These highlights are from the Kindle version of Smartcuts: The Breakthrough Power of Lateral Thinking by Shane Snow.
At the time I sat down to watch Nate play the game, 22 years after its release, the standing world record for completing all the levels of Super Mario Bros. was 33 minutes, 24 seconds.
When Nate cleared the final level that day in Idaho, dumping the final boss, Bowser, into a pit of lava and signifying the end of the game, Tommy’s stopwatch read six minutes, 28 seconds.
This is not a book about video games, or the ensuing drama after Nate’s record was sought, and overtaken, over the next few years. This is a book about Warp Pipes in real life.
It took the oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller 46 years to make a billion dollars. He clawed his way to the top of the 19th-century business world. Starting with a single oil refinery in 1863, over two decades, he constructed oil pipelines and bought out rival refineries until he’d built an empire.
Seventy years later, the 1980s computer baron Michael Dell achieved billionaire status in 14 years; Bill Gates in 12. In the 1990s, Jerry Yang and David Filo of Yahoo each earned ten figures in just four years. It took Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, three years to do it. And in the late 2000s, Groupon’s Andrew Mason did it in two.
“A serious assessment of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential,” writes the futurist and author Ray Kurzweil in his famous essay The Law of Accelerating Returns. “So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).”
Pretend 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? There’s a good reason to choose any of the three. The old woman needs help. The friend deserves your payback. And clearly, a happy future with the man or woman of your dreams will have an enormous long-term impact on your life. So, who should you pick? 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!
This dilemma is 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).
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.
Got two short Internet cables but need one long one? Cut the ends off and splice the two together. Want to digitize libraries of old books without typing them up yourself? Get millions of people on the Internet to do it for you. (Ever filled out those crazy letters—called CAPTCHAs—when you signed up for something online? That’s what you’re doing.)
Leverage is the overachiever’s approach to getting more bang for her proverbial buck. It’s how brand-new startups scale and young sci-fi geeks become movie directors. It’s how below-average school systems turn around and revolutions are won. It’s how surfers take championships and artists go from homeless to the Grammys.
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. – Dr Seuss
There is a pattern to the unconventional career tracks of US presidents. We find it among other groups as well. Throughout history, fast-rising companies, rock-star executives, “overnight” movie stars, and top-selling products have outrun their peers by acting more like ladder hackers than ladder climbers.
“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.”
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. The 2011 Startup Genome Report of new technology companies states that, “Startups that pivot once or twice raise 2.5x more money, have 3.6x better user growth, and are 52% less likely to scale prematurely.”
The common pattern among these fastest-rising US presidents’ journeys is that, like the BYU students, they didn’t parlay up a linear path. They climbed various ladders of success and then switched to the presidential ladder.
Dwight D. Eisenhower led the United States and its allies to victory against Hitler. He had never held an elected office. He won by a landslide with five times the electoral votes of his rival. “If he can make it there, he can make it anywhere,” US voters decided.
The presidents, for the most part, got to high office by not playing the game everyone else plays. They acquire leadership experience in disparate fields, then use Frank Sinatra–style credibility to switch ladders to politics.
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.
Research from Brunel University shows that chess students who trained with coaches increased on average 168 points in their national ratings versus those who didn’t. Though long hours of deliberate practice are unavoidable in the cognitively complex arena of chess, the presence of a coach for mentorship gives players a clear advantage. Chess prodigy Joshua Waitzkin (the subject of the film Searching for Bobby Fischer) for example, accelerated his career when national chess master Bruce Pandolfini discovered him playing chess in Washington Square Park in New York as a boy. Pandolfini coached young Waitzkin one on one, and the boy won a slew of chess championships, setting a world record at an implausibly young age.
One of the most tantalizing ideas about training with a master is that the master can help her protégé skip several steps up the ladder. Sometimes this ends up producing Aristotle. But sometimes it produces Icarus, to whom his father and master craftsman Daedalus of Greek mythology gave wings; Icarus then flew too high too fast and died.
How can building deep relationships with master mentors be a smartcut if it hinges on our being lucky enough to know the master? 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.”
“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” – Oscar Wilde
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.
In the United States, one-third of hospital patient volume and one-third of Medicare spending goes to cardiac care.
As our hearts beat, a small portion of the oxygen they process gets pushed through the coronary arteries, small tubes that supply O2 directly to the heart muscle itself. It’s a brilliant perpetual motion machine, like a battery that powers its own charger. But as we age, plaque builds up inside the coronary artery, making it harder and harder for enough blood to squeeze through. This leads to heart attacks and is caused by cheeseburgers.
Surgeons resolve the plaque problem by installing new tubes in bad hearts to bypass the clogged sections—essentially rerouting blood through a new hose. This is called coronary artery bypass grafting, or CABG. It’s a tricky procedure that requires stopping the patient’s heart, quickly attaching the new tube, then jumpstarting the heart back to life.
