Book review — Smartcuts

Something different on my blog today – a book review.

Of a new book out last week called SmartCuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success.

It’s by Shane Snow, a young entrepreneur and journalist based in New York City. I approached Shane after he sent an email calling for people to read and review his book prior to its release. Although I’ve never met him, Shane is one of many New York entrepreneurs I monitor for their content and thoughts on the tech and startup scene in this city.

Shane’s journalistic credentials speak for themselves. His work has been featured in the New Yorker, Wired and Fast Company. He’s also the co-founder and CCO at Contently – an online editorial company that offers a software platform and marketplace for freelance journalists to connect with brands to deliver high quality content marketing.

So what is a smartcut? Shane describes them as strategies individuals use to achieve rapid, ethical and sustainable success. They are not short cuts – instead they are strategies for amplifying success such as lateral thinking, training from masters, adjusting from rapid feedback and thoroughly rejecting the traditional corporate ladder. Shane examines historical and current careers (ranging from President Lyndon B. Johnson to the dubstep DJ Skrillex) and explores what they have in common – they all used strategies (or smartcuts) to accelerate their success.

In a style similar to Malcolm Gladwell, Shane presents interesting, well-written and well-researched anecdotes to demonstrate and support his stance. Like how Gladwell writes, this is not a formulaic, cookbook style discussion or a how-to for replicating the same kind of career success for yourself.

Nonetheless this is an interesting and worthwhile book that makes a couple of salient points that I’d like to explore in more detail. Let’s begin.

1) Innovation extends beyond products or companies.

Apple announced last week a suite of new product offerings and every tech writer was quick to sing Apple’s innovation praises.

But innovation isn’t just about companies or products. What I think is cool (and what I think Smartcuts is really about) is recognizing that innovation is more than a hip company or snazzy product. It’s possible to have an innovative career and this book ultimately looks to find the commonalities between a handful of notable and outstanding ones.

2) New York City is THE yardstick.

Writes Shane of New York..

New York has indeed become a global yardstick – for artists, businesspeople, and dreamers of all stripes… If you can make it in New York, people assume you can make it anywhere.

So true. Because of this, there is tremendous value in being a New York City import and coming from an environment that’s nothing like it. Shane and I have that in common – he came from Idaho, I came from the suburbs of Melbourne. Coming from a far flung place makes you appreciate the quality and accessibility of everything that’s amazing in this city – be it culturally, professionally or socially.

Shane describes a sense of awe, of star-struck, and the push that comes being surrounded by such talented and high quality professionals at the top of their respective game. I feel exactly the same way about being here. I can identify with this book just that little bit more because of the New York City references it contains.

Bottom line – should you read this book?

Yes. This book will appeal to those with an interest in business, innovation, startups and entrepreneurship. More than that, Smartcuts shows us there is value in finding links and putting structure around interesting and divergent careers. It’s then up to each of us to emulate them.

Get Smartcuts via Link is here.



How I Became A Music Blogger

I hit the music blogging equivalent of the big time recently when I was offered a contributing writer role on one of the biggest indie music blogs on the planet.

I never intended to become a music blogger. I’m probably the last person you’d pick as having any interest in indie music, let alone an enormous driving passion for the space. And yet in 12 short months I’ve turned myself into a serious music writer on a serious music blog. What makes this even more remarkable is that I have no connection to the music industry whatsoever and I’ve never taken a writing class in my life.

So how did I do it? Here are some thoughts including what I think are the bigger lessons at play here.

1. I was already good at writing.

Long before I started writing about music, I already considered myself somewhat of a writer and blogger having maintained a personal blog for years.

That counts for more than you think. Blogging can be hard to do well because it’s difficult to get into the habit of regularly doing it. Most bloggers start out with good intentions of writing something every day or every week but very few are able to sustain it over the long term, regardless of the topic. Once you’re in that zone of always scanning your environment for your next post and making the time and headspace to devote to it, you’re winning the blogging war. Writing about music is exactly the same.

Bottom line: Blog well. Blog often.

2. I asked for what I wanted.

The two music blogging roles I’ve ever had, I got them both because I asked.

I mentioned to a friend that I was thinking about writing about music. He encouraged me to do so and before long I’d written some random commentary about a couple of random tracks. I liked what I was doing and quickly realized that if I wanted to have any kind of audience outside of my immediate friends and family, I needed to collaborate with a bunch of others music writers.

I found a niche blog that I liked, emailed them and asked if I could write for them. On the back of only a handful of posts on my own blog, they accepted me as one of their staff writers.

