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My Top 10 Success Hacks

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Hackers think differently.

They find shortcuts, build accelerators and concoct workarounds to get what they need done faster.

These are called Smartcuts.

Smartcut: n The optimal and fastest route to achieving a goal; an accelerated way to success.

I have never liked traditional ways of doing things. I enjoy shirking the system and I LOVE shortcuts. As a behavior hacker I am constantly searching for accelerated methods of learning, performing and achieving. Now I want to teach you.

You can hack your way to success.

Many of you have asked me about our marketing strategies and growth path. It’s been a long windy road to say the least, but I decided to use the amazing book Smartcuts by Shane Snow as a jumping off point. I chose Smartcuts for Science of People book club because I believe the most successful people and businesses forge their own paths.

I have synthesized Snow’s mental nuggets and combined them with case studies from the Science of People over the last 8 years. I hope it inspires you on your business adventure!

10 Ways to Hack Your Success:

#1: Hack the Ladder

Imagine that I gave you a paperclip and asked you to use it to get me a kayak. How would you do it? This is the premise of a game called Bigger or Better. In Bigger or Better, students at Brigham Young University are given something of little value–a paperclip, a rubber band, a toothpick. They are then encouraged to walk up to strangers’ doors and ask if they would like to trade for something bigger or better. They continue to do this until they do in fact have pretty big and pretty better things. It might go like this:

  • Toothpick traded for a pack of gum. (She bought a whole box at Costco)
  • Pack of gum traded for a a crossword puzzle book. (He bought it for his wife, she already owned that copy)
  • Crossword puzzle book traded for a flashlight. (He loves crosswords! Flashlight is by the door, he doesn’t need it anyways)
  • Flashlight traded for a potted rose plant. (The pot was a gift, it doesn’t match the rest on her patio)
  • Potted rose plant traded for a glue gun. (His wife will love the rose! Take her glue gun so she stops crafting)
  • Glue gun traded for a transportable cooler. (Glue gun, cool! We’re too old to camp, take our cooler)
  • Transportable cooler traded for a razor scooter. (I have been dying to get rid of this scooter since the grandkids grew up)
  • Razor scooter traded for a kayak. (Son will love this razor scooter and we need to make space in the garage for his new car)
  • Conclusion: Paperclip –> Kayak

Every career, every club and every organization has some kind of ladder. This is a hierarchy, path or system you are supposed to take to the top. But do you really have to? We very rarely stop and think about how we can skip rungs on our ladder. Heck, sometimes we forget that we are even on a ladder. No more! I want you to come up with a smartcut for at least one rung:

What ladder are you on? Identify at least 5 steps in front of you:

For example, yours might be 1. Win big new client  2. Get raise  3. Get project management certification 4. Get manager title  5. Get raise.

Now I want you to think of ways you can smartcut. These are not obvious ones. Typically, smartcuts for the ladder fall into these categories:

  • Learning a new skill
  • Meeting the right group of people
  • Switching departments
  • Getting a certification (rather than a degree)
  • Tackling a different kind of project
  • Taking an alternate route

What are 3 ways you can smartcut?

For example, yours might be 1. Do on-the-ground project management with new client 2. Change departments for manager title 3. Learn programming.

Science of People Case-Study:

I think I may have broke the ladder on my way up. I run a psychology blog, but I don’t have a psychology degree. I do research, but I don’t work at a university. I teach, but I don’t work at schools. But I think the ‘Hack the Ladder’ I want to break down for you is the typical blog ladder. Here’s the ladder of “How to Be a Successful Blogger” usually goes:

  • Have idea
  • Buy domain
  • Start writing articles
  • Beg people to read
  • Add pictures
  • Beg people to read
  • Get on social media
  • Beg people to read
  • Write more articles
  • Start a newsletter
  • Beg people to read
  • Try to start earning revenue with ads
  • Beg people to read
  • Try to start earning revenue with ebooks
  • Beg people to read
  • Try to start earning revenue with consulting
  • Beg people to read
  • Try to start earning revenue with affiliate dollars
  • Realize you aren’t making any money still
  • Realize not enough people are reading
  • Be sad.

