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Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Learning

Copying may be enough, and it's usually prerequisite to quality creativity.

Key points

  • Imitation is an underappreciated way to learn both the basics and as a foundation for creativity.
  • A wealth of videos of masters demonstrating their craft are available on YouTube.
  • In a perhaps surprisingly large number of careers, copying is an effective tool for learning.

Imitation has a bad reputation. It’s often viewed as the inferior effort of an uncreative person.

Nben54, Wikimedia, CC 4.0
Source: Nben54, Wikimedia, CC 4.0

But whether you’re a beginner or a pro, imitating a master can be valuable. For one, it allows your work to be influenced by the greats. Having even partly mastered the imitation, your creativity is then likely to have a stronger foundation.

Imitation can also help you learn the basics better than if you were taught them. For example, watching a master paraphrase client statements can be more instructive and motivating than a lecture.

Even if you add no creativity to your imitation, your effort can be worthy. Isn’t there value even in a half-decent copy of the Mona Lisa?

Other examples:

Counselor

An aspiring or practicing psychotherapist would do well to watch, take notes on, and imitate favorite techniques, statements, and questions seen on videos of master practitioners. Here are three such collections:

University of Kentucky professor Joseph Hammer aggregated these.

Psychotherapy.net offers this collection.

Here is the series of videos offered by the American Psychological Association.

Parent

imagine that you’re struggling in parenting your child. It might well help to watch parenting videos or even hire a coach to watch you, role play problem situations, and then try to imitate the coach.

Working better

A client who lamented being inefficient watched me for an hour at my home office. He said that, only in seeing what I do, was he able to change. He now copies much of my approach to preparing meals, answering email, and, yes, how I work on my Psychology Today posts.

Games

Whether it's a sport, a craft, or a board game, imitation is often helpful. Even chess grandmasters have memorized classic openings and endgames. With those in tow, the grandmaster's mind is free to deviate into creativity.

Medical health provider

An old axiom in training physicians and nurses in how to do procedures is admittedly a little frightening: “See one, do one, teach one.” Just one?! But yes, seeing a procedure being done and then imitating it may well be of more value than just reading the steps in a textbook.

Salesperson

A standard component of good sales training is to have the trainee accompany the master on a sales call. The novice then is wise to do some imitation.

The arts

I learned to play the piano by ear by trying to play along with my favorite masters, especially Peter Nero. This is the song I most remember trying to imitate. I never could fully imitate him, but I learned enough from trying. That mimicry has been infinitely more valuable than the piano lessons I took—I can barely read music but can play by ear. Here’s something I just recorded.

How?

So, how might you incorporate imitation into your life?

  1. What are you trying to learn or improve? Think both of your professional and personal life.
  2. Who might you want to imitate: someone you know? A master on video? Sometimes even audio can help.
  3. Take notes on what you see or hear. New ideas tend to evanesce. As every counselor knows, even when a session yields an important insight, the client may come to the next session having forgotten what it was, let alone implemented it.
  4. Practice what you’d like to imitate. Sometimes, you’ll want to keep at it until you can imitate it perfectly, but other times, you reach a point of diminishing returns before that.
  5. Evaluate how well imitation is helping you. Adjust accordingly.
  6. Now, if you wish, add your imprimatur: that touch or three of creativity that makes it your own.

The takeaway

Today’s society venerates creativity over imitation, but imitation can both be prerequisite to quality mastery and be worthy in itself—a good copy is worthy. And yes, imitation can also be the sincerest form of flattery.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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