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Why Self-mastery Involves Copying Others

Why is it important to copy the ideas, work, and methods of other people? What’s the difference between imitation and innovation? What is the ideal master-apprentice relationship and why are they necessary?


Today’s “practical wisdom” post is a master-student comparison that serves to illustrate how choosing the right masters to copy, imitate, or apprentice is not only the smart thing to do but necessary to maximise authentic expression and achieve mastery yourself.

The Master (Wisdom)

The master knows that he is always both the student and teacher, follower and leader, because he knows there is always something new to learn, a deeper void to fill, and more to experience.

She also knows that the quickest way to learn and master something new is by following, learning, and modelling the proven methods of the individuals whose successes and results she would like to emulate.

So he copies the teacher/master’s work, word for word. Follows his ways, step by step. Why? Because the master knows that to reinvent the wheel absent the basic understanding of why and how the wheel came to exist in the first place would be to learn and invent nothing at all.

Instead, the master applies herself diligently according to her teacher’s ways. But and only until, she is able to emulate and reproduce the same results as that of her teacher’s.

Because it is at this point, that he has earned both the ability to leverage the momentum built up by those who have come before him and the right to put his own spin on to things (the wheel) and make it his own.

The master expresses her gratitude, prepares her things, and moves on so that she may thrive.

The Student (Extremism)

The student, who has not yet embraced his masterful side, learns through extremes.

On the one end, we have a student who is adamant to reinvent the wheel without mastering the basics. And on the other, we have a student who has become dependent on his teacher’s ways and thus fears doing things on his own.

The first student runs the risk of spending a lifetime learning what is already available (or the wrong things entirely). An extreme that usually leads to mediocre results or self-fulfilling prophecies as to why things don’t work.

The second student, who has idolised her teacher, runs the risk of crippling her own unique calling, talents, and creative expression. An extreme that usually leads to feelings of resentment, unworthiness, and un-fulfilment.

Neither extreme is bad or wrong. In fact, they are life’s primary tools by which to fashion a true life of mastery. But by realigning our misperceptions (the myths) and acting according to a more accurate model of reality (making it practical), we can expect to accelerate the process.

The Myths (What to Remember)

1. It is only innovation, creativity, or authenticity if it was built from scratch.

False. Does one need to manufacture one’s own canvas in order to be a unique artist? Of course not. Like a canvas, we all use existing materials (ideas, code, technology, bricks, etc.) as tested-and-proven building blocks with which to either improve upon or create anew.

2. If someone is better than you then he is probably worthier than thou too.

False. We are uniquely equal with the same intrinsic value expressed in different ways. Superiority is contextual. If you’re good at one thing then you probably suck at another.

The more time you spend developing one skill the less time you have to develop others. We therefore hire experts to make up for this lost time. Not to consume it through subordination.

3. You are either a student, or a master, but not both.

False. You are always learning how to improve or do something new from those with contextual superiority and teaching others with contextual inferiority. There will always be more to learn and others to teach. The trick is to embrace both sides equally. This is mastery.

Making it Practical (What to Do)

  1. Opportunity: Embrace every opportunity you get to learn relevant knowledge and skills from established experts.
  2. Discernment: Identify the true capabilities and authenticity of the expert before hiring him/her. Does he walk his talk? What’s his track record? What are others saying?
  3. Willingness: Adopt an open mind. Be flexible. Respect the process. But do not confuse contextual superiority (admirable skill) with personal superiority (false ego-based authority). You are an equal partner in the student-master relationship.
  4. Imitate/Copy: Copy the expert’s words, actions, and methods verbatim. Do this at least a couple of times. If you don’t, you won’t know why something worked or didn’t work.
  5. Evaluate: If the process worked for you. You probably know why and can replicate the results. If they didn’t, you either didn’t follow suit or overlooked step two.
  6. Personalise: Once you’ve identified the essentials, learnt how to replicate the master’s results (or how to spot a fraud), you are now ready to move on and make it your own.

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