Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success

Shane Snow

277 pages, HarperBusiness, 2014

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I was in a unique spot to observe - from the inside - people who were doing crazy things at implausibly young ages or in surprisingly fast time.

So, I wrote a book about them.

And I asked myself, how do they move so fast?

This book comes out of countless hours of research, hundreds of interviews, and the dissection of myriad academic papers in an effort to answer that question. Initially, I set out to discover the common patterns among rapidly successful tech companies, but I soon realized that their habits were simply permutations of principles smart people had been using in a variety of contexts throughout history.

I see this book as a simultaneous hat tip and counterpoint to some of the great success and innovation literature out there (check out for my recommendations). It’s a re-analysis and first codification of the ways rapid success has happened throughout history.

The step-by-step advice that made an ancient Greek hero rapidly prosperous will be entirely different from what makes a 21st-century businesswoman successful, just as the exact methods an Internet startup uses to grow today will be irrelevant in five years.

But the patterns of lateral thinking (smartcuts) behind each of their success stories can be harnessed by anyone who seeks an edge—at work, at the gym, in the arts or education, from social enterprise to personal development, from big companies to small startups.

In each of the following chapters, we’ll explore one of those patterns. I’ve divided the nine of them into three classes, which make up the three parts of this book:


Earlier, we discussed the scenario of the old woman in the thunderstorm. Were you surprised that the path to the most success in that scenario involved stepping outside and getting rain soaked?

This is the kind of thinking that computer scientists—and especially computer hackers—use. Got two short Internet cables but need one long one? Cut the ends off and splice the two together. Want to digitize libraries of old books without typing them up yourself? Get millions of people on the Internet to do it for you. (Ever filled out those crazy letters—called CAPTCHAs—when you signed up for something online? That’s what you’re doing.)

Increasingly in today’s culture, “hacking” is something done not just by criminals and computer scientists, but by anyone who has the capability to approach a problem laterally. (This is the original usage of the term, in fact.) Can’t get that horrible plastic “blister pak” for those headphones open? Use a can opener. (It works!)

Not enough seats for the four of you? Give yours up and weather the storm with the person of your dreams.

The first section of this book discusses how some people use such “hacker” thinking to shorten paths to success. It’s how some people take a few years to become president while others spend 30. It’s how unknown comedians get on Saturday Night Live and Internet companies get to millions of users in months.

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, which brings us to our next section:


Pretend you’re fixing up an old house, and you need to pry a nail out of the wood floor in the living room. You have a claw hammer, but try as you can, the nail won’t come out.

You have a few options at this point. You could give up (maybe pulling the nail is unnecessary), but let’s assume it’s essential we get this nail out. One option is to exert more force, pull harder. Maybe if your life depended on it, you could work the nail out over a long period of time. But then you’ll be too tired to sand the floor.

This is what the classic success advice amounts to: work 100 hours a week, believe you can do it, visualize, and push yourself harder than everyone else. Claw that nail out with your bare hands ’til they bleed if necessary. This is the hard way.

Or maybe you can admit defeat and phone your biggest friend, so he can come over and give the nail pulling a shot. That’s less work for you, but suddenly, you’ve created more network. And what if there’s not one, but 70 nails to pull? This is the other common success advice: outsource the tough stuff, and try to profit from the arbitrage. This is the cheap way.

The easiest solution in this case, however, is not to waste energy, not to bother your friend, but to find a long piece of pipe to put over the hammer’s handle and to push on the end of the pipe. The toughest nail will pop out. The law of the lever, as shown by the Greek mathematician Archimedes, says the longer the lever, the less force you need exert.

This is the smart way.

Leverage is the overachiever’s approach to getting more bang for her proverbial buck. It’s how brand-new startups scale and young sci-fi geeks become movie directors. It’s how below-average school systems turn around and revolutions are won. It’s how surfers take championships and artists go from homeless to the Grammys.


I’m not much of an athlete, but there’s one sport in which I feel it’s all right to brag about my abilities for a minute: monkey bars, circa age ten.

When I was a shrimpy, red-headed kid on the primary school playground, my arms were too short to reach the Olympic rings, a series of circular handles hanging by chains at the jungle gym. You’re supposed to hang from the handles and work your way across the span, hand over hand.

Though the gap between handles was wider than my wingspan, I learned to navigate them like a real Olympian: by grabbing one handle and swinging with all my might toward the next one, so the chain became a pendulum that took me to the next handle. Once I started swinging, however, I couldn’t stop, or I’d get stuck, spread-eagled between two rings. So I swung and swung, never holding two handles at once, until I reached the end.

My adventures on the monkey bars are analogous to the smartcuts that we’ll discuss in the final third of the book. These principles explain how rocketeers and makeup artists defy expectations and become world-class icons. They’re how tech geeks save lives and community college flunkies catalyze global change.

And they’re how regular people can make their dreams happen, regardless how short their arms are.

Excerpted from SMARTCUTS: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success. Copyright © 2014 by Shane Snow. Excerpted by permission of HarperBusiness, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.