You Can Learn Anything Through Reverse Engineering

by Ron Friedman, Ph.D.

Throughout our lives, we’ve been told two major stories about how top performers, like Simone Biles, Steve Jobs, and Barack Obama, achieve at the highest levels.

The first story is that greatness comes from talent. According to this view, we are all born with certain innate strengths. Those at the top of their game succeed by discovering an inner talent and matching it to a profession that allows them to shine.

The second story is that greatness comes from practice. From this perspective, talent gets you only so far. What really matters is an effective practice regimen and a willingness to do lots of hard work.

There is, however, a third story about greatness, one that’s stunningly common among icons in a wide variety of fields — from groundbreaking artists and athletes to successful inventors and entrepreneurs.

It’s called reverse engineering.

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 or idea was designed and, more important, how it can be recreated. It’s the ability to taste an intoxicating dish and deduce its recipe, to listen to a beautiful song and discern its chord progression, to watch a horror film and grasp its narrative arc.

In Silicon Valley, reverse engineering is well known. There’s a long history of coders deconstructing winning products to learn how they’re made. It’s how inventions like the personal computer, the laptop, and the iPhone were born.

What’s less well-known is that reverse engineering also explains how writers like Stephen King and Malcolm Gladwell learned to write, how painters like Mary Cassatt and Claude Monet became groundbreaking artists, and how the automotive and pharmaceutical industries have achieved life-saving advances over the past decade.

Reverse engineering is an approach that takes many forms, all of which involve searching for clues that reveal how an object can be reproduced.

In the world of writing, non-fiction authors turn to the bibliography at the end of a book to identify the sources that went into its construction. In the world of cooking, chefs order dishes “to go” so they can spread intricate sauces out on a white plate and parse out the ingredients. Photographers scan images for clues, including reflections in the eye of the subject and the length of the shadows, to determine the location of a light source and the time of day.

But it’s not just the arts. Reverse engineering can facilitate skill acquisition in any field, and is especially useful for knowledge workers whose success depends on their ability to learn quickly and adapt to rapidly evolving fields.

So how do you do it?

Here are three practical steps you can use to elevate your skills by reverse engineering exceptional works in your field.


Become a collector.

The first step to learning through reverse engineering is starting a collection of outstanding examples that are worth analyzing. When we think about collections, we tend to think of physical objects, like artworks, wine, or stamps. That definition is too narrow. Copywriters collect headlines, designers collect logos, and consultants collect presentation decks. Working professionals can collect well-crafted emails, persuasive memos, or winning proposals.


Spot the difference.

To learn from extraordinary examples, you need to pinpoint what makes them unique. A variety of strategies can help but the simplest is a version of the old children’s game, Spot the Difference. By comparing the exceptional works in your collection against average works that you chose not to include, you can identify critical ingredients that make them distinctive.


Score your performance.

Once you’ve keyed in on what specific features the works in your collection have in common, you can develop metrics that help you assess your own performance when attempting to recreate them.

For example, let’s pretend that you’re trying to build your personal brand, and you want to start by building an outstanding online portfolio. You’ve collected a handful of compelling websites and determined that they tend to feature short, punchy headlines and lots of vivid imagery. By developing metrics for those two features (headline word count and number of vivid images) you can track the degree to which your own website includes the important features you’ve deemed vital to creating an engaging experience for visitors.


Case Study: How to Reverse Engineer a Compelling Client Email

Now, let’s break this down even further with a real-world example. Let’s say you are drafting an outreach email to a client who has yet to sign an important contract. You need this contract finalized quickly. You’re hoping to prompt your client to sign, but you want to do so in a way that doesn’t come across as pushy or desperate. In fact, if at all possible, you’d like your email to strengthen your relationship.

Fortunately, you’ve collected a handful of well-written client emails and identified a number of important features to build off of. You’ve deduced that your email should include:

  • A non-work-related opening, preferably on a topic you and your client have bonded over in the past
  • A brief mention of the action you need your client to take
  • A rationale explaining why taking action quickly will benefit them
  • New information your client is likely to find valuable, such as an article or insight that illustrates that you are working toward shared goals
  • A closing that expresses enthusiasm for the relationship or for hearing back from your client

Needless to say, these particular features won’t feel appropriate for every email or every client. But let’s just assume for now that these are the ingredients that you consider essential for a well-executed, “Where’s that thing you promised me?” email.

The next step involves transforming each element on your list into a scored item.

Here’s one way to do it. After composing your email, evaluate your draft by scoring your performance. Rate each of the above characteristics on a scale of 1 (low) to 7 (high).

The simple act of self-rating your draft both provides instant feedback on your performance and alerts you to features that can be improved. Scoring less than a 7 is instructive; it indicates precisely what you need to adjust before hitting send.

By applying these three strategies (collect, analyze, and score), we all have the potential for building our skills, elevating our performance, and delivering more impactful work.

If you’re looking to rise to the top your profession, staying on top of new innovations and industry trends is vital. No matter what your field, having a systematic approach to learning from extraordinary examples is essential to getting ahead.


To see the original article on HBR, click here.

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