Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success — Book Review

Jose Casanova
Oct 11, 2015 · 8 min read

Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success

Rating: 3/5

TL;DR: Lessons that show the “smartcuts” to achieve lasting success faster.

When author Shane Snow was still in college, he watched one of his classmates complete the entire Super Mario Bros. video game in a world-record six minutes. The previous record holder needed a full 33 minutes.

What was the secret of such a mind-blowing advance?

As Snow relays in his book, Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success, his classmate discovered that the developers at Nintendo had encoded a secret way to bypass levels so that they could make game play faster during their trial runs. After completing the first challenge, the new world champion merely had to punch his way through the ceiling, run to the final challenge, and complete it to finish the game and score mega bragging rights.

Was the game-player cheating, or was he smart?

These days, it’s easy for older generations to beat up on millennials, those born between 1982 and 2002. Indeed, millennials are an enigma to many of their parents and grandparents.

As journalist Joel Stein bluntly stated in the opening paragraph of his 4,250-word Time Magazine cover story, The Me Me Me Generation:

“[Millennials are] lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow. But [unlike those who accused past generations of having the same negative qualities] I have studies! I have statistics! I have quotes from respected academics!”

That was May 2013. Had Mr. Stein waited 16-months longer to craft his story, he may very well have titled it, “The Smartest Generation.”

In many ways, Snow’s Smartcuts is the millennial response to Stein’s Me Me Me.

Snow, who at age 30 is a card-carrying millennial, is meticulous in offering proof that his generation is not slacking or taking “shortcuts” through life. They’re utilizing “smartcuts.” Moreover, Snow walks his own talk.

A graduate of Columbia University’s prestigious Graduate School of Journalism, and a writer for Wired Magazine, Snow has been named in Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30: Media Innovators list and Business Insider’s 100 Coolest People in Tech.

He is co-founder and chief creative officer of Contently, which provides — as the name implies — top-tier content to online sites. Without question, Snow has accomplished a great deal more in a shorter span than many of his much older peers.

Snow’s argument is basic: If he — a millennial from Idaho — can find success by age 30, then so can other millennial readers of his 270-page book.

Like his college Super Mario friend, Snow’s ultimate lesson is that the prize doesn’t — and shouldn’t — go to those who wait their turn and follow convention. Rather, the way for young entrepreneurs to zoom past their more seasoned colleagues is to identify wormholes in the system and exploit them.

The business world is overflowing with executives who work hard, Snow observes, but too few people who question whether they work smart.

Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success is divided into three sections, each offering witty, timely insights for those looking to find the ‘Warp Pipes’ (a term taken from Super Mario Bros.) of the business world.

The first topic is to Shorten.

As noted by the popular YouTube video series “Did You Know”, created by three education specialists, “we are living in exponential times.”

Where it took 38 years for the radio to reach a market of 50 million users, it took just 13 years for television to reach the same number. The Internet was able to reach 50 million individuals in four years; the iPod in three; and Facebook in two.

The first commercial website — info.cern.ch — went live on April 30, 1993. By the end of that year, when Snow was only nine years old, the complete World Wide Web contained fewer than 500 websites. Today, there are almost 1 billion websites. If the Internet had grown at a static rate — without Warp Pipes — we would only now be reaching 11,000 online sites, not a total roughly 90,000 times that number.

As Snow notes in discussing his Shorten philosophy, there are ways to tap into this type of exponential growth. Snow’s specific example pertains to the number of years it took various businessmen to earn $1 billion.

Snow points out that “hacks” in the business world need not be — and should not be — illegal. Often they stare us directly in the face, and we don’t even recognize them.

Two good examples, taken from ‘life hack’ Internet memes, reveal that the holes in the tabs of soda cans are actually meant to hold straws, and that the walls of Chinese food takeout containers can quickly be disassembled to become plates. In the business world, hacks such as these expose what you’ve been doing wrong all along, and how to make your entrepreneurial endeavors simpler.

Writing in Shorten, Snow contends that the days of dutifully climbing the corporate ladder one rung at a time are passé. Instead, he encourages readers to take the express elevator.

The second section of Smartcuts is Leverage.

To illustrate the importance of leveraging work, Snow points to a popular game on the campus of Brigham Young University, where he received his undergraduate degree. Beginning with a plain toothpick, two teams of students must make their way across town in search of individuals who will barter with them, allowing the students to come away with items that are increasingly bigger or better. Using this method of trade, each team hopes — by the end of the game — to score an item of considerable value: a rare collectible, a television set, etc.

The game illustrates real world dilemmas. How do you take a weak hand and turn it into a fortune? How do you convince unwilling customers or investors to support your business?

