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To improve any skill, imitate, then innovate. The more we imitate others, the quicker we can discover our own unique style.
But modern creators refuse to imitate others and insist on originality even when it comes at the expense of quality. They feel scared to imitate other people's styles and try to avoid those that can make them great.
It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.
Creators are intentional in what they consume. Consuming art is a product work for them.
For example, film directors watch movies to see how they're made, then borrow and build upon them in their own work. When George Lucas created Star Wars, he consulted the teachings of Joseph Campbell, who spent his career studying mythology and religion. Lucas’ artistic originality was enhanced by an imitative respect for Campbell’s work.
Innovation without imitation is a fool's strategy.
Einstein studied classical physicists for decades which enabled him to invent general relativity. Most original musicians spent hours practising scales to pick up on the creative powers of musicians they admire. Hunter S. Thompson once hand-wrote every word of the Great Gatsby to recreate what it feels to write a great novel. Rober Louis Stevenson copied paragraphs he enjoyed and then rewrote them from memory.
Most imitation happened through apprenticeships.
Leonardo da Vinci had almost no formal schooling but got his first apprenticeship at 14. He then studied math, anatomy, drawing techniques and geometry. One of his master's most famous sculptures was of David. Later, da Vinci's painted David resembled his masters.
However, today we replace apprenticeships with efficiency and train at professional art schools. As apprenticeships decline, so does imitative learning.
Any skill that is difficult to put the core knowledge into works is a skill that should be developed through imitative learning. These skills have many subtleties that are best learned in conversation with a master or through watching them—for example, cooking. Following a recipe can help you make a meal, but it won't turn you into Gordon Ramsay.
Creative work is similar. Reading a lot of good writing is possibly the best way to become a good writer.
The best innovators combine near imitations with far ones.
The surest sign of an amateur is someone who values originality as their ultimate goal. Instead, they should value quality. They won't become original by getting the Originality Disease because pursuing originality too directly can lead to the opposite.
In the words of C.S. Lewis, "No man who cares about originality will ever be original. It's the man who's only thinking about doing a good job or telling the truth who becomes really original—and doesn't notice it."
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