it before even knowing if people would use it. Twitter—and many other successful companies—used the Rails platform to launch and validate a business idea in days. Rails translated what Twitter’s programmers wanted to tell all those computer transistors to do—with relatively little effort. And that allowed them to build a company fast. In the world of high tech—like in racing—a tiny time advantage can mean the difference between winning and getting passed.

It was that Finland somehow managed to be the best with less effort than everyone else. Finnish students entered school one year later than most others. They took fewer classes and spent less time in school per day. They had fewer tests and less homework. And they thought school was fun.

Instead of forcing kids to learn code through lectures and drills and mandatory classes, she built a toy that kids actually download and play with because they want to. And Hopscotch isn’t the only company that’s onto this idea; encouragingly, thousands of young children have learned to program video games and robots through similar constructionist games like Gamestar Mechanic and LEGO Mindstorms. A subset of those kids, Samantha says, will become passionate enough to pursue a deeper expertise in programming.

Studies show that students who use calculators have better attitudes toward math, and are more likely to pursue highly computational careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) than those who don’t or can’t.

To get kids to become interested in an academic subject on their own, they have to play. Building with LEGOs, visiting museums, experimenting with tools.

And while we may need deep expertise in our industries to become innovators, we actually need only higher-order thinking and the ability to use platforms to do everything else.

After studying decades of calculator usage in classrooms, researchers warn, “If schools do not teach students to use these devices from an early age, the rising generation will lack necessary work skills.”

Today’s children should be taught to use Excel spreadsheets—and all their calculations—instead of times tables. Rather than teaching a mile wide in every subject, we ought to first teach kids to use platforms, then let them go deep in the areas that interest them.

Finnish schools cut curricular fat, so they could dedicate time to training students vocational skills. Instead of abstract theory, students got hands-on practice. Instead of a surface-level understanding of every topic ever, they went deep in fewer.

By teaching tools and problem solving instead of memorization and by hiring only teachers with master’s degrees, Finland created a higher educational platform that gave its kids an advantage. That’s how its school system shot to number one.

Effort for the sake of effort is as foolish a tradition as paying dues. How much better is hard work when it’s amplified by a lever? Platforms teach us skills and allow us to focus on being great, rather than reinventing wheels or repeating ourselves.

“The idea was to mimic what was already happening on a mainstream level with pop music and boy bands as far as marketing goes,” Richter explains, “and take it to the underground, which was slowly gathering and amassing on the Internet.”

Luck is often talked about as “being in the right place at the right time.” But like a surfer, some people—and companies—are adept at placing themselves at the right place at the right time. They seek out opportunity rather than wait for it.

In a given domain—be it surfing or accounting or political fund-raising—the familiarity that leads to pattern recognition seems to come with experience and practice. Fencing masters recognize opportunities in opponents’ moves because of the sheer amount of practice time logged into their heads. Leaders and managers who use their gut to make decisions often do so based on decades of experience, archived and filed away in the folds of their cerebrums.

Deliberate pattern spotting can compensate for experience.

This explains how so many inexperienced companies and entrepreneurs beat the norm and build businesses that disrupt established players. Through deliberate analysis, the little guy can spot waves better than the big company that relies on experience and instinct once it’s at the top. And a wave can take an amateur farther faster than an expert can swim.

Like Twitter, as we learned in chapter 4, both Gmail and AdSense started off as side projects. Google was in the water when the waves of Internet traffic came because it was tinkering with new ideas under the umbrella of Google’s famous “20% Time.”

This kind of budgeted experimentation helps businesses avoid being disrupted, by helping them harness waves on which younger competitors might otherwise use to ride past them. It’s helped companies like Google, 3M, Flickr, Condé Nast, and NPR remain innovative even as peer companies plateaued. In contrast, companies that are too focused on defending their current business practice and too fearful to experiment often get overtaken. For example, lack of experimentation in digital media has cost photo brand Kodak nearly $30 billion in market capitalization since the digital photography wave overwhelmed it in the late ’90s.

“Before my heats at the Open, I watched the lineup and figured out which peaks were the most consistent with good waves,” she told me. “When I was out there, I usually began judging a wave as soon as I saw a lump forming in the horizon.” This study allowed her to beat the hometown hero Conlogue, who certainly had developed intuition on this beach from years of surfing there. Did Moore beat Conlogue because the former studied the waves harder that day, while the latter took her experience in these waves for granted? It appears so.

Startlingly, the research showed that 47 percent of first movers failed. Only about half the companies that started selling a product first remained the market leader five years later, and only 11 percent of first movers remained market leaders over the long term. By contrast, early leaders—companies that took control of a product’s market share after the first movers pioneered them—had only an 8 percent failure rate. Fifty-three percent of the time in the Golder and Tellis study, an early leader became the market leader in a category.

Fast followers, on the other hand, benefit from free-rider effects. The pioneers clear the way in terms of market education and infrastructure and learn the hard lessons, so the next guys can steal what works, learn objectively from the first movers’ failures, and spend more effort elsewhere. The first wave clears the way for a more powerful ride.

Conventional thinking leads talented and driven people to believe that if they simply work hard, luck will eventually strike. That’s like saying if a surfer treads water in the same spot for long enough, a wave will come; it certainly happens to some people, once in a while, but it’s not the most effective strategy for success. Paradoxically, it’s actually a lazier move.

WHICH IS EASIER—MAKING FRIENDS with a thousand people one by one or making friends with someone who already has a thousand friends? Which is faster—going door to door with a message or broadcasting the message to a million homes at once?

