Shortcuts sell. They hook us with promises of overnight success, instant weight-loss, and rapidly acquired riches. They convince us of radical new formulas that invert the traditional (or even natural) order of things, and guarantee they can get us where we want to go faster than ever.
To be sure, some shortcuts are brilliant. Whoever invented the microwave, dishwasher, and washing machine—those folks really had it going on. While these are all technically “shortcuts,” they are also much more. They are innovative solutions to physical problems. They save us time and yield effective results that might not even be possible with sheer elbow grease.
The shortcuts I’m suggesting we should beware of are not technological innovations (although caution is often prudent here too). I’m talking about the ideological movements that promise mega results for miniscule investment.
I don’t participate in either, and yet I’m constantly resisting the temptation to explore some too-good-to-be-true shortcuts promoted by alleged thought leaders in the business and literary world. Voices who tell you that your first book could be a bestseller—if you just follow these five steps! Voices who tell you that meeting your lifelong creative agent is just one paid subscription away—just pay your monthly fee and you’ll have a knock-out agent in no time! Voices who tell you… just about anything other than, “Work hard. Keep your eyes open, but work hard. Your ship might come in someday.”
Why is this?
Because sleepless nights don’t sell. Sweat doesn’t sell (unless you’re a body-building model). Forgone social engagements don’t sell.
It’s like telling a preteen that they can waltz through puberty without a single pimple. And yet people still fall for it.
I write this not as someone who is immune to the seductions of glamorous shortcuts, but as someone who needs to remind herself that truly fulfilling achievements are obtained through hard work. American culture binges on instant gratification—hence, it’s no wonder that career, monetary, and educational shortcuts sell so well today. And it is possible that some of the get-rich-quick tricks work occasionally, otherwise there would be no success stories. Some people might actually find the gratification they crave from the shortcuts they buy.
Gratification can be attained cheaply. True satisfaction requires much more. One of the fads that I always find amusing is the weight-loss fad. Every time I’m in the checkout line at the grocery store, I see a new formula for losing 10 pounds in one week. I swear, the #1 magical weight-loss superfood changes every 14 days. Does this mean that no one who eats these foods experiences weight-loss? Of course not, they might actually lose a few pounds by simply replacing something in their diet with kale, regardless of whether they exercise.
But the person who exercises will sleep better at night. Why? Because their body didn’t just digest something green—it worked. It sweat, it burned calories, and it released endorphins. And that combination of biological activities reduced stress in the body and brain and gave that person a true sense of achievement.
It’s the same in career choices. We can chase the fads and try new shortcuts to get our half-baked books in front of people who will buy them… or we can wrestle with our work for a year until it is finally presentable and then have it published. One of these results will check a box on our bucket list. The other will yield a product that represents your best work and makes your best even better.
Sure, networking and strategic connections help in obtaining success—but like Cal Newport points out, these will only help you get discovered if you have a skill worth discovering. And the only way to develop discover-worthy skills is hard work. We should beware of anyone who tells us otherwise.
What are some shortcuts you regretted taking? What are some that actually delivered good results?
Do you see shortcuts as a sign of an innovative spirit or a lazy spirit? Perhaps it depends on the shortcut?