Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success – by Shane Snow
How strongly I recommend it: 8/10
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Go to the Amazon page for details.
The difference between rapid, but short-term gains, which I call shortcuts, and sustainable success achieved quickly through smart work, or smartcuts. Whereas by dictionary definition shortcuts can be amoral, you can think of smartcuts as shortcuts with integrity. Working smarter and achieving more—without creating negative externalities.
PART I: SHORTEN
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. —DR. SEUSS
Chapter 1: HACKING THE LADDER
People are generally willing to take a chance on something if it only feels like a small stretch.
This is like an intern applying for a CEO job, or a brand-new startup bidding on a NASA contract. The players eliminated resistance by breaking the big challenge into a series of easier, repeatable challenges (make a tiny trade).
Researchers call this the psychology of “small wins.” Gamblers, on the other hand, would call it a “parlay,” which the dictionary defines as “a cumulative series of bets in which winnings accruing from each transaction are used as a stake for a further bet.”
Players don’t wait an arbitrary period of time before moving on to the next trade, and they don’t mind if the result of a trade was only a slightly more desirable object, so long as the game keeps moving.
“By itself, one small win may seem unimportant,” writes Dr. Karl Weick in a seminal paper for American Psychologist in 1984. “A series of wins at small but significant tasks, however, reveals a pattern that may attract allies, deter opponents, and lower resistance to subsequent proposals.”
“Once a small win has been accomplished,” Weick continues, “forces are set in motion that favor another small win.”
From the outside, this simply seems like a prudent way to climb the ladder: as fast as possible, and in small bites. While that’s good advice, the key (..) was not just their rapid cycle time. It was the direction they traded: sideways.
The players didn’t simply parlay toothpicks for pieces of wood of increasing size; they traded toothpicks for pens and mirrors for old bikes. They didn’t wait around for the owners of a vacant house to show up, so they could ask for a trade, and they didn’t knock on the same door over and over until a “no” became a “yes.” When a door was shut to them, they immediately picked another one. When the ladder became inefficient, they hacked it. And that is what made them successful so quickly.
One of the fastest-selling and transformative cellular phones in the world—the iPhone—was introduced by a personal computer company, at a time when the phone market was dominated by telecommunications firms. Nintendo began its life printing Japanese playing cards; the company brokered in taxis, instant rice, and hotels before it saw opportunity in the emerging American arcade scene. The novelist James Patterson, whose books have sold 275 million copies at last count, was an ad executive before switching over to literature (and leveraging his marketing expertise to become a bestseller). Award-winning actress Zoe Saldana was a ballet dancer before becoming a movie star. (Her first role was a ballet dancer.) This is often how “overnight success” happens for entertainers and public figures; they work hard in their field, then switch ladders and level up, to observers’ surprise.
This kind of ladder switching generally tends to accelerate a company’s growth. Companies that pivot while on the upswing tend to perform much better than those that stay on a single course.
Chapter 2: TRAINING WITH MASTERS
“The Vocal Thief”
Mentorship is the secret of many of the highest-profile achievers throughout history. Socrates mentored young Plato, who in turn mentored Aristotle. Aristotle mentored a boy named Alexander, who went on to conquer the known world as Alexander the Great.
From The Karate Kid to Star Wars to The Matrix, adventure stories often adhere to a template in which a protagonist forsakes humble beginnings and embarks on a great quest. Before the quest heats up, however, he or she receives training from a master: Obi Wan Kenobi. Mr. Miyagi. Mickey Goldmill. Haymitch. Morpheus. Quickly, the hero is ready to face overwhelming challenges. Much more quickly than if he’d gone to light-saber school.
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 herself.
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.
Analysis shows that entrepreneurs who have mentors end up raising seven times as much capital for their businesses, and experience 3.5 times faster growth than those without mentors. And in fact, of the companies surveyed, few managed to scale a profitable business model without a mentor’s aid.
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.
