Ron Friedman provides a third path to greatness through reverse engineering.
- How to reverse-engineer greatness
- How to train people to give you better feedback
- The 5 minute trick that will boost your performance by 20%
Ron Friedman, PhD, is an award-winning psychologist who has served on the faculty of the several prestigious colleges in the United States and has consulted for political leaders, nonprofits, and many of the world’s most recognized brands. Popular accounts of his research have appeared in major newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, the Globe and Mail, The Guardian, as well as magazines such as Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today.
Ron is the founder of ignite80, a learning and development company that translates research in neuroscience, human physiology and behavioral economics into practical strategies that help working professionals become healthier, happier and more productive. His first book, The Best Place to Work, was selected as an Inc. Magazine Best Business Book of the Year.
- Book: Decoding Greatness: How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success
- Book: The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace
- Book Website: DecodingGreatnessBook.com
- Website: RonFriedmanPhD.com
- App: Lose It
- App: The Done
- Book: Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
- Book: Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson
- Book: The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich by Timothy Ferriss
- Book: The Ickabog by J.K. Rowling
- Diary: One Line A Day: A Five-Year Memory Book (5 Year Journal, Daily Journal, Yearly Journal, Memory Journal) by Chronicle Book Staff
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Ron, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Well, I’m excited to dig into the wisdom you’ve put forward in your latest book.
Ron, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Great to be here.
Well, I’m excited to dig into the wisdom that you’ve packaged in your latest book Decoding Greatness, which, in fact, releases on the very day we’re recording this conversation. How is that going? Is it a crazy week for you?
You know, it’s an interesting experience. It is my second book. A friend of mine asked me, “What is it like to have this out in the world?” And I think the experience of going from zero to one is qualitatively different than going from one to two. It’s still exciting but you know what to expect now. And I think the first time is a little bit more nerve-wracking.
That’s right. I remember when the release date for my book happened, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, this is the day. This is the day. This is the day.” But all that really changed was on Amazon, it switched from like pre-order to order.
That’s exactly right. And so much of the actual launch activity happens way before the launch and it’s actually very a little bit anticlimactic. It’s not like a movie premiere where you get to see people’s reactions. It’s like you don’t see the reaction for a very long time.
That’s right. Well, I have a feeling the reaction is going to be strong because I’m excited by what I’ve read thus far. So, the book is called Decoding Greatness. First of all, just to be on the same page, what do we mean by greatness?
Greatness is top performance in your field, whatever that may be. So, if you’re a writer, it could be someone like Malcolm Gladwell. If you’re an elected official, it could be someone like Donald Trump or, in some cases, Barack Obama. It really depends on what it is that you do and who it is that you want to understand a little bit better. And what this book is about is it gives you a process for identifying what makes a particular work unique so that you can learn from it in a little bit more analytically and then apply that to your work.
Well, that sounds exciting. Could you maybe share with us a story that illustrates what it looks like in practice how someone goes about decoding greatness and the cool results that flow from doing that?
Absolutely. So, one of my favorite stories in this book is how Kurt Vonnegut, the famous writer, would reverse-engineer or deconstruct famous stories. And what he would do is he would take stories and map the protagonist’s fortunes on a graph. So, in other words, he would take a story and turn it into a picture.
And so, on the X-axis, at the bottom, you would have from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. On the Y-axis, on the vertical axis, you would see the protagonist’s fortune. So, how are things going for the main character? Are things going well? Are things going poorly? And by the end, he would have a picture.
And what he noticed, as he did this, is that the vast majority of stories that we fall in love with are basically the same story retold with different characters. So, a great illustration is Cinderella versus Annie. They’re basically the same story. So, at the beginning for both characters, things are going poorly. Annie is an orphan; Cinderella is being abused by her stepmother and stepsisters. They get rescued. There’s a ball, or in the case of Annie, she goes to the home of Daddy Warbucks. Then things go horribly wrong. The clock strikes midnight, Annie gets kidnapped by people pretending to be her parents. And then, finally, there’s a climax and things are resolved. They live happily ever after. Same story, different characters.
And we don’t notice it because it’s so well-told that we just find them both fascinating. Once you understand that you have a tool for this, for stepping back and getting the bigger picture on seeing why something at work is working, you can use it in all kinds of places. So, another great example of this is in the case of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.
So, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is a great story. The first time you read it, you can’t help but fall in love with the characters, and the settings, and the fascinating storyline. But then, after a little while, you take maybe on a summer picnic, you start thinking about it, and then you realize, “Wait a second. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard a story about an orphan who lives with his aunt and uncle, who’s whisked away in an adventure and has to fight an evil villain using magical powers.” There’s another story just like that, and it’s Star Wars. And it illustrates the power of just stepping back and seeing what’s really happening at the story level that you can apply to any work not just fiction.
