How to Use Reverse Engineering to Replicate Someone Else’s Success

Ron Friedman is the author of Decoding Greatness: How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success. In this interview, he shares an often overlooked story about what it takes to achieve at the highest levels and how to use principles of reverse engineering.

Reverse Engineering: An Untold Story About High Achievement

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Photographer: Graham Ruttan | Source: Unsplash

Ron Friedman says that “there are two big stories that we’ve been told throughout our lives about what it takes to achieve at the highest level.”

1. Talent

This is the idea that we’re all born with certain innate strengths and that the key to finding your greatness is finding a field that allows those inner strengths to shine. Ron Friedman

It is true that all of us have innate strength and superpowers. Talent gives you an edge. But it’s not enough. Without the discipline and commitment to nurture their talent, plenty of people amount to nothing.

2. Practice and Hard Work

The second big story is that greatness comes from the idea that if you just practice hard enough and you have the right practice regimen, you have enough discipline to do this for years and years that eventually you’ll rise to the top Ron Friedman

If all it took was hard work, then everyone who worked hard would be rich, famous, and successful. As Naval Ravikant said, someone who owns a dry cleaner might work just as hard if not harder than Elon Musk.

3. The Third Story: Reverse Engineering

But there’s a third story. Reverse engineering simply means finding extraordinary examples in your field and then working backward to figure out how they were made and distilling down the lessons that you identify in the works of others to create something entirely new — Ron Friedman

People throughout history have used reverse engineering.

Ankur Jain reverse engineered the business model of car rental companies and applied it to apartment rentals. He explained it as follows during our conversation on the Unmistakable Creative.

For reverse engineering to be effective, there are two elements you can’t ignore.

1. The Difference Between Mimicry and Reverse Engineering

reverse engineering
reverse engineering
Photographer: ThisisEngineering RAEng | Source: Unsplash

Understanding why someone else is successful, you can distill down the strategies that made them successful and apply them in new ways. Applying them in new ways is really critical which is a key difference between mimicry and evolution. Ron Friedman

It’s tempting to look at what someone else does, follow in their exact footsteps, and expect to get the same results.

When Derek Halpern launched his website Social Triggers, it seemed like he was an overnight success that came out of nowhere. Another blogger copied Derek’s site design, expecting to get the same result. That blogger overlooked the blatantly obvious variable that turns any strategy for success into a formula for mimicry: himself.

If you don’t apply the strategies that made someone successful in new ways, you’ll become a pale imitation of your predecessors.

Ron Friedman says there are two reasons mimicry doesn’t work: a shift in audience expectations and individual skill.

Audience Expectations

Audience expectations shift. If I mimic the format of your show and do it exactly the same way as you do, I’m probably not going to be as successful as you were. When you started doing this, audiences were expecting a particular type of show and it was unique. If I were to copy this show, it would likely not be particularly unique. In fact, there are many shows that are using a similar approach. Ron Friedman

This is why so many podcasts sound exactly the same. Podcast hosts interview the same people on every other show. Guests say the same thing on every show. It’s also why I always look for lesser-known guests with interesting stories.


A second reason why simply mimicking others is likely not to be successful is because I don’t have the skill set that you have. What often happens when you try to mimic someone else is that you have different strengths and different life experiences than that person who you’re modeling. Ron Fried

The blogger who tried to reverse engineer Derek Halpern’s success didn’t take his past experience into account. Prior to launching social triggers, he had already built several successful websites. The blogger who tried to mimic him had not.

“What I argue in the book is that what you’re trying to do is not simply reverse engineer in order to mimic, but reverse engineer, to identify what makes something work. Unless you’re doing that hard analysis of understanding why something is successful, you’re missing an opportunity to improve your skills” says Ron Friedman

There are four strategies for reverse engineering you can use to achieve at the highest level.

1. Apply Other People’s Ideas in a New Context

Photographer: Per Lööv | Source: Unsplash

We get to evolution by combining formulas from different people and different models. And it’s in those unique combinations and you can hit upon something new and those models can come from all sorts of different fields. It doesn’t have to come from the same field. -Ron Friedman

This is what Austin Kleon means when he says to steal like an artist. You use other people’s ingredients to come up with your own recipes.

Applying Other People’s Ideas in a New Context with Food

The women in my family make incredible Indian food with Zero Recipes. My cousin Rama is arguably the most innovative cook in the family. By using a fusion of ingredients from traditional Indian dishes and food from other cultures she applies other people’s ideas in a new context.

  • The Kogi Taco truck applied an idea from Mexican food (tacos) just by changing the ingredients to Korean BBQ
  • Whoever came up with the idea for Kati rolls did the same thing. They replaced the tortilla with naan and beans and rice with curry. But a Kati roll is really just an Indian burrito.

Applying other people’s ideas in a new context leads to innovation, but applying in the same context leads to mimicry.

Applying Other People’s Ideas in a Next Context for Creative Work

Ryan Holiday was the beneficiary of a brilliant mentor, Robert Greene. In his new book, The Daily Laws, Robert wrote the following about Ryan:

One of the first things that became clear with Ryan was that he understood my way of thinking, the kind of books I like, the kind of stories I look for. Long before he met me, he put in the time. Just wanting to figure out my process, he had read the books that I cited in the bibliography to find the original sources I used. He reverse-engineered what I was looking for.

