Book Review: Smartcuts by Shane Snow

Adam Books, Reading 2 Comments

Shane Snow 
is an entrepreneur (cofounder of Contently) and award-winning journalist (Wired, Fast Company, The New Yorker) who has written largely about the tech entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley among other powerful and interesting people.

SmartCuts is an attempt at explaining how the outliers Snow has observed in his journalistic career have managed to completely bypass the traditional, incremental, system of progress that most of us work through.

Why are Presidents younger than Senators? How did Jimmy Fallon, Michelle Phan and others fly to the top of their respective careers ahead of so many others? These are the questions and types of examples Snow uses to teach us how to use “SmartCuts” in our own life.

It’s a book that epitomizes work hard, but more importantly work smart. I think there’s a lot in this book to help you come up with intelligent strategies for getting ahead versus just your typical work hard and keep your head down.

“Despite leaps in what we can do, most of us still follow comfortable, pre-prescribed paths. We work hard, but hardly question whether we’re working smart.”

What is a SmartCut?

SmartCuts, unlike their cousins shortcuts, are not short-term thinking or cutting corners. SmartCuts are ways to eliminate unnecessary effort, cut extra steps, and do exactly whats needed to jump to the top. These examples and steps fly in the face “paying dues”.

The example of Super Mario Brothers might be the easiest and simple image I can think of. Rather than work your way through all 32 original levels, a smart player knows where the “SmartCuts” are and how to the paths less traveled get you there much quicker. Taking those pipes will let you beat the game in minutes.

Most of it’s not breakthrough, but it is solid, practical advice, and for someone who has never thought about trying to bypass a traditional path, the ideas could be life changing.

I’ll be doing my best to remember the SmartCuts and utilize them in my own life and career.


The 9 SmartCuts

New ideas emerge when you question the assumptions upon which a problem is based.

Shortcuts can be amoral, you can think of SmartCuts as shortcuts with integrity. Working smarter and achieving more – without creating negative externalities.

Lateral thinking doesn’t replace hard work; it eliminates unnecessary cycles.

Leverage is the overachiever’s approach to getting more bang for her proverbial buck.

Momentum – not experience – is the single biggest predictor of business and personal success.

Hacking the Ladder

Presidents are typically younger than Senators. How? They tend to move up in a parallel area and then move laterally (military, governor, business, etc). They invented their own ladder.

“Once a small win has been accomplished forces are set in motion that favor another small win”

Great example of Mormons playing the paperclip game. Trade an item for a better item. Start with a paperclip and eventually you can get to anything. (Paperclip to pen to a magazine to flowers to a t-shirt, etc) One guy traded up to a house.

Training with Masters

Training with masters is essential to rapid skill acquisition.

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

Bieber had Usher. Socrates had Plato. Name your movie – Star Wars, The Matrix, Karate Kid. They all have mentorship stories. Jimmy Fallon had a mentor manager who taught him everything he needed to know to go from earnest talented kid to get him on SNL Just as important, if you don’t have access to your mentors in person, you can learn from the greats in any field. The modern world has rewarded us with

Surgeons learned how to do heart transplants vastly better by learning from pit crews how to organize a process.

A really interesting point is that informal mentorships produced much larger and more significant effects on careers than formal mentoring. The reason is that there’s a big difference between having a mentor guide our practice and a mentor guide our journey. You need them to be personally vested in your success.

Rapid Feedback

Told the story Upworthy and their amazing ability to A-B test a story to take the same information and make it viral.

“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes” -Oscar Wilde

Strangely enough researchers found that uncertainty is so overwhelming that the experience that you have from a previous company doesn’t seem to have a significant impact on the actual success of a second company.

What are examples of rapid feedback – Second City and it’s Improv, allowing comedians to bomb in a million ways until they know the exact edge of comedy. Surgeons learn best by watching others work. Your failure tends to cause more failures because they’re hard to learn from. You chalk it up as bad luck. Watching  others screw up taught them how not to do it themselves. The key is how much the feedback causes a person to focus on himself rather than the task.