I spent a year writing for this blog. Solidly. I posted regularly and over time I started to see my audience, feedback and reach expand. I learnt the basics of how to write about music, I discovered a bunch of new sounds and artists and I found out how the industry and publicity machine works.

I started feeling an upswing and momentum that was taking me beyond my current blog and audience. I wanted to ride the good body of work I had built and leverage it. My thinking was – if I’m going to write for a music blog, I might as well write for one of the biggest and the best.

Like I did with the smaller blog 12 months earlier, I emailed the head editor of my favorite big-time blog and asked if I could join. After gentle persistence at my end and many email negotiations later, and I was offered a contributing writer role.

Bottom line: Ask for what you want.

3. I’ve been listening to music for a long time.

I built up my music knowledge and exposure over years and years. It goes back to when I was a kid and my father would fill the whole house with Pink Floyd and Jimmy Hendrix records. Or the every Saturday morning my brothers and I spent watching music videos on Rage. I have listened to so much music over the years that it’s developed into a big working catalogue and library in my head of what’s good, from where, what album and how music tastes have changed. It’s that back catalogue that helps me to spot a good artist or track to write about today.

I credit my younger brothers for exposing me to an electronic sound in my youth, thanks to their collective obsession with Radiohead, their interest in making music themselves and their awareness of the emerging drum and bass scene in Melbourne. The musicality and ear for music I have developed from years of dance training probably counts here as well.

The point is – you can’t teach someone good music taste, you either have it or you don’t. Because whether you like it or not, the music you listen to defines you. Do you like the idea of indie or non mainstream music and just don’t know where to start? Or do you still listen to the same CDs (!) you did when you were 17? Do you only know music that’s fed to you on the radio/tv/internet or do you take a more active role and explore different genres to find what appeals to you? All of these things say something small about your personality.

Bottom line: Develop excellent music taste.

4. I want to do it better than everyone else.

It might look easy enough to punch out 150 words about a cool piece of music but it’s a lot harder than it appears. The challenge of coming up with succinct, catchy and smart writing and the skill of being able to describe what you hear is what keeps me coming back to music writing. I want to do it better than everyone else.

It can be hard to stand out from the crowd of music bloggers because we’re all writing about the same thing and usually off the same press release. The information and detail you have to work with can be limited. With a little research and if you’re smart about it, you can always find an angle that no other writer has touched before.

Many music bloggers forget that your body of work as a writer is a collective that should reflect your own personality. To do this you have to inject elements of yourself; your opinions, your personality and a consistency into every post you write. That’s what brings the humanness and the interesting to music writing – not overdone and flowery descriptions of bass lines or vocals that some music writers try to outdo each other on.

Bottom line: Get so good they can’t ignore you.

5. I turned an interest into an option.

There’s a lot to be said for individuals who take on side projects outside of their day jobs and do them exceptionally well. I now have a dedicated avenue and an amazing platform to regularly indulge an interest outside of my day job. I have turned an interest into an option and something big enough that I could use it as a door to an entirely new career or industry, should I ever want to.

Bottom line: Create options for yourself.



Message In A Bottle

I wrote this post way back in December 2011. It describes a trip I took to an uninhabited island off the coast of Fiji and what I found buried on one of its beaches. This post formed the inspiration for a story-telling contest I entered and won several years ago.

I’ve had this story tucked away, hiding and unread for awhile. I like this piece a lot and thought I’d repost here to share now with my wider audience. ~Sarah

Fiji is one of my favourite places on earth. Get me away from the bustle and poverty that is the main island to search out its real beauty, its magnificent islands. I love Fiji because it’s close to home, the people are friendly, it’s easy to navigate and even easier to island hop. Parts of it, particularly the untouched and remote parts are visually stunning, both above the water and below it. Whatever you picture in your head when you close your eyes and think of an island paradise, Fiji has it.

On a trip several years ago, I was on large catamaran, spending the day island hopping. The final stop was to the island of Monuriki, an uninhabited island a couple of hours boat ride west of anything that resembled civilisation. Monuriki is famous because it is the island where the Tom Hanks movie ‘Castaway’ was filmed. It is a large island and its volcanic past is evident in the high mountain at one end that’s covered in rock and dense scrub. The islands surrounding it gave rise thanks to the volcano’s activities thousands of years ago.


The main beach landing on Monuriki Island, Fiji

I remember this day because it was unbelievably hot. Every inch of shade on the boat to get to the island was taken up with bodies. No one, not even the locals, wanted to be in the sun that afternoon. Stepping off the dingy and onto the island, my feet weren’t prepared for the assault that was the hot white sand that had been baking under the sun all afternoon. I quickly headed up and over the beach away from the water and straight for the shade of the palms and scrub that dotted the main beach.

