Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success (book review)

How do some startups go from zero to billions in just a few months? How did Alexander the Great, YouTube tycoon Michelle Phan, and Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon climb to the top in less time than it takes most of us to get a promotion? Shane Snow’s Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success seeks to answer these questions.

Snow has built a name for himself as a journalist and tech entrepreneur. Having co-founded Contently, the New York-based startup that helps freelance journalists and story tellers connect with brands in need of content, Snow is also a regular contributor to global media outlets like Mashable, The New Yorker, Wired, and Fast Company.

The focal point of Smartcuts is centered around busting old myths and scrapping conventional wisdom that most of us follow in an effort to get ahead in life. Snow’s overall thesis is that progress can be faster today than ever before. He highlights furturist author (and a director of engineering at Google) Ray Kurzweil’s essay “The Law of Accelerating Returns”, in which Kurzweil argues that at the rate we’re going, we as a species are likely to see 20,000 years of progress within the 21st century alone.

Failure is overvalued

Traditional mentors tell us that failure (even multiple failures) is necessary on the road to success. Snow argues that we place too much emphasis on failure as a good thing, as most people don’t always absorb the value of their mistakes, but instead shift blame onto others. Snow believes that entrepreneurs should try to engage in “lateral thinking,” or the act of reframing problems to challenge their basic assumptions.

His main assertions in the book are that paying one’s dues is an outdated idea that’s no longer applicable in today’s fast-moving society. Snow says the two main things that slow modern entrepreneurs down is thinking too small and thinking too conventionally. He argues there is a key differentiator between shortcuts and smartcuts: Shortcuts in business often lead to rapid growth, but are typically unsustainable in the long run, whereas smartcuts are sustainable and ethical ways of getting ahead by challenging preconceived notions.

Snow cites a plethora of success stories inside and outside the tech sector. He highlights the fact that while it took oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller nearly 50 years to generate US$1 billion, it took Andrew Mason, CEO of Groupon, only two years to do so (never mind that Mason was fired).

What do the US president and electronic musicians have in common?
Snow aggregates and ties together case studies on Elon Musk, Barack Obama, electronic music artist Skrillex, and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer to show that lateral thinking can be applied across any medium. In an interview with Forbes , Snow says:

Skrillex and Musk have track records of huge successes, multiple times, across multiple industries/genres. Their repeat wins defy conventional theories about luck’s role in success, and should give us hope that we have more control over our destinies than culture tells us we do. Both of these guys owe their successes to pattern recognition and moving themselves to the right place at the right time. In the book I talk about exactly how that happens, and what specific processes they go through to ‘hack’ serendipity. Musk has a few other habits that I’ve found transformative for my own business, as well.

Image credit – Mademan

No need to crawl before flying

In the book, Snow cooks up nine patterns for lateral thinking, and organizes them into three categories: shortening, leveraging, and soaring. According to Snow, “shortening” doesn’t allow innovators to replace hard work, but instead is something they use to eliminate cycles that were previously thought necessary to their success.

“Leveraging” means getting the biggest bang for your buck with regard to time, effort, and money spent. “Soaring” is a term Snow uses to describe the use of upward momentum, not experience, to dictate one’s own personal success.

The book is refreshing as a modern how-to guide for getting ahead of the entrepreneur pack. But perhaps its only drawback is that Snow moves quite fast through his examples and case studies, often leaving readers wondering if he’s in fact gone as deep as necessary to get to the heart of each individual success story.

One could also probe Snow by asking how entrepreneurs can maintain the art of lateral thinking, even after they’ve reached the top. But perhaps that can be the premise of his next work. Considering the fact that Smartcuts is Snow’s first full-length book and has received praise from critics like The Financial Times, calling him the next Malcolm Gladwell, it’s likely that we’ll see more books on innovation by Snow in the coming years.

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