When to Emulate and When to Originate

By Jalene Case

In school, we’re always told never to copy a fellow student’s work. That’s cheating! It’s a forbidden, punishable, no-no. But as you move through life, you may find that there are times when imitation can be a valuable technique, especially when you’re in the process of learning a new skill. However, you’ll soon find that to reach the next level of success, you must move from emulation to developing your own expertise. 

After 35 years of working for other companies, I decided to go out on my own almost two years ago. As I built my business, I earned several certifications, received challenge and support from my coach, and was inspired by many people along the way.

I’ve been climbing a steep learning curve. Recently, I hit a plateau. After taking stock of where I had been and where I envisioned going, I saw the next mountain to climb. It was time to stop emulating the people and programs I had learned from, and start refining my own voice and style.

Imagine your teachers, coaches, and mentors as training wheels on a bicycle. If you’re going to truly have fun and excel at riding, you need to lose the training wheels! Yes, you’re going to wobble. You’re going to fall down. Then, you’re going to feel the wind in your hair and have a blast riding!

Here are tips to move from mimicry to “my way:”

Do It Your Way

Use all the material you’ve learned and then, unlearn it, and do it your way.

Frank Boyden, a founder of the nearly 50-year-old Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, envisioned a place where artists could come unlearn all the stuff they had learned in the Masters of Fine Arts programs. He knew that while an education is important, eventually an artist must develop his or her own creative voice to truly be successful.

How can you inject a bit of your voice the next time you’re practicing a new skill? For example, in becoming a better leader. What idea have you held back from sharing with your team? Share it in your way at the next meeting.

Teach, Present, Write

The best way to learn something—and to find your own voice in it—is to teach it! Challenge yourself to teach a class, present an hour-long Lunch & Learn session, or write an article or blog post.

For example, you could learn about presentation skills by attending Toastmasters meetings or watching Ted Talks. After being inspired by people who do it well, find a place to practice speaking in your voice. Volunteer to present at your local Chamber of Commerce, Rotary organization, or other groups that interest you.

Good Theft vs. Bad Theft

Emulating another person’s style or work does not mean flat-out copying it and presenting it as your own. I believe it means paying attention to what you notice other people doing that sparks something inside you. For me, there’s an inner voice I sense that says something like, “Wow! That’s cool!” or “Ooooo, I’d love to learn how to do it like that,” or “Oh. I never thought of doing it that way. I like that.”

In Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon lays it out like this:

Good Theft                                        Bad Theft

Honor                                                 Degrade

Study                                                  Skim

Steal from many                                Steal from one

Credit                                                 Plagiarize

Transform                                          Imitate

Remix                                                 Rip off

Let’s be good thieves, not bad thieves!

You’ve Got It In You

Years ago, I said to my therapist, “My dad drives me crazy because he’s so judgmental!” To my horror, she said, “You know that when we notice something in someone else, it’s because we have it in us, too.” Nooooo! That was not what I wanted to hear, even though she was spot-on.

Since then I’ve learned that the opposite is also true. When I notice a leader who is willing to be authentic, to boldly say what he or she believes, and generously share to help others, I remind myself that I’m capable of that also.

Who are the people that inspire you? What exactly is it that you notice? Know that you also have that quality inside you. What would it look like to express it?

Create for the First Time

Does your work involve designing documents, presentations, videos, forms, systems, websites, etc.? Mine does. I deeply appreciate that building things like that takes a lot of time, energy, and expertise. (I feel the pain!) When people offer to share their work with me, I quickly say, “Yes! Thank you!”

For example, I have used another person’s PowerPoint presentation as a foundation and then customized it with my style. Often when I need to build a new system or process, I ask my Mastermind group members how they do it and then tweak it for myself. Website design inspiration comes from bookmarking websites I love so that when it’s time for me to make changes, I have fuel to stimulate my creative juices.

Wrapping It Up

Children imitate parents. Mentees mirror the style of mentors. Students regurgitate the right answers for exams. Emulation and education help us grow—to a point. Have the courage to kick off those training wheels and ride all-out! Ethically, honorably, and intentionally use the work of others and then, do it your way.