Decoding Greatness

Decoding Greatness – #8 Podcast of the Week

Welcome to the eighth blog post of: Podcast of the Week. Thanks for reading this post! If you have not yet: please check out the other Podcast of the Week blog posts: link. This blog post is about decoding greatness.

Why do I recommend this podcast episode?

There are a different stories we hear about success when we grow up. Most of the these fall in two narratives. The first one is the story of talent. Everyone has specific strengths, they can unlock their potential by doing the things that are relying on these strengths. The second story is that of practice. You can achieve success working hard. This is closely tied to the idea of 10,000 hours from Malcom Gladwell. In his book he claims that achieving world class success in any skill, is achievable by practising for a total of 10,000 hours. Based on studies by Anders Ericsson. However there is a third way.

The podcast episode: Decoding Greatness

Reverse engineering

The third way is reverse engineering: Finding the best in a field and then walk backward to discover the way they do it. The podcast episode is with Ron Friedman about his new book Decoding Greatness. Where he describes how the best in the world reverse engineer success. In this blog post I try to distil the main lessons from the interview, so you can apply decoding greatness yourself.

Ron Friedman & Decoding Greatness

What if we could quantify success?. How can we decode greatness from the most successful people? What can we learn from them and use for ourselves? This is what Ron Friedman aims to explore with his new book: Decoding Greatness.

Afford Anything Podcast

Once again I recommend a podcast episode from the Afford Anything podcast. This show is run by Paula Pant. She interviews experts from many fields about decision-making, productivity, mastering your career, money and life. Her articles and podcast episodes revolve around mastering money to set yourself free, by adjusting your behavior. Here you can find links to the other Afford Anything blog posts:

What are the key takeaways for decoding greatness?

In every podcast of the week blog post there are key takeaways. These are the most important lessons that I have distilled from decoding greatness. I do this with help of the podcast host, Paula Pant. Because she always formulates her own key takeaways at the end of every episode. You can find her notes here: Episode notes by Afford Anything. The takeaways are set-up in a way to help you bridge the gap between vision and ability. Subsequently I have written down the most applicable ones:

  1. Make a collection, of great works within your field, to learn what makes them successful.
  2. Scoreboard principle, measure your behavior to improve it.
  3. Analyse metrics, which metrics are higher in the great works, can you adopt these?
  4. Practice in three dimensions, past, present and future. This can lead to better results.

1. Make a collection

The first step for decoding greatness is not reverse engineering itself, but collecting. The key is to start a collection of master pieces within your field. This doesn’t necessarily mean physical objects. But can be information; like articles, words, stories, academic journals. Using your collection for inspiration. You can work backward to discover the difference between items in the collection and items that are not in there. The ordinary versus the extraordinary. The point is to discover the difference between these items. By doing this you will get a tuned to distinguished works. You will learn the difference between successful pieces and unsuccessful ones.

Personally I already use this method (before knowing this). I keep track of my work by using Obsidian. When I run into a technical issue at my work, I search for a solution. When I find it I document the solution in a note. I use connections to other notes to give it context. Consequently I build my collection of solutions over time, by doing this I get a better sense of solutions that work.

Pattern recognition

This has to do with pattern recognition: Predictions about what you find attractive or appealing. The more input, the better the outcome. Its comparable to an algorithm, without input it is worthless. It needs examples. The same is true for people, input is necessary to generate examples.


Eventually you will have created a “best of” directory. These are the items that are the best according to you, the most distinguished. This creates a starting point for your work. The items can be used as examples. They contain the essential components for success. On the whole this works better than a blank screen.

How can decoding greatness lead to something original?

If you had to recreate this work, how would you make a template for it. (templatize) You don’t want to be derivative, if you want to be creative there is a fifth step. Look for items in other fields that are different so you can blend them. This will cause cross polenation to create new ideas.


I have summarized the process in four steps:

  1. Collect examples.
  2. Look for the difference between successful and unsuccessful items.
  3. Look for commonalities.
  4. Generate predictions (templates).
  5. Optional: Look for items from other fields and blend them.

2. Scoreboard principle

Measurement leads to improvement. If you want to drink more water, keep score of intake. Increase focus on work, keep track of uninterrupted minutes. Keeping score makes you more mindful. “What gets measured is improved”. The core of this principle is to create measures to get insight in your behavior. To have concrete points to improve. But how do you do this?

How do you define measurements?

Make a definition of success, split it up in scores. The goal could be to workout more. The definition of success could be three different scores:

  • Workout time, at least 15 minutes per day.
  • Intensity, sweating during the workout.
  • Enjoyment, feeling good afterwards.

These are concrete points you can grade yourself on after a workout. You can do this with anything you want to achieve. Keeping scores gives you immediate feedback to a particular task, day or week.

Counter measurements

How do you make sure these measurements won’t conflict?: “There should be opposite metrics to every metric. So let’s say exercise. If you spend too much time doing it, it will take time away from work and give you a lower score for that. Therefore, every metric should have a counter metric. For better balance.”

3. Analyse metrics

The third takeaway is a combination of the first two. Your collection and the scoreboard principle. You can improve yourself by analysing the “best of” items in your collection. With the central question: Which metrics are higher?. By example, the most watched Ted talk is “Do schools kill creativity?” by Ken Robinson. In his talk he argues against the current school system and proposes alternatives. Upon further examination, this Ted talk contains a lot of anecdotes. I added the video at the end of this post.

Anecdote example:  “I heard a great story recently — I love telling it — of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. She was six, and she was at the back, drawing, and the teacher said this girl hardly ever paid attention, and in this drawing lesson, she did. The teacher was fascinated. She went over to her, and she said, “What are you drawing?” And the girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” And the teacher said, “But nobody knows what God looks like.” And the girl said, “They will in a minute.” (Source)

The insight in these metrics can help you improve yourself, by adopting them. Of course these metrics are not the only part of the success formula. There are personal differences, maybe you aren’t as charismatic or academic as Ken Robinson. But the fact that you analyse metrics and adopt them gives you an edge.

4. Practice in three dimensions

Practice will always be part of becoming successful. But how can we optimize the process of practice? According to Ron Friedman the best way to do this is by practising in three dimensions:


Reflective practice. Taking the time to look back on past performance. You can distill insights by comparing your current practice. You could do this by journaling, you have journals for every day with five slots, each slot is one year. This makes you reflective because you will get confronted with the thing you did a year ago on that day. It reminds you of fears and wins you had. Sometimes it helps to be reminded. This will help you improve going forward.


Practice in the present. Focus on elements that are falling short, you will get feedback right away. This is the most common way of practising.


Visualising your practice beforehand on a practical level. Going through a day ahead of time. This is popular with celebrities, by example Jim Carrey uses visualisation this for acting. Visualising success itself can be demotivating. Visualising the work (what is within control) is better. Because you anticipate on possible situations. It takes away thinking during the moment, you don’t want to think on the spot. The visualisation becomes successful because you consciously prepare the work in advance.

How is decoding greatness related to Know Act Invest?

Decoding greatness is related to all phases of Know Act Invest. By using metrics you can discover the formula behind success (Know). You can build a collection to sharpen your definition of masterpieces, this will enable you to create templates for new projects. (Act) Also we learnt that practising in three dimensions can improve results. You can rate your investment of time by using the scoreboard principle. (Invest)

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Want to learn more about decoding greatness?

Then I recommend Ron Friedman’s book: Decoding Greatness: How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success (as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases) This blog post provided you with information to start decoding greatness. The book is the complete guide with more detailed information.

Further reading