I was on this ladder for a LONG time. I had a few blogs before Science of People and they were all exactly the same path. I always ended up sad and without a lot of revenue. Finally, with Science of People I decided to hack the ladder. First, I realized begging people to read didn’t work. I also realized that unless you have thousands of followers (back then I did not) then social media doesn’t work great. So I stopped putting energy into that. I realized that the best way to hack my blog to popularity would be to borrow other people’s popularity. So instead of begging my friends and family to read on social media, I started to reach out to specific psychologists, authors, behavioral economists and writers who I knew geeked out on people science. I figured it was way better to have one fellow geek reading my article than a hundred semi-interested people. My ladder looked more like this:

  • Have idea to translate people science into real life tips
  • Buy domain
  • Write an article
  • Email the authors of each study cited in the article
  • Email a psychologist who writes about this topic
  • Email a columnist who has written about the topic in the past
  • Post on Quora to people interested in this topic
  • Comment on articles relevant to this topic
  • Write an article
  • Email the authors of each study cited in the article
  • Email a psychologist who writes about this topic
  • Email a columnist who has written about the topic in the past
  • Post on Quora to people interested in this topic
  • Comment on articles relevant to this topic
  • Repeat.

Article by article, those very targeted people became friends. They also occasionally posted to their audiences and friends. They sent me cool new research. I found my people. It seems slow, but actually this process is much faster than the normal ladder. So again, what ladder are you on? How can you hack it? How can you break it?

#2: Training with Masters

Does mentorship work? Snow argues that mentorship is not a clear story. “Data indicates that those who trained with successful people who’ve ‘been there’ tend to achieve success faster… except there’s one small wrinkle. “That’s not quite true,” says Snow. Mentorship alone is not the key to success, nor is it an effective smartcut. The key to effective mentorship is not what you would expect. It’s:


Most people think of mentors bringing value through their connections and contacts. While this is true, it’s not the whole story. The right mentors share what went wrong, not just what went right. You have to search for mentors that are willing to share their weaknesses, their failures and let you deep dive with them on why they happened. Many, many lovely people email me asking if I will mentor them. I knew that the only successful mentorship is one of complete trust and openness, so the only people I mentor are my Science of People trainers. Why? We have regular office hours where I can talk to them with complete honesty (and confidentiality) about both my failings and my successes so they can learn from both. Whether you are a mentor or want a mentor make sure that you are asking for the bad along with the good. Remember, we can’t have light without dark.

Science of People Case-Study:

Remember when I told you about breaking the ladder? That change did not happen on accident. About 3 years up the traditional blogging ladder, I sat down with a very prominent blogger for coffee. I had begged, pleaded and traded my left elbow to get this meeting, and I was practically foaming at the mouth to meet him. I had a smooth list of 10 questions (11 if time permitted) and couldn’t wait for him to unlock all the keys to success. About 10 minutes in he sighed and said something that rocked me to my core. “You know, I am going to be honest with you. I don’t make money from my blog.” I couldn’t believe it. He had hundreds of thousands of followers and was quoted everywhere around the Internet. He went on: “Traffic does not equal revenue.” UGH! There is the magical assumption that if you have a lot of traffic and a lot of followers you will somehow make money. He went on to explain that not all traffic is created equal and, most importantly, blog traffic is not a business plan. This completely changed the goals of my online business. His honesty saved me years of debt.

#3: Rapid Feedback

When you think you have the world’s next greatest idea, you want to make it perfect. This is a tendency we all have. We have an invention, but we don’t want to tell anyone until we have a perfectly working prototype. We are writing a book and don’t want anyone to see a single word until it is edited to within an inch of its life. This is the slowest and most expensive way to fail. I say slowest, because it will take you months of research and development to find out no one wants to buy your product. I say expensive because it will take 5 prototypes, 6 drafts and $10,000 before you realize it won’t sell.