Ryan took what he learned from Robert, and applied it to the context of writing about Stoic philosophy, and became one of the most prolific authors of his generation.

2. Focus on Viability

Photographer: Elena Taranenko | Source: Unsplash

Optimism is both a blessing and a curse for entrepreneurs and creatives. You have to be crazy enough to think your ideas will work. But you also have to be smart enough to know if they are viable.

It seems to someone who’s not an entrepreneur like this person could just, come up with an idea on a dime. It’s not because they have a wealth of ideas. It’s because they’re thinking in formulas and that’s what reverse engineering allows you to do. It allows you to identify the underlying formula that’s buried within a work, You can do this for anything. You can do this for successful websites. You can use it for successful TV shows. You can do this for successful Ted talks. Ron Friedman

By identifying what makes something successful and determining its viability, you can apply it in a different context.

3. Reverse Outlining

Photographer: Sven Mieke | Source: Unsplash

Reverse outlining is taking someone else’s finished work, using it to work backward, and figuring out at what bullet point is what’s going on in the piece. So if you’re looking at it in a book, for example, you can bullet point what’s happening in each paragraph.

Translating podcast episodes into articles was always a struggle for me. After reading the article Build Your first 10 Systems before Your First 10 Hires, I used reverse outlining to write this article and two others:

Reverse outlining enabled me to create use the same structure and apply it to my content.

4. Learn From Experts

Photographer: Sigmund | Source: Unsplash

Learning from experts can be an invaluable strategy for reverse engineering. But you also need to be aware of the barriers to learning from them.

The Curse of Knowledge

Experts suffer from the curse of knowledge, meaning that things that are really obvious to them are not understood by novices. And so they tend to speak in a way that is harder for novices to understand. If you’ve ever had a conversation with a doctor or a home Depot or an executive, a Home Depot, a salesperson, or a garage mechanic and everything they said went over your head. The curse of knowledge was the problem. — Ron Friedman

Anytime I’ve been to Home Depot to get something, I walk away feeling like an idiot. Given that I could knock down a wall trying thang a picture frame, it’s hard for me to comprehend what people who work there are talking about. If you asked me for advice about starting a podcast, you’d run into the same problem because it’s been 10 years since I started the Unmistakable Creative.

Experts Apply Shortcuts

The second big barrier when communicating with experts is that experts apply shortcuts that they’re just not aware of. there’s research showing that experts leave out 70% of the steps that goes into their thinking, and they’re not even aware of it, but there’s a solution to this, by the way, which is to interview multiple experts and chances are that number will go down to as low as 10%. — Ron Friedman

There’s a joke with surfers, skiers, and snowboarders that friends, relatives, or significant others who surf, ski, or snowboard are the worst possible people to teach you. Many of my friends who ski and snowboard have said that trying to teach their partners almost caused their relationships to end.

For example, to catch a wave, you have to paddle at the right time, push yourself up, and make sure your feet land in the right place on the board. In theory that sounds simple. But for someone who has been surfing for a long time, it’s hard to deconstruct because it all happens in a fluid unconscious motion.

This is why I always tell my friends to hire an instructor.

Why Experts Aren’t Always the Best Teachers

There’s an assumption that somebody who’s successful knows what it is that made them successful. But often that person doesn’t know, they have a different idea about what makes them successful. And so that’s why it’s often not the experts who make the best teachers. Ron Friedman

Think about a professional musician like Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber. Almost all of them have great teachers who aren’t as well known as them. But, they are good teachers. So you might be better off learning how to single from Justin Bieber’s vocal coach than you would from him.

Three Types of Questions to Ask When You’re Learning from Experts

To get the most out of a conversation with an expert in their field, Ron Friedman says there are three types of questions you can ask:

  1. Journey Questions: You want to understand the experts, roadmap for success. You want to see it. By taking them back to where they first started and then asking them to step by step, how they went about it in order to better understand their journey.
  2. Process questions. So that means drilling down on the specific steps that the expert applies to bring their work to life.
  3. Discovery questions: which have to do with unexpected revelations that you realized along the way.

In many ways, this is my framework for conducting podcast interviews.

Use the right Metrics to Hold Yourself Accountable

The critical thing is to take some time to think about what is it that makes me successful in the long term. What is it that I’m hoping to achieve this year? What does a successful day look like? And to develop a scoreboard for yourself that you can harness to keep yourself on track Ron Friedman

I’ve always said if you want to build an audience, focus on mastery instead of metrics. But if you use the right metrics to measure your progress, metrics can be invaluable for helping you achieve at the highest level.

The key is to focus on the process instead of the prize. Process-related metrics are in your control and outcome-related metrics are not. This is why changing behavior leads to much better outcomes than setting goals.

As a writer, you could measure hours of deep work, word counts, or something else. If you’re building a company or product you could use the number of new features you ship in a week as a metric to hold yourself accountable.

Listen to the full interview on the Unmistakable Creative Podcast.

Candidate Conversations with Insanely Interesting People: Listen to the @Unmistakable Creative podcast in iTunes