Lesson from 2nd City – 1. gives rapid feedback. 2. depersonalized feedback 3. lowers stakes and pressure

Leverage & Platforms

Learn to play the game your given in an unconventional way. Tim Ferris is a master of this. It’s also how David Hensson built Ruby on Rails and rose quickly threw the ranks of race car drivers. Ruby on Rails enabled new coders to develop apps at speeds they never thought possible by automating repetitive tasks that were previously a badge of honor from “the grind”.

Utilize and leverage platforms. Don’t grind. Be smart.   

Finnish schools teach how to think, not memorization, which is largely a waste of time, and are ranked best in the world. Calculators come at an early age. The secret of the Finnish school system is that it was built on a platform of elevating the education level of its teachers.

“Getting the thinking right and the skills largely come for free.” -Keith Devlin

Waves & Experiments

Skrillex, like the best pro surfers, has a profound skill at spotting and riding waves. He has reinvented his career from lead singer of screamo to biggest DJ in the world. Being able to place yourself at the right place at the right time is a skill that’s crucial to getting ahead in life. It allows them to seek out opportunity rather than hope for it.

You have to become adept at putting yourself at the right place at the right time. Catching a wave can either be exhausting hard work (paddling) or using pattern recognition to see it ahead of time and catching the wave at the right moment. The only way to develop that pattern recognition is time and experience.

Intuition is the result of non conscious pattern recognition. The little guy, with deliberate analysis, can spot these waves better than big companies.

People also need time to experiment (think Google’s 20% time) if they want to find those waves. Twitter was started as a side project. So was Google Adsense.


Superconnectors are influencers and platforms that allow people to spread their message much faster and further than possible otherwise. Castro and Guevara used Radio Rebelde to take over Cuba (platform). JJ Abrams worked his way up the connection ladder to get his movies made (like most of Hollywood) but then continued to help others in an unusually generous way. As he helps make others successful his network of power players grows.

For more on Superconnectors, check out Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi and Mastermind Dinners by Jayson Gaignard.

“Giving is the timeless smartcut for harnessing superconnectors and creating serendipity.”


A perfect comparison between the “Double Rainbow” guy and Michelle Phan, the newest makeup mogul. Both had viral Youtube videos. Only Michelle was prepared to keep the momentum rolling through hardwork, strategy and preparation. You have to be ready when your moment comes or you won’t have the things in place to keep the momentum going.

Momentum isn’t just a powerful ingredient of success. It’s also a powerful predictor of success.


Simplicity is better than complexity for users. Take existing models and simplify – 80/20 rule. An interesting example was the simplification of modern American incubation units for the 3rd world. Using the 80/20 rule they found that the bulk of the expensive parts of the unit weren’t important. It came down to 1 simple thing – warmth. Keep steady heat and the rest didn’t matter. This revelation brought the cost of a unit from $20-40k, to $25 dollars.

Simplification makes the difference between good and amazing. Disruptive technology is cost saving (either time or money). They key ingredient is simplification.

Going back to our Finnish example, they teach deeply on a few subjects rather than a shallow and broad.

10x Thinking

10x Thinking is the art of the extremely big swing. It is a Silicon Valley favorite, and Elon Musk is always the poster child with Tesla and Space X. I’m a huge Elon fan, and his complete rethinking of the rocket industry is amazing, but I won’t repeat the story here.

In order to get big improvements you cant be incremental. You have to start over in 1 way or another. You need to break some basic assumptions. It’s not safe. You don’t know the outcome ahead of time.

To use a metaphor, it’s the difference between breeding faster horses and inventing the automobile.

Human nature likes to support big ideas and big swings.


SmartCuts wraps up with a story I’d never heard about the life and career of D’Wayne Edwards and his rise from poverty to sneaker designer, to most successful designer in the game, working with Michael Jordan and other major athletes. It uses his story to highlight the use of all 9 smartcuts. I enjoyed the wrap up.

SmartCuts by Shane Snow may not have been revolutionary, but it will give you food for thought in terms of how to think differently and do more than just work hard. Take some notes and apply to your life. I recommend picking up a copy.

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