The best concept for rapid feedback, which we use at the Science of People is a concept called Minimum Viable Product showcased by the super talented author and speaker Eric Ries in his book The Lean Startup.

Minimum Viable Product (MVP): A version of your product or service which allows you to collect the maximum amount of learning about customers with the least amount of effort.

You want the sweet spot of testing:

Minimum Viable Product

Rather than spending months developing, perfecting and researching, instead launch small and launch often. The key here is to meticulously track success or the data with each mini-launch. What do customers say? How many clicks do you get? Is it easier or harder to get testimonials? You want to have as many launches and tweaks as you can possibly get. Like this:

minimum viable product

Exercise: If you had to make the most basic version of your product or service what would it be?

Eric Ries jokes that if you aren’t embarrassed by your first launch then you waited to long to put it out there.

Science of People Case-Study:

I have dabbled in almost every source of revenue generation out there–books, webinars, speaking, coaching, courses, ebooks, consulting, sponsorship, advertising, spokesperson deals, drug dealing, banana peeling, popsicle licking… you get the idea. (Not really the last 3). Anyways, I learned that sometimes things worked and sometimes they didn’t. Using the Lean Startup model I began testing ideas faster. One completely changed my business:

Online courses.

When online courses were just starting to pick up momentum in 2012, my husband insisted I try turning one of my live seminars into online curriculum. I had two options:

  • Option #1: Hire a studio, videographer and editor. Write teleprompter scripts in coordination with slides and book a 3-day film shoot.
  • Option #2: Film it on my iPhone in my kitchen using the lights in my apartment.

As a disciple of the MVP principle, I decided to keep it simple. I went with Option #2. My first course was rough–the content is great, but man the lighting is awful and I am speaking into a $30 microphone from Amazon. I wrote it, filmed it and launched it within about 3 weeks (based on years of speaking live, but still you get the idea). I hoped to sell 30 courses. I decided if I could sell 100 I would try to go with Option #1 for the next course. 42,000 students later, we have a full studio built into our house.

  • Here is the important part: If I had gone with Option #1, I would have missed out. I was the very first body language course on Udemy so I had a corner on the market. I was also able to learn A TON from the MVP and film a killer course once we decided to go with Option #1.

Bottom Line: We made more money, had faster growth and made better courses because we started with an MVP.

#4: Platforms

Do you use the principle of leverage in your life? Do you take existing tools, technologies or methods and leverage them to work for you? The principle of platforms is learning how to NOT build things from scratch. It is building your world on top of what already works. This concept is quite old. It is summed up nicely in the cliche:

Don’t reinvent the wheel.

But you know, a lot of people reinvent crappy, unsymmetrical, ugly wheels. When they are asked, “Why didn’t you just use a normal wheel?” They say, “Oh, but I wanted to do it myself. I wanted to build it from scratch. That’s what a real entrepreneur is.” No, that’s not a real entrepreneur. That’s a silly entrepreneur. Let me give you an example I hear every single week in my business circles:

Silly Entrepreneur: “Ugh, I am having so many website problems!”

Me: “Oh no! Thats awful!”

Silly Entrepreneur: “I know, it keeps crashing and I am losing so many sales.”

Me: “What’s happening? I thought you used WordPress.”

Silly Entrepreneur: “Oh I do use WordPress, but we built a custom theme.”

Me: “Why?”

Silly Entrepreneur: “I wanted a really special website. It was only $10,000 to build it, but I have to pay a retainer of $500 a month if I want them to keep working on it.”

Me: “Let me guess, it breaks every time WordPress has an update.”

Silly Entrepreneur: “Exactly! Ugh so frustrating. I’m starting my business and this is the last thing I need!”

