Expert Q&A

Think about money differently, says ‘Smartcuts’ author Shane Snow


Author and entrepreneur Shane Snow says if we inventory our habits and question them, we may find more creative money solutions.

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Journalist and entrepreneur Shane Snow doesn’t believe in taking the long, slow path to professional and financial success. By age 30, he had written for Fast Company, Wired and Ad Age, built a multimillion dollar online content provider startup called and penned his first book, “Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators and Icons Accelerate Success.”

It’s not that Snow is more driven than most people. Nor does he believe successful people are necessarily smarter, although successful people tend to do smart things. Working hard is great, but Snow points out that if you spend eight hours digging a ditch, you’re working hard, but you’re not necessarily going to fulfill your dreams.

Snow set out to discover how some people move faster toward their goals, or even reach goals they wouldn’t previously have thought possible. In the process, he discovered what he calls “smartcuts.” talked with Snow to find out how smartcuts could help us reach personal financial goals.

Q: When did you first notice that some people seem to get ahead much faster than others do, without putting in long years and thousands of hours to do it?

A: I first got hooked on this idea when I was writing for Fast Company. I was writing these stories about fast-growing tech startups in strange places like North Carolina — strange places for tech startups, anyway. Everyone thinks about tech startups being in Silicon Valley and New York. I became obsessed with the idea and wondered how some tech startups grow so quickly and demolish people’s expectations.

That led me down this rabbit hole to see how people surpassed their peers and beat expectations and were above average. Unconventional thinking and breakthroughs always seemed to coincide. That fascinated me.

Q: Why do you think we have the mindset that we must pay our dues before we can get ahead?

A: I’m really curious about that. It seems like a military or tribal way of thinking. We do need proxies for whether or not someone is qualified for a job or position, and for a long time we’ve used the amount of time you’ve been here as that proxy. Sometimes, experience does correlate with qualifications.

The problem is, anytime there’s a game to be played, people play it. If it’s how long you have been here — not how good you are — the game becomes gaining seniority or tenure, not seeing how good you can be.

Q: What if we try to take too many or inappropriate shortcuts? Is it possible to crash and burn?

A: Absolutely. That’s why the book was not named “shortcuts.” If you take shortcuts when building a building, the building falls down. Cut corners landing a plane, and you die. There’s a huge difference between shortcuts and “smartcuts.” Shortcuts can be amoral. It’s often taking value from someone else. Manipulating the market, stealing. Smartcuts is providing value at the same time, like making money while creating jobs.

Often the smartcuts path is not shorter, it’s just faster. I don’t think of smartcuts as shorter paths, I think of them as better paths.

Q: When it comes to success in personal finances, what do you think holds many people back?

A: It’s a lot of things. Willpower, but more than that, it’s a lack of critical thought. I talk about skeptical optimism. The fast-moving people tend to be optimistic about the future, but they also don’t take everything at face value.

People can be held back by pessimism. They may hoard silver because they don’t think the world is going to get better. Doing things because you think the world is going to fall apart is a distraction from doing things to make your family happy.

Q: What’s the first thing you would tell people who want to take smartcuts to financial success?

A: Take inventory of all your habits and all your assumptions and systematically ask yourself, “What if this wasn’t the case?” Think about the ways you spend your money and ask the skeptical questions. Think, “What if I didn’t have to do that?”

Pick the point that you want to get to and then move back from there. If you want to buy a house, first ask yourself if you really have to. Then pick a goal and move backward, dividing it up into very small steps. I’m all about very big goals that push us. Research shows that when you have bigger goals you end up accomplishing more

Q: How can leverage help a person achieve financial success?

A: Leverage amplifies your effort. Think about how you can make your money work while you’re working on something else.

You see this with the Airbnb economy. We’re all sitting on assets. Everything you own is an asset and a lot of it is not working. What do you have that could be working for you? If you have a spare room, it could make you money. A friend of mine in New York rents out his room every weekend and he stays with a friend. The income he gets from renting his room out on weekends pays his rent for the month.

Think about leveraging your latent time, too. If you can make $50 per hour and you can pay someone to do your laundry, that’s a much smarter decision than doing your own laundry.

Q: What do you mean by using momentum to take shortcuts?

A: Momentum is the underrated virtue. What you see in all sorts of individuals and markets is that momentum is judged as more valuable. A faster-growing company is valued more highly. People tend to support other people who are fast risers. Obama, for example, got a lot of support because he rose so quickly versus other people who had been there a long time. I see that in all sorts of individuals.

To be successful in finance and in your career, it’s a lot easier if you have support from people who want to see you succeed. One of the best ways to get more support is to move quickly.

Q: You talk about the need to simplify in order to soar. How does this apply to our financial lives?

A: I love the simplify thing because I have my own problems with taking on too many things. I’ve noticed a pattern with successful people as that they have incredible focus and the ability to cut out things that may be good, but will distract them from their goal.

In personal finance, there are all sorts of stuff that we put value on, but we don’t question whether taking that off our plates will actually free us up.

If you’re working on something, think about the bare minimum you need to make this work. Think, “What if I had to do this for 100 times cheaper?”

Q: I like this “10 times” thinking — at least as an exercise to get me started! How can it sometimes be easier to make big improvements than small ones?

A: I think it’s the most important thing we should do. We spur creative problem solving by asking, “What if I had to make this 10 times better?”

If you need to really cut your debt 10 times faster or save 10 times as much, cutting the lattes is not going to do it. That question forces lateral thinking upon you.

There are so many problems in big business and society that we attack in a stupid way by thinking, “How can I make this 2 percent better?” It’s such a fight to get a 2 percent change passed in Congress, or something changed 2 percent in a big company. There’s something about a big change — a 10 times better change — that gets people inspired to make big things come to pass.

Q: What’s the overarching message you’d like to give people?

A: I think we look at people and businesses that do incredible things and we think there’s something special that they can do and we can’t. We think they’ve practiced more or they’re more talented. What I want to say is that what they’ve done, you can, too. It’s possible for anyone to work smarter. Those stories you hear about incredible people who you think you can never be like — you can do it, too.

See related:8 creative ways to stay debt-freeOver your head in debt? 5 extreme budgeting ideas

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