And so, this can apply to fiction. You start with a great story in your book about Xerox and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. It’s actually so good just to tell it. It was riveting. Let’s hear it.
Oh, I appreciate you saying that. It’s a story of how it is that we got the personal computer. And back in the 1980s, computers looked nothing like the sleek intuitive devices that we all use today. If you wanted a computer to do anything, you’d have to reach out for a keyboard and input a rigid text-based language to input your instructions. And today, of course, we do none of that. We just have a mouse, we point and click, and everything is represented visually.
That innovation is called graphic user interface. It’s GUI for short, people in Silicon Valley refer to it as GUI. And Steve Jobs was about to go to market with the Macintosh which was going to be the first personal computer with a graphic user interface, and he’s beaten to the punch, and it turns out Bill Gates is about to launch Windows just before the Macintosh is about to reach market.
Now, these two were not competitors. Microsoft and Windows, I mean, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Microsoft and Apple, were not competitors at the time. In fact, Microsoft and Bill Gates were a vendor for Apple. They were writing software for the Macintosh. And so, Steve Jobs was furious. He felt like he had been stolen from. He felt like this was his innovation and Bill Gates stole it from him.
And so, there’s this showdown, that’s the opening of my book, in which Jobs accuses Gates of having stolen his technology, and Gates’ response was, “Well, actually, Steve, it wasn’t you I stole it from. It was Xerox.” And in both of their stories, it was the inconvenient fact that they had both seen what Xerox was working on, Xerox Alto, which was a computer with a graphic user interface that wasn’t directed at the consumer market but rather to large businesses, and Xerox didn’t see the potential of that technology for developing the personal computers because they never thought personal computers were going to catch on. And they thought that really typing was the domain of secretaries. It really wasn’t for the everyday individual, and so they were sitting on it.
And so, Steve Jobs, after seeing the Alto, reverse-engineered it by telling his team what they did so that they could work backwards to figure out how they can recreate something similar but evolve it in a different direction because it wasn’t simply the recreation of the Alto. In the case of Apple, they were looking to add artistic fonts and making computers user-friendly. And Bill Gates also saw the Alto, told his team about it, and they were working to create personal computers that were affordable to a mass audience.
And so, both of them took an underutilized idea, the Xerox Alto and its graphic user interface, and applied it in different directions. And that turns out to be the approach that many of us simply aren’t educated about. We don’t hear these stories about how ideas are built upon previously existing ideas. And so, what I wanted to do in this book is give people the tools for learning from the best in their field so that they can evolve those ideas in different directions.
Well, that’s so cool. So, that seems like the value of this concept is self-evident or already illustrated with these examples. Like, if we see something that’s great, we can kind of figure out, “Hey, what made it great?” and then we too can make great things. So, that’s awesome whether you want to be awesome at your job, or singing, or maybe any number of skills or results you want to create out there in the world. So, then how do we go about doing that?
I guess Kurt Vonnegut, that’s kind of clever. I don’t know if he reverse-engineered the idea of how to go about reverse-engineering, but it’s like, “You know what, I’m just going to go ahead and graph this on an X-Y plane and see what goes down.” How do you recommend we begin the process of we noticed something that we like or want or want to replicate, and then what?
So, the first step in this process is to collect great examples. And when we think about collections, we tend to think about physical objects. So, some people I know collect stamps. My dad collected stamps. People collect wines. They collect shoes. But that definition of collections as physical objects turns out to be too narrow. There are collections that designers have of logos that they have found impactful. Writers collect words or headlines. Presenters collect presentation decks.
And when you have a collection, then you can look through it to identify, “What are the things that make it different from items that didn’t make my collection?” So, it’s like playing a game of spot the difference which is a game we all played as kids where you have two visuals side by side, and you compare them, you say, “Hey, what’s different about this one? What stands out for me?”
And through this process of using spot the difference with items in your collections against items that didn’t make your collection, you’re able to identify what it is that makes successful works unique. And that’s a process that can help you identify the ingredients that make something really effective. So, for example, you might come across a memo that’s particularly well-written, an email that really gets you to take action, a website that you want to opt-in for.
And developing a collection by either putting things in Google Docs, or adding bookmarks, or even using Pinterest, that gives you a resource you can turn to when it’s time for you to start creating something new that is far different than just staring at a blank page.
I like that so much and I guess I have not the most organized of collections but I have noticed things, like, “Ooh, why do I love that? Like, that’s grabbing me.” And I think it might just be a little bit of copywriting. Like, well, copywriters, you mentioned collecting headlines. They call them swipe files, it’s like, “I’m going to swipe this or modify this a little bit to be persuasive.”
And I saw something, this is for a property management company, and it said, like, “One hundred percent occupancy. One hundred percent market rents. You should expect nothing less.” I was like, “Whoa!” and it’s like, “Why is that amazing?” It’s like because it is exactly to the maximum what a property owner would want from a property manager, and boldly put, front and center, and that’s awesome.
