Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success by Shane Snow is a book that proposes a new best way. Snow argues that when to do something matters more than how long you’ve been doing it and suggests that ‘paying our dues’ might be playing the wrong game. A current example is Gimlet Media, a startup by Alex Blumberg. Blumberg could have stayed at his old job, creating stories for NPR and worked up the corporate ladder. Instead he took that experience and titled at something new.
Snow wants us to think about better ways to do things, and notes that the ideas in this book aren’t shortcuts. He writes, “Hacking the ladder is the mind-set they (successful people) use to get places. The rest of this book is about becoming good enough to deserve it.” It still takes a lot of work and luck, but smartcuts can let us to the work easier and maybe increase our luck.
Smartcut 1: Finding Waves
An analogy from the book is to look for the right waves. Snow writes, “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.” To Snow this means some people and groups are better at pattern spotting. He writes that if we practice looking for things, we can get better at finding them. Parenting is a job with inherent pattern spotting, predicting when kids bicker and when someone needs a nap. Bartenders too can quickly see when things might get sloppy. Snow provides examples to show we can find these trends in business too. Apple spotted the digital music wave and surfed in on it, produce companies surfed in the wave of railroads and refrigeration, and Amazon said “cowabunga” to the wave known as the internet. Rather than be the surfer who idly bobs along, we can be the one paddling about and looking for upcoming waves.
Another Shane (Parish) at Farnam Street writes that we should track our success at finding these waves. Whenever you’re making a consequential decision either individually or as part of a group, take a moment to note it. Parish suggests including the context, problem, and variables and recording them down in a journal. Six months later you can review what happened, what worked, and what didn’t. If you found the crux of a bigger idea you can note that, if not you can keep looking for the next wave to come in. Tracking out ability in the moment to spot waves in our lives circles around any hindsight bias we bring to a particular situation.
Smartcut 2: Climbing the Ladder
Another section of Smarcuts is about hacking the corporate ladder. An example not from the book is that of Samuel Zemurray, the banana peddler. Zemurray began his career riding in boxcars sleeping with his bananas, his future peers at Ivy League schools. When Zemurray was on the docks, his peers were in the boardroom. When Zemurray had to learn about a new plantation, he went to it. His peers read reports about it. Eventually it was Zemurray who would run the largest banana company in the world. Snow’s book includes many good examples to demonstrate this idea, especially about United States Presidents.
Smartcuts has ten similar sections. Conventional wisdom tweaked to provide big results.