“When interpreting their own failures,” Staats explains, “individuals tend to make external attributions, pointing to factors that are outside of their direct control, such as luck. As a result, their motivation to exert effort on the same task in the future is reduced.” Interesting. When doctors failed due to what they perceived as bad luck, they didn’t tend to work any smarter the next time. They attributed failure in a way that made them feel as good as they could about themselves. “Even though an individual failure experience may contain valuable knowledge,” Staats says, “without subsequent effort to reflect upon that experience, the potential learning will remain untapped. “Further, since individuals tend to seek knowledge about themselves in ways designed to yield flattering results, even if someone were to engage in reflection after failing, he might seek knowledge to explain away the failure.”
The research showed that experts—people who were masters at a trade—vastly preferred negative feedback to positive. It spurred the most improvement. That was because 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.”
Crucially, experts tended to be able to turn off the part of their egos that took legitimate feedback personally when it came to their craft, and they were confident enough to parse helpful feedback from incorrect feedback. Meanwhile novices psyched themselves out. They needed encouragement and feared failure. 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.
The Second City teaches its students to take such things in stride, to become scientists who see audience reaction as commentary on the joke, not the jokester. To turn off the part of their brains that says “I fail” when they get negative feedback. And then the school has students continuously parlay up to harder audiences and harsher feedback as they grow more comfortable. This forces them to both toughen up and push creative boundaries. With this process, The Second City transforms failure (something that implies finality) into simply feedback (something that can be used to improve). Hundreds of times a week.
The Second City to accomplish three things to accelerate its performers’ growth: (1) it gives them rapid feedback; (2) it depersonalizes the feedback; and (3) it lowers the stakes and pressure, so students take risks that force them to improve.
“Funny is right at the line. Just a little bit uncomfortable. Just at the place where it could fail,” she says. “And just like a muscle, you have to fail a little bit in order to improve.”
“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” – Dr Seuss
Think of the way a stretch of grass becomes a road. At first, the stretch is bumpy and difficult to drive over. A crew comes along and flattens the surface, making it easier to navigate. Then, someone pours gravel. Then tar. Then a layer of asphalt. A steamroller smooths it; someone paints lines. The final surface is something an automobile can traverse quickly. Gravel stabilizes, tar solidifies, asphalt reinforces, and now we don’t need to build our cars to drive over bumpy grass. And we can get from Philadelphia to Chicago in a single day. That’s what computer programming is like. Like a highway, computers are layers on layers of code that make them increasingly easy to use. Computer scientists call this abstraction.
In the early days, scientists built giant boards of transistors, and manually switched them on and off as they experimented with making computers do interesting things. It was hard work (and one of the reasons early computers were enormous).
Eventually, scientists got sick of flipping switches and poured a layer of virtual gravel that let them control the transistors by punching in 1s and 0s. 1 meant “on” and 0 meant “off.” This abstracted the scientists from the physical switches. They called the 1s and 0s machine language. Still, the work was agonizing. It took lots of 1s and 0s to do just about anything. And strings of numbers are really hard to stare at for hours. So, scientists created another abstraction layer, one that could translate more scrutable instructions into a lot of 1s and 0s.
This was called assembly language and it made it possible that a machine language instruction that looks like this: 10110000 01100001 could be written more like this: MOV AL, 61h which looks a little less robotic. Scientists could write this code more easily.
Soon, scientists engineered more layers, including a popular language called C, on top of assembly language, so they could type in instructions like this: printf(“Hello World”); C translates that into assembly language, which translates into 1s and 0s, which translates into little transistors popping open and closed, which eventually turn on little dots on a computer screen to display the words, “Hello World.”
Despite several layers of abstraction, Ruby (and all other code languages) forces programmers to make countless unimportant decisions. What do you name your databases? How do you want to configure your server? Those little things added up. And many programs required repetitive coding of the same basic components every time.
“My whole thing was, 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,” he explains. “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.”
So DHH built a layer on top of Ruby to automate all the repetitive tasks and arbitrary decisions he didn’t want taking up his time. (It didn’t really matter what he named his databases.) His new layer on top of programming’s pavement became a set of railroad tracks that made creating a Ruby application faster. He called it Ruby on Rails.
The mentality behind Rails caught on. People started building add-ons, so that others wouldn’t have to reinvent the process of coding common things like website sign-up forms or search tools. They called these “gems” and shared them around. Each contribution saved the next programmer work.
In 2006 a couple of guys at a podcasting startup had an idea for a side project. With Rails, they were able to build it in a few days—as an experiment—while running their business. They launched it to see what would happen. By spring 2007 the app had gotten popular enough that the team sold off the old company to pursue the side project full time. It was called Twitter.
