The art of stealing well

5. General

The art of stealing well

Hope you had a memorable Diwali celebration with friends and family. Let me know if any of you tried the Story Housie game!

​Welcome to my content recommendations and reviews for Nov-21: a book, a podcast, articles and a couple of videos.

​​Let’s get started​.

1. Book

a. Decoding Greatness: The Hidden Strategy for Achieving Extraordinary Success’ by Ron Friedman

The year was 1983, and Steve Jobs was incensed.

​He had realised that a certain Bill Gates of Microsoft had gone ahead and launched his own operating system, something called Windows.

​Here’s how the author describes what happened next:

Jobs was livid. After all, Gates wasn’t a competitor—he was a vendor.

​It was almost too baffling to comprehend. Jobs had personally handpicked Microsoft to develop software for Apple’s computers. He’d been good to Gates. He had traveled with him to conferences, invited him onstage at Apple events, treated him as a member of his inner circle. And this was how he was being repaid?

​“Get Bill Gates down here,” he demanded of his Microsoft handler. “Tomorrow!” It didn’t matter that Gates was at the other end of the country. Jobs got his wish.

​The following day, Apple’s boardroom filled with its top brass. Jobs wanted bodies—a show of force when Microsoft’s team arrived. A showdown was about to take place, and he wasn’t about to be outnumbered.

​He need not have bothered. To everyone’s surprise, Microsoft didn’t send a team. Gates arrived alone, ambling awkwardly in to face the firing squad.

​Jobs wasted little time tearing into him. “You’re ripping us off!” he yelled, his underlings glaring, all eyes on Gates. “I trusted you, and now you’re stealing from us!”

​Gates took it in quietly. He paused a moment, not once looking away. Then he casually delivered a devastating line, rendering the entire room speechless: “Well, Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox, and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”

It turns out, it wasn’t just Gates who was copying ideas. Jobs had done it too. Their target: the famed Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) of the Xerox Corporation.

​It was the Xerox PARC which had first developed the personal computer, featuring the then-revolutionary graphical user interface. Why did they not launch it then?

​Here’s that critical part of the story:

Xerox had a blind spot. Its executives, many of whom had come of age in the 1940s and ’50s, considered typing the domain of secretaries. They simply could not conceive of a world in which computers were a household item. Which may explain why they were so cavalier about granting demonstrations of the Alto to many visitors, including one in 1979 to Steve Jobs.

​Jobs was instantly captivated. “You’re sitting on a gold mine,” he told the Xerox engineer tasked with showing him the Alto. As the presentation went on, Jobs could barely sit still. He grew increasingly animated, visibly struggling to contain his excitement. At one point he blurted out, “I can’t believe Xerox is not taking advantage of this.”

​Afterward, he jumped into his car and sped back to the office. Unlike those plodding Xerox executives, he fully recognized the significance of this invention. Jobs believed he’d been offered a glimpse of the future, and he wasn’t about to wait until Xerox figured it out. “This is it!” he told his team. “We’ve got to do it!”

​Overnight, developing a mouse-driven graphic user interface became Apple’s central focus. Except they weren’t trying to copy the Alto. Jobs thought he could do better. He would simplify the mouse down to a single button. He would leverage the computer’s graphics capabilities to produce artistic fonts. And he would find a technological solution to slashing the Alto’s exorbitant price tag, bringing personal computers to the masses.

​But before he could do any of that, Jobs would debrief his team. He would share everything he remembered about the Alto, detailing its features, capabilities, and design. They were going to work backward, mapping out what it did to approximate how it had been assembled, with the goal of leveraging that information to develop a groundbreaking new machine.

That gripping story is how social psychologist, Ron Friedman starts this book on reverse-engineering greatness.

‘Good artists copy. Great artists steal.’ Steve Jobs was fond of using this quote. He was probably misquoting Picasso, who was himself basing it on someone else’s words – all of which seem appropriate for this quote.

We all take inspiration from the work and behaviour of others. This book teaches us how to get really good at that game.

I was introduced to this book when Tiago Forte did an interview with its author. When Tiago recommends something, you listen. And I’m glad I did.

In the book, Ron offers a framework with several actionable tactics to improve the way we learn from experts.

Now, I know what you are thinking – copying is a terrible thing – it pays to be original and no one likes derivative work! But Ron makes two points to dispel that belief.

1. He shares several examples of famous artists who copied from other greats

For instance, from literature:

…copywork, a technique popularized by Benjamin Franklin and practiced by literary greats F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack London, and Hunter Thompson. It involves studying an exceptional piece of writing, setting it aside, and then re-creating it word for word from memory, later comparing your version to the original.