The statistics showed that businesspeople who were mentored in the workplace tended to achieve slightly more at work, on average, than those who didn’t. Counterintuitively, however, “Informal mentoring,” Underhill found, “produced a larger and more significant effect on career outcomes than formal mentoring.”
One-on-one mentoring in which an organization formally matched people proved to be nearly as worthless as a person having not been mentored at all. However, when students and mentors came together on their own and formed personal relationships, the mentored did significantly better, as measured by future income, tenure, number of promotions, job satisfaction, work stress, and self-esteem.
A smartcut-savvy mentee approaches things a bit differently. She develops personal relationships with her mentors, asks their advice on other aspects of life, not just the formal challenge at hand. And she cares about her mentors’ lives too.
Business owner Charlie Kim, founder of Next Jump and one of my own mentors, calls this vulnerability. It’s the key, he says, to developing a deep and organic relationship that leads to journey-focused mentorship and not just a focus on practice. Both the teacher and the student must be able to open up about their fears, and that builds trust, which in turn accelerates learning. That trust opens us up to actually heeding the difficult advice we might otherwise ignore. “It drives you to do more,” Kim says. The best mentors help students to realize that the things that really matter are not the big and obvious. The more vulnerability is shown in the relationship, the more critical details become available for a student to pick up on, and assimilate.
A mentor with whom we have that kind of relationship will be more likely to tell us “no” when we need it—and we’ll be more likely to listen.
Hip-hop icon Jay-Z gives us a clue in one of his lyrics, “We were kids without fathers . . . so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history. We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves.”
In ancient Greece, few people had access to the best mentors. Jay-Z didn’t either, but he had books from which he could get an inkling about what those kinds of mentors were like. With every increase in communication, with every autobiography published, and every YouTube video of a superstar created, we increase our access to the great models in every category. This allows us to at least study the moves that make masters great—which is a start.
Chapter 3: RAPID FEEDBACCK
“The F Word”
Anyone who’s started a business, gotten a great job, won political office, or invented something did so in the face of risk. Yet our survival instinct is to minimize the likelihood of bad things happening to us. In business, the more socially acceptable it is to fail, the more likely smart people will try crazy things, the geeks argue.
Successful entrepreneurs are 50 percent more likely to succeed in a second venture. The more you win, the more likely you are to win again.
Failing in business doesn’t make us better or smarter. But succeeding makes us more likely to continue to succeed.
Think back to the last time you lost a competition, or your favorite sports team lost a game. Did you blame the weather or the referees? Or perhaps player injuries or a lucky roll of the dice? If you did—or were tempted to—you’re normal. We’re wired to think this way.
On the other hand, we tend to pin our successes on internal factors. Think back to the last competition you won. It was your hard work, your skill, your quick thinking in the heat of the moment that won the day. Right?
This is a survival mechanism. We externalize our mistakes because we need to live with ourselves afterward.
However, when failure isn’t personal, we often do the opposite. When someone else fails, we blame his or her lack of effort or ability. When we see people succeed, we tend to attribute it to situational forces beyond their control, namely luck.
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.
Criticism is generally more actionable than compliments. “You did well” is less helpful in improving your bowling game than “You turned your wrist too much.”
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.
Three things to accelerate performers’ growth: (1) rapid feedback; (2) depersonalize the feedback; and (3) lower the stakes and pressure, so [they] take risks that force them to improve.
Part II LEVERAGE
Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple. —DR. SEUSS
Chapter 4: PLATFORMS
“The Laziest Programmer”
In the same way that driving on pavement makes a road trip faster, and layers of code let you work on a computer faster, hackers like DHH find and build layers of abstraction in business and life that allow them to multiply their effort. I call these layers platforms.
Studies show that students who use calculators have better attitudes toward math, and are more likely to pursue highly computational careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) than those who don’t or can’t.
If we use a calculator without learning math first, or a programming game without learning how code works, how are we to know when we’ve made a mistake?