“I think it’s a great mistake to force children to learn mathematics,” said renowned physicist Freeman Dyson, as I sat at lunch with him at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
Dyson believes that American schools teach kids to, metaphorically, drive on bumpy grass instead of to pilot cars on highways. Memorization of facts and figures is the primary culprit. What we really need, he says, is to teach kids to use tools that do math for us.
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.
While we may need deep expertise in our industries to become innovators, we actually need only higher-order thinking and the ability to use platforms to do everything else. In a pre–technology era, people with abstract knowledge were highly valued. But in the age of smartphones and Wikipedia, does it matter that you don’t know offhand the name of the second-largest city in Botswana? What’s important today is knowing how to use platforms to retrieve the information we need, whether it’s the capital of Botswana or the result of 124,502 divided by 8.* In an age of platforms, creative problem solving is more valuable than computational skill.
As the world evolves, so too should we constantly rethink our educational conventions in light of the new platforms we have. For example, today’s children should be taught to use Excel spreadsheets—and all their calculations—instead of times tables. Rather than teaching a mile wide in every subject, we ought to first teach kids to use platforms, then let them go deep in the areas that interest them.
The secret of the Finland phenomenon, Wagner discovered, was a platform it built by elevating the education level of its teachers. Finland’s public school system was experiencing the same thing that made Harvard University’s curriculum and network the envy of the academic world: it hired only teachers with incredible qualifications and it had them mentor students closely.
Teaching in Finland became a prestigious profession where master’s degrees were required to teach on every level. And only 10 percent of applicants are even chosen to begin teacher training. Once they had jobs, teachers often stayed in the profession until they retired. (Roughly half of American teachers leave in the first five years.)
Perhaps 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. Finnish education reflects that: it focuses on teaching students how to think, not what to think. That, says Wagner, is core to making school both interesting and valuable. As the saying, attributed to Dr. Seuss, goes: “It is better to know how to learn than to know.”
“Kids there have much more sense that they’re going to have to construct their own future,” Wagner says. They’re taught to be entrepreneurs of their own lives. Instead of standing passively on an education assembly line and being handed reams of facts and figures, they are thrown into rooms of bricks and asked to build castles.
For so long, “innovation” in education has amounted to more class time, more memorization, more tests. Smaller classes, but the same classes. Finland actually got better, through lateral thinking.
Is it any wonder that nearly two-thirds of the patents filed over the last three decades came from twenty metropolitan areas with only one-third of the US population? More innovation, creativity, and art per person happens in large metro areas than other places; what Jonah Lehrer calls “urban friction” and Richard Florida calls the “creative class” turns cities into higher platforms for success-seekers.
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. In many fields, such pattern hunting and deliberate analysis can yield results.
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.
By the end of 2012 Google’s Gmail service had become the most popular electronic mail provider in the world. That same year, Google’s AdSense product accounted for more than $12 billion in revenue, about a quarter of the search giant’s total revenues.
“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.
On good wave days, an ocean swell will bring in a massive amount of energy from some faraway place, a moving, macrolump in the ocean. Within that swell are essentially ripples, small waves and big waves that come in groups and often repeat in patterns. Waves on waves on waves. Surfers call these patterns “sets.” A set might consist of one or two or three surfable waves in a row, followed by some period of silence or small waves, before another set rolls in.
Another academic duo, 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 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.
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.
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).
After leaving From First to Last in 2007, Sonny Moore went from sleeping in luxurious hotels around the world and playing sold-out stadium shows to living in a warehouse in Los Angeles in a matter of months.
By that time, personal computers and cheap software were starting to match professional studios in recording and mixing quality, and digital instruments allowed the computer-savvy to create almost any sound imaginable. So, Sonny, fresh off a series of vocal cord surgeries, started recording music on his laptop. No band. No singing. No label. Just electronic instruments he could power with keyboard and mouse.
Electronic musicians started offering to collaborate on tracks; Sonny connected online with DJs around the world who seemed to be popping out of nowhere. Before he knew it, Sonny found himself paddling straight into an electronic-music swell.
A casual observer might conclude that Sonny just happened to be in the right place at the right time, two times. That he was just lucky. But that’s not what happened. Sonny actively experimented with trends when they were still early—the Web, social networks, scream-singing, EDM—sticking his toe in different waters until he recognized incoming waves. And it should be noted that he tried some things that didn’t work (a solo career as a rock singer) and was quick to shift strategies.
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.
In the late 19th century, led by the national hero José Martí—the George Washington of Cuba, if you will—rebellion gained the support of the United States, sparked the Spanish-American War, and led Spain to withdraw from the island. Yet even after Cuba gained independence in 1902, infighting, insurrection, and civil war plagued the Caribbean’s largest island for decades.
