Book Review: Smartcuts: The Breakthrough Power of Lateral Thinking

Book Review – Smartcuts: The Breakthrough Power of Lateral Thinking

Did you know that most of our presidents did not grind out a long political career? They took Smartcuts to the highest position in the land. In Shane Snow’s book, Smartcuts: The Breakthrough Power of Lateral Thinking*, he listed a number of smart ways to move faster to your goals. I enjoyed reading this book and the lessons learned.

I found Smartcuts to be quite interesting. In this book, there are tips for bypassing the traditional grind of working up the ladder. The book is 272 pages long and is arranged in three parts, each having three chapters. Here are those parts and chapters:

  • Part I: Shorten
    • Hacking the ladder
    • Training with masters
    • Rapid feedback
  • Part II: Leverage
    • Platforms
    • Waves
    • Superconnectors
  • Part III: Soar
    • Momentum
    • Simplicity
    • 10x Thinking

Each chapter contained a collection of stories wrapped around a common topic. I felt these stories were right on target with the point being well illustrated. More and more individuals are able to advance through life to high levels of success faster than their predecessors. For example, it took John D. Rockefeller 46 years to become a billionaire. It took Michael Dell 14 years, Bill Gates 12 years, the founder of eBay 3 years, and Groupon’s Andrew Mason 2 years. We have learned how to accelerate success. To achieve this level of success, you have to take a different path than the traditional path that most of us are currently on.

In the beginning of the book, Snow presented a problem highlighting how to think differently. I found this problem on the web, “A job interview question about three people at a bus stop.”

Throughout the book, Snow stressed that Smartcuts are not shortcuts. He shared,

“I’m convinced that true success has more to do with our becoming better people and building a better world while we do these things than it does with the size of our bank accounts.” (Snow, 2016, Location 136)

The first part focused on shortening the path to success. As Snow noted, “Lateral thinking doesn’t replace hard work; it eliminates unnecessary cycles” (Snow, 2016, Location 177). Leverage means working smarter. To do this, you must be constantly learning and exploiting the tools and knowledge around you. Soaring is using momentum to move to the next level. It is about understanding when to jump onto the next wave.


In the first part of the book, Snow pointed out that presidents begin their term in office at the average age of 55 while senators start at 62 and congressmen start at 57. The greatest difference is that presidents often take Smartcuts to the position whereas other representatives typically grind out a traditional path of service. Snow related this fact to a game Mormon college students play called Bigger or Better. Basically, it is incremental advances that are always an improvement upon the last. The key is lateral moves. Another key point is not to give up. Snow points out that businesses who are constantly making lateral moves that are bigger or better have a better track record than companies who blindly follow one path. Individuals seeking to be president make a number of lateral moves as they advance to the top office.

If you want to shorten your path, then find a mentor. Ideally, you will want to connect with someone who can help you develop skills and gain knowledge. “Mentorship is the secret of many of the highest-profile achievers throughout history” (Snow, 2016, Location 560). The classic hero story usually has the protagonist connecting with a mentor. One fascinating story was the partnership of a hospital with a racing team to reduce infant mortality. This highlighted the point that mentor relationships do not have to be formal. According to Snow, there is more success with an informal relationship compared to a formal one. Mentor relationships also do not have to be personal. Reading is an excellent way to be mentored, and now we can also add YouTube as a mentoring source.  Here are some posts I have written on the importance of this form of mentoring:

Another method for shortening the journey to success is to solicit constant feedback. This means you have to get your work in front of an audience. This can be in a blog, book, YouTube video, podcast, paintings, etc. You have to take risks. Snow explained how comedians work on their craft as part of The Second City. The comedians would practice before a live audience to get feedback to hone in on the best jokes. In this chapter, there was a very informative discussion about failure and success. A key to feedback is to focus on the behavior rather than the individual.


Using a story about computer programming, Snow pointed out that we can achieve more and better results as the platform becomes simpler. During the beginning of the computer programming age, only a small few could succeed because they understood binary or machine language. As layers were added thus making programming easier, more people could learn programming and create applications. Each iteration opened the doors to more people. This idea does not only relate to developing computer applications but other disciplines. For example, Snow discussed mathematics. By introducing a calculator into the hands of a math student, research shows that higher level math thinking occurs. “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” (Snow, 2016, Location 1280).  As noted in The Inevitable and The Seventh Sense, artificial intelligence and automation will be driving our future, we need a citizenry that can operate in such an environment. We need people who can think, not people who can regurgitate information… computers can do that.

In the chapter about waves, Snow highlighted the importance of becoming a master of your domain so that you see a shift in direction. You could then pivot or make a lateral move to take advantage of the change. A key is to learn from those who blaze a trail before you.

Another fascinating story focused on Che Guevara and the Cuba Revolution. Their success was in large part due to the use of technology and superconnecting. We now live in an age where we can reach millions with our message. The key to message sharing is making the lives of others better. Snow also shared a story about J. J. Abrams and how he rose through the ranks of director and later became even more successful by help those behind him to success. All the entrepreneurs I know share their knowledge freely and liberally. They believe in a world of abundance rather than scarcity. They know that helping others will raise their status in life. These are the people I want to emulate.


The chapter called Momentum was perhaps the most important chapter in the book, at least to me. It was interesting to read about people who had it all only to be depressed such as people who made a fortune in Silicon Valley, won the lottery, or stepped on the moon. They got to the top of their game with nowhere to go, at least that is what they thought. Without forward momentum, we are lost and depressed. I have personally had this feeling, I have been fortunate to do some great things in education and volunteer work. The big question is what should I do now. I am presently exploring different ideas and trying on new adventures. Snow shared two stories that highlight the possibilities. One was about the success Oreo cookies has had in marketing and Michelle Phan, a makeup demonstrator.

When discussing simplicity, Snow focused on innovating through reduction rather than addition. One example I really enjoyed reading was about the Embrace baby sleeping bag. This story is worth watching.

By stripping away everything and focusing on the essentials, Chen was able to save more lives than expensive technologies could. Snow also talked about reducing cognitive load by making things simple. He highlighted Steve Jobs and Barack Obama and their clothing selections. They kept it simple so they could focus on more important things. This was also the second chapter where Snow emphasized the Finnish education system. This article lists the reasons the Finnish less is more approach to school is placing it at the top of the pack.

The last chapter focused on thinking big, 10X big. In this chapter, Snow shared stories about Google, Elon Musk, and John F. Kennedy. Each one of them looks at the future with a grand vision. John F. Kennedy’s vision was to put a man on the moon. Elon Musk is aiming for Mars with the SpaceX project, but cheaper than NASA.  Astro Teller is in charge of Google X or their moonshot projects.  They all are going for the homerun.

“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” (Snow, 2016, Location 2501).

I really enjoyed reading Smartcuts: The Breakthrough Power of Lateral Thinking. I like to read books that are inspirational. This particular book provides encouragement to think differently, to keep innovating, and to keep reaching for the fences. If you are grinding away without any sense of progress, you may want to read this book. There are definitely lessons to be learned. I certainly recommend this book.

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