Lateral thinking and 6 new shortcuts to success

Success. Perception vs. Reality

It took the oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller 46 years to make a billion dollars. Starting with a single oil refinery in 1863, and over two decades, he painstakingly built an empire.

Seventy years later, Michael Dell [of Dell computers] achieved billionaire status in 14 years. Bill Gates did it in 12. Facebook founder Mark Zukerberg, at the age of 23, became a billionaire in 3 years. Groupon’s Andew Mason did it in two.

How is it that some among us can build eBay in the time it takes the rest of us to build a house? Because most of us follow the same old pre-prescribed paths to achieve success as our parents did and their parents before them. We work hard. However, certain successful innovators break convention to find better routes to stunning accomplishments. They don’t work harder. They work differently.

They utilize lateral thinking.

Shane Snow is a serial entrepreneur and skilled journalist. His book Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success delves into reasons why some people are able to achieve incredible success in implausibly short time frames. He then goes on to show how each of us can use these “smartcuts” to to accelerate our success. According to Snow,

“Lateral Thinking is the process of solving problems via different angles than you might expect. It doesn’t happen when you do more of the same thing. So just simply working harder may not accomplish a goal like rethinking the approach you’re taking. Lateral thinking is about getting in the mindset of breaking the rules that aren’t really rules; they’re just the way things have been conventionally done in the past.”

Snow recently talked to Eric Barker of blog site Barking up the Wrong Tree and shared six strategies to help us get better, faster. Here’s an excerpt:

1) Forget “Paying Your Dues”

If paying your dues was essential, there would be no child prodigies or Zuckerberg billionaires.

“In all sorts of industries, what you see is that the fastest risers and the most successful are often not the ones with the most experience. What the patterns show is that people who tend to switch tracks, switch from different ladders or different careers, end up amassing more skills and more flexibility and more of this critical, lateral thinking that allows them to make breakthroughs and surpass their peers a lot faster than others.”

Often when people talk about the importance of paying dues, they’re afraid of failure or afraid of breaking rules. Playing it safe can help you do “pretty good” — but it’s rarely the way to get to the very top or to get there fast.

So go ahead, shake up that old stoic corporate culture. Don’t sit around in your department, waiting for your boss to retire so you can get promoted to his role. Instead, take some risks at your job. Do things differently. Get noticed and get promoted to be the boss of another department.

2) Find Your Yoda Outside The Office

Snow’s research found that formal mentorship didn’t work. That top lady exec they assign to guide you at the office? Zero effect on your career.

But the mentors you seek out on your own? Boom. They take you to the next level in a big way. But what’s the difference between the two?

Mentors need to care about you. Here’s Snow:

“Good mentors don’t just guide your practice, they guide your journey. They care about you and where your life goes. They are with you for the long haul. They are willing to say, ‘No,’ and to tell you what you’re doing is wrong. Those kinds of relationships yield outsized results in terms of future salaries and happiness.”

And caring goes both ways. If you don’t feel a bond with your mentor and you don’t open up, you won’t get the most from them. You need to care about them too.

“An organic mentorship is built around friendship and vulnerability. You need to be open about what you’re scared about and what you’re going through. Good mentors don’t just guide your practice, they guide your journey. This is the thing that you see in Star Wars and in the Karate Kid.”

So, go “wax on, wax off” an old Japanese man’s cars. Find a teacher who you care about and who cares about you and you’re not just on your way to a great career, you’re on your way to a primo life.

3) Watching Others Fail Helps You Succeed

Seeing others screw up helps you learn. It’s a shortcut to getting around a little known cognitive bias Snow discovered in his research.

When surgeons tried to learn a new procedure, which ones improved the most? The ones who saw others make mistakes.

“Surgeons who did successful surgeries tended to continue to improve, but surgeons that sucked at the surgery got even worse. And if you saw your buddy succeed at a surgery, it didn’t help you at all. But, paradoxically, if you saw your buddy fail at a surgery, you actually got better.”

Huh? So unless you’re good from day one the only way to get better was to watch other people fail? Why?

Because your brain is trying to stop you from feeling bad about yourself. So it lies to you.

When you screw up, you make excuses. “Not my fault. Sun was in my eyes.” When you see someone else do well, you say, “Well, of course, I’d do it just like that.”

But when you see someone else bomb you say “Whoa, better not do that.”

It’s one of the fundamental differences between the beginner and the expert mindset. Beginners need encouragement so they don’t quit. But experts love negative feedback. That’s the secret to how you keep improving.

4) Forget First Movers. Be A Fast Follower.

“I had that idea but they beat me to it.” Ever said that? Okay, you’re now officially a whiner. Because you were dead wrong.

You were actually in the better spot. Research shows the guy who starts second is more likely to win. Facebook wasn’t the first social network. MySpace came before that. In fact, it wasn’t even the second. But it is undisputedly the most successful. Similarly, Google began when Yahoo, Altavista and other search engines were immensely successful and popular. Now, most of us can’t live without Google.

When you’re first you have to waste a lot of time and energy figuring out best practices. When you’re second, you can just play “follow the leader.”

Instead of spending all your time trying to get better, work hard on studying and emulating those who are better than you.

Timing isn’t as big a deal as you thought and you can learn from those who came before you. Look around your company. Around your office. There are so many established processes that waste time and cost your company money. How many approvals does it take to submit a purchase order? Is someone doing it better or faster? Study them. Learn. Replicate. Succeed.

Then repeat.

You’re not too late. You’re right on time.

5) Want To Be More Creative? Add Constraints.

When you have limitations you can’t take the easy route. Constraints force you to think. And often, unless forced, we don’t think much at all.

When challenged, we have to be original.

“Constraints … give us boundaries that direct our focus and allow us to be more creative. This is 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.”

So don’t bitch about how you don’t get the freedom to be creative at your job. You need the constraints. Change your view. Don’t look at them as roadblocks. Instead they are merely bumps that you need to figure out how to get around. Constraints help you become even more creative.

6) “It’s Easier To Make Something 10 Times Better Than To Make Something 10% Better”

That line is from Astro Teller, head of Google X. Those are the guys who build driverless cars and other supercool stuff.

When you try to make something 10% better, your brain is burdened with all the baggage that came before. You have no room to maneuver.

When you say 10 times better, you have to reinvent the whole process. It makes you think big. You toss out the old rules and start fresh. Here’s Shane:

“If you’re aiming for 10% improvement you are going to work within the conventional bounds of what normally happens in your product or industry. If you say that this has to be 10 times better, then it forces you to get down to the first principle of what is most essential. This is a way to force reinvention, which is really what innovation is.”

And when you dream big, people want to join you. Your co-workers talk about you. Senior leaders want to throw money at you to groom you as a future leader. Ambition is a force multiplier. When you think 10x instead of 10%, you behave differently.

Research shows when you set bolder, more audacious goals you work harder than when you’re reasonable. According to Shane:

“Subconsciously, we actually push ourselves harder when we’re going after bigger, loftier, harder goals. Research shows people who set higher goals end up outperforming their peers or themselves because they push themselves harder or because they force themselves to find more creative, alternative, unconventional solutions to problems.”

So dream big. No, even bigger.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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