It was too hot to do anything. Draping myself over a palm tree that was bent almost to a right angle, I couldn’t help but think about how Hollywood made a movie here. Did they have to sweat through days like today? I thought about the only line from the film that I remembered, the one about the most famous volleyball of all, where Tom’s character unmistakably cries out, ‘Wilson!’


Despite the heat and oppressive sun, I felt the urge to go exploring. Maybe I might find my own secret cave, just like in the film? I headed away from the main beach and towards the old volcano. Among the scrub under the palm trees, I noticed something out of the ordinary. At first it looked like a broken glass bottle and I was instantly wary, thinking shattered glass could be nearby and that I was barefoot.

On closer inspection, the bottle was intact, not broken. I fished it out of the scrub. It was clearly a wine bottle, with the wine and its paper label long gone and the cork still intact. The bottle was green but clear, probably meant for a white wine, with an imprint in the glass that said ‘Stonehenge’. I found out later that Stonehenge is a boutique winery in the Napa Valley area of Northern California.

The bottle had a piece of paper inside it. A long piece of paper, rolled up tightly into a small cylinder. To keep the paper cylinder in place, it was tied at the middle with what looked like a long length of regular brown cotton. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t open it. The cork was firmly in place, like it had never been opened before.

I had found a message in a bottle, on an uninhabited island in the middle of the South Pacific. I inspected it closely, turned it over, shook it, anything to give me a clue as to its origin or contents. How did it get here? Was is washed ashore from afar? Or more likely, had someone left it here for me to find?

With my new prize in tow, I proudly showed it off to anyone who would listen on the boat ride back. I even showed it to the boat’s captain. ‘Open it!’ was the common response. I couldn’t. I didn’t have a bottle opener. Wine and corkscrews aren’t commonly found on isolated islands in the South Pacific.

I took the bottle and its precious contents back home with me to Australia. I don’t often keep mementos of my travels, but this was no ordinary memento. I remember being fearful that it might break if I stored it in my regular luggage so I took it onto the plane in my backpack as hand luggage.

In my home, my message in a bottle took pride of place on the mantle. I looked at it every day as a reminder of the wonderful location in which I had found it. Over the years I have been seriously tempted to open it and read its contents. But mostly I just imagine what its contents might be.

Is it a convoluted map to a loot of buried treasure? Or is it a desperately sad love letter written to an old flame? Is it a marriage proposal to an improbable love? Is it a suicide note of someone who later jumped into the volcano and to their death? Does it tell me where Wilson ended up after Tom’s character lost him at sea? Does it contain the secret to curing cancer or solving global warming? Probably not.

And so it remains unopened, my message in a bottle. Leaving it unopened keeps alive the mystery of its contents and its original owner. Having said that, what I want to know is this.. did you write on a piece of paper, roll it into a cylinder, tie it with brown cotton, shove it into a wine bottle from Northern California, re-cork it and leave it for me to find on Monuriki Island off the west coast of Fiji? Drop me a line if you did. I have something that belongs to you.

Buy me a beer and let’s uncork that bottle for the final time, together.



The Benefits Of Idle Thinking Time

I maxed out the data on my mobile phone plan last weekend. I couldn’t be bothered figuring out how to pay the extra money to get another gig of data allowance to tide me over until my monthly plan reset again.

And so I spent the week without internet access on my phone. I could only get the internet in my apartment or at work. Maddening at first, I had to get used to a phone that couldn’t do much except be a phone. I couldn’t access the newspapers I wanted or my feedly, LinkedIn, twitter feed or my favourite tunes off soundcloud (that last one was especially difficult to live without.)

Now that I was no longer tethered to an iPhone, I noticed everyone else that was. I stood on the subway platform looking around at all the heads tilted downward, eyes down, looking at the screen in the palm of their hand. As the week went on I started to track how long it took for people to whip out their mobile device. For those who arrived at the subway platform without already looking at their phone, it took an average of four seconds for someone to reach into their pocket or bag and retrieve their mobile device.

It happens that a piece in the New York Times yesterday explores this exact issue. It argues, as does my 4 seconds average on the subway, that we are increasingly wedded to our mobile devices. We use them as a means to stay in a constant state of busyness and ultimately to distract ourselves from what’s inside our own heads. We have swapped idle moments of idle time for distractions on tiny screens and an overwhelming need to out-busy the next person.