“Part of learning the discipline is learning to communicate in the language of the discipline,” says Dr. David Moursund, an emeritus professor at the University of Oregon who has authored or coauthored more than sixty books on the field of computers in education. “We want students to recognize when they encounter a math-related problem that might well be easily solvable using tools including calculators and computers.”
Moursund says that before high school, we devote roughly three-quarters of our math education to memorizing and practicing the use of rules. This leaves too little time, he believes, for higher-order thinking: applying math to solving problems, creating models, or enhancing our understanding of the world. “Calculators and computers can replace some of the memorizing,” he says.
“Mathematics is a way of thinking about problems and issues in the world,” says Keith Devlin, Stanford executive and World Economic Forum and American Mathematical Society fellow.
But this, Devlin adds, is the clincher: “Get the thinking right and the skills come largely for free.”
The overwhelming majority of academic research about calculators indicates that leveraging such tools improves conceptual understanding. By learning the tool (calculator) first, we actually master the discipline (math) faster.
In an age of platforms, creative problem solving is more valuable than computational skill.
Platforms can help us master those basics faster than learning the basics from scratch.
There’s no rule that says you have to win the championship to advance from GT4 to GT3. Nor is there a rule saying you have to spend a year in a given league before moving up. That’s just the way people did it. Instead, DHH compressed what normally takes five to seven years of hard work into 18 months of smart work. “Once you stop thinking you have to follow the path that’s laid out,” he says, “you can really turn up the speed.”
On the rainy Silverstone course, however, parlays couldn’t help him anymore, and slacking was not an option. DHH had to drive as fast as safely possible, and every microsecond counted. In such tight competition, the only edge a racer had was raw driving skill. Or, as it turned out, a better platform.
Should I pit in? The man who hates repeating himself repeated over the radio. I’m going to end up in the wall!
His engineer told him to tough it out. The rain is about to clear up.
G-force pounding his body, DHH cautiously hugged the curves for another lap, and sure enough, the downpour began to subside. By two laps the course was dry. Heinemeier Hansson’s slick tires gripped the track with more friction than his competitors’ newly fitted rain tires and he sped ahead. The other drivers now had to pit back in for slick tires, for a total of nearly two minutes’ delay that DHH entirely avoided.
At the end of his leg of the relay, DHH jumped from the car, having demolished the competition.
The slick tires provided DHH a platform advantage, more leverage to drive faster with the same pedal-to-floor effort. And though driving slick in the rain had been risky, his skill learned by imitating master racers kept him alive.
Reflecting on his rapid ascent in racing, 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.”
DHH had proven he had the skill to race. Videos of master drivers had helped him to learn quickly. His tire advantage had pushed him ahead of equally skilled drivers, and propelled him to the next level. And like Finland’s higher-level educational environment, the advanced racing leagues themselves became platforms that forced him to master the basics—and faster—than he would have at a lower level. When DHH returned to visit his home racetrack in Chicago, the same set of drivers still dominated the lower leagues. He came back and effortlessly beat them.
Effort for the sake of effort is as foolish a tradition as paying dues. How much better is hard work when it’s amplified by a lever? Platforms teach us skills and allow us to focus on being great, rather than reinventing wheels or repeating ourselves.
“You can build on top of a lot of things that exist in this world,” David Heinemeier Hansson told me. “Somebody goes in and does that hard, ground level science based work. And then on top of that,” he smiles, “you build the art.”
Chapter 5: WAVES
“Moore and Moore”
The two women—who are friends when not competing against each other—swim to shore together. Both are top contenders in the surfing world tour and have faced off dozens of times in high-pressure competitions like this. Both are in their early twenties, and either could outsurf any human on the planet—with the exception of a few of the top-ranked male surfers.
But as one of the event announcers, Leila Hurst, points out, world championships aren’t won by surfing skill, and this heat was no exception.
“It’s really not about surfing and practicing,” Hurst says, on air. “It’s just a matter of waiting for the right wave.”