Snow argues that young businessmen and businesswomen, too, must leverage their opportunities and constantly trade up. Rather than accept the status quo, or allow seemingly unsolvable obstacles to thwart their advance, millennials who seek success must be savvy enough to use the resources at hand to grow and pulverize any roadblocks.

Smartcuts’ third and final section calls on readers to Soar.

Just as a bicyclist cruising downhill needn’t peddle, only coast, Snow suggests that business owners should let momentum carry them ahead. Don’t expend your “energy principal”. Instead, spend your “interest” and keep the principal reserves as a personal endowment.

Referring to the Law of Accelerating Returns, first proposed by National Medal of Technology and Innovation recipient Ray Kurzweil, Snow points out that technology builds upon itself.

Entrepreneurs should use the value and goodwill that they earn to provide even more value and goodwill. Soaring is the apex of shortening and leveraging.

Snow warns that these principles can work against a business owner just as easily as they can work in their favor. The Ponzi scheme that led to the crash of Bernie Madoff’s empire and his imprisonment was the result of shortcuts, not smartcuts. Being guileful and dishonest isn’t smart; it will ruin your reputation and possibly your whole life. Understanding how to strategically and legally advance your business interests — truly providing the best products or services — is a smartcut.

Smartcuts aren’t ways to avoid hard work; they are merely steps to avoid unnecessary work.

Snow’s writing is clear and to the point. His anecdotes, which fill the pages of the book, are timely.

The ideas that drive Smartcuts are deceitfully simple. Snow writes with a voice and passion that makes the entire concept appear self-evident, even though it really isn’t.

The reason Snow’s ideas resonate with the modern reader is that they accurately reflect, through research, what many people have observed about millennials but have been unable to articulate.

Among the best actionable Smartcuts takeaways are:

  • FIND A MENTOR. Look for those who have succeeded before you and are of a generous character to guide you along your journey.
  • KEEP IT PERSONAL. Today’s business world is all about relationships. Don’t stay at arm’s length from your employees, mentors, and colleagues. Be a part of their lives, learn from everyone, and let them be a part of your life and learn from you.
  • THINK LATERALLY. Don’t go for the most obvious solution to your business problems, or even the one that provides you with the greatest benefit. There may be other outside-the-box ideas that will not only help you, but your community too. Uncover them.

One example Snow shares of lateral thinking is the following brain teaser:

You are driving a two-seat vehicle in a pounding rainstorm when you drive by a bus stop with three people standing there: an old woman, a man who once saved your life, and the woman of your dreams. To whom do you offer your passenger seat?

The answer [spoiler alert] is that you give the passenger seat to the old woman. But — and here’s where lateral thinking comes in — you then give the keys of the car to the man who saved your life and tell him to drive on with the old woman. You go to the woman of your dreams and wait with her until the bus arrives.

  • OWN YOUR MISTAKES. The only way to learn from your errors is to recognize them as such — your errors. The buck starts and stops with you.

The one oddity in Smartcuts is Snow’s examination of the Cuban Revolution and how the radio played a major role in it. [NOTE: I might be bias here because my family is of Cuban descent.] Though he promotes the need for ‘revolutionary’ thinking and the many positives that come from bucking the status quo, his specific example is incongruent.

Cuba may recently have been removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, but its modern history of abuse is still raw in the minds of many Americans and global human rights activists. Indeed, when Smartcuts was originally published in September 2014, Cuba was still a “no-go” nation in the eyes of the U.S. State Department.

Whatever benefits the Castro brothers and Che Guevara brought to that island nation, the horrendous price that tens of thousands of innocent people paid to further their cause can’t be brushed away.

Besides, Smartcuts is a business guide, not a how-to for political insurgency. Snow would have been wiser to stick to the revolutionary antics of Elon Musk than the far-off guerilla warfare of communist fighters in the 1950s.

More generally, Snow fails to meet a key demand of many in the millennial generation — instant gratification. For all of its wit and ease-of-read, Snow’s ultimate guide to success leaves many questions unaddressed.

Rather than providing sufficient answers to the question of how to create your own smartcuts, Snow chooses to illustrate the ways in which others who have succeeded lead their lives. Each reader is left with little specific direction on how to chart his or her own path.

Still, despite not meeting all of the tangible needs of his target audience, Snow’s writing is intelligent and relevant.

The business world is evolving, and the historic pathways to the top are being superseded by superhighways. The millennial generation is a meritocracy. If you wait too long to make your move, you will lose out. The best way to succeed in today’s world is to use your brain and hack the system. Doing so is neither unfair nor dishonest. It’s smart.

Grab a copy of Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success on Amazon.

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Originally published at Jose Casanova’s Thoughts.

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