All of this is not without a price. Turns out there are advantages in doing nothing and embracing ‘idle mental processing’. Benefits we are potentially forgoing in favour of the crazy busy that’s distracting us. Research cited in the NYT article says that down time as thinking time can make you more empathetic and more innovative. After all, it argues, ‘an idle mind is a crucible of creativity’.

The NYT article describes credible research studies that show the majority of study participants found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for even a short time. By a short time, I mean between 6 and 15 minutes – about as long as it takes to wait for the next subway. What’s even more alarming is one research paper found that 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women would rather administer themselves electronic shocks than sit idle with their own thoughts.

I have a natural tendency towards introspection. That other people don’t, to the point where electric shocks are a superior alternative, doesn’t make sense to me. I have written before about how downtime breeds clarity. My New York life is busy and full but I still cultivate the time just to sit and think. Usually left for the weekends and when I’m outside, it’s a way I can push back against New York and say yes, it’s okay to think idly sometimes and no, I don’t have to maximise every single minute to enjoy this city to its full.

I have to be careful, however. I have a tendency to over-think. Over the years I have learnt to find the line between helpful self-reflection and over-thinking and rumination. Dwelling and worry isn’t helpful. Thinking and processing is. The older I get, the better I get at it.

My week without internet access on my phone made me think about whether I even need internet access on my phone. Self-reflection might come easy to me, but even I get caught up in wanting to fill up the idle minutes in my day to day. I’m thinking about downgrading my mobile phone plan to get rid of the mobile data and to only include texts and calls. I’m hoping that by not reaching for my iPhone, my hands will stay empty but my mind will be more full.



Stacking The StartUp Deck And Other Lessons From LeBron James

It’s bordering on old news now but the second biggest thing in sports last week had nothing to do with the World Cup. LeBron James, the best basketball player and one of the best athletes on the planet made a low-key (by his standards) announcement that he’ll be returning to his hometown of Cleveland to play out his immediate basketball future.

The announcement got widely written up, even when the timing coincided with the end of the World Cup. One article that caught my attention about James’ announcement didn’t come from ESPN or Grantland – rather the Wall Street Journal wrote an interesting article centered around one important point – great teams need great culture, not just talent.

The LeBron years at the Heat are now somewhat overshadowed not by the 2 championships they did win, but by the two they did not. It goes to show that when you load your stage with rockstars, it can still underperform. Seems it took LeBron four seasons at Miami to figure this out. In the most recent NBA final series, Miami Heat were completely outplayed and outclassed by a superior, more cohesive and better drilled San Antonio Spurs.

What happened to the Miami Heat can happen in early stage companies too. Startups want to stack their decks and load up on talent to build and scale a great product. They want the best possible team they can find to fill out their early roster. It looks good to potential investors who want to see evidence of a capable, gritty and well thought out team before they’ll commit to the cause.

Sometimes all that talent comes at a price. Early startups are often solely focused on building and scaling a product and give little thought on how to people manage, what kind of culture they want and dedicating the resources to do so. Founders and startup CEOs are usually good at fund-raising or product building and can be underprepared or underskilled to deal with the business of managing and containing (the often considerable) egos that go with a rockstar team. It’s the missing link that deck stacking ignores – how each of these rockstars is actually going to work together.

Otherwise capable young entrepreneurs frequently expose their lack of people management skills or ignorance towards the importance of building a culture and early. We see the really bad examples play out in the form of harassment and other kinds of claims. Think about the recent revelations surrounding the SnapChat guy or what’s happening in the ranks of Tinder right now.

At the very least, early startups need to consider not only brute talent in their early employees but hiring on personality, diversity and emotional maturity as well. Stacking the deck in your favor is no longer enough. The challenge for lots of growing startups is to not make the same mistake that the best athlete on the planet did – ignoring culture in the face of great talent.


side projects

The Importance of Side Projects

Last week the two Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, sat down for a rare interview at the KV CEO Summit.

If you have any kind of interest in Google (and if you’re in tech then you should), it’s critical watching.

Billed as a fireside chat, Larry and Sergey touch on a number of interesting topics including self-driving cars, their interest in machine learning, their co-founder relationship and also, Google’s interest in healthcare (at around the 29 minute mark).

What’s interesting is their comments on why Google hasn’t dived deeper into anything healthcare related. Larry and Sergey recognize the barriers that regulation pose for healthcare entrepreneurs in the US market. Larry singles out HIPAA (the US government regulations on privacy protection of identifiable healthcare information) as the main culprit. He’s right. The balance between protecting patient privacy and allowing access personal info and medical data has not yet been struck.