Or, like Andreessen Horowitz, I love their slide decks. On SlideShare, I’ve gotten a few of those, I was like, “Why do I love this so much?” And it’s like, “Oh, because the slide headline makes one great point and then has compelling data that share that as opposed to just being like revenue over time.” What about the revenue over time? It’s like, “Oh, this sector has grown rapidly.” Then I say, “Oh, yeah, sure enough. Those companies in that industry, I see their growth over time,” and I can’t argue with those numbers. They convey that point.
And so, you get a collection and then you think about it. And what’s interesting is sometimes it leaps out at you with a quick question, like, “Oh, why do I like this?” And other times, it seems you got to dig a little deeper. And you suggested kind of comparing collections of greatness versus not-so greatness.
Yeah, looking at the difference between ordinary against the extraordinary, so what makes this unique. What I think is interesting about the fact that you’ve noticed that this works for you is that more people need to know that. And I think so many of us assume that we need to come up with great ideas on our own without having any kind of direction from the works of people who preceded us, but that’s not how creative ideas happen.
Creative ideas happen through the process of combining winning ideas from different fields or different sectors in new ways. And the last thing you want to do when you’re looking for creativity is to work in isolation because then, invariably, you will just keep considering coming back to the same ideas again and again and again. But when you have that swipe file or that collection you can turn to, that’s a source of inspiration.
And I can tell you that, personally, as a writer, I collect great words, I collect, in other words, words that got me to sit up and pay attention on the page. I’ll circle them in a book and then I’ll move them over to a Google Doc. I have openings of stories that I think really set the tone really well. I have transitions, I have conclusions, and all of these resources enable me to pay closer attention when something works, identify why it’s working, and then, in certain cases, learn from that to apply to other things that I’m building.
And as I talk to creative professionals, as I was writing Decoding Greatness, invariably, I would get the same response from people who are in fields like design or writing. They would say, “I’ve been doing this all my life, and I’ve never read anything about it. I just kind of stumbled on this approach myself.” And what I tried to do in writing this book is give people the tools to learn a little faster from the best in their field so that they can accelerate their success.
I think so many of us assume that learning is what happens when we were at school, and now we’re kind to have to fend for ourselves. And this is a systematic approach you can use at any field. And just to make this concrete, we talked about what happens after you’ve got that collection. So, in Decoding Greatness one of the things I do is I take you through how to reverse-engineer winning TED Talk. And so, I give the example of Sir Ken Robinson who’s got the most popular TED Talk of all time.
And what I did was, with his TED Talk, is I looked at the transcript, and then I reverse-outlined it. So, everyone has heard of outlining. Outlining is the process of identifying bullet points for what you intend to put into a work later on, into an essay, or into an email, or into a document of some kind. Reverse outline allows you to use that same process but by taking a finished piece, and it could be somebody else’s finished piece.
So, here, what I did was I took the transcript to this TED Talk and I reverse-outlined it to show you what’s happening in every section of the talk, so now you see I’ve reduced a 20-minute talk into bullet points. And now you can see, okay, here’s a progression. Then I identified what is happening in terms of the emotional valence of every section. So, what is the emotional journey that Sir Ken Robinson takes you on?
And there are a few other things that I do in the book, but what the takeaway here is, when you do this analysis, what you discover is all kinds of interesting things, like the fact that Sir Ken Robinson relays one fact over the course of this entire talk. So, if I was writing a TED Talk from scratch, I would assume I need to pound away at multiple persuasive facts in order to convince you of my point. He does none of that and he’s got the most popular TED Talk of all time.
What he is doing differently is he’s telling you a lot of stories, a lot of emotionally engaging and funny stories. And that’s the thing that makes his talk memorable and gets people sharing it. And that tells you something really impactful for when you’re creating either a TED Talk or a presentation of any kind, which is that people want the facts to be there, but that’s not the thing that’s going to make you engaging. If you want to be engaging, you’ve got to do a ton of storytelling.
That’s great. And so, the reversed outline is one particular tool that we can use if it is a piece of speaking or writing, and trying to see, “Hey, what made that great?” Lay on some more with us. So, if that’s for a piece of writing, I guess I’m curious if someone…let’s talk about skills. Like, let’s say, I don’t think I’m particularly handy and I’d kind of like to be. How might I go about decoding the greatness of those handy people who can just create and fix anything with just the greatest of ease?
Yeah, that’s interesting. So, I’ll say a couple of things. One is, first, let me just take a step back and just explain kind of the big idea for the book. The big idea is that we’ve been taught that greatness comes from one of two places. So, the first story is that great story comes from talent. This is the idea that you’re born with certain inner strengths, and that the key to finding your greatness is identifying a field that allows your inner strengths to shine.
