In 2018, Keanu Reeves performed a role as a diamond merchant in Siberia. “There’s a scene where he has to pick up a diamond with a set of tweezers,” director Matthew Ross said. “He holds it up to his eye and looks at it. Now, I would challenge anyone to do that properly after a month. It’s one of these deceptively, unbelievably difficult things to do… People spend years perfecting that craft. Keanu had to figure it out in three weeks, but he doesn’t take shortcuts.”
Even though Reeves didn’t have to perfect the craft of diamond setting—he just had to hold it for a little bit—such a point was important enough for him to spend a fair amount of his time on.
If you asked Reeves, “What’s the most important thing that contributed to your success?” it’s likely that he would not respond with this story of his rigorous, focused, practice. But the story means everything. First of all, there are a few problems with asking this question:
- That question looks for a general answer to a very specific question (“What can I take away from your experience that will apply to my life or work situation?”). The asker, and the answerer, have unique contexts and circumstances, and without proper explanation then a lot of times the advice isn’t great.
- The path is winding. There is no cut and dry answer, and on the spot, it’s difficult for a person to pinpoint what exactly led them to succeed. So they give a generic answer—perseverance, focus, work ethic. Neither asker, nor answerer, are satisfied.
- The question is focused on the easy way out. It’s trying to get the person to share their insight, without sharing the rest of the noise and failures that didn’t work. But these things are intertwined—the insight, on its own, may not make as much sense without the proper context around it.
So at best, Reeves might respond, “Dedication,” and with an elaboration—but perhaps not with the actual ways of applying it. I’ve had the misfortune of asking this question, and getting a variety of different answers (some of which I mentioned above). And I realized my motivation for asking this question was related to shortcutting—what I would call the shortcut stance.
When impatience is disguised as productivity
The motivation for the shortcut stance is to get to a desired finish line as fast as possible. It’s all about shortening and winning the game. Any learning or personal development that happens along the way is focused on finding the easy way out to achieve the goal.
Self-help literature has made this particularly popular. Self-improvement is supposed to have a sequential number of steps, and shouldn’t be any harder to practice than they are to understand. When author Michael Lewis writes about his coach Fitz making his baseball team practice sliding to third base on rugged terrain, he describes the stance as “this hellish quest for self-improvement.”
It sounds insane—making teenagers earn the skill through mud and blood after already suffering a humiliating defeat—but that’s what some aspects of self-improvement are supposed to look like. There will be injuries, there will be defeats, and there will be failures. The point is not to avoid them, but to get through them.
I’ve actually found that the shortcut stance and these types of efforts are fundamentally counterproductive. Instead of looking for the easy way out, seek ways to sustain yourself along the journey—no matter how long it takes.
Invert the shortcut: The longcut stance
Longcutting comes from the understanding that the long way around can be better—faster, smoother, and more enjoyable—than the shortcut. When I first wrote about this, readers submitted great answers, some of my favorites include:
- Randy Sailer: Cleaning the kitchen before you cook
- Ria Tagulinao and Marie Jones: Write important things—plans, goals, dreams—by hand
- Jase S: Gain clarity and precision on what you’re trying to accomplish before starting
These are all incredibly valuable points. And the four of them deliberately choose not to take the shortcut stance. The longcut is more enjoyable, but also more rewarding. I’ll talk about some others I’ve noticed:
- Exhibit 1: I see someone start a newsletter to great success, with 100,000 people subscribing to it in two months. I’m intrigued—maybe I can do the same thing. I start investigating. What’s the secret? How did she do it? Why can’t I do it? As I dig in, I find out she’s been writing for years and has built out her network that whole time—so was it really two months worth of work? Or was the two months just a byproduct of the years she put in before?
- Exhibit 2: I see someone sell $100,000 worth of Gumroad icons. I’m blown away—that’s the equivalent of a book advance. But as I research, I also realize—oh, wow, this guy’s been making iOS icons for years on jailbroken iPhones.
- Exhibit 3: I want to give papers an inspectional read, but only to realize that—like books—the fastest way to read a paper is to read a lot of them and to build an understanding of the topic. Otherwise, there’s no way to do this while actually understanding what the paper is about. Misunderstanding means future corrections, loss of trust, and misinformation, which is counterproductive. (When I worked at Lifehacker, my editor Alan held the team to this standard.)
Unfortunately, each of us chooses the shortcut stance probably more often than we’d like to admit. Marketers and teachers sell us what we want, and frame their stories in a way that makes it look like they’ve got a shortcut. But the reality is, all they have is the process that worked for them, in their specific situation. The best thing their process can do is support you in finding your process.
Overnight successes take years to incubate
The counterintuitive truth about shortcuts is that they also have costs. Be wary when you seem to be saving a lot of time or money at first—you may find yourself paying for it in the future. It’s a variation of quip about hiring amateurs to save money:
“If you think the usual way is long, try taking a shortcut!”
True shortcuts are actually longcuts—they require upfront investment so that the final action looks like you did very little work. Spending hours training an email parser to scrape things. Paying for new software and learning to use it so that you can do things faster next time. Reading through a ton of articles so you can steal the secrets the writer has tucked away in the piece.
Best practices, secrets, and advice work best with the longcutting stance. Prepare for the long road. Take the path that works out best not in the next 5 days, but in the next 5, or 50, years.
There’s no shortcut for books, either…
But one of the best things you can do is choose them well. If you want to learn more from books, sign up for the Best of Books reading newsletter, where I send you three great books in your inbox every month. You’ll also instantly receive my most popular articles on creativity (read by 300,000+ other people). See you around!