The difference between catching a wave and getting crushed or passed by is a matter of centimeters, which means the chance of being in the exact right spot in that water to grab a big wave without any effort is akin to winning at Powerball. Being in the water when a good wave comes requires maneuvering into precise position.
Surfers make it look easy. The good ones 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.
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.
There are two ways to catch a wave: exhausting hard work—paddling—and pattern recognition—spotting a wave early and casually drifting to the sweet spot. “There are people who make careers based on the fact that they know how to read the ocean better than others,” says Pat O’Connell, ’90s surfing legend and trainer. “It’s just about knowing the ocean. It’s timing.”
When the results from the intuition test came back, the high-expertise students performed close to 50 percent better than those with low expertise. As one might expect.
The surprise came on the analytical test, where the high- and low-expertise students scored nearly the same, and better than the high-expertise students’ intuition.
The low-expertise students who used their guts to guess at a shot’s difficulty did poorly, as expected. But when these same students used thoughtful criteria, they outperformed the intuition of experienced players.
The researchers then conducted a similar experiment where they asked people to identify counterfeit handbags. “High-expertise” individuals were identified by how many Coach and Louis Vuitton handbags they owned. The results were the same.
In a given domain—be it surfing or accounting or political fund-raising—the familiarity that leads to pattern recognition seems to come with experience and practice. Fencing masters recognize opportunities in opponents’ moves because of the sheer amount of practice time logged into their heads. Leaders and managers who use their gut to make decisions often do so based on decades of experience, archived and filed away in the folds of their cerebrums.
“Intuition is the result of nonconscious pattern recognition,” Dane tells me. However, his research shows that, while logging hours of practice helps us see patterns subconsciously, we can often do just as well by deliberately looking for them.
And that’s where, like the dues-paying presidents or overly patient programmers, what we take for granted often gets in the way of our own success. Deliberate pattern spotting can compensate for experience. But we often don’t even give it a shot.
This explains how so many inexperienced companies and entrepreneurs beat the norm and build businesses that disrupt established players. 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.
It also explains why the world’s best surfers arrive at the beach hours before a competition and stare at the ocean. After years of practice, a surfer can “feel” the ocean, and intuitively find waves. But the best surfers, the ones who win championships, are tireless students of the sea.
O’Connell says, “One of the main things that you do when you learn to compete is learn how to pick out conditions. Know that the tide is getting higher. Counting waves, how many waves come into a particular area that fit your eye that you want to ride.”
Pro surfers analyze the frequency of waves coming in on a given day, where along the coast they tend to break, and which of those waves tend to look the best. They take note of the direction the waves break, the angle at which they peel, and where along the horizon the good ones first form.
Sometimes the biggest waves form out of seemingly nowhere. A superwave can show up on a regular surf day when random smaller waves align. When that happens, the only people who can possibly ride it are the ones who actually went to the beach that day. The ones who actually got in the water.
“20% Time” is not Google indigenous. It was borrowed from a company formerly known as Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, aka 3M, which allowed its employees to spend 15 percent of their work hours experimenting with new ideas, no questions asked. 3M’s “15% Time” brought us, among other things, Post-it Notes.
Behind this concept (which is meticulously outlined in an excellent book by Ryan Tate called The 20% Doctrine) is the idea of constantly tinkering with potential trends—having a toe in interesting waters in case waves form.
The best way to be in the water when the wave comes is to budget time for swimming.
In surfing, the first mover often doesn’t have the advantage. The second or third wave in a multiwave set is often the more powerful. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to learn, then, that being the first mover is not much of an advantage in business either.
Like early pioneers crossing the American plains, 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—getting feedback and adjusting.
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.
As entrepreneurship scholar Steve Blank points out in his article for Business Insider, “You’re Better Off Being a Fast Follower Than an Originator,” fast follower General Motors surpassed the first mover in automobiles, Ford Motor Company, in market share in the early 1900s. Google, Facebook, and Microsoft were each fast followers in their respective spaces in the technology sector, leaping past Overture, Myspace, and Apple, respectively (until Apple made a comeback).
