Are You Trying to Be Too Original? What I Learned About the Value of Imitation from China

One of the things that fascinates me about China is the culture of copying.

When my book, Learn More, Study Less, was published in China, they wanted to use the illustrations in the book. But these were just hand-drawn by me to go in an ebook I made while in university. I’m not a professional illustrator by any means, so they decided to redo the images.

Interestingly enough, they didn’t create their own images for the concepts. They simply redid the illustrations I had made, but made them better. The same images were smoother, with crisper details and better shapes.

What struck me when I first saw this, was that the illustrator who redid my images probably could have created better concepts for images as well. But instead, he or she simply remade better versions of what I had originally drawn.

This culture of imitation in China is often criticized in the West. In some cases, accusations of plagiarism are launched because the imitation is too close to the original. Consider this back and forth between Conan and Da Peng, over the Chinese comedian’s use of an almost identical opening sequence as the American late-night host.

I don’t condone plagiarism, but I think, in spite of the Western media attention to the contrary, there is something valuable about the Chinese way of thinking. It’s also something that we can probably learn from.

Imitating an Exemplar

From my admittedly insufficient exposure to Chinese culture, I get the sense of a focus on learning by way of copying from an exemplar.

What I remember of learning to write the alphabet in school was that the basic form is drawn. If it legibly matches the letter symbol, you’ll get a passing grade. While there’s certainly instruction on how to produce the letters, there’s also flexibility in terms of the order and direction of the strokes.

Chinese characters are quite different. Strokes must not only match exactly in length, shape and position, but they must also be done in the correct order and direction. Drawing a downstroke up or a right stroke before a left stroke isn’t a stylistic choice, it’s wrong.

Consider also my friend and Chinese resident John Pasden’s account of his daughter’s first Chinese coloring book. Each drawing was given not only a pre-colored example to copy, but also a space for parents to grade their child’s ability to copy the example identically.

Many Westerners find this rigid style of imitation abhorrent. It stifles creativity, forces learning by rote and suppresses individual expression. Even I balked when I first heard the coloring book story.

But I also grew up in Canada, so many unquestioned assumptions I hold about the value of creativity and originality are cultural inheritances. Being unquestioned, there’s certainly a possibility that these values are wrong, or lack universal applicability. That interests me, and I’d like to explore it further.

When Do You Really Need to Be Original?

Western values place such a high premium on both originality and creativity, that it’s hard to think of situations where it could possibly be a negative.

But, in contrast, I’d argue that the majority of skills, knowledge and output we want to have shouldn’t be original at all. Even the most creative works, such as art and writing, quality probably comes from being only about 10% original and 90% imitative of prior work.

Consider being an engineer or a surgeon. I certainly don’t want a structural engineer to be original in his understanding of physical formulas when deciding whether a building is stable. I wouldn’t want my cardiac surgeon to “think different” in the middle of a quadruple bypass.

What about creative professions like writers, filmmakers and artists? Well even here, I’d argue that creative genius is about 10% originality and 90% imitation. Quentin Tarantino is famous for being one of the most distinctive filmmakers, but his shots and scenes are borrowed heavily from films he admires. His ability isn’t in creating something completely original, but in adding just enough originality to make it his own.

(Warning, it’s Tarantino so NSFW)

Even in art, the most creative endeavor, originality is a spice to be added, not the meat.

Imitate First, Invent Later

The Chinese model appears to me to be: imitate first, invent later. Meaning, the goal of the student isn’t to create novel works, but to master the repertoire of techniques of the master faithfully. Once this has been achieved, then, now as a master, he or she can successfully create new works.

Stated as such, I’m not sure I disagree with this model. If even in our most creative works, unique skills are dwarfed by the presence of imitated skills, it would be reasonable to think that, as students of a skill, we will spend the majority of our time learning by copying instead of learning through original expression.

Some might argue that, even if they form a smaller percentage of the total, creative synthesis skills are much harder than their imitative components, so we should focus on that. Here, I’m not sure I agree.

Being an excellent entrepreneur, writer or painter does require original ideas. But the thing that separates the lousy from the great is rarely the ideas—it’s the execution. What’s execution, if not the plethora of imitative skills one needs to master first? If you’re incredible at execution, it seems almost trivial to now funnel that ability into an original idea.

Imitate Without Plagiarizing

I personally believe the cultural norms against copying are currently too strict. Reusing a sentence you’ve written previously makes you a plagiarist these days. People should be freer to remix and build upon others’ work.

But that doesn’t mean I endorse the opposite view, that completely copying someone’s creative work is okay, either as a creator or consumer.

