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How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success

Decoding Greatness

REVERSE ENGINEERING is systematically taking things apart to discover how and why they work. It is routinely done in tech—Steve Jobs and Bill Gates copied and improved on Xerox Palo Alto Research Center’s Alto computer to bring us the Macintosh and windows—but it is also done in with the best speeches, art, movies, music, and literature to discover what makes them so successful.

Just as both “Jobs and Gates reaped enormous benefit from studying the works of their contemporaries, extracting crucial insights, and applying those lessons to develop new products, says Ron Friedman in Decoding Greatness, you can too.

To reverse engineer is to look beyond what is evident on the surface and find a hidden structure—one that reveals both how an object was designed and, more important, how it can be re-created.

One method employed by elite performers like Judd Apatow, Steven King, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack London is copywork. “It involves studying an exceptional piece of writing, setting it aside, and then re-creating it word for word from memory, later comparing your version to the original.

Many of the painters we now celebrate as creative geniuses devoted a significant portion of their careers to copywork. Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Mary Cassatt, Paul Gauguin, and Paul Cézanne all developed their skills by copying the works of the French painter Eugène Delacroix. Delacroix himself spent years copying the Renaissance artists he grew up admiring.

Why do it?

Reproducing a piece demands that he or she pay careful attention to the organizational decisions and stylistic tendencies reflected in an original work. It is an exercise that enables novices to relive the creative journey and invite them to compare their instinctive inclinations against the choices of a master.

Friedman adds that “copying challenges our default approach” and “it opens us up to novel ways of thinking, prompting us to find creative opportunities buried within our own work.”

From science-based insights and the lives of a wide range of elite performers, Friedman has gathered ten lessons we can apply to our work. His findings are interesting and sometimes counterintuitive. Here are the ten lessons with key takeaways:

#1 Become A Collector

The first step to achieving mastery is recognizing mastery in others.

A striking number of top performers appeared naturally drawn to collecting works they admired long before entering and later dominating their field.

The best ideas don’t emerge from hours of isolated practice. They’re waiting to be found inside the work of masters.

Ask what can I learn from this? How does this apply to a project I am working on?

Tour your collection as you would a private museum that you visit to find inspiration, study the greats, and remind yourself to think big.

#2 Spot the Difference

To learn from your favorite examples, you need to pinpoint what makes them unique. What’s different? By comparing the stellar to the average, you can pinpoint key ingredients that give a work its flavor and identify particular elements that can be incorporated or evolved elsewhere.

#3 Think in Blueprints

Nearly every example you admire was developed using a blueprint. By working backward and crafting a blueprint, you will find patterns that demystify complex works.

#4 Don’t Mimic, Evolve

Copying someone else’s wildly successful formula wholesale is the fastest route to being perceived as unoriginal while contributing to a genre’s demise.

Chart your own path by adding new influences, adapting formulas from adjacent fields, or replacing elements you can’t learn with those you naturally perform well.

#5 Embrace the Vision-Ability Gap

Studying the masters comes with a price: it raises the bar on the performance you deem necessary to be successful. Don’t give up. Instead, celebrate the fact that we can sense when improvements are needed. That instinct is indispensable to achieving greatness.

#6 Keep Score Selectively

The first step to improving at anything begins with relentlessly keeping score.

By scoring crucial aspects of your performance, you instantly motivate improvement, become less susceptible to wasted effort, and encourage more mindful decisions.

Caution: do not obsess over and single metric or forge to update your metrics as you grow.

#7 Take the Risk Out of Risk-Taking

Find stretch opportunities that don’t impose a high cost to failure.

The key to improvement involves gathering feedback from a tiny segment of a population, minimizing risk, and using the input to make ongoing adjustments.

Surprisingly, full-time commitment to a business venture did not turn out to be the winning strategy. Cautious employees were significantly more likely to succeed. Why? Because they possessed the financial stability to reach more patient, strategic decisions—a luxury not available to those whose livelihood was constantly on the line.

#8 Distrust Comfort

We don’t grow when we are enjoying ourselves—we learn best when we are challenged, struggling, and occasionally failing.

#9 Harness the Future and the Past

Repetition and feedback can help you elevate your performance, especially when used to target your weaknesses. But if that’s the only practice you’re getting, chances are you’re only operating at a fraction of your potential.

Two additional forms of practice are worth using: reflective practice, or analyzing your past experiences to extract important lessons, and imagery, or simulating a performance in advance.

Mentally rehearsing the specific actions we need to take in advance reliably elevates our performance.

#10 Ask Wisely

Experts rarely make great instructors. Studies show that the better we perform a task, the worse we are at communicating how we managed to do it. Knowing something makes it impossible to imagine not knowing it.

To get the most out of your conversations with experts, you need to come prepared with questions, elaborators, and clarifiers that prompt an expert to reveal his or her journey, process, and discoveries.

Nonexperts can provide valuable feedback too. To improve, we need feedback that meets a particular set of criteria. We need it to be specific, improvement-focused, reflective of the audience we are trying to reach, and properly timed.

What is interesting, too, is that we might think that the totally novel product or approach would win over your audience. But the most successful people develop successful formulas that “leverage (rather than violate) an audience’s expectations.”

In a majority of cases, copying or over-relying on established recipes is a losing strategy that rarely results in memorable outcomes. Just as dangerous, however, is ignoring proven formulas altogether and overwhelming audiences with a flood of originality.

People don’t crave novelty as much as we would think. Organizations routinely reject very creative ideas. “outright mimicry leads us nowhere. Absolute novelty is met with scorn.” Avoid both extremes. It’s better to use a proven formula and adding your own unique twist.

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