And painting:

Many of the painters we now celebrate as creative geniuses devoted a significant portion of their careers to copywork. Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Mary Cassatt, Paul Gauguin, and Paul Cézanne all developed their skills by copying the works of the French painter Eugène Delacroix. Delacroix himself spent years copying the Renaissance artists he grew up admiring. And even those Renaissance greats—Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo—honed their craft by reproducing the work of their fellow artists, including one another.

Also, non-fiction writing:

Another (technique), popular among nonfiction writers, is to leaf through the endnotes section at the back of a book and examine the original sources an author used to construct their piece. It’s the writer’s equivalent of enjoying a delicious meal at a restaurant and then raiding the chef’s pantry to uncover the ingredients.

2. Ron also points out a nuance in the argument between copying and reverse engineering

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.

And later:

The alternative to reverse engineering isn’t originality. It’s operating with intellectual blinders.

After establishing the need to apply reverse engineering principles, Ron shares several actionable tactics to do it well.

I’ll be honest – I don’t agree with all of his suggestions. But some of them have been eye-opening. Here are a few which I found most influential.

1. Become a collector

Let’s say you really admired something you read online. Normally you might read it and then continue browsing. What Ron suggests is to have a system to store it for later use:

The first step to achieving greatness is recognizing it in others. When you come across examples that move you, capture them in a way that allows you to revisit, study, and compare them to other items in your collection. When we think of collections, we tend to think of physical objects, like artwork, wine, or stamps. That definition is too limited. Copywriters collect headlines, designers collect logos, consultants collect presentation decks. Tour your collection as you would a private museum that you visit to find inspiration, study the greats, and remind yourself to think big.

Apps like Evernote and Notion are great to capture, store, tag and easily access your private collection. Head over to Tiago Forte’s blog if you’d like to explore more on this front. This article is a good place to start.

2. Spot the differences

Having spotted something great, Ron asks us to go one step further:

To learn from your favorite examples, you need to pinpoint what makes them unique. When you encounter works that resonate with you, make a habit of reflecting on a single question: “What’s different about this example?” By comparing the stellar to the average, you can pinpoint key ingredients that give a work its flavor and identify particular elements that can be incorporated or evolved elsewhere.

This resonated with me, since Ron’s essentially asking us to look for norm-variance – something which I have coined and written about before.

3. Think in blueprints

This is the core part of breaking down good work – trying to find the structure and principles which underpin its creation.

Nearly every example you admire was developed using a blueprint: chefs utilize recipes, writers employ outlines, web designers work off site maps. Instead of attempting to re-create a fully realized work, inject a level of abstraction and draft a high-level outline. By working backward and crafting a blueprint, you will find patterns that demystify complex works.


Reverse outlining is traditional outlining’s sneakier, more provocative cousin. It doesn’t involve listing the important arguments you intend to include in the future. Rather, it entails working backward and outlining the major points contained within a completed piece.

It works because it prompts us to do something unnatural: take in the entirety of a piece all at once. That’s vastly different from the way we typically experience a creative work. When we read a book or watch a movie, we can’t help but focus on a small sliver of the performance—the scene unfolding in one particular moment.

We can finally stop staring at the brushstrokes and textures and cracks, take a few steps back, and admire the complete canvas.

The Pyramid Principle is a great tool to use if you’d like to create a reverse outline. Here’s the e-book that I created with examples of how this can be applied to speeches, presentations etc.

Finally he cautions us to take inspiration from others’ work, but give it our own unique twist:

The right question, therefore, is not “How do I write like Malcolm Gladwell?” It’s “How do I take Gladwell’s formula and make it my own?”

4. Reflect

I’ve written about the importance of reflection for knowledge workers. This book suggests journalling as a technique to reflect on your learnings more deliberately.

Developing a daily practice to pause, reflect, and strategize can yield substantial benefits that compound over time. We’ve already seen how reflective practice can foster quicker learning, higher confidence, and deeper knowledge. That’s just the beginning. Writing about daily events has also been shown to help us process emotions, quiet anxiety, and diminish stress. By placing our own narrative spin on events, we no longer feel as if events are happening to us. Writing about our lives tips the scales, restoring our sense of control.

Journaling by hand, in particular, forces us to slow down. Because most adults think faster than they write, we’re compelled to pause and reflect as we wait for our hand to catch up, examining our thoughts in a way that rarely occurs on a busy day. This simple practice can yield surprisingly profound insights, not unlike when a therapist repeats your words back to you, illuminating a hidden motive or a limiting belief.

He then offers a specific way to execute this: the five-year journal.

I want to highlight a particular kind of journaling that I have found to be especially useful in promoting self-reflection, learning, and skill development: the five-year journal.

