We’re told we need it all. More importantly, we’re told we need it all right now. Don’t have time? That’s okay – just “hack” it. Whatever that means. Hack your job, hack your homework, hack your body, hack your relationship, hack your life. Get the most for the least amount of effort. Sounds great, right? There’s only one problem: that’s bullshit.
James Ranson, a Wall Street Journal bestselling editor, will be the first person to tell you that although shortcuts are seductive, they come back to bite sooner or later. After witnessing the destructive effects of shortcuts in his own work and personal life, he set out to write a book that would expose this faulty thinking and provide a framework for a more sustainable life. The result was Buy Once, Cry Once: How Shortcuts Cost You in the Long Run.
After I read the book last week, I reached out to James about conducting an interview. I’m happy to share our conversation here:
Today it seems like finding the shortcut or “hack” is valued more than putting in the work to achieve mastery, even if that shortcut does more harm than good. What caused this trend and what steps need to be taken to reverse it?
We, as a Western society, seem to have collectively decided that easy is better than hard, fast is better than slow, cheap is better than expensive, and lucky is better than good…without ever really understanding the tradeoffs of making those decisions. Easy is easier, but it’s rarely fulfilling. Fast is faster, but when things get rushed, people make mistakes. Cheap is cheaper, but then the only options are low-quality. Luck may bring temporary good fortune, but it rarely lasts–and even less often strikes the way we dream it will. So counting on, hoping for, or chasing after these kinds of shortcuts to success actually sets us up for failure in the long run (and often in the short run as well).
Reversing this trend, aptly, is not easy or quick or cheap. It’s not sexy, it’s not flashy, it doesn’t have a high-profile marketing campaign behind it. It will be done one person at a time, one moment at a time, one decision at a time, as each of us eventually learn that the tradeoffs described above aren’t worth what we get for them…and that creating true value for ourselves and those we want to reach is worth the time and effort it takes.
You note in your book that most successful people we admire rarely take shortcuts, or at least have learned to avoid them. Given this realization, why do people still insist on cutting corners?
In large part, I think this happens because we never see the whole picture of any successful person. We see their success, and usually only that. If we’re lucky, we’ll see some of how they got to that success, but even that is often either painted as an overnight thing (like a startup getting its first investor) or described in abstract ways that we can’t really relate to (like saying “they worked for years” or similar). So our impression is that these people got success much more quickly and easily than they actually did–sometimes even that they took shortcuts themselves, and that those shortcuts actually worked well for them. Combine that with the need for speed we talked about in the first question, and you have a recipe for essentially ignoring how success actually works and replacing that knowledge with whatever hack will supposedly get them there fastest.
Explain how you think social media impacts our shortcut culture
Two ways: by making it very easy to see only the best parts of a person’s life, the parts they want you to see and have curated for you to see; and two, by encouraging definitions of success that are very superficial and easily hacked. If we see only the best results of someone’s efforts but never their failures, we get an unrealistic picture of their success. If we think success is determined by how many likes or shares or free downloads we get rather than how much real value we give people, we believe that hacking our way to more of those things will put us on par with the successful people whose curated images we lust after. In both cases, social media allows us to treat incomplete or inaccurate info as complete and accurate, which tends to make shortcuts and hacks look more viable than they really are.
Some people might argue that taking shortcuts is the only way to meet all the demands placed on them by work, school, relationships, and so on. How can people successfully manage their responsibilities without cutting corners?
For starters, do fewer things. Especially in our college years and shortly after, it’s easy to feel like you must do all the things. But in reality, the more things we try to do, the less of them we’ll do well. I remember the spring semester of my freshman year of college I was taking a full class load, acting in a play, writing for the newspaper, working two different jobs, and trying to keep up a long-distance relationship…and not only did I not do well on most of those things, I put myself in the hospital for a week from the stress of it all. Trying to do everything is a shortcut unto itself. Don’t fall for it.
But if you really have a lot of things you need to do, there are two big things you can do to manage them. First, prioritize self-care as much as possible, especially in terms of getting enough sleep, healthy food and fresh air. If you aren’t up to taking care of yourself, you won’t be able to meet your other responsibilities for long. Second, multitask as little as possible. As Ron Swanson says, don’t half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing. Focusing on one thing at a time raises your quality of work for that thing exponentially over trying to do it while distracted.
What are a few of the most dangerous shortcuts that people in their 20s should resist?
Debt is a big one. I’m not saying to never put a round of drinks or an oil change on a credit card, that’s not always realistic, but I am saying that if the only way for you to do or get something is to charge it, think very, very hard about whether you need that thing…or whether you need it right this second. If it’s still going to be there in six months and you can honestly do without it till then, put the credit card away and start saving. That goes triple for any program, product, mastermind or membership that someone tries to sell you, especially if they use scarcity tactics or limited admission to try to get you to pay for it RIGHT NOW. If someone wants you to go into debt to join their program, walk away. If they pressure you to go into debt to join it, don’t walk. Run.
I’d also include trying to get to the level of success of anyone who has been working in your field more than 2-4 years longer than you have. There’s challenging yourself to perform well, and then there’s trying to skip over necessary growth time. Know the difference, and don’t think the first entitles you to the second.
And along those same lines, resist the temptation to think things aren’t moving fast enough. Life isn’t short, it’s long. Let it be long. Realize that you may not always be where you want to be, and that being in that place has as much or more to teach you as getting to where you want to be does. Don’t be afraid to take time, put in effort, learn, think, try, fail, and keep going. Don’t focus so hard on getting to the destination that you ignore the journey.
More about James Ranson:
James is a Wall Street Journal bestselling ghostwriter and editor who’s earned his title, The Master Wordsmith. With more than two decades of experience involving over 200 authors, he is one of the nation’s premier book consultants. Here’s how to connect with him:
LinkedIn: James Ranson
Dominic Vaiana’s articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations are sent in his monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive the PDF “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors.”