Castro and the remaining outlaws made camp in the Sierra Maestra, foraging for food and sneaking out of the woods at night to steal ammunition from Batista outposts. Led by the group’s doctor, an idealistic Argentine named Ernesto Guevara (the Cubans called him Che) who, it turned out, had a knack for guerrilla warfare, the little band began sabotaging Batista facilities and taking small military squads by surprise—hitting targets one-by-one and fading into the jungle.
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.* That’s the role that mass media has played in our lives for the past two centuries—superconnecting sources of information to relevant audiences all at once and superconnecting businesses to millions of potential customers through advertising.
That was the kind of influence the Castro brothers attained when Che Guevara brought the contraband equipment to their mountain camp in February 1958. The device that helped turn the tide of the revolution, if you hadn’t guessed, was a radio transmitter.
The goal was to shed light on what was really happening in Cuba, and to inspire potential supporters to spread the “Free Cuba” message. Each day, Radio Rebelde transmitted reports of Batista troop movements and the military skirmishes the rebels had with them. Castro and his lieutenants gave speeches, local musicians played patriotic songs, and soldiers delivered personal messages to their families.
Within hours of his thorough defeat at Santa Clara, Batista had fled the country. On New Year’s Day 1959, the rebels marched triumphantly into Havana and Fidel Castro declared Cuba free.
Revolutions are a slow, deadly business. 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. The radio had superconnected the revolutionaries with the Cuban people, and together they achieved victory in astonishingly short time.
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.
“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.
When Che Guevara began broadcasting Radio Rebelde’s revolutionary message into Cuba’s villages, the locals didn’t instantaneously rise up to join the cause. If Fulgencio Batista’s regime provided one thing, it was predictability. Yes, the people were oppressed. Yes, the poor starved and the mob ran amok. But as history has repeatedly shown, people with lives and families tend to favor predictability even in the worst of circumstances.
“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.
No matter the medium or method, giving is the timeless smartcut for harnessing superconnectors and creating serendipity.
I’m pretty sure that acquiring a billion dollars would solve all my problems. However, studies show that the wealthy—especially those who fall into it through inheritance or the lottery or sale of a business—are often not happier once they’re rich. A meaningful percentage of them believe that their wealth causes more problems than it solves.
If you want to get really depressed about success, look at what happened to the heroic astronauts of the 1960s and ’70s. Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, returned home from the historic Apollo 11 mission and became an alcoholic. Severely depressed, his life unraveled. Aldrin burned through three marriages and wrote two memoirs about his misery. Neil Armstrong, the man who stepped out of Apollo 11 just ahead of Aldrin, spent his next few decades figuring out what to do with his life. He briefly taught some small classes at a university, then quit unexpectedly. He consulted a little for NASA and some random companies, and did a commercial for Chrysler, and quit all those things, too. He hid from autograph seekers and sued companies for using his name in ads.
When there’s no forward momentum in our careers, we get depressed, too.
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.
“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.”
Innovation is about doing something differently, rather than creating something from nothing (invention) or doing the same thing better (improvement).
The key feature of disruptively innovative products is cost savings (either time or money). But the key ingredient behind the scenes of every disruptive product is simplification.
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.
“You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”
“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” President Barack Obama told Michael Lewis for his October 2012 Vanity Fair cover story. “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
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.
Apple’s iPod won the MP3 player war with breakthrough simplicity, both in physical design and how the company explained it. While other companies touted “4 Gigabytes and a 0.5 Gigahertz processor!” Apple simply said, “1,000 songs in your pocket.”
Here’s a fact: Creativity comes easier within constraints.
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.
Constraints made New York City an architectural marvel. Manhattan Island’s narrow shape forced the city to build up, to rethink and renew; it impelled architects to reinvent stone buildings into steel skyscrapers.
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.
After nearly failing out of high school and college, Grammatis had hacked the ladder to his position at SpaceX on the back of what he called “an epically large project,” wherein he sent balloons and sensors up into the atmosphere to sniff for pesticide residue. He did it by shunning his classes (there was no physics program at the college he managed to get into) and reading a lot of articles on the Internet. He was a smart kid, a practitioner of David Heinemeier Hansson’s selective slacking, and, it turns out, good at engineering.
In 2010 only 2 billion of earth’s 7 billion people had Internet access.
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. He holds a PhD in artificial intelligence.
“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.
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. Most “innovation” inside industries and companies today focuses on making faster horses, not automobiles.
‘People say it’s all about who you meet, but to me it’s about who you make part of your circle that really matters.’”
“I challenge my kids to be better than they were yesterday,” he says. “When you look at your life in daily increments to try to succeed daily, that builds over time.”