It then begs the question – if Larry Page describes health tech is ‘a difficult area’ and doesn’t want to touch it, are we brave (or crazy) for wanting to? Larry is one of the most prominent tech minds in the world and current CEO of Google. He has virtually unlimited resources, endless influence and the power to tackle whatever he wants. And yet to him, healthcare disruption is hard. What chance do the rest of us all have?

I say plenty. Aside from a few cool projects, if Google says thanks but no thanks to health, doesn’t mean we all have to. Especially because most health entrepreneurs want to disrupt on a much smaller but impactful scale. And frankly it energizes me to think that if the two Google founders find health tech hard, then good on me for tackling and trying to improve it. It frames the overall challenge of my job and reinforces that anyone trying to disrupt health care right now is tackling something big and meaningful and hard.

There are two more things that strike me about this interview. Firstly, the extent of Larry’s voice disorder (that would be the speech pathologist in me coming out) and secondly, the importance of side projects. Larry refers to Sergey’s driver-less car undertaking as his side project. I’m a big fan of side projects. It doesn’t matter what it is, the whole point is that you have one. More than hobbies, they offer the chance to build something – an avenue for learning, indulging curiosity, discovering passion and finding enrichment outside of your immediate professional role.

What’s your side project? Should be obvious what mine is. It’s no where near as fancy or spectacular as inventing a car that drives itself but it makes sense to me. I get to write about what I love and just last week my side project advanced another notch when I secured a contributing writer role one of the the most popular indie music blogs on the planet. Sergey can have his driver-less cars, I have your indie music experience to influence instead.


BP studio

Why The Ballerina Project Is So Good For Ballet

It feels like I’m the last person on the planet to discover the Ballerina Project.

For reasons I cannot tell you, I only just discovered this well-known blog a few weeks ago after a non-dance friend happened to mention it.

Ballerina Project is a photography blog about ballerinas. It is the work of photographer Dane Shitagi who started the project 12 years ago when he walked into a dance studio in Manhattan, curious and wanting to photograph some ballerinas. He has over the years refined his approach and has amassed over 1000 images of ballerinas. He has absolutely no dance training and yet he has the most popular dance-inspired blog going around.

What I adore about the Ballerina Project is that it takes ballerinas out of their usual environment and into ones you would never imagine. Rarely are they photographed in the environment you would expect – on the stage. It’s not about tutus, buns or tights. We see ballerinas in modern clothing, hair down and messy, relaxed, no tights and not confined to the barre or the inside of a dance studio.

Instead we see them in lots of urban settings, like streets, subways, draped over poles, on fences.

BP subway

A ballerina next to a New York subway

And also in extraordinary scenarios like in fields, in windows sills, on the beach and against waterfalls.

BP window

Inside a window sill

There is always a coordination and symmetry between the stunning backdrop, the ballerina’s pose and her outfit. Often it looks like the ballerina is blending into her environment.

BP in WV

This image looks downtown towards the Freedom Tower in Manhattan

The blog heavily features ballerinas set against backdrops in New York City. No surprises then that those images are among my favourites.

BP in CP

Central Park loveliness

I also especially like the images that show off the ballerina’s feet and lower legs. A ballerina’s lower leg muscles are among their most defined and striking. They fully deserve to be shown off. It’s true that a ballerina’s feet needn’t always be mangled and yucky from years of wearing pointe shoes.

BP feet

The Ballerina Project has wider implications for ballet and dance in general. Dance is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, especially in New York City. Blogs like the Ballerina Project help to broaden the appeal of the artform and to bring ballet to the attention of a new generation of audiences. This is exactly what ballet needs – an injection of new audience blood and to widen the net beyond the long-standing notion of ballet being always about tutus and Tchaikovsky and stiff tradition.

The big ballet houses are recognising the need to broaden their appeal and are taking up the challenge to reign in the younger and more digitally engaged audience. Justin Peck, a soloist with the New York City Ballet has been given free reign of late pursue what he’s fast emerging to be – a ballet dancer and a ballet choreographer, producing exciting works with a very modern dance aesthetic.

As good as it is, I would like to see the Ballerina Project branch out to include male dancers as well. It wouldn’t technically be a ballerina project then, but mixing it up with male dancers is a logical extension. Another obvious expansion is the addition of the short dancer videos. I have noticed more and more of these popping up on the Ballerina Project’s Instagram account.

If I could change anything about the Ballerina Project, I would keep its equal celebration of two art forms – photography and ballet while taking full advantage of the extent of the photographic collection. This would minimise the use of repeat images I often notice in its Instagram feed.