If you made it this far, dear reader, congratulations! Please email me (at my personal address) at firstname.lastname@example.org and say hi!
The following snippets are deleted scenes from very early drafts of Smartcuts. I'm publishing them here without editing. There's a reason some of this didn't make it into the book, but I hope you enjoy! -Shane
On a January day in segregated, 1950s Mississippi, a baby girl was born to a poor, single black mother. It was an event common enough to not raise too many eyebrows in the area surrounding her small town. But it wasn’t an ideal situation.
The little girl first grew up with her grandmother, wearing hand-me-down skirts and ribbons in her hair, then moved from town to town as her mother’s unpredictable situation dictated. Abused by relatives and oblivious to the identity of her father, she struggled her way through school.
While in high school, she worked after-hours jobs until finally landing at a Tennessee radio station, WVOL. And she managed to earn her diploma.
Thousands of other children of broken homes in those days slipped through the cracks; her peers often repeated their mothers’ lives, having children at young ages, dropping out of school, and succumbing to a brutal environment of sexism, discrimination, and poverty. She was poor—though not as poor as some—and she had a child at 14 (though it tragically died as an infant).
However, through hard work and a lot of luck, this girl broke a cycle of trauma and abuse, and found independence. She turned her part-time, high-school job into a full-time job as a radio DJ and lived quietly ever after.
Only that’s not what happened.
This little girl did not live quietly ever after. In lightning fashion, she went on to be a massively successful television host, build a business empire, become the richest, self-made woman in America, and earn the honor of Time Magazine’s “Most Influential Woman in the World.”
This little girl, as you might now guess, was Oprah Winfrey.
Oprah’s story could have ended at WVOL. She could have settled into a nice career track and be considered successful by many standards—especially given her background. And we might have applauded her for it, had we the coincidence of hearing her story.
And what we just did there is the first villain of rapid success: Expectation.
We expect a poor girl born to a single mother in Mississippi to rise only so far and only so quickly. Sure, everyone loves a good rags-to-riches story, but we don’t expect that to happen. We expect rich people to get a little more rich, and we expect poor people to at best get a little less poor. One rung, maybe two, up life’s ladder. “Let’s be realistic.”
Clearly, Oprah defied the expectations of her peer group and family with her global popularity and multi-billion dollar business empire sprouted from The Oprah Winfrey Show. She was not “realistic.” And if she had been, she wouldn’t be hanging out with pop stars and presidents while I write this from an uncomfortable stool in Starbucks.
We’ll get back to the villain of Expectation throughout this book, but let’s first look at how Oprah defeated the next nemesis, the one that prevents almost every one of us from doing things faster than we can.
The reigning king of talk shows in 1984, when WSL-TV broadcast the first episode of what would become The Oprah Winfrey Show, was Phil Donahue. A longtime news reporter, Donahue had hosted his interview show for nearly 20 years when Oprah came along. He was a critical success with national syndication, and he fit the talk-show host profile of the moment precisely: a likeable, cerebral, white man with great hair.
Oprah did not fit the profile at all. She was a casual, emotive, crass female with an afro.
As Kitty Kelley writes in the biography, Oprah:
“I thought WLS was crazy when I heard they had hired an African American woman to host the morning show in the most racially divided city in America, for their audience of suburban, white stay-at-home moms,” said Bill Zwecker of the Chicago Sun-Times. “Happily, I was wrong.”
Oprah’s show crushed Donahue in ratings from the first week it aired. Where typical interview shows relied on polished, intellectual conversations, hers shed tears and tackled taboos like sexual abuse.
Oprah broke with the norm, and people liked it. She defied common wisdom and won. Call it a billion-dollar idea, or call it lateral thinking for daytime television.
Either way, it worked because she defied the second nemesis of rapid success: Convention. The idea that in order to be successful one must follow the established pattern. Sure, many people achieve great success through Convention, but they do so slowly. Like a governor in a car engine, Convention keeps you from exceeding the speed limit.
Convention says we should teach high school students as if they’re going to become professors. Finland questioned that premise and taught its students hands-on vocational skills and how to think. And Finland’s students murder the rest of us at our own tests.
The third nemesis of rapid success is the most devious of all. It’s the one thing the most successful people in the world all blame for their success: Luck.
