I decided to ask someone who knows about this stuff: Shane Snow.
Shane’s the bestselling author of Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success.
He did the research and looked at how people and companies achieve success quickly by trying new things, breaking the rules and taking shortcuts—or, as Shane calls them, smartcuts.
What’s a consistent theme throughout the book? Lateral thinking. The secret to succeeding faster isn’t working more, it’s working different.
Lateral Thinking is the process of solving problems via different angles than you might expect. It doesn’t happen when you do more of the same thing. So just simply working harder may not accomplish a goal like rethinking the approach you’re taking. Lateral thinking is about getting in the mindset of breaking the rules that aren’t really rules; they’re just the way things have been conventionally done in the past.
The book is loaded with proven, counterintuitive strategies to help you get better faster. Shane and I talked about six of them.
Okay, you know the drill—let’s break them down.
1) Forget “Paying Your Dues”
If paying your dues was essential, there would be no child prodigies or Zuckerberg billionaires.
Looking at the research, Shane realized the best US Presidents had the least experience in politics. Here’s Shane:
The best presidents of the United States actually have less time in politics than the worst presidents of the United States. In all sorts of industries, what you see is that the fastest risers and the most successful are often not the ones with the most experience. What the patterns show is that people who tend to switch tracks, switch from different ladders or different careers, end up amassing more skills and more flexibility and more of this critical, lateral thinking that allows them to make breakthroughs and surpass their peers a lot faster than others.
And this lines up with the research of Harvard professor Gautam Mukunda: it’s the renegade outliers who make the big changes.
Often when people talk about the importance of paying dues, they’re afraid of failure or afraid of breaking rules.
Playing it safe can help you do “pretty good”—but it’s rarely the way to get to the very top or to get there fast.
(For more on what the most successful people have in common, click here.)
So you don’t have to suffer for years before you can take your shot. But you do need to learn. Where’s the best place to get help?
2) Find Your Yoda Outside The Office
The research Shane initially looked at said mentors don’t help you get ahead. And Shane reacted the same way I did…
Mr. Miyagi didn’t help? Morpheus didn’t help? Yoda was useless? HERESY.
So Shane dug deeper. Turns out formal mentorship didn’t work. That guy they assign to guide you at the office? Zero effect on your career.
But the mentors you seek out on your own? Boom. They take you to the next level in a big way. But what’s the difference between the two?
Mentors need to care about you.
In great mentorship relationships the mentor doesn’t just care about the thing that you’re learning, they care about how your life goes. They are with you for the long haul. They are willing to say, “No,” and to tell you what you’re doing is wrong. Those kinds of relationships yield outsized results in terms of future salaries and happiness.
And caring goes both ways.
If you don’t feel a bond with your mentor and you don’t open up, you won’t get the most from them. You need to care about them too. Here’s Shane:
An organic mentorship is built around friendship and vulnerability. You need to be open about what you’re scared about and what you’re going through. Good mentors don’t just guide your practice, they guide your journey. This is the thing that you see in Star Wars and in the Karate Kid.
Forget the silly “mentor” that work or school assigned to you. Hitch a ride to the Dagobah system. Go “wax on, wax off” an old Japanese man’s cars.
Find a teacher who you care about and who cares about you and you’re not just on your way to a great career, you’re on your way to a primo life.
(For more on how to find the perfect mentor for you, click here.)
So informal mentors can really make a difference. How else can you keep improving? The answer might surprise you…
3) Watching Others Fail Helps You Succeed
Not making others fail, mind you. But seeing others screw up helps you learn.
It’s a shortcut to getting around a little known cognitive bias Shane discovered in his research.
When surgeons tried to learn a new procedure, which ones improved the most? The ones who saw others make mistakes.
Surgeons who did successful surgeries tended to continue to improve, but surgeons that sucked at the surgery got even worse. And if you saw your buddy succeed at a surgery, it didn’t help you at all. But, paradoxically, if you saw your buddy fail at a surgery, you actually got better.
Huh? So unless you’re good from day one the only way to get better was to watch other people fail? Why?
Because your brain is trying to stop you from feeling bad about yourself. So it lies to you.
When you screw up, you make excuses. “Not my fault. Sun was in my eyes.” When you see someone else do well, you say, “Well, of course, I’d do it just like that.”
But when you see someone else bomb you say “Whoa, better not do that.” Here’s Shane:
If you are a heart surgeon and your patient dies on the operating table, you’re gonna say, “Oh, the patient was in bad shape. Oh, there wasn’t enough time. Oh, it was hard to see. The incision wasn’t very clean…” You blame your failures on things that are outside your control. But by watching a surgery you are less personally invested in you are able to be objective. “Oh, they did that wrong. Note to self. I shouldn’t do that.”
It’s one of the fundamental differences between the beginner and the expert mindset. Beginners need encouragement so they don’t quit.
But experts love negative feedback. That’s the secret to how you keep improving. Here’s Shane:
Experts have gotten to a place where they don’t take it personally and they can take the negative feedback as feedback on the activity rather than on them as a person. And that’s what you should do.
Turn failure into feedback and then turn feedback into actionable steps.
(For more on how to have an expert mindset, click here.)
Mentors, watching others fail…so you’re learning a lot. But what if you’re just too late?
