9 ways how hackers, innovators and icons accelerate success

“Once you stop thinking you have to follow the path laid out you can really turn up the speed” – David Heinemeier Hanson

In his book Smartcuts, Shane Snow endeavours to convince you that the fastest route to success is never traditional, and that the conventions we grow up with can be hacked. Crux of his endeavor is to show you that anyone—not just billionaire entrepreneurs and professional mavericks—can speed up progress in business or life.

He does so by taking examples and stories throughout history of overachievers who have applied lateral thinking to success in a variety of fields and endeavors.

By virtue of being on an assignment as a reporter for Fast Company, Shane had the unique opportunity to research, interview, dissect common patterns among rapidly successful entrepreneurs, tech companies and icons.

He’s put together success stories of how Jimmy Fallon reached stardom, DHH (Ruby on Rails) winning the World Endurance Championship (Racing) despite being the least experienced driver in the competition, David Karp’s (Tumblr founder) rapid rise and other fast-growing personalities and companies through research and interviews and dissected common patterns among rapidly successful entrepreneurs, tech companies and icons.

He’s identified nine patterns of lateral thinking, called smartcuts, across these stories, which he believes can be harnessed by anyone who seeks an edge for personal development or professional development.

He defines smartcuts as “shortcuts with integrity”. Where the dictionary definition of shortcuts can be amoral, smartcuts is about working smarter and achieving more—without creating negative externalities.

He categorizes the 9 smartcuts under 3 classes –

  1. Shorten (the path to success)
  2. Leverage (do more with less effort)
  3. Soar

Here’s a summary of the 9 smartcuts for kwick konsumption that can be applied for self or company alike. The more curious can read the stories, research and evidence of the excerpts below can be found in the book.

Shorten (the path to success)

  1. Hack the ladder


The ability and openness to swiftly switch directions tends to accelerate a company’s growth.

The fastest land animal in the world in the cheetah. According to behavioral biologists, the speed however is not the cheetah’s biggest predatory advantage. It’s their agility – their skill at leaping sideways, changing directions abruptly and slowing down quickly, that gives those antelopes such bad odds.

Business research shows that ladder switching, switching business models or products, while on the upswing, tends to accelerate a company’s growth and are more likely to perform much better than those that stay on a single course.

The 2011 Startup Genome Report of new technology companies backs this up – “Startups that pivot once or twice raise 2.5x more money, have 3.6x better user growth, and are 52% less likely to scale prematurely.”

Stubborness and tradition make for poor performance.

  1. Train with masters


A master can help you accelerate things, especially so when a master is not just a teacher but a mentor, someone who’s travelled the road herself.

Mentorship is the secret of many of the highest-profile achievers throughout history.

Business research backs this up, too. Analysis shows that entrepreneurs who have mentors end up raising seven times as much capital for their businesses, and experience 3.5 times faster growth than those without mentors. And in fact, of the companies surveyed, few managed to scale a profitable business model without a mentor’s aid.

However, the trick is to get the mentoring relationship right. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and the author of Lean In, dedicates a chapter in her book to this concept, arguing that asking someone to formally mentor you is like asking a celebrity for an autograph; it’s stiff, inorganic, and often doesn’t work out.

According to research, what works is “informal mentoring” where deep personal relationships are developed which transcend just advice on the formal challenges at hand to advice on other aspects of life. Both the teacher and the student must be able to open up about their fears, and that builds trust, which in turn accelerates learning. That trust opens us up to actually heeding the difficult advice we might otherwise ignore. The more vulnerability is shown in the relationship, the more critical details become available for a student to pick up on and assimilate.

  1. Get rapid feedback


Tech startups have pioneered and evangelized this concept through their lean startup model where they release an MVP (Minimal Viable Product) and improve it through iterations basis feedback. They live by the mantra “fail fast and fail often”

The tough part about negative feedback is in separating ourselves from the perceived failure and turning our experiences into objective experiments. But when we do that, feedback becomes much more powerful.