In his 2013 book, The Startup Playbook, David S. Kidder interviews 40 business founders—from Robin Chase of Zipcar to Caterina Fake of Flickr to Jay Walker of Priceline—about the key decisions that made their companies successful. (Though disappointingly William Shatner is never mentioned.)
Kidder asked each founder to recount his or her startup tale and the key factors of their companies’ success. Before and in between all the advice on marketing and team-building, a common refrain from founders throughout Kidder’s book is, “We were just very lucky.”
Luck seems such a critical factor between colossal achievement and ignominy. Why would it be one of the three nemeses of rapid success?
Luck is a villain because, despite opportunity being an ingredient of success, it is the number one excuse that slows innovation.
“Rockefeller, Bill Gates, Oprah, they were just lucky.” It’s easy to say. Certainly, they all had lucky moments or circumstances. But did any of them put off trying to find faster ways to succeed until “after I win the lottery”?
In The Startup Playbook, Kidder interviews Elon Musk, currently the CEO of Tesla, an electric car company (of which I own 10 shares of stock, thank you), and SpaceX, a private space exploration company. He’s also the Chairman of SolarCity, a solar energy company. Before all that, at age 28, Musk sold his first company, Zip2, for $307 million. Three years later, his company X.com, which had become PayPal, sold for $1.5 billion.
So, before the age of 40, Musk had built four public companies, sold another, and had successfully launched America’s first non-government rocket into space. As we’ll learn in Chapter 9, Musk’s incredible trajectory has been anything but waiting for lightning to strike five times in a row.
As Gladwell writes, “That word luck fails to capture the work and the efforts and the imagination and the acting on opportunities that might have been hidden and not so obvious.” (Emphasis mine.)
Luck is our third villain not because it doesn’t help to have fortune on one’s side, but because it’s the enemy of impatience. And impatience, as we’ll see in the following chapters, is key to hacking success.
“I don't believe in luck,” Oprah says. “For me, luck is preparation meeting the moment of opportunity.”
Two years later, I sat down in a coffee shop in San Bruno, CA, with two even younger entrepreneurs, Kurt and Dav, who had a similar story. Google had just bought their company, Fflick, for a rumored $10 million.
Kurt and Dav wanted to help people figure out what their friends thought about new films that were coming out. The thinking was, film critic Roger Ebert might hate a certain movie, but your friends, who have similar taste to you, might love it. For movie studios, knowing whether Roger Ebert likes a movie isn’t necessarily a good predictor of box office sales. But knowing what masses of regular moviegoers were telling their friends about a particular film that was about to launch could help a studio adjust its promotional decision-making, perhaps releasing a different theatrical trailer or placing advertisements in certain areas.
Traditionally, a company like Fflick might have harvested the millions of monthly American moviegoers’ opinions through telephone surveys and paper ballots at theater exits. That’s an extremely complex and expensive operation. And that kind of research, by nature, tends to take a long time to collate and tally. By the time surveys confirmed that Gigli was indeed terrible, there wouldn’t be much a studio could do about it.
An ambitious company might try to overcome this challenge with money and muscle. It could throw staff at the problem, putting human surveyors with iPads in all the theatres. It could write a computer program to collate all of the data the surveyors input after bothering theatregoers, so people at the home office wouldn’t have to count the data by hand. It could implement innovations in its survey call center to squeeze more productivity out of its employees, so they could call more people per shift.
Or it could do what Fflick did, which, as you might at this point guess, was to use a lever to pull all that information out with a yawn.
Kurt and Dav realized that people around the world were already talking about what they thought of movies they saw. When you see a movie, if you’re like most people, you talk to your friends about it afterward, what you liked, disliked, whether they should see it, and so on. At the time Kurt and Dav were exploring their idea, the world had recently latched onto Twitter, the micro-messaging service we discussed earlier, as a way to share everything that was on its mind. Each day, millions of people updated their friends via Twitter on what online articles they liked, what music they were listening to, where they were going, and, in the midst of all the chatter, what they thought of that movie trailer for The Dark Knight. And not just what they thought of the trailer, but whether or not they planned to go see it.
So Fflick built its house on top of Twitter. They wrote code to suck data out, sort through it to find references to the names of movies (which Fflick sucked out of IMDB, a website that lists all past and upcoming film titles), and add up all the times a given movie name was mentioned with positive phrases like “can’t wait” versus negative comments like “don’t go” or “sucks.”
Kurt and Dav constructed a layer on top of the highest layer it could find. Automatically analyzing people’s comments for positive and negative reviews was difficult work, but it was less work than gathering the data themselves would have been.
“We spent about a month just heads down in the thing nonstop,” Dav said. “Then we were like, ‘All right, let’s turn it on, see what happens.’”
A week later, the Fflick team was driving to Los Angeles to meet with a dozen movie studios, all of which had seen the technology on launch day and begged the company to come talk business. They asked if Fflick could export its review data to their own programmers (and thus make Fflick a platform on which studios could develop their own software). Dav ended up programming the data platform (called an API) on the drive down. He coded it from the car, at one point holding his overheating laptop out the car window to cool it down.
Three months after that, Google absorbed the company and gave each of the Fflick team members a couple million bucks.
We can perhaps glimpse the importance of superconnectors in architecture, of all things. Prior to the 20th century, the largest buildings in just about every major city in the U.S. (and most other countries) belonged to the government. The courthouse, the capital building, the governor’s or mayor’s estate. But within a few years, as architectural advances paralleled the rise of mass media, skyscrapers popped up in every metro area; the most prominent of these buildings, from the late 1800s on, tended to be owned by media companies. The renowned Times Square in New York City got its name from The New York Times, which operated out of the iconic building at the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue. In the 1920s, the Tribune Tower, owned by Chicago’s largest newspaper, dominated the Windy City’s skyline. In Philadelphia, Comcast’s building at 1701 JFK Boulevard makes the other edifices of downtown Philly look puny.
The buildings symbolize the importance of mass media, an industry built on the notion of one-to-many communication which became the most influential—and fastest-rising—institution in modern society. (Although you’ll notice that banks are starting to take over city skylines as of the late 20th century. Perhaps also symbolically.)
Consider that before newspapers could reach hundreds of thousands of people in a day, and before radio and television and Internet publishing could reach millions at once, there were few national- or international-scale businesses. And there certainly weren’t fast-growing startups and consumer brands in the numbers we see today. But once companies could communicate one-to-many by sidling up to the content that Mass Media delivered—ads next to the Sports column, messages in between radio episodes of The Lone Ranger—the number of fast-growing, large-scale businesses shot up as quickly as those skyscrapers.
additional Excerpt from Sonny moore interview
"Um I mean it’s the energy of me, it’s the energy of the music. And without lyrics, the lyrics are tough to be taken literal. You know it’s the whole experience like it’s different than music. It’s not composition to me, it’s not fine art composition ya know, it’s not something to fucking pick apart, it’s something you feel immediately. And like that’s how my life’s just been, it’s so fast-paced, about feeling it’s about making it happen ya know and the experiencing it as well. To constantly take things in, and respond to that, I love to push it out and see what I feel, like I have something in me, so that’s why I’m constantly making music, I constantly construct it in its own ways.
"But like it feels good, there’s something about this that feels good you know, and like before I had all of this, sort of this facade thing for me, about me, they don’t know anything about me they needed like a soft style. But look at me, the truth is I’ve never written a pop record in my whole life, but I’ve never written pop records for, remember you know, I’ve never tried to make pop records and like, they see all this success and they think there’s some magic formula behind it, to make it happen but being behind it cuz it’s organic. So I think people are afraid of that but I think at the end of the day... that’s the whole spirit, that’s the whole spirit of this technological change in our existence. Now the institutions that were, like tv, radio... all these things had to have budgets, million dollars... good studios, hotels, flights, fucking, you know, private car service or whatever the hell people were doing back then, spending all those like for fucking records. Like all those things are gone now. You know you got kids that are making music using their own platforms, their own social media, they have everything they need to get started and to excel. That scares people. Like why is this guy... this guy, this Skrillex guy is making some kind of an audible sound, making it with his fucking fingers like no it has to be some major routine you know... like they can’t... you know what I mean that goes... that’s not just for me that’s for a lot of people you know?
"But it’s awesome, because like I said, now we have.. now the technology, like electronic music is, is not a genre it’s a platform, like you were saying before, you know?"