The following morning, Jobs collected his team and presented them with a challenge: "I want to make a tablet, and it can't have a keyboard or a stylus." He wasn't interested in duplicating Microsoft's efforts—he was going to evolve the idea they were developing and do them one better.
Six months later, Apple had a prototype—one that enabled users to type on a glass screen using only their fingers. "This is the future," Jobs declared upon seeing it. But instead of authorizing his team to proceed with production, he threw them for a loop. He suggested they apply this touch-sensitive technology to another project, one that had stymied Apple's engineers for months. For the time being, the tablet would be shelved.
A little over a year later, Steve Jobs stepped onto the stage of the annual Macworld Conference in San Francisco and held up a new product that would turn Apple into the world's most profitable company: the iPhone.
This time, it was Bill Gates's turn to feel outmaneuvered. Years later, he would reveal his initial reaction. "Oh my God," Gates remembered thinking, "Microsoft didn't aim high enough."
The rivalry of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates contains all the elements of a Shakespearean masterpiece: flawed protagonists, endless conflict, fallen alliances, betrayal, revenge, catharsis, even a tragic, early death. At its center are two remarkable characters—Jobs, the idealistic creative visionary, and Gates, the shrewd programming savant—and it is tempting to lavish all of our attention on their personalities, shortcomings, and genius.
But what makes their story especially fascinating is not just the complexities of who they were or the decades-long battle they waged over the future of personal computing. It's the overlooked process that quietly reappears again and again in both of their stories, somehow always playing a role behind their biggest innovations: reverse engineering.
Both Jobs and Gates reaped enormous benefit from studying the works of their contemporaries, extracting crucial insights, and applying those lessons to develop new products. And they are not alone. The history of computing is not a history of independent acts of brilliance. It is the story of probing innovators learning from one another, combining ideas from multiple sources, and introducing new products and technologies that evolve from those preceding them.
And while you might assume that reverse engineering has limited value outside the world of computing, its applications are surprisingly broad, actionable, and compelling. In fact, as you'll soon discover, reverse engineering is not just a favored tool of business titans—it's one commonly utilized by literary giants, prizewinning chefs, comedy legends, Hall of Fame musicians, and championship sports teams.
More important, it's one you can apply in your field to learn from your contemporaries, extract valuable ideas, and evolve your work in exciting new directions.
* * *
This book is presented in two parts.
Part I explores how standout performers across a variety of industries reverse engineer works they admire to unlock hidden insights, acquire new skills, and spark their creativity. We'll unpack their techniques and identify practices we can all use to find patterns, discern formulas, and pinpoint precisely what makes the work we gravitate toward resonant and unique.
From there, we'll discover the inherent drawback of outright duplication and examine the importance of modifying formulas in ways that combine winning blueprints with our unique strengths. As we will soon see, in a majority of cases, copying or over-relying on established recipes is a losing strategy that rarely results in memorable outcomes. Just as dangerous, however, is ignoring proven formulas altogether and overwhelming audiences with a flood of originality. We'll investigate why that is, learn how some of the most innovative people in the world successfully evolve formulas in ways that leverage (rather than violate) an audience's expectations, and discuss ways we can apply their strategies to our own work.
Part II is about transforming knowledge into mastery. It's one thing to reverse engineer the ingredients required to produce sensational work, and quite another to execute against that knowledge effectively.
Reverse engineering outstanding examples is often accompanied by an unsettling sensation: the recognition of a divide between the work you aim to produce and the skills you currently possess. The chapters in this section offer a road map for scaling this "vision-ability gap" using a range of evidence-based strategies that empower you to master new skills.
We'll learn how a simple scoreboard can fuel improvement, why most people's definition of practice is far too limited, and why the vast majority of feedback is surprisingly detrimental. We'll discover how experts predict the future (and what that teaches us about mastery), the ideal time to ask for feedback, and the best questions to ask an expert whose success you wish to deconstruct. And we'll identify a variety of practical opportunities for stretching our skills and pushing our abilities to soaring heights without jeopardizing our career or putting our reputation on the line.
Along the way, we'll encounter some fascinating people with extraordinary tales. We'll meet a famed artist who reverse engineered his way to the top of his profession without any formal education, a president whose historic election was a testament to the power of mash-ups, and a best-selling author whose inability to emulate his idols resulted in the creation of a new literary genre.
Throughout these pages, you'll come across a range of actionable strategies grounded in cutting-edge research. We'll cover dozens of peer-reviewed studies, drawn from a wide array of fields including neuroscience, evolutionary biology, human motivation, sports psychology, learning, memory, expertise, literature, film, music, marketing, business, and computer science—all of which shed new light on ways we can decode masterful performances, elevate our skills, and produce remarkable work.
This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life by Luke Burgis.