The second story is a story of practice. This is the Malcolm Gladwell story of 10,000 hours, practice, practice, practice. Eventually, you get good enough and then you become a master. The third story though is one that is unique to creative fields, so it’s not necessarily applicable to handymen but it is applicable to when you’re trying to create something new, whether it be writing a song, creating a dish, or writing a book. And that is reverse engineering. And that simply means looking at finished examples and then working backwards to figure out how they were created.
And, as we mentioned, this is a popular thing that happens in Silicon Valley. There’s a whole history of products that were reverse-engineered and evolved. And yet, what most people don’t realize is that reverse engineering is also how Malcolm Gladwell learned to write, and how Claude Monet learned to paint, and how Judd Apatow became the great comedic writer that he is, So, working backwards turns out to be far more popular than anyone ever imagined.
And now, in the case of somebody whose physical skill you want to understand, there’s a chapter in the book on how to interview experts, and gives you the questions that you need to ask in order to learn from someone whose expertise you wish to deconstruct. One of the interesting things that you want to cover when you look at the research on the way that experts communicate is that experts, surprisingly, turn out to be pretty terrible instructors, and there are a number of reasons for that.
The primary reason why experts have a hard time communicating is because of the curse of knowledge. And so, the curse of knowledge simply states that knowing something makes it impossible to imagine not knowing it. And so, if I know how to fix an overflowing toilet and you don’t, if I tried to explain that to you, I’m probably going to miss some steps because some things that are obvious to me may not be obvious to you as a novice. That’s one of the issues.
The other issue is that they have automated large chunks of information and procedures that they don’t even consciously think about as they’re doing it so they’re missing a lot of information. And, in fact, I point to a study in “Decoding Greatness” where over 70% of their thought process somehow goes missing as they’re trying to explain to you how they go about doing things.
And so, here, what you want to do is you want to interview experts in a way that illuminates some of the discoveries they made along their journey. And so, just to give you an example of a type of question you might ask is, as somebody was training to become a handyman, what are some of the things that they thought would be important when they first started out, that turned out to be not very important. That’s a type of question that forces the expert to think about their initial entry into the field against where they are today.
And those types of questions where you’re forcing the person to think about their actual experience against their anticipated experience, that’s where they acknowledge some of the things that they’ve learned that they can then share to you and make your job a little bit easier.
And as I’m thinking about this, it’s going to be very, very mundane but it’s sort of like, “It seems like I strip screws frequently. It’s like was there a time in which you used to strip screws frequently and what discoveries did you make that helped you stopped doing that?” Like, “Oh, yeah, certainly. Well, it’s all about the hardness of the screw versus the torque required to stick it in the thing, and so sometimes you got to pre-drill a hole but usually I just get really hard screws and then it’s not a problem anymore. This one is awesome.” It’s like, “Well, alright. Thank you. Now I know.”
Exactly. But if you had simply asked the question of, “How do I do X?” you would’ve gotten a) probably a lot of information that you have a hard time making sense of if they’re speaking in a different language than you because they have that expertise, and they would’ve missed that thing that you consider so valuable.
And so, the point here, and I start with that particular chapter with the story of Marlon Brando teaching an acting course late in life where he invited all of Hollywood’s elite, he hired a director. He was going to transform this into a paid class that he was going to then charge film schools to screen. And the acting class turned out to be a disaster.
And, in fact, by day three there was a walkout. Some of the things that he thought would be helpful to the students was requiring them to strip naked in front of each other to demonstrate courage. He thought it would be helpful if he brought homeless people off the street and then try to teach them how to act. And, as it turned out, it was a complete debacle. There was a walkout. The director quit. It was just a fiasco. And it just illustrates how experts have a hard time evaluating what it is that contributes to their own greatness.
So, we ask about discoveries they’ve made, things that they thought would have been important that weren’t so important, surprises that they’ve had that turns out that was actually super important. Any other thoughts on how to interview experts well?
So, we talked about the discovery questions that you can ask an expert about things that they thought wouldn’t be important, ended up being important, or vice versa. Other questions are process questions. So, here, what you’re trying to do is drill down on the particular steps an expert applies to bring their work to life or to make adjustments if they’re handymen. So, questions like, “What do you do first? And then what? What’s next? What’s after that?” kind of walking them through the particular process step by step by step because, again, invariably, they’re going to skip some steps. But if you take them through that process, that can help.
Now, just to give you another tip here. What I talk about in the book is that you want to act like a focus group moderator. And so, focus group moderators are outstanding at getting people to disclose sensitive information within a short period of time. How they do that is by adopting a mindset of naïve curiosity. So, they’re not showing off about all that they know. What they are doing is they’re almost pretending like they know nothing and they’re letting the expert feel like they’re super smart.
