Decoding Greatness

Social psychologist Ron Friedman talks about his new book, Decoding Greatness: How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success.

Last week, I had social psychologist Ron Friedman on the podcast to talk about his new book, Decoding Greatness: How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.

The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:

Matt: Our guest today is an award winning psychologist who has served on the faculty of several prestigious colleges in the United States, and he's consulted for political leaders, nonprofits, and many of the world's most recognized brands, and he's also the author of a great new book, it's called Decoding Greatness: How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success. Ron Friedman, welcome to the news. 

Ron: Thanks so much. 

Matt: There is a sense that people are either born brilliant, or get lucky, or work hard, and/or work smart. And this is the kind of book that I think helps you do the latter, which is maybe my best hope.

Ron: The stories that we've been told about success are wrong. Most of us have been told two major stories about how people fall to the top of their profession. The first story is that greatness comes from talent. So from this perspective, we're all born with certain innate strengths, and the key to finding your greatness is finding a field that allows your strengths to shine. The second story is the Malcolm Gladwell story, the story of practice. It's the idea that if you just do enough hard work, and you do it for long enough, eventually, you'll become great. But in the research for Decoding Greatness, what I found is that there is a third story, and it's one that's particularly applicable to knowledge work. So yeah, talent and practice count, but what's more important, and what is the secret ingredient for many top performers, from inventors, to entrepreneurs, to artists, is reverse engineering—it's the skill of taking things apart, figuring out how they were created, and then identifying how you can apply those insights to your field. 

Matt: You start off the book with a really cool story. We tend to think of people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as these like really, maybe flawed, but very brilliant men, but it turns out, they decoded greatness too, didn't they?

Ron: That's exactly right, and this is what I'm saying is that a lot of these stories come down to reverse engineering. We could talk about other examples first, but let me tell you about Jobs and Gates. So first, some context, back in the 1980s, computers looked nothing like the sleek intuitive devices we all use today. If you wanted a computer to do anything, you had to reach for your keyboard and input a rigid text-based language to input your instructions. Today, obviously, we don't have to do any of it, we can just point and click with our mouse. And the big innovation that allowed for that to happen is something called GUI, the Graphic User Interface. And GUIs were not invented by either Jobs or Gates, they were invented by Xerox. And both Jobs and Gates identified this as an underutilized innovation that Xerox wasn't taking advantage of, and they both worked backwards, they reverse engineered it to figure out how it worked, by looking at what it achieved. So kind of like taking a step back and saying, “If I was to rebuild this from scratch, how would I go about it?” But critically, they didn't just copy, they also evolved it. So Apple aimed to make computers user friendly, and Microsoft focused on making computers affordable. So that was the key in both of their success. It's arguable that we may not have heard of either one of them had they not first reverse engineered their major innovation, and then built on it to make a contribution to the world at large.

Matt: You think of Xerox and you think of a company that makes photocopies, right? I mean, it's synonymous with making copies, but apparently, they were both inspired by Xerox. Right?

Ron: Xerox understood that a paperless office was on the horizon, and this is why they invested in innovations, like the graphic user interface. The challenge for Xerox is that they were headed by a company of folks who were born and then who grew up in the 1950s, and they could not envision a world in which personal computers were household items, because to them, typing was the domain of secretaries, so they couldn't see far enough ahead. Fortunately for all of us, Gates and Jobs could—and so they took this thing that Xerox wasn't utilizing, and brought it to a mass audience by reverse engineering. And the lesson here is not to find an underutilized innovation and copy it, it's to look for the elements that make things successful in all kinds of domains. Whether it be a well written email, maybe it's a podcast like this, “hey, there's a good podcast, what makes it successful, and how do I apply that to my domain?” It's that kind of thinking that enables you to learn in real time and continue to grow your skills without just relying on books and courses.

Matt: Right, and so one of the things that you recommend is copying other people. I've heard that like Hunter Thompson just kept re-typing The Great Gatsby over and over, and that helped him learn how to write. Of course, he doesn't sound like Fitzgerald. He's still probably Hunter Thompson, but there's something about copying greatness that actually rubs off.

Ron: That's exactly right. So what you're describing is the process of using something called copywork and copywork was popularized by Benjamin Franklin. He did this in order to improve his writing ability, and it goes on through the generations where you find that Stephen King did the same. And so did his son, Joe Hill, who copied Elmore Leonard, and what we mean by copywork is not simply to take someone else's work and slap your name on it and publish it and hope for the best that you're able to edit.

Matt: You're not talking about plagiarism. This is like, this is sort of a form of playfulness and practice that you're doing on in your off duty hours.

Ron: That's exactly right. So what we're talking about here is taking something that is an established work, memorizing it, and then reproducing it. And what that process teaches you is that you're comparing the wording that you would instinctively want to use, and you're comparing that against the choices of a master, and that practice of comparing what you would have liked to have written, versus what the the author actually wrote, teaches you their decision making process. And there's also research showing that, contrary to what many of us would assume, copying actually makes us more creative. This is research out of the University of Tokyo, where they had amateur artists come into the lab, and they divided them into two groups. One group was asked to produce original art over the course of three days. The second group was asked to produce original art, but then, they were asked on the second day to copy the work of an established artist, and then the third day, to resume producing original art. And then they had professional artists come in and rate the works of the two groups on their originality. And what they found was that the group that had paused to copy the work of an established artist was actually more creative on the final day of the experiment. And it wasn't by mimicking the style of the artist who they had copied, but it was going off in a completely different direction. And what we're seeing as the reason for that is that comparing and contrasting your instinct against the choices of a master opens your eyes up to completely new possibilities within your own work that you had been ignoring.

Matt: Kids used to have to do this in school. They would have to memorize great poems, and they would have to write stuff. And I think it was viewed as archaic busywork, and the waste of time, right, because now we can just Google a poem, there's no need to commit it to memory. But I wonder if maybe they were onto something.

Ron: I think yes, and no. So I think memorization for the sake of memorization, you could argue that there's value in that. I would say that perhaps that's missing a greater opportunity, which is to take the moment to reproduce it from your own memory, and then compare it to look at the errors, because the errors are indicative of other choices that you're not picking up on that the master is.

Matt: Yeah, well, I think one of the problems too, is that the teachers get to decide who you're gonna memorize as opposed to having the passion. So like, you talk about [film director, producer, screenwriter, and comedian] Judd Apatow in the book, and he loved comedy and invented a way to get to study famous comedians and learn from them.

Ron: That's right. It's one of my favorite stories of the books that Judd Apatow is a 15 year old teenager, and he is obsessed with comedy. He is washing dishes at the local comedy club, he's scheduling his week around who's playing what show when. And he enters high school and he notices that the local high school DJ is interviewing some really impressive rock bands. And so that's when that's when inspiration strikes, and he thinks, “Well, why don't I start my own radio program and interview comedians?” Now remember, this is going on way before podcasting exists. So he decides, “I'm going to have a radio show interviewing comedians.” He contacts the comedians’ agents, and he's 15 years old, the radio signal doesn't reach beyond the school parking lot. But nobody knows this, because this is in the 1970s or 80s. And so, he gets to interview Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, “Weird Al” Yankovic, the list goes on. By the end of it, he had a road map for becoming a comedian for knowing how to get an agent and how to perform on stage. And he did it by interviewing his idols. Now, in many cases, we don't have the opportunity to interview our idols, but there are still techniques that you can use to reverse engineer finished work, which is what the book is about.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.