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Book Notes – Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success

Smartcuts reads like a Malcolm Gladwell book - it seeks to explain fundamental principles by curating stories of people who exemplify them in real life. And it does a damn good job at that, even if it is a little bit formulaic in how the information gets conveyed.

But it's a non-fiction book aimed at getting ideas from one place to another efficiently - and that it does very, very well.

What This Book Is About:

Smartcuts aims to codify how and why some individuals rise to levels of success across all different fields quicker and more efficiently than anyone else in their field.

It does this by building a framework that rests on 3 fundamental strategies, along with three tactics to achieve each strategy.

Let's get into it.​


The author, Shane Snow puts forth the following question: "How do they get there so fast?" He introduces a few examples of people who have achieved massive, rapid success in their industries - Pierre Omidyar of eBay, Andrew Mason of Groupon - and wonders how they were able to achieve so much in such a small amount of time.

​He defines a smartcut as wholly separate from the concept of a shortcut. A shortcut gets you somewhere quicker, usually to your detriment in the long term. A smartcut sidesteps a traditional pathway, putting you in a better position in the long-term and the short-term.

But how can you find and execute smartcuts?  Shane says they can be bucketed into three categories:


These are smartcuts that drastically reduce the time that it takes to get somewhere as opposed to following what is considered the traditional route.


These are smartcuts that allow you to massively increase your output by shifting or thinking about your inputs in a different way.


These smartcuts allow you to continue growing and succeeding once you have some amount of momentum to play with.

Part I - Shorten​

Hacking The Ladder

The traditional path to success isn't as reliable as it once was. Time and time again, people are skipping rungs on the ladder...or building a rocket ship and flying their way to the top by following a completely counter-intuitive ​path that gets them where they want to be - faster.

Instead of trying to figure out how to climb the ladder faster, figure out how to skip rungs completely.​  See how you can invent your own ladder to get where you want to go by subverting the standard expectations and pathways.

One way to do this is to use the Sinatra Principle: borrow credibility from other industries or pursuits when you're attempting to climb a ladder in a new field.


  • Eisenhower led the US to victory against Hitler, but hadn't ever held an elected office when he won by a landslide
  • Reagan was a famous actor before making the switch to politics, borrowing credibility from a seemingly unrelated field
  • Lincoln built a new political party and had the humility to put the good of the whole in front of his own ambitions

Interesting Stories:

  • BYU students playing game called Bigger or Better - trading up from pennies to things worth hundreds of dollars in a small number of trades

Training With Masters

​Mentorship remains one of the best ways to rapidly accelerate your path to success. However, traditional mentorship doesn't work very well. In fact, the more structured and regimented a mentorship program, the less correlated it is with actual results.

So, what actually works? Organic mentorship that 'just happens.' But it doesn't actually 'just happen', it can be strategically sought with some creative tactics.

Before we talk about that, what if there are absolutely no people willing to help you out in your field? Well, learn from the greats. We have the internet, YouTube, and endless information at our fingertips. In most fields, you'll be able to soak up the knowledge of the masters...for free.​

Often times you want to seek mentors in different fields that have overlaps.  If there's a skill that would unlock a success gate in your life, find someone in an unrelated industry who has mastered it and seek their advice. This way you'll get targeted help on just that specific skillset, instead of your entire career path.​


  • Jimmy Fallon didn't have real mentors, so he modeled the great comedians and hustled year after year, gleaning tidbits from his pseudo-mentors

Interesting Stories:​

  • A team of surgeons learned how to reduce deaths resulting from mistakes made during handovers from the Ferrari pit team
  • Louis C.K. emulated Carlin and transformed his comedy career by telling raw, vulnerable stories about his own failings

Rapid Feedback​

Turning your work into short-lived, small experiments can massively accelerate your growth.  The shorter and more honest the feedback cycle becomes, the faster you can make incremental adjustments to your approach, process, and skills - and thus the faster you can grow.

James Clear has a great article on marginal gains that explains this quite well.​ He doesn't talk about the feedback loop element though, which I think is key.


  • Upworthy used a rapid feedback loop to constantly test headlines for their uplifting viral news site and were able to drastically increase their metrics in a very short period of time
  • The Second City impromptu comedy group gets fast feedback after their shows on new material, trying and failing at a ton of jokes immediately after a successful show

Part II - Leverage​


Don't reinvent things that are already working well. Instead, leverage them and build on top of them. They're existing platforms that were built by those before you - use their hard work to accelerate your own results.

In education, Freeman Dyson (one of the world's foremost mathematicians) advocated for use of calculators and an abolishment of multiplication tables because it would make kids much more likely to accept and engage in mathematics.  This would allow them to actually get to a point where they could build on their knowledge instead of never even trying in math.

