The path to success isn't always clearcut. Award-winning actress Zoe Saldana was a ballet dancer before becoming a movie star. The novelist James Patterson, whose books have sold 275 million copies, was an ad executive before he switched to writing. How did both achieve success so quickly--even after changing directions abruptly?
Shane Snow, founder of Contently, wondered about that very question. So he set off to reexamine the conventional wisdom about success and wound up writing the book Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success. Below, he explains what mentors, failure, and "neurotic spreadsheeting" have to do with achieving remarkable things.
The main idea of your book is how to use "smartcuts" to rethink the path to success. What's wrong with the more traditional routes?
As I went through my research process, I realized that when you look at great, sustainable success in history, you see that hard work is always an element of that, doing twice as much in half the time. I realized that that is not the right focus if you want to do truly exceptional things. What I concluded is that the really exceptional people in business who make breakthroughs, in almost every case, were operating outside normal conventions in their world. You have to by definition break something. Yes, you can say, "Find an unconventional path to make things faster." But what inspires me is saying, "That's going to lead to the ideas that break patterns."
The example I like to use is the high jump in the Olympics. The first guy who jumped over it backward won the gold medal, and then at the next Olympics everyone jumped backward. The first guy didn't win again because as soon as something is proven to be a better way to success, it gets adopted very quickly. The game of innovation is about reinvention. It's not about efficiency. It's not about moving faster or doing more. It's about reinventing things so that perspectives change and you get breakthroughs.
Even though innovation is not primarily about moving faster than everyone else, you say in your book that it's possible to get where you want to go in half the time with a great mentor.
The overarching thing that you're looking for in a mentor is someone who will guide your journey and not just your practice. A mentor can be a teacher, but there are lots of teachers out there. The best mentors are the ones who care about your life and will lead you down the path you're supposed to take. Like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid, they're teaching life lessons and are there to guide their students through the trials. Organic mentor relationships are so much more powerful than other ones. The mentor whom you get to know and who calls you up on your birthday and whom you visit in the hospital when she has a kid and can go to and be vulnerable with and get that deeply personal guidance--that's the kind of mentor that statistically accelerates someone's success.
What if someone isn't quite ready for an accelerated path to success? What about the value of putting in a sufficient amount of time and experience?
That's something I've thought about a lot. In some cases, you have people who are clearly talented and don't get the shot [they deserve] because of some arbitrary years of experience you need or dues to be paid. Jimmy Fallon clearly deserved it, you could say he just started earlier. His rise was very fast. It would have been a shame if he had had to wait 15 years. Louis C.K., maybe he would have been just as talented and as great, but he needed that maturity; [the time] gave him material and made him different.
The message that I kind of want out there is that use of experience is the wrong proxy. Sometimes it is correlated, but sometimes it's not.
[Put another way], I'm relatively fresh as a writer and have only been at this for a few years now, so in 10 years I hope I'm a much better writer. But it doesn't mean I can't make an impact as a writer now, if that makes sense. If someone had told me, "Before you write a book, you have to start as an intern before you can even try something," that'd be a shame for me. There's no correlation and we ought to look at merit in terms of talent and skill, rather than in terms of time spent.
Sounds like you're disputing Malcolm Gladwell's theory that mastering a skill takes hundreds, if not thousands, of hours.
In entertainment and skills like that--cognitively complex fields--that's certainly the case. In competition, that's not the case because of that different game factor. If we're talking about ice hockey or growing a startup, there is some great research I reference a little in the book, basically on cognitive enrichment, which says the longer you've been doing something, the more hardwired you are and less flexible you are at being open to different ways of doing it, which opens up the way for others to disrupt. You see startups disrupting companies because they've become entrenched in their way of thinking. A smaller company can come in and pass them, even if they're less elegant or have less skill. It's pretty dead-on when you're talking about skills or expertise, but it doesn't quite map up to innovation or competition.
In the book you also discuss how becoming immune to failure helps people succeed. How can you create a safe environment to fail or test out new material?
There are a couple of things. This fail fast, fail often thing that everyone talks about in tech circles doesn't work if you're landing an airplane on an aircraft carrier. It's about setting up the environment: With an aircraft, can you set up a simulator where you play a video game? Comedians basically divide the path to the big risky venture--which is getting on stage in front of a live audience of paying people--into a series of small wins, where they can first get confidence to get up there, and second, practice in an environment where if they do fail, it's just feedback. You convert failure into feedback, so it's not actually the end. It's simply a note that you can learn from.
Tell me more about how to train yourself to actually want negative feedback. That sounds hard.
It's really hard. People who are already experts welcome negative feedback, because they already have confidence in their abilities. Whereas when you feel like you're climbing, negative feedback feels more personal. Again, the conclusion that I came to ... is you have to get used to it very slowly.
What I try to do as a habit myself is when something goes wrong, I try to catch myself when I explain what happened. If I'm tempted to say, "Oh, it was because of X or Y," I try to step back and reframe what it is and put a little more blame on me. This is a little bit personal, but the month before my book came out, this terrible thing happened and I had to drop a lot of the marketing stuff I was going to do. I was really worried that because I was not doing the months' worth of marketing I'd meant to do that the book wouldn't do well. I caught myself saying, "Yeah, the first week was not as good as the second week because this thing happened." So I started saying, "I reprioritized what I was working on." [With that statement], I'm giving myself more responsibility. I'm placing the blame on myself and it helps me to feel good about negative feedback because it's in my control and I just chose to make a different decision.
Besides becoming immune to failure, what else can you do to achieve exceptional things?
A lot of us tend to do work that is highly visible, but we don't spend enough time doing more thinking before doing something. The best surfers in the world spend more time watching the waves than the other surfers. They show up to the beach early. Yes, there is such a thing as opportunity, and you can call it luck, and randomness is a part of life and business, but the people who are the most successful--and consistently successful--are the ones who aren't just lucky but have been prepared for that and often they put themselves in the right spot by doing more thinking and seeking pattern recognition, by keeping their eyes open and not just their heads down working.
Spending more time watching and thinking will often mean you're not the first mover in a market. Why is that a good thing?
Business research shows that the first company to a new market tends to be the market leader only 9 percent of the time, whereas fast followers--the next people to see the opportunity--are typically able to learn from the pioneer and build something a little bit better. Most of the time, the observer who sees something and follows on it quickly ends up becoming the market leader. First mover advantage was this thing that a Ph.D. proposed 20 years ago. A few years ago some experts refuted it, saying first movers do not have an advantage statistically.
Give me one last "smartcut" for accomplishing more.
I do this thing called neurotic spreadsheeting. I like to spend time getting to know things. It's often the tiny details that make the difference between good and amazing. I like to observe and catalogue in spreadsheets what [competitors] do differently.… People think about pattern recognition as getting a lot of experience, being in something and soaking it in, but being deliberate about it tends to be a much better strategy. Recording will help you spot patterns. That would be my advice: Be more deliberate about analyzing the details.