In each case, while the pioneers were entrenched in early technology and practices, the tailgaters got ahead. Once you jump on the first wave, it’s costly to back off from the commitment. And by that time it’s usually too late to take advantage of the second wave.
Of course, on rare occasions that first wave actually is the best wave in a set. How is a surfer, much less a businessperson, to judge when to make a move?
Pattern recognition can help here as well. The way to predict the best waves in a proverbial set is established by researchers Fernando F. Suarez and Gianvito Lanzolla, who in Academy of Management Review explain that when market and technology growth are smooth and steady, the first mover gets the inertia and an advantage. When industry change is choppy, the fast follower—the second mover—gets the benefits of the first mover’s pioneering work and often catches a bigger wave, unencumbered.
A good surfer watches the conditions and knows if the big waves come alone, in smooth and steady progressions, or in patterned sets, in which case the second or third wave is often the biggest ride. And if he watches long enough, he can spot the double waves that occasionally combine to form a monster.
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.
“I think that being able to pick and read good waves is almost more important than surfing well,” Moore tells me. “If you don’t have a good or better platform to perform on than your opponent, you are going to lose.”
Chapter 6: SUPERCONNECTORS
“Space, Wars, and Storytellers”
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?
This is the idea behind what I call superconnecting, the act of making mass connections by tapping into hubs with many spokes.
Imagine you’re at a party and you don’t know any of the other guests. You look around at the dozens of people and, if you’re extroverted, you’ll probably strike up a conversation with someone nearby. If you’re a little more timid in unfamiliar territory like I am, you might wander around in hopes that someone strikes up a conversation with you.
Now imagine that a friend of yours shows up. She happens to know everybody at the party and she decides to take you around and meet everyone whom you should know. You soon meet a dozen people, with very little effort. Your friend is a superconnector.
Tapping networks is not as easy as simply shouting a message. Guevara became a successful superconnector not because he broadcast, but because he managed to build a relationship with the people.
This is the classic Hollywood networking story: make friends with people who have connections and work them to your advantage. Be nice to them when you need them, then move on.
“Being a giver doesn’t require extraordinary acts of sacrifice,” Grant writes in Give and Take. “It just involves a focus on acting in the interests of others, such as by giving help, providing mentoring, sharing credit, or making connections for others.”
“The number one problem with networking is people are out for themselves,” says Scott Gerber, founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council, who coined the term superconnector. “Superconnecting is about learning what people need, then talking about ‘how do we create something of value.’”
This is a twist on the classic networking advice, which advocates boldly meeting people and asking them for things. Building relationships through giving is more work than begging for help, but it’s also much more powerful.
“Radio Rebelde truly became our means of mass communication, to talk to the people,” Castro later recalled. But he and his crew knew that talk was not enough to win the people to the cause. Their countrymen’s basic needs had to be met, and trust had to be gained.
So, Guevara started teaching peasants how to read. The revolutionaries, largely an educated bunch, walked into villages and set up classes. They taught the poor how to farm, how to be self-sufficient. They taught them self-defense. The villagers began to see the rebels as their allies—people actively improving their immediate circumstances. The rebels’ service spoke much louder than Batista’s pompous speeches.
Radio Rebelde became a tool for reinforcing that service, for teaching and inspiring during the day, and reporting the news at night.
No matter the medium or method, giving is the timeless smartcut for harnessing superconnectors and creating serendipity.
Part III: SOAR
Why fit in when you were born to stand out? —DR. SEUSS (ATTRIBUTED)
Chapter 7: MOMENTUM
Isaac Newton’s first law of motion at work: objects in motion tend to stay in motion, unless acted on by external forces.
[Also,] Newton pointed out, an object at rest tends to stay at rest.
Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile took on the question in the mid-2000s in a research study of white-collar employees. She tasked 238 pencil pushers in various industries to keep daily work diaries. The workers answered open-ended questions about how they felt, what events in their days stood out. Amabile and her fellow researchers then dissected the 12,000 resulting entries, searching for patterns in what affects people’s “inner” work lives the most dramatically.
The answer, it turned out, is simply progress. A sense of forward motion. Regardless how small.
Amabile found that minor victories at work were nearly as psychologically powerful as major breakthroughs. To motivate stuck employees, as Amabile and her colleague Steven J. Kramer suggest in their book, The Progress Principle, businesses need to help their workers experience lots of tiny wins.
Momentum isn’t just a powerful ingredient of success. It’s also a powerful predictor of success.
The secret to harnessing momentum is to build up potential energy, so that unexpected opportunities can be amplified. On the playground, it’s like building a tower to stand on, so you can start your Olympic ring with more velocity. Phan’s tower was a backlog of quality content. This is how innovators like Sal Khan (who published 1,000 math lessons online before being discovered by Bill Gates, who thrust him into the spotlight and propelled him to build a groundbreaking digital school called Khan Academy), and musicians like Rodriguez (a folk singer whose amazing, but largely unrecognized music work from the 1970s was featured in a 2012 documentary, which then catapulted him to world fame) became “overnight” successes. None of them were overnight successes. But each of their backlogs became reservoirs, ready to become torrents as soon as the dam was removed.
The 30-million-view Lady Gaga tutorial was not Phan’s first great video, but it was her inflection point. She had been winding up for a big swing for a long time.
“Success is like a lightning bolt,” Phan once declared in an interview with Mashable. “It’ll strike you when you least expect it, and you just have to keep the momentum going.”
Chapter 8 SIMPLICITY
“Hot Babes and Paradise”
Sometimes bigger is not better. Sometimes more of a good thing is too much. Sometimes the smartest next step is a step back.
In the case of neonatal incubators, incrementally bigger and more powerful improvements meant, at the very most, incrementally less expensive (though it was usually the opposite). The hacker’s approach to NICU design was to think smaller. In doing so, Chen’s team created something world class.
This teaches us something important about breakthrough success: simplification often makes the difference between good and amazing.
There are a lot of great inventors and improvers in the world. But those who hack world-class success tend to be the ones who can focus relentlessly on a tiny number of things. In other words, to soar, we need to simplify.
What he’s talking about has been proven in experiments led by Dr. Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota, experiments that show that making lots of tiny choices depletes one’s subsequent self-control. Students who were forced to decide between products for long periods of time had significantly less willpower afterward than classmates who answered random questions instead. Vohs had batches of kids make choices, then do things they didn’t want to do, like practice homework or drink vinegar water or hold their arms in ice water. Those who hadn’t just spent time making decisions performed several times better than those who did. Apparently, patience and willpower, even creativity, are exhaustible resources. That’s why so many busy and powerful people practice mind-clearing meditation and stick to rigid daily routines: to minimize distractions and maximize good decision making.
Geniuses and presidents strip meaningless choices from their day, so they can simplify their lives and think. Inventors and entrepreneurs ask, How could we make this product simpler? The answer transforms good to incredible.
Chapter 9: 10X THINKING
[Elon] Musk realized that in order 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. He did television appearances and magazine interviews. He told the world he was going to die on Mars.
Musk isn’t the first in history to use over-the-top demonstration to create buzz, and therefore harnessable momentum. Pop star Lady Gaga gained unprecedented support for her music and mission to “foster a more accepting society” through the stir generated by her outrageous costumes and music videos. Being hoisted into the 2011 Grammy Awards inside a giant egg, then hatching on stage wasn’t eccentricism, it was brilliant marketing. Twenty-four million albums later, it’s clear such artistic brinkmanship worked. Energy-drink maker Red Bull spurred enormous word-of-mouth when it sent daredevil Felix Baumgartner to the edge of space in a balloon, then recorded his supersonic freefall. His skydive broke the record for first human body to break the speed of sound, and the highest freefall distance (127,852 feet). Creating your own wave and then catching it is as old as ancient Greece: Alexander III rallied the Macedonians with his hyperbolic quest to reach the “ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea,” conquering the entire Persian Empire along the way.
