Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Success on the Installment Plan

Shane Snow, Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success

Something cracked inside me partway through reading this book. I was digging Snow’s exhortations about knowing your field, and finding efficient ways to improve yourself for maximum desirable outcome, and “working smarter and achieving more—without creating negative externalities.” Wow, externalities: Snow even knows my favorite buzzwords. I really thought this guy might be in a weight class with Malcolm Gladwell or Charles Duhigg.

Then, at almost exactly the halfway point, specifically in chapter five, something rang hollow. Snow builds a metaphor comparing business trends to surfing. Good surfing waves come in groups, called “sets,” and sometimes the first wave in the set is the best. Sometimes, though, competitive surfers know to wait for the second or third wave. There’s no scientific or measurable way of knowing which; serious competitors develop gut instinct.

Likewise, Snow writes, being first on some popular bandwagon is sometimes economically advantageous. Other times, savvy innovators know to hang back, letting someone else pay the costs of creating new markets, then slide in later to reap the reward. How to tell? There’s no true way. Either you know or you don’t, and the difference between runaway success and abysmal failure lies mainly in your ability to guesstimate the signs.

In other fields, we call this “gambling.” We excoriate bankers whose half-educated guesses on economic movements nearly imploded America’s economy in 2007. Perhaps the difference between Goldman Sachs, whose name became a veritable cussword after TARP funds prevented their abject collapse, and dubstep millionaire Skrillex, whom Snow praises, is that Skrillex won his bets. (Snow mentions, but doesn’t much explicate, economic second-wavers like Gmail and Twitter.)

I realized: Snow cherry-picks winners, and rebuilds their development arc retrospectively. He essentially predicts the past, treating various winners’ triumphs as inevitable because they won. There’s little sense of the contingencies that contribute to success. Because Snow spends little time on those who fail in the same fields, except to occasionally name-check them, we get little idea what separates Snow’s extolled successes from similar failures.

Lemme give just one example: Snow explicates Jimmy Fallon’s run up comedy’s ladder, which was fast: he went from live stand-up, to SNL, to Late Night, to the Tonight Show, and he isn’t even forty yet. Fallon enjoyed a committed mentor who refined his performance, sheared useless place-holding dates from his performance schedule, and focused on what performances would further Fallon’s goal: getting on SNL. Snow says everything exactly right.


Thousands of people become stand-up comedians yearly. Most are young, starry-eyed strivers; some are second-careerists revitalizing themselves. Most will, as Snow describes of Louis CK, informally apprentice themselves to George Carlin or Bill Cosby recordings. Thirty or forty will get on SNL, and others will snag writing contracts, sitcom development deals, or HBO specials and lucrative tours. Most will give up because they get hungry. What’s the difference?

The answer defies simple formulae, but to approach it, let me use another comparison from Snow. Two YouTube users became overnight stars: Paul “Double Rainbow” Vasquez couldn’t replicate his success, while makeup artist Michelle Phan did. It takes Snow an entire chapter to reach the seemingly obvious conclusion: Phan’s content was useful. Consider who becomes YouTube stars: comedians, opinionators, educators. People who produce practical, topical, or consistently entertaining content.

Jimmy Fallon succeeded because he cultivated (and still cultivates) a roster of impersonations that play well on after-dark TV. Note that Fallon’s TV career has flourished, but his very brief cinematic career cratered. Snow never mentions Fallon’s biggest failure, the movie Taxi, which Fallon himself admitted on NPR “wasn’t supposed to be a tragedy.” Even with a committed mentor, Fallon’s success relies on his ability to avoid repeating failures.

Snow essentially collects a robust selection of anecdotes which prove his desired point, spots the similarities between them, and treats these as definitive. But note, he starts with the conclusion, and builds the reasoning retroactively. We in the logic-chopping business call this “shooting the barn,” from the metaphor of a supposed Texas sharpshooter who opened up into his barn wall, then painted a target around the largest cluster of holes.

In fairness, Snow writes well. I read cover-to-cover in two sittings. And he makes many good points, albeit mostly in isolation. The problem isn’t any one thing Snow says, but the overall pattern, which doesn’t hold together. Malcolm Gladwell incorporates counter-evidence in his reasoning, and addresses it. Snow basically considers his message so self-evident that he doesn’t bother. This book just feels like half a statement, waiting for more.

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