So, there’s a saying that you may have heard, which is, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” I love that saying because what it suggests is that if you’re not learning from those around you, you’re not growing as well as you could be. Here, focus group moderators are never the smartest person in the room. They’re the last person to buff up their ego. They’re here to just learn and soak up information as much as they can. And that’s the same attitude you want when learning from experts because you want to let them take all the spotlight and ask them just naively curious questions and listen to their responses very carefully.
You know, that’s true. It’s funny, as you think about the focus group moderators, I imagine it’s true. Well, I know it is. Like, people really do want to tell you a lot about whatever, how they think about their sponges. But they know that no one cares and they have to rein it in. But then when you just give them that permission to unleash the floodgates, it’s like, I could talk to you about some clubs, Ron, and why I love them and why I chose them and why I spend so much time researching them, and what I was looking for. But I know, Ron, you and nobody else cares, so I just have to keep this treasure trove all bundled up to myself. But if someone were naively curiously probing in that dimension, boy, I’d enjoy telling them about it. So, I think that really resonates. So, thank you for that.
Yeah. And if you’re interested, I’ll just do the thing that you said that you should not do. I’ll tell you more about what focus group moderators do well, and that is that they prioritize questions but not by placing the most important question first. They ask the least invasive question first. And so, what that does is that it builds a sense of comfort so that you can build up to the question that’s a little bit more sensitive later on. And that’s another interesting way of getting an expert to open up.
So, for example, if you’ve ever taken a survey online, it doesn’t start off by asking you your income. What does it ask you? It asks you something much simpler, “Where do you live? Where were you born? How many kids do you have?” The last questions on the surveys are a lot more difficult, like, “What is your household income?” It’s because you’ve been sharing for 20 minutes now, 50 items. Now you’re much more likely to be open about your income.
Yeah, absolutely. And even if I don’t want to share my income, it’s like, “Oh, I’m almost done. I just want to knock this thing out. Fine. Here it is.” That’s good. Okay. So, we got the reverse outline, we’ve got the interviewing of experts. What are some of your other favorite approaches to going about decoding greatness?
Well, another interesting approach is to quantify features, and now that’s going to scare a lot of people. If you’re not into math, that might be a little intimidating, and I want to just comfort you a little bit by letting you know that this should not be intimidating.
And so, one of the techniques that I talk about in this book is looking at websites that are extraordinary and comparing them to websites that are a little bit less extraordinary or ordinary websites, and looking for spotting the differences. But there’s a technique you can use by quantifying particular features. And so, I did this in the book by showing you how to reverse-engineer Apple’s website and compare it to Apple’s chief competitor Samsung.
And when you do that, what you uncover is that Apple does some things very, very well. Number one is that they don’t mention price all that often, whereas Samsung has got price on every single item. There’s a lot less movement on Apple’s website, it’s a lot more calm, whereas Samsung is a lot busier, it’s got a lot of flashing buttons, etc.
One of the reasons Apple has such a muted design is because Apple is aiming for simplicity. That’s their mantra. And busyness causes anxiety, and anxiety is the opposite of simplicity. And so, when you quantify some of the features, like, “How many buttons are flashing? How many of the messages include price?” That’s an example of a way of data mining in a way that allows you to illuminate some of the key differences, and that’s a technique that you can apply to anything.
So, if you’re looking at someone’s writing, what you might look at is how many times they use an adjective versus verb. What language level are they incorporating in their writing? All of these approaches help you illuminate hidden patterns in some of the things that you find impactful. And once you have that, once you have that reverse outline, once you’ve outlined some of the quantitative differences, you can start to create templates.
So, we talked about that ad that you saw, Pete, that you mentioned that stood out for you. If you were to zoom out and look at what’s really happening on line one, what’s happening on line two, what’s happening on line three, you can detect a formula. And it’s by zooming out, doing reverse outlines, and that allows you to templatize some of the most important work you’re creating.
So, if you‘re someone who writes emails, or memos, or proposals, there is a template out there that is hidden in plain sight. All you need to do is find those great examples, figure out what’s happening at each paragraph, and turn that into a template by asking yourself a question. Like, for example, I talk about in the book of how I uncovered this when I was writing academic journal articles. And at the time when I first started doing this, I had no idea how to start. I was staring at a blank page, racking my brain, trying to write an academic journal article.
And then, one day, I decided to look at the writing of an academic whose work I admired, and I looked to see what he was doing in every paragraph. And I read article after article after article, and then, eventually, it dawned on me that he was using a formula. And that formula was, at the beginning of the article he would start off with some type of jarring fact, so a news story, that he would raise a question. Then he would give you a literature, showing you all the previous literature, and then he would present his thesis.
That formula is one that I could then take and apply to my writing. All I needed was to find a jarring fact, find a question to pivot to, do a research review, and then present my thesis. That’s an example of hidden patterns inside works we admire. And if we have the system for figuring out what’s happening in every particular paragraph, and then that allows us to not just figure out what’s working but also templatize it to make our work so much easier.
And as you described this, I’m curious to get your take on the role of feedback and iteration because I guess I’m thinking, it’s like, “Okay, I know the ingredients now. Jarring fact.” And so then, you find something you think, “Ooh, I found that pretty jarring,” but maybe your audience, and maybe the case of the academic paper review board, or the people in the conference room you’re going to be presenting to, don’t find that to be too jarring. So, how do you think about getting input to see, “Hey, how am I doing here?” and tweaking and fine tuning and proving and proving and proving?
It’s a great question. And, in fact, in Decoding Greatness the first half of the book is, “How do you reverse-engineer and evolve formulas?” It’s not just about copying. It’s also about evolving. The second half of the book is about shrinking the gap between your vision, in other words the formula you’ve reverse-engineered, and your current ability. So, just because you know what the formula is doesn’t mean you’re going to execute it well. It’s all of these science-based strategies for scale-building that will enable you to shrink the gap between your current skills and your ultimate vision.
And so, there’s a section in there on how to train the people around you to give you better feedback. Now, it turns out that feedback can be surprisingly harmful. In over 33% of cases, the feedback that we get actually makes our performance worse. We tend to think of the more feedback the better, that turns out not to be true. What you need to do is you need to have the ability to train the people around you to give you better feedback.
And so, one of the techniques that you can use to get better feedback, number one, is finding the right audience. So, a lot of cases, we go to our spouse or the people who sit next to us at the office. That’s not always the best audience to deliver the feedback. So, we have to think really critically about who we’re asking these questions.
But then, on top of that, what you want to do is be really specific about the type of feedback that you want. You might say, “Hey, is this fact jarring enough? Does this cause you to think twice about something that you thought before? Or, is this kind of so-so?” That specificity will give you the level of feedback that is actually useful.
A third thing to do is to ask for advice rather than feedback. There’s research out of Harvard Business School showing that when you ask people for advice, they tend to give you far more solutions than if you just ask for feedback. And the reason for that is when you ask someone for feedback, they tend to compare your current performance against your past performance.
And so, what they often will come back to you with it is, “It’s good,” meaning that your performance has improved. That’s not particularly insightful or helpful when you’re trying to improve. But when you ask them for advice, what they do is they compare your current iteration against your possible future iterations. And now they can see a lot of potential future avenues for you to take the work, so they’re more likely to give you suggestions when you ask for advice.
Lovely. Okay. Well, how else will we do the skill-building?
Well, another tip is to create your own personal scoreboard. So, in chapter four, I talk about the scoreboard principle. And in business, it’s quite clear that using metrics helps improve performance. You probably heard of the saying, “What gets measured gets managed.” In everyday life, we’re all flying blind. We have no metrics to tell us whether or not we’re succeeding. And the scoreboard principle is simple. What it tells us is that measurement begets performance. Anything you measure, you are likely to improve upon. And there is just a flood of reasons for this.
Evolutionarily, our chances of survival improve the more sensitive we were to numbers. And the reason for that is that having that kind of sensitivity around numbers told you which food source was larger than another. It also helps you detect if you’re in danger when you encountered another tribe. And so, we’re all built with this mechanism, and neurologists refer to this as a numbers instinct, that is actually across the animal kingdom.
And so, we’re all very sensitive to numbers which is why when we track our behaviors, we tend to be a lot more successful at executing them. And so, the key to improving your skill at just about anything is to identify, “What are the behaviors I’m trying to get good at?” and then monitoring them on a regular basis. And to the extent that you do that, your performance will improve.
And so, we know this from the research. There’s actually a study showing that people who track the amount of food they consume are far better at losing weight, even when they’re given the exact same diet as another group that wasn’t asked to track their food consumption. And the reason for that is when you’re monitoring your caloric intake, you get this emotional rush when it’s low, whereas, you feel a little bit ashamed when it’s high. And those emotional jolts actually motivate you to do a better job in the future.
And you can apply that same technique to how many uninterrupted minutes you have during the workday. That improves your focus. Just by tracking how much time you spend on focused work, that will likely improve your performance from the perspective of not being distracted.
Yeah, that’s really good. And I’ve had that experience myself with regard to, hey, I’m not actually going to try to eat any differently but I just want to get a sense for, “How am I doing?” but sure enough, I do. I eat better when I’ve used the LoseIt app. I find it very easy to enter the goods, and so that’s cool. And, likewise, when it comes to like habit-tracking type things, even when I’m not trying, it’s like, “Hey, I’ve already got a lot on my plate. I’m not going to commit to some huge goal right now, but I just want to get a sense of how I’m doing on these things.” And so, I use like the Tally or The Done family of apps, I find very handy and easy to use there. And it’s like, sure enough, I end up doing way more of the thing just because I’m measuring it.
That’s exactly right because anytime you gamify an outcome you’re trying to achieve, you’re going to be more successful at it. I’ll tell you something else from my own personal life which is I got an Apple Watch which tracks your sleep, but also there’s the opportunity for tracking your water consumption. And the more items you track, the better you get at identifying leading indicators of the outcomes you’re trying to achieve.
So, for those unfamiliar, a leading indicator is a metric that projects whether or not you’re going to be successful at an outcome later on, so that’s a lagging indicator. So, just to make this concrete, let’s say I want to be productive at work, that’s my lagging indicator. My leading indicator could be things like how much sleep I got the night before or how much exercise I got the night before.
And so, the more things you track, the better you get at identifying leading indicators of lagging indicators, or, in other words, the outcome you’re trying to achieve. In my case, what I discovered was that water intake leads to better sleep, and better sleep leads to greater productivity. I wouldn’t have known that if I wasn’t tracking all those metrics.
And so, having an app on my Apple Watch that entices me to indicate how much water I’ve consumed, that has been useful for me because it’s elevated my water intake, plus it’s helped me identify a leading indicator of my performance at work.
That’s good. Well, I’m a big believer in adequate hydration, and it didn’t even occur to me that it could lead to better sleep. I will be looking at that. Thank you. Any other thoughts on skill-building?
Let’s talk about practice, okay?
So, when most people think about practice, they think about practicing in the present but it turns out they are neglecting two other critical dimensions of practice. And so, I talk about this in Decoding Greatness as practicing in three dimensions. So, what does it mean to practice in three dimensions? Well, we know about practicing in the present, there’s also practicing in the past, and that is reflective practice in the research.
So, we’ve all heard of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is the idea that has been popularized by Gladwell in the Outliers and Anders Ericsson in the book Peak. Deliberate practice is simply focusing on things that you don’t do particularly well, and then isolating them, doing them frequently, getting the feedback to improve your performance over time.
Reflective practice, or practicing in the past, is simply thinking about what you learned while doing an activity. And so, there’s research out of Harvard Business School showing that if you just take five minutes at the end of the day to write down what you learned today about work, your performance will improve by over 20%. Just that simple exercise of reflecting on your performance at work will improve your performance.
Now, in “Decoding Greatness,” I recommend a tool that anybody can use, which is getting a five-year diary. Now, I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, Pete. The five-year diary is a diary that you can get on Amazon or any bookstore, really, that has 365 pages, one page per day for every day of the year. And within each page, there are three lines in five slots. And the idea here is you just write three lines for your day. You do those for a year. And then, after a year, something fascinating happens, which is you get to see what it is you did on that day one year before.
And so, you’re constantly learning things about yourself, your memory is improving, your identifying patterns in your own behavior, new learnings, new insights. You’re reminded of past challenges that you’ve overcome. You’re building your confidence. Overblown fears that turned out to be nothing. It’s a wonderful, wonderful tool.
And it’s a process that automates reflective practice because it’s not intimidating. It’s just a few lines a day but it forces you to slow down, reflect on what you’ve learned, improving your performance, and also teaching you some lessons about the past. So, that’s practicing in the past.
Practicing in the future is imagery. So, there’s plenty of research, and we have all heard stories about athletes using imagery before a major athletic event. But it turns out there’s also research showing that if a surgeon uses imagery to think through a surgery, they’re likely to make fewer mistakes. Public speakers who visualize their performance on stage end up being more persuasive and less anxious. And there’s research showing that if a piano student is about to learn a new piece, visualizing themselves playing that piece leads them to learn that piece faster.
Now, we could all use visualization in our own lives. And just to be clear, it’s not visualizing success that helps. It’s visualizing the process. So, for example, if tomorrow morning I need to write a proposal, if I visualize myself walking into the office, gathering all the documents I need, and think through how I might structure my piece, that enables me to frontload critical decisions so that when I actually sit down to do it the next day, there’s less thinking involved and a lot more presence. I can actually focus more on doing my job.
And so, I talk all about how you can apply imagery to every aspect of your life, and that’s basically practicing in three dimensions in a nutshell.
That’s great. And what I love about the visualization, I also find that when I do it, I’m less likely to have, I don’t know, resistance, procrastination, and I have just a little bit more motivation. It just seems like, “Well, no, this is what I’m doing now because I’ve already visualized it.” And I’m less likely to be like, “Oh, but I’m not really in the mood. Maybe I‘ll just do some more email first.” There’s better, more consistent self-disciplined execution when I take some time to visualize.
That’s a great observation. And also, just to put a bow on this, there’s also research that shows that athletes who use visualization are actually able to cut down on their physical practice by as much as 50% and not show any decrements in their performance because visualization is that powerful.
It sounds a lot easier.
