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Imitation vs. Inspiration
There are finite ideas in the world. What's the difference between imitating someone and being inspired by them?
“Through others we become ourselves.” ― Lev S. Vygotsky, 1934
You’ve probably noticed what happens when a company or some platform star stumbles on a viral success. Suddenly, everyone thinks this is the latest hot thing, and like lemmings, they race for the cliff.
And like lemmings, the results are pretty similar.
Why do we do this?
Throughout evolutionary development, mammals (not just humans) experiment and observe. When we discover that a particular plant is bitter or that fire is hot, we know to avoid it next time.
These observations help us make choices, including doubling down on the things that work. At one point, prehistoric man determined that it was easier to catch fish with a spear than with his hands. And his fellow tribesmen followed suit.
This is the simple process of imitation. It's easy and it helps us quickly succeed.
But imitation is lazy.
To me, it’s more intriguing to ponder inspiration.
You might say, “Imitation, inspiration ― po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to. . You’re just copying someone else's idea.”
Well, yes and no.
Certainly, there are a limited number of ideas out there. But it’s how we remix, recreate, and remold them to create a different expression.
“All of the great musicians have borrowed from the songs of the common people.” ― Antonin Dvořák
Inspiration is that spark, when observing something, that causes us to think just a little bit differently, and apply an idea in a new way. Inspiration requires deeper thinking and a fit with strategy and culture.
Henry Ford observed textile factories and meat-packing and processing plants, put the ideas together, and developed the moving assembly line for automotive manufacturing. He was inspired, but he didn’t imitate.
At a certain point, one of those village fisherman might have come across a group of fish trapped in seaweed. That, in turn, may have inspired him to create a net to catch many fish at once, rather than relying on the one-off of spear fishing.
If we take the ideas of others and simply copy them for our own purposes, we’re likely to see less success. It’s the lesson we should have learned from the infamous Oreo “dunk in the dark” tweet so many years ago. Every brand thought it could replicate the real-time marketing success of Oreo.
Leaders ought to be helping their teams understand what’s been successful ― and more importantly, why.
It’s easy to learn about what’s made others successful, but it takes more reflection and understanding to determine who you are and what drives you, whether you’re a brand or an individual.
By understanding yourself, you’ll be able to take your inspirations and apply them in a way that is authentically you.
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Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.