Derek Sivers

Programmer, writer, avid student of life. I make useful things, and share what I learn.
Smartcuts - by Shane Snow

Smartcuts - by Shane Snow

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Inspiring study of how successful people took smart shortcuts and bypassed the long-slogging dues-paying process. Great insights on momentum. Read the whole book for specific stories of Jimmy Fallon, Skrillex, Elon Musk, David Heinemeier Hansson, and Michelle Phan.

my notes

You are driving a car in the middle of a thunderstorm and you happen upon three people on the side of the road. One of them is a frail old woman, who looks on the verge of collapse. Another is a friend who once saved your life. The other is the romantic interest of your dreams, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet him or her. You have only one other seat in the car. Who do you pick up? The old woman, of course. Then, give the car keys to your friend, and stay behind with the romantic interest to wait for the bus!

An exercise in lateral thinking. It’s the kind of puzzle in which the most elegant solution is revealed only when you attack it sideways. New ideas emerge when you question the assumptions upon which a problem is based (in this case: it’s that you can only help one person).

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.

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

The common pattern among these fastest-rising US presidents’ journeys is that they didn’t parlay up a linear path. They climbed various ladders of success and then switched to the presidential ladder. The people that go into Congress go step by step by step, but presidents don’t.

Companies that pivot - that is, switch business models or products - while on the upswing tend to perform much better than those that stay on a single course.

Switching ladders can help bypass “dues” and accelerate the Bigger or Better cycle.

The mentor story is so common because it seems to work - especially when the mentor is not just a teacher, but someone who’s traveled the road.

We can spend thousands of hours practicing until we master a skill, or we can convince a world-class practitioner to guide our practice and cut the time to mastery significantly.

Those who train with successful people who’ve “been there” tend to achieve success faster. The winning formula, it seems, is to seek out the world’s best and convince them to coach us.

Informal mentoring produced a larger and more significant effect on career outcomes than formal mentoring.

Asking someone to formally mentor you is like asking a celebrity for an autograph; it’s stiff, inorganic, and often doesn’t work out.

With every increase in communication, we increase our access to the great models in every category.

To study the moves that make masters great: Two people can study the same business model, watch the same video, or even take the same advice from a mentor, and one person might pick up critical details that the other misses. This is a key difference between those who learn more quickly than others.

Jimmy Fallon: Manager Siegel cared more about his long-term journey than his short-term paycheck; she screened every offer through the lens of, “Will this help Jimmy get SNL one day?” He said “no” to television sitcoms, “no” to acting jobs that might take him too far away from SNL.

Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.

An entrepreneur who’d failed in a previous venture was not likely to do better than someone who’d never run a business in her life.

Successful entrepreneurs, on the other hand, are 50 percent more likely to succeed in a second venture. The more you win, the more likely you are to win again.

Looks like the advice of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “failure makes you wiser” isn’t actually true.

Surgeons who botched the new procedure tended to do worse in subsequent surgeries. Rather than learning from their mistakes, their success rates continuously declined. On the other hand, when surgeons did well on the new surgery, more successes tended to follow.

Surgeons who SAW their colleagues fail at the new CABG procedure showed significant increases in their own success rates with every failure that they saw another doctor experience.

Even though an individual failure experience may contain valuable knowledge, without subsequent effort to reflect upon that experience, the potential learning will remain untapped.

This made the failure of a colleague quite valuable. Since it was that guy’s fault, fellow surgeons instinctually zeroed in on the mistakes. “I’ll make sure not to do that.”

A high-pressure feedback barrage tends to make us self-conscious. We get stuck inside our own heads.

The closer feedback moves our attention to ourselves, the worse it is for us. The research showed that experts - people who were masters at a trade - vastly preferred negative feedback to positive. It spurred the most improvement.

The tough part about negative feedback is in separating ourselves from the perceived failure and turning our experiences into objective experiments. But when we do that, feedback becomes much more powerful.

By embracing all these tiny failures, there is no actual failure.

How most businesses operate: When releasing a new product, a company will spend months, sometimes years, fine-tuning, building up to one critical moment: the launch. Then on launch day the product either is a success or a failure. People buy it and the company makes a profit, or they don’t and the product fails.

Upworthy sent the same video with a handful of different headlines to different subscribers. Upworthy wrote alternate versions of the winning headline and sent it out to several other groups. It repeated the process a ruthless 18 times, for a total of 75 variations in all.

DHH: “If I can put in 5 percent of the effort of somebody getting an A, and I can get a C minus, that’s amazing. It’s certainly good enough, right? [Then] I can take the other 95 percent of the time and invest it in something I really care about.”

DHH says, “You can accelerate your training if you know how to train properly, but you still don’t need to be that special. I don’t think I’m that special of a programmer or a businessperson or a race car driver. I just know how to train.”

“I think it’s a great mistake to force children to learn mathematics,” said renowned physicist Freeman Dyson. “What we really need is to teach kids to use tools that do math for us.” Students who use calculators have better attitudes toward math, and are more likely to pursue highly computational careers.

To get kids to become interested in an academic subject on their own, they have to play. Building with LEGOs, visiting museums, experimenting with tools. Says Dyson, “Mathematics ought to be entertainment.”

By learning the tool (calculator) first, we actually master the discipline (math) faster.

The most important benefit of having supereducated instructors is that a better-trained teacher is more adept at teaching children how to learn, whereas the coach-turned-geography-teacher will often teach how to memorize.

Luck is often talked about as “being in the right place at the right time.” But like a surfer, some people - and companies - are adept at placing themselves at the right place at the right time. They seek out opportunity rather than wait for it.

Surfers can recognize the roll of incoming waves, so they can position themselves in the perfect spot to catch them. And at the last minute, a surfer will paddle vigorously to align herself with the wave and match its speed.

Pattern recognition - spotting a wave early and casually drifting to the sweet spot. Pattern recognition seems to come with experience and practice.

While logging hours of practice helps us see patterns subconsciously, we can often do just as well by deliberately looking for them.

Pattern hunting and deliberate analysis can yield results with high accuracy on the first try.

Deliberate pattern spotting can compensate for experience. But we often don’t even give it a shot.

Through deliberate analysis, the little guy can spot waves better than the big company that relies on experience and instinct once it’s at the top. And a wave can take an amateur farther faster than an expert can swim.

First movers have to create their own wagon trails, but later movers can follow in the ruts. First movers take on the burden of educating customers, setting up infrastructure, getting regulatory approvals, and making mistakes.

Fast followers, on the other hand, benefit from free-rider effects. The pioneers clear the way in terms of market education and infrastructure and learn the hard lessons, so the next guys can steal what works, learn objectively from the first movers’ failures, and spend more effort elsewhere. The first wave clears the way for a more powerful ride.

While the pioneers were entrenched in early technology and practices, the tailgaters got ahead.

Conventional thinking leads talented and driven people to believe that if they simply work hard, luck will eventually strike. That’s like saying if a surfer treads water in the same spot for long enough, a wave will come; it certainly happens to some people, once in a while, but it’s not the most effective strategy for success. Paradoxically, it’s actually a lazier move.

Which is easier - making friends with a thousand people one by one or making friends with someone who already has a thousand friends? Which is faster - going door to door with a message or broadcasting the message to a million homes at once?

Superconnecting, the act of making mass connections by tapping into hubs with many spokes.

Before radio, 300 outcasts hiding in the jungle could not have overthrown a powerful military dictatorship. But with radio, those outcasts could connect to the 5 million oppressed Cuban citizens who secretly shared the rebellion’s dissatisfaction, and turn the tide against the dictator, tanks and planes and all.

J. J. Abrams is “a giver,” a rarity in an industry full of takers. Look at Abrams’s credits from after he became wildly successful; it turns out that even once he was on top, he continued to cowrite, codirect, and cocreate almost all his projects. He started lending his own Sinatra-style credibility to less known but talented writers and directors and actors, so they could climb their ladders faster.

When Sonny (Skrillex) remixed artists like Lady Gaga or Avicii or Nero, he gave their tracks a boost and helped them reach new fans. This in turn superconnected Moore to audiences larger than his own and led to surges in his popularity.

When we give and teach, we build up fan bases that become more likely to support us.

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

When money is available in near-limitless quantities, the victim sinks into a kind of inertia. The trouble with moonwalkers and billionaires is when they arrive at the top, their momentum often stops. If they don’t manage to find something to parlay, they turn into the kid on the jungle gym who just hangs from the ring.

So how does one avoid billionaire’s depression? Progress. A sense of forward motion. Regardless how small.

Though they were both operating at breakeven with the same revenues, investors valued Company B at double the price of Company A, simply because Company B had more momentum. Investors see momentum and future success as so highly correlated that they will take bigger bets on companies with fast-growing user bases even if the companies are bleeding money. Momentum, it turns out, can cover a multitude of sins.

The perception of momentum is often as good as momentum.

Like a surfer arriving hours before a competition to watch the waves, “I would study the algorithm of YouTube’s front page” for months, Phan says. “I noticed that they only would post up videos with a lot of views [on the home page], and you only have 2 days to capitalize off of all these views.” However, YouTube didn’t update the home page on weekends, she realized. If she managed to get a video on there on a Thursday, “I [could] be there for an extra 2 days.”

Phan’s backlog of content allowed her to take the momentum caused by waves and superconnectors and capture it. When she posted more videos, they kept her swinging from ring to ring. By constantly feeding them with great new content, she transformed her video series into a career and a company. “Most YouTubers just kind of drop off around a certain time; it’s hard to keep that momentum,” Phan says. “I [had] to strike while the iron’s hot.”

The secret to harnessing momentum is to build up potential energy, so that unexpected opportunities can be amplified.

Success is like a lightning bolt. It’ll strike you when you least expect it, and you just have to keep the momentum going.

The lack of in-school athletics allowed Finland to focus minds and resources and sprint forward academically.

Students start learning vocations like engineering and business as soon as they hit high school. They skip many of the general education courses most of us forget.

Elon Musk: To gain support for his big vision, he would himself have to step into the public spotlight. In other words, he had to get people to believe. So the geek brushed up on speaking skills and started talking big. This-is-the-future-of-mankind big.

Incremental progress, he says, depends on working harder. More resources, more effort. 10x progress is built on bravery and creativity instead. Working smarter. In other words, 10x goals force you to come up with smartcuts.

If you can get people to let go of their fear, and to be more intellectually open, intellectually honest, more dispassionate about being creative, trying new things, and then being honest about what the results are instead of having all these other issues cloud their judgment, you can get to radically better solutions in honestly about the same amount of time, about the same amount of resources, as making the 10-percent improvement.”

Behavioral psychologists Stephen M. Garcia and Avishalom Tor showed that merely knowing there are more competitors in a competition decreases our performance.

Businesspeople will tell you that the presence of one or two serious rivals is incredibly motivating. When the rivals number in the thousands, it’s a different type of game.

Brands with lofty purposes beyond making profits wildly outperformed the S&P 500.