Uncovering the Mystery of Greatness


Book stores are full of titles promising to provide the guaranteed formula for achieving success. Usually there are five to ten action items cleverly phrased to make them memorable because they are basically common sense ideas. Ron Friedman in Decoding Greatness focuses more on the process for discovering the formula. The book’s subtitle reveals his recommended approach – “How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success.”


Identifying someone who has become successful in an area you desire and carefully studying what makes them successful seems like another common sense idea. Friedman breaks down the performances of a number of best- in-class to identify their blueprint or formula for success. From that knowledge you can begin to measure your own performance and the gaps you need to fill. This is a logical approach that should help all of us to move closer to realizing our aspirations.


Fortunately, Friedman doesn’t stop there but provides several interesting, and at times counterintuitive, practices to keep in mind. For example, Friedman’s research indicates that feedback is not helpful most of the time. It can be overly broad, leaving us happy but unsure how to repeat our success, or leaving us depressed, unsure if there is any path towards improvement. The key is to structure feedback so we learn how to improve rather than simply being assessed. Whether our invited or uninvited critic liked our product should always be secondary to answering the question, “how can I get better?” The best feedback is future oriented. Friedman also recommends a “less is more” approach to feedback. Be selective in whose voice you listen to. He writes, “Getting feedback from the wrong audience is worse than getting no feedback at all.”


Another common feedback approach he refutes is receiving constant feedback, or knowing how you are doing at all times. Again, technology makes it easy to get feedback from larger numbers of people and in real time. This can be especially damaging if you are involved in a creative endeavor. Friedman argues that in many cases, feedback is best received early to test concepts, and late when you are fine tuning implementation.


We also need to develop the right mindset to deal most effectively with negative criticism. We often hear that negative, or the preferred term, “constructive,” criticism is essential to becoming the best but don’t hear how to deal with the costs of all the negativity it creates. Most of us are more fragile than we care to admit. Friedman suggests we must reinterpret the experience of struggle from a negative one to a positive one. In some cultures, struggle caused by falling short is not an indication of inability but rather of learning. The opposite of struggle is comfort and we all know that not much learning takes place when we stay in our comfort zone. Author Chuck Klosterman captures the relationship between negative feedback and performance this way, “If you want to avoid criticism, it is better to be good than it is to be great.” Negative feedback, rather than telling us to surrender and give up, is required to keep us moving on the path towards our best selves.

Another interesting practice Friedman suggests is to remain ignorant of what others in your field are doing. Again, this seems to run counter to the best practices of benchmarking and avoiding a “not invented here” mentality. He cites numerous comedians, musicians and authors who limit exposure to others in their field to avoid the natural influence it would bring to their own work. In fields where creativity is paramount, it is easy for everyone to produce similar content if they are frequent consumers of each other’s work. The solution is to be selective and intentional about your intake. Friedman suggests spending more time on the classics in your field and consider how you can incorporate the best elements into a modern context.


A final bit of counterintuitive advice is to recognize that experts often need help in sharing their expertise. Since a big part of being an expert is telling others what you know, you would think experts would be quite skillful on sharing their wisdom. As has become common knowledge in sports, the best players seldom become the best coaches. So, a starting point is to look for experts who have spent more time forced to think about their processes in order to excel. Friedman cites one research finding that experts leave out 70 percent of the steps required to succeed when asked because they do so much subconsciously. Asking questions that will help them identify the critical points early and later in their journey can bring needed clarity. For example, “what did they do early in their careers?” “What do they wish they had done differently?” and “What factors turned out to be the biggest contributors to success?” Finally, don’t rely on information from a single expert. Even experts from the same field learn differently and bring their own perspectives and preferences to their understanding of success.


The process of reverse engineering will certainly help you discover some of the critical drivers of success. But, as Friedman’s research illustrates, it is also easy to learn the wrong or incomplete lessons. There is still no one guaranteed formula to achieving greatness. It requires wisdom to know the right voices to follow.