Of course, such spotlight-snatching only produces real momentum if there’s substance behind it. Gaga’s music was catchy and fresh. Red Bull had spent years publishing a backlog of high-octane sports content (and selling a popular beverage); the attention from Baumgartner’s jump just solidified the company’s reputation in the action-sports world. Alexander earned himself the title “Great” through his ingenious military tactics, without which his quest would have never worked. President John F. Kennedy described the opportunity inherent in high-profile swings like these when he declared in September 1962 that the United States would put a man on the moon. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
10x Thinking is the art of the extremely big swing. To use a baseball analogy: instead of trying to get on base—or even aiming for a home run—it’s trying to hit the ball into the next town.
No amount of weight lifting or swing practice will get you there. Such a goal requires you to think radically different.
The apostle of 10x Thinking is a man with perhaps the coolest name ever: Astro Teller. Teller is the goatee-and-ponytailed head of a rather secret Google laboratory in California called Google[x]. He holds a PhD in artificial intelligence.
The secret sounds a bit crazy. Says Teller, “It’s often easier to make something 10 times better than it is to make it 10 percent better.”
“The way of going about trying to make something new or better often tends to polarize into one of two styles,” Teller says. “One is the low-variance, no surprises version of improvement. The production model, if you will. You tend to get ‘10 percent,’ in order of magnitude, kind of improvements.”
“In order to get really big improvements, you usually have to start over in one or more ways. You have to break some of the basic assumptions and, of course, you can’t know ahead of time. It’s by definition counterintuitive.”
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.
Elon Musk calls this “getting to first principles.” In the 1800s 10 percent style thinking for faster personal transportation translated into trying to breed stronger horses. First principles would suggest instead thinking about the physics of forward movement, then building up from there, leveraging the latest technology—like the internal combustion engine.
Academic research actually shows that we’re less likely to perform at our peak potential when we’re reaching for low-hanging fruit. That’s in part because there’s more competition at the bottom of the tree than at the top. And competition in large numbers doesn’t just decrease general odds of winning. It creates underperformance.
In 2009 behavioral psychologists Stephen M. Garcia and Avishalom Tor showed that merely knowing there are more competitors in a competition decreases our performance. Not relative to a group, but in absolute terms. They call this the N-Effect.
Humans are good at seeking the easy path and are deeply affected by our social surroundings at a subconscious level. The “high-hanging fruit” approach, the big swing, is more technically challenging than going after low-hanging fruit, but the diminished number of competitors in the upper branches (not to mention the necessary expertise of those that make it that high) provides fuel for 10x Thinking, and brings out our potential.
Human nature makes us surprisingly willing to support big ideals and big swings. That means more customers, more investors, and more word-of-mouth for the dreamers.
Not every big dream gains followers or comes true. Just because you’re righteous doesn’t mean people will support you. You have to motivate them. You have to tell provocative stories.
“We need a movement,” Kosta says, to make 10x happen. “You need to get a critical mass of people who give a fuck.” Or, as Musk likes to say, “The first step is to establish that something is possible; then probability will occur.”
“Generally speaking, if you’re gonna make something ten percent better than the way things currently are, you better be great in sales and marketing, because you’re gonna have to talk people into changing their behavior for a very marginal increase in value,” explains Astro Teller. “If, on the other hand, you make something ten times better for a large number of people—you really produce huge amounts of new value—the money’s gonna come find you. Because it would be hard not to make money if you’re really adding that much value.”
We can do incredible things by rejecting convention and working smarter. What would happen if we looked at problems like pollution and climate change, racism and classism, violence and hunger, and instead of waiting for luck to strike, asked ourselves, “How can we use smartcuts to fix things faster?” You can make incremental progress by playing by the rules. To create breakthrough change, you have to break the rules.