Revolutions are a slow, deadly business. Before radio, 300 outcasts hiding in the jungle could not have overthrown a powerful military dictatorship. But with radio, those outcasts could connect to the 5 million oppressed Cuban citizens who secretly shared the rebellion’s dissatisfaction, and turn the tide against the dictator, tanks and planes and all. The radio had superconnected the revolutionaries with the Cuban people, and together they achieved victory in astonishingly short time.

Abrams is known, acquaintances tell me, for his kindness and lack of ego, in addition to his penchant for mystery. That’s how he attracts the best people to his staff. And that’s how he’s managed to climb so far so fast.

Sonny remixed artists like Lady Gaga or Avicii or Nero, he gave their tracks a boost and helped them reach new fans. This in turn superconnected Moore to audiences larger than his own and led to surges in his popularity. And after winning six Grammys, Moore started paying things forward, incubating new and young artists in his recording warehouse and promoting their music to his fans.

Initially, Abrams helped out better-connected people than himself, and doing so helped him superconnect. But once he was the superconnector, he still helped people. That’s how to tell if someone is a giver, or a taker in giver’s clothing. “If you do it only to succeed,” Grant says, in the long run, “it probably won’t work.”

I’m pretty sure that acquiring a billion dollars would solve all my problems. However, studies show that the wealthy—especially those who fall into it through inheritance or the lottery or sale of a business—are often not happier once they’re rich. A meaningful percentage of them believe that their wealth causes more problems than it solves.

The trouble with moonwalkers and billionaires is when they arrive at the top, their momentum often stops. If they don’t manage to find something to parlay, they turn into the kid on the jungle gym who just hangs from the ring.

Amabile found that minor victories at work were nearly as psychologically powerful as major breakthroughs. To motivate stuck employees, as Amabile and her colleague Steven J. Kramer suggest in their book, The Progress Principle, businesses need to help their workers experience lots of tiny wins.

To get out of the funk, say Joan DiFuria and Stephen Goldbart, cofounders of the Money, Meaning & Choices Institute, depressed successes simply have to start the Olympic rings over. Some use their money to create new businesses. Others parlay sideways and get into philanthropy. And others simply pick up hobbies that take time to master. Even if the subsequent endeavors are smaller than their previous ones, the depression dissipates as they make progress.

Investors see momentum and future success as so highly correlated that they will take bigger bets on companies with fast-growing user bases even if the companies are bleeding money.

Like a surfer arriving hours before a competition to watch the waves, “I would study the algorithm of YouTube’s front page” for months, Phan says. “I noticed that they only would post up videos with a lot of views [on the home page], and you only have 2 days to capitalize off of all these views.” However, YouTube didn’t update the home page on weekends, she realized. If she managed to get a video on there on a Thursday, “I [could] be there for an extra 2 days.”

The secret to harnessing momentum is to build up potential energy, so that unexpected opportunities can be amplified. On the playground, it’s like building a tower to stand on, so you can start your Olympic ring with more velocity. Phan’s tower was a backlog of quality content.

Like Holmes, hackers strip the unnecessary from their lives. They zero in on what matters. Like great writers, innovators have the fortitude to cut the adverbs.

Apparently, patience and willpower, even creativity, are exhaustible resources. That’s why so many busy and powerful people practice mind-clearing meditation and stick to rigid daily routines: to minimize distractions and maximize good decision making.

Classes were small, yes. But more interestingly, students often had the same teachers for several years in a row, developing rapport and allowing teachers to focus heavily on individual students’ needs.

Students start learning vocations like engineering and business as soon as they hit high school. They skip many of the general education courses most of us forget. And they actually like school.

Pop star Lady Gaga gained unprecedented support for her music and mission to “foster a more accepting society” through the stir generated by her outrageous costumes and music videos.

Such spotlight-snatching only produces real momentum if there’s substance behind it. Gaga’s music was catchy and fresh. Red Bull had spent years publishing a backlog of high-octane sports content (and selling a popular beverage); the attention from Baumgartner’s jump just solidified the company’s reputation in the action-sports world. Alexander earned himself the title “Great” through his ingenious military tactics, without which his quest would have never worked.

10x Thinking is the art of the extremely big swing. To use a baseball analogy: instead of trying to get on base—or even aiming for a home run—it’s trying to hit the ball into the next town.

“Our belief is that if you can get people to let go of their fear, and to be more intellectually open, intellectually honest, more dispassionate about being creative, trying new things, and then being honest about what the results are instead of having all these other issues cloud their judgment, you can get to radically better solutions in honestly about the same amount of time, about the same amount of resources, as making the 10-percent improvement.”

Academic research actually shows that we’re less likely to perform at our peak potential when we’re reaching for low-hanging fruit. That’s in part because there’s more competition at the bottom of the tree than at the top. And competition in large numbers doesn’t just decrease general odds of winning. It creates underperformance.

In 2009 behavioral psychologists Stephen M. Garcia and Avishalom Tor showed that merely knowing there are more competitors in a competition decreases our performance. Not relative to a group, but in absolute terms.

The “high-hanging fruit” approach, the big swing, is more technically challenging than going after low-hanging fruit, but the diminished number of competitors in the upper branches (not to mention the necessary expertise of those that make it that high) provides fuel for 10x Thinking, and brings out our potential.

Human nature makes us surprisingly willing to support big ideals and big swings. That means more customers, more investors, and more word-of-mouth for the dreamers.

The framework: