Decoding Greatness, by Dr Ron Friedman

Why I read it

I listened to a podcast with Dr Ron Friedman and loved how he spoke about his upcoming book, Decoding Greatness. As a teacher, I often try to decode an exemplar answer, or crunch numbers when analysing literature; without sticking to rigid formulas, it spoke to me that you could strip back the component parts of success. I immediately pre-ordered the book!


Daniel Pink and Adam Grant are among the top thinkers and writers who recommend this book; it is dedicated to how we can pick apart systems, products, creations and other case studies to improve our own success. Friedman uses countless examples (as well as rooting his ideas in research and science) to show how we can use strategies such as reverse engineering, imitation, and pattern recognition to create our own blueprints to success.

What I enjoy about Decoding Greatness is that, after introducing each idea, Friedman then usually provides a worked example, and then continues by helping you generalise that to other areas or industries. The book is practical and transferable.

Key takeaways:

This book supplied me with at least 10 techniques, case studies, or strategies that I will reflect upon for my own career and other goals. There is a lot to learn from, and yet in this post I’ll try to keep it concise!

  1. Become a collector: collect the most effective, inspirational, or renowned examples of the thing that you are trying to master yourself; this could be headlines for a writer, adverts for an ad creative, or football plays for an NFL coach. The bigger bank you have to refer to, the more you can consume, be inspired by, and think big with! Friedman likens it to creating your museum of expertise, and encourages us all to tour our museum frequently.
  2. Reverse engineering: pull apart great examples to learn from them. Follow the car industry by disassembling cars to see how they were made; deconstruct a TED talk to see its component parts; create a blueprint of what success looks like in your industry. Friedman then advocates thinking critically about what makes them unique. How are they separated from others? Understanding things in detail helps us place what’s unique about them, which in turn helps us create our own USPs or ideas.
  3. Imitation: imitation gets a bad name, and in some industries, copying is more normalised than others. Friedman proposes that by imitating model examples, we can begin to understand how those things were made or fulfilled. The difference between this and reverse engineering is that, imitation might be about copying the way something was done in order to better empathise with the process, whereas reverse engineering is analsying and pulling apart a finished product. The imitation example that caught my eye was a novelist who had copied out chapters from their favourite novels; literally copied them out by hand or on the computer. By doing so, they felt the rhythm of the writing, the decisions that had to be made along the way regarding vocabulary choices, sentence structures, etc. Friedman argues that it’s only by understanding and copying the best examples in your industry, do you then have enough knowledge and experience to be creative and put your own stamp on your work.
  4. Self reflection: one study that Friedman shares, asks participants to try a maths puzzle. After a few minutes, they stop. Group A is given a 3-minute break before they try at another puzzle; Group B are asked to reflect on how it went, and what tips they’d give others for next time. Group B’s results on the second puzzle exceeded Group A’s, and this was reflected in other studies. As a coach, it seems obvious to say that self reflection is a good tool to improve performance; but how often do we reflect on something we’ve done, and think of ways we could improve for next time?

Favourite moment:

Friedman uses the late Sir Ken Robinson’s famous and highest-viewed TED talk to explore how we can quantify features to better understand something. In this example, Friedman counts the total word count, the word count for each section (and marks their overall percentage of the speech), how many times humour is used, when Sir Ken uses positives or negatives, and all other aspects of the talk. In essence, he breaks down the speech into a series of numbers, patterns, and explores its structure. In theory, one could then replicate this (with caveats!) to create their own speech that possesses a proven structure and formula that works.

Friedman acknowledges that everyone has their own delivery style and every talk will have a different purpose or formality, and yet this method of quantifying features can be invaluable.

Read this if…

  • You are interested in improving your success at something that you’re working on
  • You want a range of techniques to improve your mastery in a certain area
  • You teach or coach others about how to build their own confidence and expertise

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