It’s a lot easier. And it just goes to show, like this is a completely underutilized tool that all of us have at our disposal. I think we kind of dismiss it as, I don’t know, kind of like, “Oh, that’s for athletes,” or, “It feels unnatural,” or, “That won’t work for me.” But why not give it a shot? If all it takes is five minutes to visualize the day in advance, and then just kind of do an experiment, see if it helps you. I recommend doing it and it seems like it works for you, Pete.
And, Ron, I should ask, is there any research or best practices in the mind’s eye, first person versus third person, are they equally good? Is one more powerful than the other?
Well, what ends up happening is that if you consistently use first person, that could get boring for you. And so, you want to toggle between them, and you’ll get a fuller experience. So, in other words, seeing yourself on stage, feeling the glare of the light, holding a cooker in your hand, start there. And after you’ve done that for a while, you can kind of visualize yourself speaking while sitting in the audience.
And a critical piece here is that we’ve been taught that we could just visualize ourselves succeeding, but I actually recommend, every once in a while, thinking about yourself faltering and then continuing and going through with concluding your speech, if we’re talking about a speech in particular. But you want to power through it. And what that does is it teaches you to expect things to potentially go wrong, but having the confidence that you can overcome those challenges anytime they come.
Well, Ron, now can you tell me about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Well, one of the things I talk about is this idea that we can learn from those around us in a way that’s more methodical that enables us to do our work a little bit more easily. And I think that part of the challenge for reverse-engineering this idea of taking apart other’s work is that there’s a real stigma about copying other’s work and plagiarism and not being fully original. And I think that’s really the wrong way of thinking about how we can best learn from the works of others.
And, in fact, there’s research showing that taking the time to copy someone else’s work makes you more creative not less, and the process of copying, it opens your mind up to new ideas that you hadn’t been considering in your own work. And there’s a great quote that I often think about, which is from Carl Sagan. And Carl Sagan said, “If you want to create an apple pie from scratch, you would need to recreate the universe.” what I love about that quote is that it illustrates that nothing comes from nothing. Everything is built on something else. And that when we think about creativity, we really should think about combining ideas rather than trying to be completely original.
And a favorite book?
I don’t know if it’s a favorite book, but it’s one of my favorite books. I just read it with my son, The Ickabog by J.K. Rowling. And she is so good at finding the perfect word and structuring her stories in a way that just keeps you interested and curious. And so, I highly recommend that book “The Ickabog for any age.
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?
So, I am a Google Doc fanatic, and I have tons and tons and tons of Google Docs. And for a while, I didn’t even know how to organize them. And a friend of mine taught me this approach, which is to use the Google Sheets And then use that to hyperlink to other Google Docs. So, in other words, you can have a directory of all your Google Docs in there, the ones that you frequently use, that you could then easily access and use that as an organization point for your other Google Docs. So, that is a tool that I highly recommend to a lot of my coaching clients because it’s a way of easily accessing documents you frequently use while also having a central location so you’re never searching.
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with readers, they highlight it a lot or quote it back to you frequently?
All right. Well, that’s a great question, Pete.
So, “We’re often told that growth requires courage, that the only way to improve is to somehow find the gumption to stomach more risks and embrace situations that make us uncomfortable. “…that’s not the only path to personal development. Tackling difficult challenges and putting everything on the line are simply not the same thing. Know when it comes to developing our skills and growing our abilities, the wise approach isn’t taking more risks. Far wiser to find intelligent opportunities that render risk-taking entirely less risky.”
And so, this is about how businesses grow. And how they do that is by taking tons and tons of risks that actually end up not being particularly risky at all. And just to give you an example of that is they often will use test audiences to determine whether or not an idea is working out.
And so, we can all do that in our own lives by testing our ideas with a smaller group before releasing it to the wider public. And so, I give the example of how Tim Ferriss came up with the title for “The 4-Hour Workweek.” And he had 10 titles that he was considering or something like that. It was a large number. And so, he just purchased Google Adwords for each title, and looked to see what generated the most clicks. He used $100, came up with this amazing title.
It wouldn’t have done it if he had just picked a title, a guess. Using that feedback enabled him to, and obviously wasting $100, to find out what was most effective, was a way of him minimizing the risk in risk-taking.
And, Ron, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
I would point them to, if you’re interested in learning more about the book, go check out DecodingGreatnessBook.com. it’s a great website to go to because you get a free course with your purchase of the book. If you’re interested in learning more about me, you can find me at RonFriedmanPhD.com.
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
Yeah, I think you should stop assuming that greatness comes from talent or from practice. You don’t have to be born with a particular path to greatness. You don’t necessarily need to put in 10 years of practice. What you do need is a system for learning from the best in the world, and that’s what “Decoding Greatness” offers.
Ron, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you all the best as you decode more greatness.
I appreciate it, Pete.