A number of different versions of these journals are sold in bookstores, and they all have one thing in common: they feature five blocks for entries on the same calendar date—one for each consecutive year. Each day, journalers handwrite a few lines in the space provided. Then, one year after starting, something magical happens. They revisit the page of their original entry and, after entering a few observations on the present day, have the opportunity to review the entry they wrote on the same day the previous year.

I give every coaching client I work with a five-year journal because I have found it to be an invaluable tool for discovery and growth. In addition to sparking self-reflection through nightly journaling, rereading entries strengthens memory for past events and helps you detect patterns in both your professional and personal lives.

I found this practice to be a fascinating one, and was inspired to start some form of journalling after reading about it. And so I did!

So, it’s not handwritten and I’m not using the five-year journal… but it is something that I try to do everyday and something that I’m quite excited about. I will write about it in the subsequent weeks, once I have continued to do it for a reasonable period of time!

In addition to the above, the book offers several other techniques to improve the way we learn from good work. As mentioned earlier, not all of them resonated with me. But the way I look at it, if a book can give me even one good idea which alters how I work or live, it has more than fulfilled it’s job.

And this book has done that.

2. Podcast

a. The Rest is History by Dominic Sandbrook and Tim Holland: Silicon Valley

In this fascinating two-part episode, historians Dominic Sandbrook and Tim Holland interview Marc Andressen. Marc, the co-founder of the storied VC firm ‘Andreesen Horowitz’, is Silicon Valley royalty.

He is a great guest to talk to, given he helped shape the internet’s early history by co-creating Mosiac and co-founding Netscape in the early 1990s. I found his description of ‘Eternal September‘ fascinating.

Listen to this conversation for an insightful deep-dive into the history of Silicon Valley.

3. Articles

a. ‘Humans of New York’ by Brandon Stranton

In 2010, bond trader Brandon Stranton embarked on a photography project – to capture 10,000 New York residents and create “an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants”.

Along the way, Brandon started interviewing his subjects – and just like that his project evolved from a collection of images to a collection of stories.

This Marie Claire article has chosen to showcase some of the best stories from that collection.

My favourite was the one with the young kid:

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”


“Why do you want to be a fireman?”

“I said Ironman!”

b. Tweet thread on the metaverse by Shaan Puri

The metaverse got a bunch of publicity with the Facebook announcement. It would have left a lot of folks scratching their heads though – um, what is this ‘metaverse’ thing?

This short tweet thread is the best explanation I came across. According to the author, the metaverse is not a place, but a point in time. A point where the online world will matter to us more than the offline world.

Here’s an extract of some thought-provoking ideas from the thread:

Most people think “the metaverse” is a virtual place.

Like in the movie Ready Player One.

​A virtual world, like Minecraft, Roblox, or like Zuck showed in the Facebook demo yesterday.

But what if it’s not a place?

It’s Not a Place, It’s a Time. The metaverse is the moment in time where our digital life is worth more to us than our phsyical life.

Every important part of life is going digital.

Work –> from factories to laptops. boardrooms to zooms.

Friends –> from neighbors to followers.

Where do you find like minded people? Twitter. Reddit. etc.

Games –> more kids play fortnite than basketball & football combined.

Everything goes digital. Your friends, your job, your identity. And now with crypto, your assets are online too.

Bored Apes are the new Rolex. Fortnite skins are the new skinny jeans. If everyone hangs out online all the time, then your flexes need to be digital.

So if you play this forward another 10-20 years – we will cross into the metaverse.

The moment in time where digital matters more to us than physical.

4. Videos

a. ‘Inner Workings’ (6:23)

This beautiful animated short will tug at your heartstrings. The tale of a bored office-goer whose heart wants to let go and have fun, but whose brain keeps holding him back! No prizes for guessing which organ eventually wins the tussle.

Check out the hilarious scenes with the bladder 🙂

It was used as an educational video in my son’s school. I really enjoyed watching it with him!

b. India Ink – videos on Indian history

India Ink describes itself as “a public history project that simplifies complicated ideas from Indian history that are relevant to today’s debates.”

It is rare to come across high-quality and engaging content on Indian history – India Ink does that.

Founded by three young folks with backgrounds in history and journalism, it does a vital job in picking up popular misconceptions and countering them with fact-based storytelling.

The visuals and pop-culture references make the videos an engaging watch.

c. The world at night (5:43)

A stunning video which combines several satellite pictures of the earth at night to tell the story of development on the planet. It vividly answers questions such as – Which are the most developed regions on Earth and which are the least? Why?

Let the lights guide you on this journey of discovery

That’s it folks: my recommended reads, listens and views for the month.

Take care and stay safe.

Photo by Federica Galli on Unsplash

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