4) Forget First Movers. Be A Fast Follower.
“I had that idea but they beat me to it.” Ever said that? Okay, you’re now officially a whiner. Because you were dead wrong.
You were actually in the better spot. Research shows the guy who starts second is more likely to win.
…Peter Golder and Gerard Tellis of the University of Southern California, published a study in 1993 to see if historical evidence backed the claim that market pioneers were more likely to succeed. They researched what happened to 500 brands in 50 product categories, from toothpaste to video recorders to fax machines to chewing gum. Startlingly, the research showed that 47 percent of the first movers failed. Only about half the companies that started selling a product first remained the market leader five years later, and only 11 percent of first movers remained market leaders over the long term. By contrast, early leaders—companies that took control of a product’s market share after the first movers pioneered them—had only an 8 percent failure rate. Fifty-three percent of the time in the Golder and Teller study, an early leader became the market leader in a category.
When you’re first you have to waste a lot of time and energy figuring out best practices. When you’re second, you can just play “follow the leader.”
- Reach: Keep trying to get better.
- Stare: Study and emulate those who are better than you.
You’re not too late. You’re right on time.
(For more on the attitude that produces success, click here.)
So timing isn’t as big a deal as you thought and you can learn from those who came before you. But what about when you need original ideas?
5) Want To Be More Creative? Add Constraints.
When you have limitations you can’t take the easy route. Constraints force you to think. And often, unless forced, we don’t think much at all.
When challenged, we have to be original.
Constraints make the haiku one of the world’s most moving poetic forms. They give us boundaries that direct our focus and allow us to be more creative. This is, coincidentally, why tiny startup companies frequently come up with breakthrough ideas. They start with so few resources that they’re forced to come up with simplifying solutions.
One of the most insightful DVD commentaries I’ve ever heard was Robert Rodriguez discussing his movie, El Mariachi.
He made a 90 minute film with only 7000 dollars. Such an incomprehensibly small budget forced him to rethink every part of filmmaking.
He didn’t have a dolly so he attached the camera to a wheelchair.
The critics loved his editing but the only reason he cut the film like that was because his cheap recording equipment would lose sync during long shots.
You don’t need the freedom to be creative. You need the constraints.
(To learn the four principles that will take you to breakthrough creativity, click here.)
So creativity comes from limitations but your goals, well, they need to go in the total opposite direction…
6) “It’s Easier To Make Something 10 Times Better Than To Make Something 10% Better”
That line is from Astro Teller, head of Google X. Those are the guys who build driverless cars and other supercool stuff.
When you try to make something 10% better, your brain is burdened with all the baggage that came before. You have no room to maneuver.
When you say 10 times better, you have to reinvent the whole process. It makes you think big. You toss out the old rules and start fresh. Here’s Shane:
If you’re aiming for 10% improvement you are going to work within the conventional bounds of what normally happens in your product or industry. If you say that this has to be 10 times better, then it forces you to get down to the first principle of what is most essential. This is a way to force reinvention, which is really what innovation is.
And when you dream big, people want to join you. The media wants to talk about you. Venture capitalists want to throw money at you. Ambition is a force multiplier. Here’s Shane:
If you’re working on a business that has small potential, it’s going to be hard to recruit really great talent for it. But if your mission is to get humans to Mars it’s easier to attract the world’s greatest rocket scientists. So it’s rallying the support, and not just from employees and investors, which you need if you’re doing something big, but also from customers and from press and the universe that needs to conspire around you in order to make you successful.
And, perhaps most importantly, when you think 10x instead of 10%, you behave differently.
Research shows when you set bolder, more audacious goals you work harder than when you’re reasonable. Here’s Shane:
Subconsciously, we actually push ourselves harder when we’re going after bigger, loftier, harder goals. Research shows people who set higher goals end up outperforming their peers or themselves because they push themselves harder or because they force themselves to find more creative, alternative, unconventional solutions to problems.
So dream big. No, even bigger.
(For everything you need to know about setting and achieving your goals, click here.)
These are some great ideas. Let’s round them up and finish with the one thing you absolutely need to remember.
Here are Shane’s tools for achieving bigger, faster success:
- Forget “Paying Your Dues”
- Find Your Yoda Outside The Office
- Watching Others Fail Helps You Succeed
- Forget First Movers. Be A Fast Follower.
- Want To Be More Creative? Add Constraints.
- “It’s Easier To Make Something 10 Times Better Than To Make Something 10% Better”
That’s a lot to remember. So if you forget everything you just read, what’s the one thing you need to keep in mind? I asked Shane that and here’s what he said:
The mistake that all of us make is we don’t step back enough to ask, “Why are we doing things this way?” In fact, we should first be asking ourselves, “Why are we doing this in the first place?” But certainly ask, “Why are we doing it this way?” Often the answer is, “Because that’s the way people have always done it in the past”—and that’s a problem if you want to make more rapid progress or if you want to get off the plateau that you’re on.
So look around today at the things that are important and ask why you’re doing them that way.
Is there a better way? A way that’s quicker, more effective, and more fun?
More often than not, I’ll bet you there is.
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Eric Barker is a writer who has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired Magazine and Time Magazine. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 195,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here. This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.