WordPress offers free or under $100 themes on its platform. They work great. You are looking at one right now. Why oh why oh why in the beginning of your business would you spend the money to build a custom theme? Sure, if you are rolling in the dough and want a full time tech person on staff– build all the custom themes you want. But why spend time, energy and money on this when you don’t have to. WordPress has a platform that’s awesome. Use it and build on top of it.

Platforms don’t just come in the shape of technology, sometimes they come on knowledge from a previous career, a network, relationships or a skill that you have. My questions for you are:

  • What platform can you leverage?
  • Are there tools that already exist that you can build on?
  • How can you stop reinventing the wheel?

Science of People Case-Study:

I am not a tech person. I do not know how to program. When you say Ruby, I think emerald. When you say Reddit, I say “Did you mean rabbit?” However, my business requires me to have some basic understanding of technology. Using platforms, I have been able to build my business much faster. This is the hard part: People constantly tempt you into trying to build your own system instead of using existing platforms. All of these were battles I have fought in my business:

  • Vanessa, you should build a custom website = We use a WordPress template
  • Vanessa, you should build a membership site = We use a WordPress plugin called Discourse.
  • Vanessa, you should build your own app = We just have an RSS feed
  • Vanessa, you should build your own email capture follow-up = We use InfusionSoft

The big one was something called our Learning Management System (LMS). So many online instructors try to build their own system for hosting courses or they use a janky multi-leveled system with WooCommerce and Paypal. Why? Building your own takes forever and is a lot of money and using a cheap system will look cheap (unless you are in MVP mode). I love finding platforms and building on them, I hope you will too.

#5: Waves

What makes a good surfer? Her ability to ride the waves? His athletic prowess? Nope. The best surfers know how to read the ocean. Instead of riding small, unimpressive waves and wasting energy, they wait for the perfect one. The one that will blow everyone out of the water. This concept is about two things:

  1. Reading the world around you and leveraging the perfect moment
  2. Saving your energy for the perfect moment

Throwing spaghetti at the wall does not work in business. Small companies don’t have the time or energy to boil enough pasta, let alone clean up the mess. So, you have to not only find the right noodle, but also throw it at the right wall to know it will stick. This is the hard part. Our inclination is to deep dive into all the work that needs to be done for our business. But all too often, we forget to sit back, look around and notice our competitive environment. Here’s how you get good at reading the waves in your business and I will explain each of them using the Science of People Case Study.

  • Keep pulse on the world trends.
  • Read your industry like the ocean.
  • Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Science of People Case-Study:

  • Keep pulse on the world trends. I read a number of select newsletters and bulletins to keep track of trends. I know that being an early mover on a trend can get you a ton of momentum (see Step #7). For example, Twitter launched in 2006. I joined in October 2007. No one was on Twitter at the time except early adopters. But because I made a profile so early, I easily racked up followers from newcomers over the next 8 years. Same with Periscope. I joined a few months ago and don’t do many videos, but I get followers all the time. Why? As my Facebook friends discover it, I am automatically suggested to them. I have no idea if Periscope will survive, but if it does, I plan to ride the wave and will do more videos.
  • Read your industry like the ocean. My business is self-help. That’s simplified, but it’s the best category fit. I write books, I write blogs, I give advice, I teach, I coach, I consult. In 2005, YouTube came onto the scene. Within a year, it was quickly becoming one of the fastest growing websites. I joined in 2007. I knew that self-help was going to move in the video direction, I just wasn’t sure how. But again, in the early days if you put up a video, it was much more likely to be watched because there was less competition. I was able to rank high for really, really stupid videos I made simply because they were the only ones in that category on those search terms.
  • Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The first two bullets are about riding the trends, this last one is about picking the right one in the first place. Starting in the 2000’s, the word podcasting kept getting thrown around. People were starting to listen to podcasts as a form of information, and I could see it was going to rock my self-help industry. If I had a unicorn for every time someone says to me, “you should start a podcast” I would have a truckload of unicorns! And believe me, I have thought about it. In the end, I decided to ride the podcasting wave. But not in the way you think. Instead of starting a podcast, I decided to try to help podcasts. I realized that every podcast was going to need guests and it would be much better for me to be readily available and have fun topics for podcasts than trying to start one of my own. And that’s what I did–and do. I do almost 1 podcast a week and constantly am saving funny tidbits and stories for them. I could have started a podcast, but I am glad I didn’t. It wasn’t the right noodle or the right wall for me.

