How to Teach Yourself to Think Like a Creative Genius

Yes, you can reverse engineer success. Here's how, according to a new book by a social psychologist who studies top performance.
Young woman sitting on table thinking. (Getty Images)

Most of us grew up with two basic stories about success. The first story is that greatness comes from talent. The second story is that  greatness comes from practice. But there's a third story--one that's not often told, but which represents the path that an astonishing number of top performers, from writers and artists to investors and entrepreneurs, have used for generations. It involves mastering a skill called reverse engineering.

In my new book, Decoding Greatness: How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success (Simon & Schuster), I take a hard look at how those at the very top of their professions--think Steve Jobs, Simone Biles, and Barack Obama--got there. What I discovered is that the stories we've been told about success are wrong. The book debunks a wide range of success myths, and provides a science-based road map for learning quickly, elevating creativity, and succeeding faster. Here are a few of the highlights.

There's a faster way to learn new skills

Reverse engineering means studying the best in a field and working backward to figure out how they did it. In Silicon Valley, there's a long history of coders deconstructing winning products to learn how they were made. It's how we got the personal computer, laptops, and the iPhone.

There are a wide variety of strategies for reverse engineering. All of them involve looking for clues that reveal how an object was created and how it can be reproduced. Nonfiction authors will flip right to the bibliography at the end of a book to find the sources that went into it. Chefs will order dishes to go, so they can spread sauces out on a white plate and parse out ingredients. Photographers will scan images for clues, like the length of shadows that reveal the time of day and the location of a light source. In business, you can take a systematic approach to deconstructing outstanding work--whether it be a well-crafted memo, an arresting website, or a memorable speech--so that you can learn from the best and continuously upgrade your skills.

Creative geniuses think in blueprints

Working backward can help illuminate powerful business strategies embedded within the case studies of thriving companies. Consider Starbucks and Chipotle. They might seem like very different companies, but their success was built on the same business strategy: Find a customer experience that's thriving elsewhere and import it into your hometown. Starbucks took the Italian coffee bar experience and introduced it to Seattle, where nothing close existed. Chipotle took the successful burrito restaurants of San Francisco and brought them to Denver, where Mexican food was a novelty.

To outside observers, entrepreneurs can seem like prodigies. They seem to possess an uncanny ability to generate business ideas on demand. It's only once you start thinking in formulas that you see for yourself: Entrepreneurial opportunities are everywhere.

Don't just copy; evolve

Reverse engineering can help uncover a proven formula. But copying that formula wholesale rarely works. In fact, it's one of the most reliable ways of ensuring that your work isn't taken seriously. In Decoding Greatness, I offer six key strategies you can use to modify formulas. The first one is blending influences.

Creativity can come from anywhere, but it doesn't happen in isolation. Many of the technological innovations we take for granted today--ones that have fundamentally transformed our world--are, in fact, simply mash-ups of widely available concepts harvested from different domains. Steve Jobs didn't invent the MP3 player or the cellphone. But he led a team that found a way of combining the two, and created the iPhone. When you recognize that creativity comes from blending ideas, innovative solutions are easier to come by. This approach also grants you the freedom to embrace your natural curiosity and plunge down rabbit holes. Pursuing your interests is essential for finding the ingredients you need for your next creative breakthrough.

The takeaway

Creative superstars don't passively enjoy the works of others. Any time they encounter a remarkable work--whether it be a book, a website, or a speech--they pause to think, "What makes this different?" and "How can I apply this to my next project?" By habitually studying the best in a field and working backward to figure out how they did it, you too can boost your skills, elevate your performance, and spark creative insights.

This article was originally published on Inc Magazine.

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