This week, we’re discussing the concept of “stealing like an artist,” which is actually the title of a fantastic book by Austin Kleon that I highly recommend. My approach to this topic differs slightly from his, but I believe many of the principles he discusses in his book are invaluable and well worth a read. Today, however, we’re focusing on imitation and how it’s not only the sincerest form of flattery but also the most effective way to learn.
Have you ever spent time around young children? If so, you’ve likely noticed that their learning methods differ significantly from those of adults. It’s peculiar how our learning strategies evolve throughout our lives. Children, in particular, have a unique approach to learning: imitation. My daughter, who is on the cusp of turning three, is at a stage where she parrots everything she hears. It’s both amusing and mortifying, however, she isn’t trying to be funny or embarrass us; she’s merely attempting to comprehend her world. The best way for her to do this is through imitation, by repeating the phrases she hears and the actions she observes. By doing so, she can understand the context in which they best fit into the world.
Imitation is the quickest way to learn, not just for children, but for everyone. There’s a saying that if you’re teaching someone a skill, you should first demonstrate it, then have them perform it with you, then watch them do it independently, and finally, have them teach it to someone else. A crucial element of this process is imitation. You perform the task first, and they follow suit. As they repeat the action, you gradually step back. This is interesting because not only does imitating others accelerate learning, but imitating ourselves is the key to mastery. When we discuss repetition in skill acquisition, we’re essentially talking about self-imitation. We don’t perform the task identically each time; instead, we adapt it based on our contextual understanding of the action.
For instance, if I’m trying to write a compelling character and I write a few sentences that seem flat upon review, I delete them and start over. I’m imitating my previous action, repeating the same task, but not copying it verbatim. We tend to associate imitation with an exact replica, likely due to annoying siblings who would parrot our words, leading to often humorous attempts to trick them into saying something foolish. However, there’s something inherently off-putting about exact copies. We detest being copied because it feels inauthentic. Consequently, we’re reluctant to imitate others.
There are two main reasons we resist imitation, which I’ll categorize as internal and external. Internally, we resist copying or being copied because we strive to be unique. Our desire to stand out and be special, driven by pride, compels us to avoid imitation. This stems from our transition from a childlike state to developing an independent ego. As we cultivate this ego, we believe we should differentiate ourselves from others, as this distinction forms our identity. This mindset discourages us from imitating others, thereby limiting our learning potential.
Externally, cultural norms discourage imitation. It’s considered inappropriate to mimic someone’s speech, retell their stories as our own, or imitate their mannerisms or style. Part of this is due to our increasing sensitivity to how such actions affect others. However, another factor is our cultural emphasis on individuality. We value independence and uniqueness over conformity, which constantly pushes us to stand out. Whether this is beneficial or not is beyond the scope of this discussion. Our aim is to understand our actions and motivations.
Historically, the most effective way to learn a new skill or trade was to observe someone experienced and replicate their actions. This was the essence of the apprenticeship system. You would study under a master of the craft and repeat their actions until you understood the context and could perform them independently. However, as our population grew rapidly, this system became unsustainable. It’s impossible to have one master for a million apprentices. Consequently, we transitioned to our current education system, which, despite its flaws, is more scalable. Instead of imitating a master, students are now instructed and expected to figure things out independently.
However, if you aspire to master a skill, the most efficient method is to spend time with someone who has already mastered it and imitate their actions. Many novice writers I encounter are eager to find their own voice. While there’s nothing wrong with this, your unique voice will naturally emerge over time. Instead of wasting time searching for it, you’d be better off honing your craft by imitating accomplished writers. If you can adopt their methods of constructing dialogue, weaving plots, pacing their novels, creating atmosphere, and choosing words, you’ll eventually find your own voice. It will be an amalgamation of these master-level techniques.
Your time would be better spent imitating as many people as possible. This is what will transform the words in your head into expert-level prose. So, the next time you hesitate to copy, dismiss that thought. Sit down and start copying. However, I want to clarify that I’m not suggesting you pass off someone else’s work as your own. It’s important to acknowledge the sources of our inspiration. But if you aspire to become an exceptional writer, the most effective way to achieve this is through imitation.
YouTube Video Link: https://youtu.be/wA5Kx88NUk4
Thanks for reading and watching.
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