Instead, I’d prefer to take a middle position. That, at the very least, one must meet the standard of originality defined by laws and cultural norms. As a writer, that means I shouldn’t reuse whole sentences without quotations, or reuse whole ideas without attribution. (In fact, my ideal world would have increased flexibility for copying along with increased attribution, not less.)

But that, given the importance of imitation in even highly creative works, and considering that most of us are perpetual students of our craft, that we shouldn’t aspire to being 100% original. We should spend more time studying, and imitating, the people and works we admire. Imitate enough people and sources, and eventually the combination will result in something uniquely yours.

Paradoxical Virtues

In this recent conversation between Tyler Cowen and Peter Thiel, Cowen asks the billionaire start-up investor what kind of talent is underrated:

“It’s difficult to reduce [talent] to any single traits, because a lot of what you’re looking for are these Zen-like opposites. You want people who are both really stubborn and really open-minded. You want people who are really idiosyncratic and different, but work well together in teams.”

This is an idea I’ve thought about a lot as well, that many of the qualities you want to cultivate in yourself are seemingly contradictory. I can think of many examples:

  • Confidence + Humility
  • Consistency + Spontaneity
  • Persistence + Flexibility
  • Imagination + Skepticism
  • Vision + Attention to Detail
  • Social Intuition + Nonconformity
  • Extroverted Socializing + Introverted Thinking

The list goes on and on. In each case, seemingly opposite, or near-opposite, traits both appear to be valuable.

Is it Possible to Have Both Opposites in One Person?

Thiel, in his assessment on who makes the best employees or entrepreneurs seems to think so. And although it seems to defy logic, I tend to agree. I’ve personally met many people that embody seemingly opposite virtues in a unified personality, without the two simply averaging out to meet in the middle.

One of my heroes, Richard Feynman, embodied many seemingly paradoxical virtues.

He was a man of great focus, winning a Nobel in physics. But he was also intellectually varied, learning as diverse skills as lock picking, Portuguese and the bongo drums.

He had an incredible imagination, allowing him to visualize concepts and teach what he knew. But it was also combined with deep skepticism, aware of both the limitations of his own knowledge, and knowledge in general.

Or consider someone like Steve Jobs, who had incredible vision but also ruthless attention to detail. One story claims when Jobs was presented with one of the first prototypes for the iPhone, he dropped it in a fishbowl. When bubbles came out, he argued that was proof that the engineers had left space inside and could make it even smaller.

I’ve observed these seemingly paradoxical virtues in many of my friends, which suggests to me that they aren’t mythical qualities reserved for famous scientists and entrepreneurs.

Dealing with Paradox

If you think about these virtues, the most common way to deal with the paradox is to deny that one side of the paradox is actually a virtue.

This is a popular strategy in big-idea books. In the book, Smile or Die, Barbara Ehrenreich attacks optimism, arguing it results in taking foolish risks and political apathy. In Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi argues against the self-made individual, arguing the path to the success must be made through other people. In Good to Great, Jim Collins argues against so-called “foxes” who know a little bit about a lot of things, instead favoring “hedgehogs” who know one thing very well.

But in each of these cases, I can think of counterexamples. Optimists who are prudent and politically minded. Self-made individuals who know how to network. People who have deeply specialized knowledge, but still have intellectual breadth.

I think a better way is to try to dig deeper. Instead of throwing out one half of a paradoxical virtue, just because it seems to contradict with another, see how people who maintain both manage to integrate them. This can lead to interesting discoveries for the nuances of how to get the benefits of two virtues with seemingly opposite tendencies:

Persistence + Flexibility. I suggest here that people who always finish what they start, yet don’t get stuck from stubbornness, maintain an internal distinction between types of projects. If they mentally label a project in one way, they can quit it without guilt. If they mentally label it another, they have to finish it. That distinction allows both qualities to exist in the same person.

Imagination + Skepticism. A possible solution might be that these people practice both, but at different points in time. Generating creative solutions in one phase, and ruthlessly breaking down and fixing those ideas in another.

Social Intuition + Nonconformity. Nonconformists who don’t seem off-puttingly weird might get away with it because they’re actually able to conform to many standard social cues, so when they do flaunt convention they can still be relatable.

Make an effort to look for people who hold seemingly opposite virtues and try to figure out how they maintain the contradiction. Sometimes, as you dig deeper, you might find that the balance is an illusion or it is maintained at a serious price. Other times, however, you may find little rules of thumb that allow the person to enjoy both sides of the paradox.