#6: Superconnectors

We have heard about superconnectors from the amazing Seth Godin in Linchpin. We have learned about influencers in The Tipping Point by the incredible Malcolm Gladwell. Snow brings up a different take on superconnectors. He argues they can be very well-connected individuals, but they can also be tools or devices. He uses the fascinating example of the radio as a superconnector when it broadcasted Che Guevara’s revolutionary messages in Cuba. A superconnector is something or someone that can amplify and expand your message. I want you to take a few moments and think of the superconnectors in your life:

  • Who do you know that seems to know all the right people?
  • What tool could radically improve your business?
  • How could you amplify your message?

Science of People Case-Study:

Being a superconnector is like having a super power. Superconnectors have robust networks, strong reputations and are able to connect with anyone. Fortunately this skill can be learned. Unfortunately most of us never learned it! In our lab I study superconnectors to figure out how they work and how we can learn from them. This is what my book Captivate is all about and the framework I teach in our new flagship course People School!

#7: Momentum

Have you seen this video of “Bear” Vasquez exclaiming about a double rainbow? It has 42 million views as of writing this so you probably have. Despite the virality of this video, Snow brings it up as an example of what NOT to do. Why? Success typically comes in bursts. If you had to chart the success of most businesses, it would not be a straight upward curve. It would most likely look something like this:

business growth choppy

It hopefully goes up, but it probably has tons of little peaks and valleys. The best businesses take small successes and roll them into big ones. In other words, they capitalize on momentum. Bear Vasquez had one viral video–just one. He has tried to post others, but none had quite the same magic.

Winners don’t just celebrate success, they accelerate it.

How closely do you look at your analytics? How often do you download your Twitter data? If you are just starting out, hopefully the answer is daily or at the least weekly. Why? You need to know what’s working and capitalize on it. Every month, my team and I sit down and comb through the Twitter data. Which tweets worked? Which ones flopped? Which ones got the highest click rate versus the highest profile click rate. Then we tweak. We optimize. We build momentum with the movement that is already there. Here’s what I encourage you to do:

  • Have a momentum tracker in place. You need to schedule time and space to monitor your momentum. Whether that is weekly analytics checking or daily blog checking, you want to capitalize on the things that are working. If you work with clients, are there methods or activities they love? Do more and then ask for a testimonial after that session. If you work in an office, when do you have good days? Do big write-ups or reviews then. I don’t want you to just notice successes, I want you to get in the habit of amplifying them.

Science of People Case-Study:

Last year, we did a huge experiment on TED talks— we examined the body language patterns of the most viral and least viral videos on TED. Overview of the fun results here:

When I first started talking about the experiment, people got really excited. Like, really excited. They wanted to know when the results would be out. People emailed me to follow-up asking if we had published the answers yet. I got excited, and we worked faster. But I realized that there was some organic momentum already building. Maybe we could give this study more legs if we gave it more pushes. So before launching, we decided to hire a PR firm. Instead of just putting up a blog, we filmed a snazzy video (above). Instead of just sending out a white paper, we made a nice report. And then we launched it instead of releasing it. The result? It got picked up and featured all over the place! The Chicago Tribune did a story, so did INC and it even got featured on the actual TED blog! Watch for organic momentum so you can build on it.

#8: Simplicity

I’m going to keep this one simple. Keep it simple. Don’t give too many choices. Don’t offer crazy plans. Don’t make a multi-leveled business plan. If you can’t explain it to a 5 year-old then it’s too complicated.