The same rule applies when giving feedback, especially personal feedback. Feedback that works is feedback that causes a person to focus on the task rather than on herself. The more you can depersonalize the feedback and lower the stakes and pressure of failing, the more likely is the person to take risks that force them to improve.

Leverage (do more with less effort)

  1. Take advantage of platforms


Platforms are layers of abstraction in business and life that can allow you to multiply your effort. They are tools and environments on which you can build your ideas allowing you to bypass the initial or foundational hard work that’s already been done.

As an example, 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.

You can build on top of a lot of things that exist in this world.

  1. Spot and ride waves


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.

Spotting and riding waves is about developing conscious pattern recognition.

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.

In business, fast followers can often benefit from free-rider effects once the first movers take on the burden of educating customers, setting up infrastructure, getting regulatory approvals, and making mistakes—getting feedback and adjusting.

The way to predict the best waves in a proverbial set is established by researchers Fernando F. Suarez and Gianvito Lanzolla, who in Academy of Management Review explain that “when market and technology growth are smooth and steady, the first mover gets the inertia and an advantage. When industry change is choppy, the fast follower—the second mover—gets the benefits of the first mover’s pioneering work and often catches a bigger wave, unencumbered.”

  1. Find superconnectors


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?

This is the idea behind what Shane Snow calls superconnecting, the act of making mass connections by tapping into hubs with many spokes.

Scott Gerber, founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council, who coined the term superconnector however warns that “The number one problem with networking is people are out for themselves. Superconnecting is about learning what people need, then talking about ‘how do we create something of value.’”


  1. Create momentum


Momentum is simply progress. A sense of forward motion regardless of how small. And this is done best with the concept of enabling lots of “tiny wins”.

The forward motion, however small, builds up potential energy, which then helps amplifying the momentum multifold when unexpected opportunities arise.

  1. Simplicity


The best products often demonstrate that simplification often makes the difference between good and amazing. Steve Jobs has probably been the face for this concept. From the Magic Mouse (mouse with zero buttons) doubling Apple’s mouse market share overnight, to Apple’s ipod winning the MP3 war with breakthrough simplicity, both in physical design as well as communication (1000 songs in your pocket), Steve Jobs has reason enough to refer to simplicity as “the ultimate sophistication”

Geniuses and presidents strip meaningless choices from their day, so they can simplify their lives and think. Inventors and entrepreneurs ask, ‘how could we make this product simpler?’ The answer transforms good to incredible.

Caveat: As Einstein has said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”

  1. 10X thinking


10X thinking is moon-shot thinking. It’s making something 10 times better rather than 10% better.

According to Steven Teller of Google [x], “the crazy thing is it’s often easier to make something 10 times better than it is to make it 10 percent better.”

He explains that “The way of going about trying to make something new or better often tends to polarize into one of two styles. “One is the low-variance, no surprises version of improvement. The production model, if you will. You tend to get ‘10 percent,’ in order of magnitude, kind of improvements. In order to get really big improvements, you usually have to start over in one or more ways. You have to break some of the basic assumptions and, of course, you can’t know ahead of time. It’s by definition counterintuitive.” Incremental progress, he says, depends on working harder. More resources, more effort. 10x progress is built on bravery and creativity instead. Working smarter. In other words, 10x goals force you to come up with smartcuts.

It’s what according to Peter Thiel enables zero to one transformation and why such thinking can reap better rewards.

While this is easier said than done, the good news is that lofty thinking is what makes people surprisingly willing to support big ideals and big swings. Although just because you’re righteous doesn’t mean people will support you. You have to motivate them. You have to tell provocative stories. This explains brands like Red Bull and Whole Foods that manage to convey their values so loudly; they tell good stories. This explains Gaga, Alexander, and other revolutionary types; they tell fantastic stories. This explains why Elon Musk the geek brushed up on speaking skills and started talking big. This-is-the-future-of-mankind big. He did television appearances and magazine interviews. He told the world he was going to die on Mars.

“You need to get a critical mass of people who give a fuck.”

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