One way to do this in your field is to move up as soon as you have the minimum qualifications. Instead of perfecting your work at a certain level, move up and make yourself the worst person in the room once again. You'll continue to struggle, but will be learning much more, much faster.​


  • David Heinemeier Hanson, the programmer who created Ruby on Rails hacked his way up the racing circuit by leveraging platforms
  • He created Ruby on Rails from Ruby, essentially eliminating the repetitive, unnecessary work of coding new applications in Ruby


  • "Get the thinking right and the skills come largely for free." 
  • "In an age of platforms, creative problem solving is more valuable than computational skill."


Spotting cultural waves early and going all in on them will put you at the forefront of the wave and immediately position you as a leader in the space.

In order to catch waves, the obvious metaphor is surfing. You can either paddle harder, faster, and longer, or you can just get better at pattern recognition and be in the right place far ahead of time. While both methods work, ideally you are aiming to do the latter.

After all, this book is called Smartcuts.​

While you can brute-force pattern recognition in many fields (think relentlessly practicing free throws), you can also study the patterns and markers without putting in the amssive amount of practice and do almost as well.

However, to catch a wave, you still need to be in the water. You can be the best surfer on Earth, but if you aren't in the water, you'll still miss the wave.​


  • Sonny Moore (now known as Skrillex) rode two waves that collided at the same time: social media and screamo / emo music
  • First movers in business often don't have the advantage - they are outpaced by those who ride the wave immediately after them and avoid every dumb mistake that the first movers made while charting the course


Which is easier: making friends with a thousand people one by one or making friends with someone who already has a thousand friends? The answer is obvious.

Attaching your horse to superconnectors and figuring out ways that you can help them can massively accelerate your climb to the top. However, if you're only in it for your own success, chances are high you'll falter along the way.

Studies show that those who give as much as possible - even when they reach superconnector status themselves - are the ones that typically end up at the top of the food chain​.


  • JJ Abrams helped out superconnectors on his rise to the top of the film world, but continues to give even though he's got everything he ever wanted - this 'giver' mentality is a marker of the successful
  • Castro used radio to empower and educate the poor peasants of Cuba. Without it, him and Che Guevara wouldn't have come close to overthrowing the oppressive regime of Batista
  • Aaron Patzer of Mint built the business by creating an financial education blog and helping financial bloggers by feeding them great content for their own audiences

Part III - Soar​


When you have an inflection point in your growth, you want to make sure that you don't squander it. Too many times people hit a massive growth multiplier but don't know what to do with the momentum they've just built.

​Having a 'reservoir' of work that people can look at once you've been discovered will help capture as much attention as possible when you do finally get a big break.

If you take two companies that have the same revenue for the year, but the second one had half as much the year before, most investors are going to value the ​second one higher - because they have more forward momentum.

Build up potential energy so that unexpected opportunities - ​Black Swan events - can be capitalized on. Since you never know when they are going to happen, always work to build up your potential energy.


  • The "Double Rainbow" guy and Michelle Phan both had videos that got 38 million views on YouTube in the same summer, yet DR guy went nowhere while Michelle Phan built a media empire
  • Oreo's famous Superbowl tweet was retweeted 35,000 times - about .03% of the total audience watching the Superbowl. But the resulting media coverage sent about 500 million earned media impressions their way.


By simplifying the problem that you are trying to solve, you can often make breakthroughs that other people miss because they're buried in the minutiae and complexity of the problem.  Often times the best improvers and inventors are the ones who can relentlessly focus on the smallest number of things that matter.

Constraints help - look at jokes. "Say something funny" vs. "Tell me a knock-knock" joke want the same result - a laugh - but one is much easier to answer than the other.​


  • Jane Chen created a baby incubator for $25 - 1000x cheaper than a traditional one. She's saved the lives of 40,000 babies to date
  • Brian Lam created The Wirecutter, a review site that just tells you the best product in each category and sends you to Amazon

10x Thinking​

Often times, it's easier to improve something by 1000% than by 10% - or at least there is a clearer path to do so. 

It's also easier to sell yourself and your team on 10x thinking rather than incremental. People will 'buy in' to lofty missions and goals rather than intensely focused, marginal gains.

In the 1800s, 10% style thinking was breeding faster horses. 10x thinking was reasoning from first principles. Horses are there for forward movement - what other technologies could be used to create forward movement? The combustion engine - and voila, the car was born.​


  • Musk is the best example - he thinks far bigger than most people and reasons from first principles to get himself and his team to the desired result
  • Google X is a secret lab run by Google that calls itself a "moonshot factory" - companies in the program all aim for 10x improvements instead of incremental