Science of People Case-Study:

I’m really bad at this one. I love having lots of choices and strategic plans and multi-part courses. But this doesn’t work. The simplest example I can give of simplicity is when we redid our website. I used to have 10 tabs, 4 landing pages, eons and eons of sidebar stuff (I actually had 2 sidebars). It was clunky, cluttered and no one knew what to do when they got to our website. I knew this because our bounce rate was through the roof and our time on site was low. People were overwhelmed so they left. A mentor finally broke the news:

Your website is too complicated.

I argued with her– but I have so many offerings! So many things to say! People need to see this and this and this. After a few minutes of back and forth, she asked me the same question I want to ask you:

What’s the one thing you want people to do?

The answer was (and is) sign up to our newsletter. That was it, so we rebuilt the site around that. You’ll notice we point out our newsletter everywhere because that’s us trying to keep it simple. So think about these:

  • Your Website: What’s the one thing you want people to do?
  • Your Elevator Pitch: What’s the one thing you want people to know?
  • Your First Impression: What’s the one thing you want people to feel?

#9: 10x Thinking

Small people think small. You are not a small person. You have big dreams, big ideas and big potential. 10x thinking is all about your mindset. How far do you think you can go? How big can you take your ideas? Snow uses a baseball analogy. Don’t aim to get to first base, aim to hit a home run. Don’t get me wrong, big thinking is scary. Big thinking takes courage. But, lets be real:

Be ballsy, it’s more fun.

We have precious time on this earth. Why waste it doing small things, not pushing our limits, sticking within our comfort zone? This makes me think about the psychology of How to Be Great. In the book Elite Minds, Stan Beecham says if your goal doesn’t terrify you a little bit, it’s not big enough. Put another way, make your goals so that you are only 40% sure that you can achieve them.

Try these:

  • Think about one of your goals, now 10x it.
  • Think about one of your goals and change it so you are only 40% sure you can achieve it.
  • Do something on your bucket list that scares you just a bit.

Science of People Case-Study:

I was sitting with one of my Awesome Clubs last week and we were talking about our 5 year plan. During my turn, I said that my goal was to have Science of People trainers around the world. One of my partners wanted me to get measurable (one of the pillars of our goals) and asked, “So how many cities?” And I said, “All of them.” Now, I recognize this is a lot and very, very ambitious but I was taking a note from Shane Snow. 10x thinking.

#10: Transparency

Snow only had 9 chapters in his book. So this last one is from me to you. Transparency. In this post, I have laid it all out for you–numbers, failures, feelings, behind the scenes stuff. I believe that honesty and transparency accelerates communication and relationships. Truth is the best smartcut.

4 thoughts on “My Top 10 Success Hacks”

  1. Vanessa, thanks for going where few women (or men) have gone before. Laying it on the line is hard because who likes to ‘give away’ hard earned knowledge? (You, apparently). I, also, am a data lover constantly looking for the ROI and business hacks. I have read many of your articles, but this one is a peach in a bushel of lovely apples — it stands out.

  2. Vanessa, thanks for going where few women (or men) have gone before. Laying it on the line is hard because who likes to ‘give away’ hard earned knowledge? (You, apparently). I, also, am a data lover constantly looking for the ROI and business hacks. I have read many of your articles, but this one is a peach in a bushel of lovely apples — it stands out.

  3. Vanessa, thanks for going where few women (or men) have gone before. Laying it on the line is hard because who likes to ‘give away’ hard earned knowledge? (You, apparently). I, also, am a data lover constantly looking for the ROI and business hacks. I have read many of your articles, but this one is a peach in a bushel of lovely apples — it stands out.

  4. Vanessa, thanks for going where few women (or men) have gone before. Laying it on the line is hard because who likes to ‘give away’ hard earned knowledge? (You, apparently). I, also, am a data lover constantly looking for the ROI and business hacks. I have read many of your articles, but this one is a peach in a bushel of lovely apples — it stands out.

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