You see, many insects protect themselves by mimicking the appearance of ‘badder insects’, the sort that you don’t want to mess with.
For example, flies try to look like bees or wasps.
In evolutionary biology this is called mimicry.
Wikipedia defines mimicry as “a similarity of one species to another which protects one or both.”
In practice, this means that one species has gone through the painstaking evolutionary process of developing some trait, characteristic, or appearance that gives it an evolutionary advantage, thereby boosting its survivability, while another species has merely mimicked the external features of this trait.
To develop an evolutionary advantage requires lots of time and energy, but mimicking it requires a minimum of time and energy.
One of the most well-known examples of mimicry is in butterflies.
Some butterflies have evolved to taste really bad, and this has protected them from being eaten by birds and other predators. These butterflies often have colorful patterns (made up by the dusty scales on their wings, which you surely know from when you were a kid and captured them).
Then there are other species of butterflies which have not evolved this bad taste, but look almost exactly like those who have it. These butterflies have mimicked the external appearance of the bad-tasting butterflies, and birds avoid eating them just the same.
The mimicking butterflies have achieved the same evolutionary advantage as the bad-tasting butterflies, but in a faster and more effortless way.
We humans are much like these mimicking insects. . .
. . . If we can find some easy or seemingly effortless way of achieving our–(often unstated)–motives, we unconsciously drift toward that solution.
In modern society, one of the worst examples of this that I can think of, is the phenomenon of young men who desperately try to mimic the outwards characteristics of success, without having the determination, will, or skill to actually achieve it.
These men are fakes.
You see it every day. Young aspirational ‘businessmen’ dressed up in suits, ties, fashion shoes and elegant watches; young men who pay an excessive amount of attention to their grooming and physical appearance. . .
Now, there’s nothing wrong with looking good–and no one likes a slob. But. . .
That only matters if you actually have real value to provide.
This is not the case for most young men in the marketplace.
It would be the case if they spent the same amount of time studying their industry, and learning useful skills, as they spend on their physical appearance. But that’s not the case.
Instead, they sit and watch TV, drink beer, and keep score of different soccer teams, fondling their new fashion watches. . .
. . . watches that they spent most of their income on; watches that have little or no second-hand value, and don’t generate any additional revenue.
These men look the part, but they’re not it.
They are consumers, not investors.
They are idlers, not professionals.
They are followers, not initiative-takers.
There are a LOT of fakes out there.
They have many shallow interests, but no deep fascination for anything in particular.
They’re well-versed in popular opinion and recent news, but they have no thorough knowledge.
They watch TV, but they don’t read books or study history.
They’re polite and agreeable, but only because they want to be liked, and to cover up their lack of having any real values.
Copying doesn’t inherently make you a bad person, or a fake. Life is not all black and white.
However, there’s a right way of copying things, and a wrong way of copying things, and. . .
Intelligent Imitation = Right; Mindless Mimicry = Wrong
Mindless mimicry makes you a fake.
Intelligent imitation makes you real. . .
Or rather, it doesn’t make you real, but it preserves your integrity while you copy some mannerism or idea, and incorporate it into your life.
Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, spent a long time living in the shadow of his older brother’s brilliance, and imitated him a lot.
Nietzsche, when he was young and confused, also imitated Napoleon. These two were far from the only ones to do this; lots of people imitated Napoleon’s ‘hand-in-jacket’ pose to look more dignified in photos and portraits.
In the last few years, women (and perhaps feminine men) use the ‘duck face’ pose to look more attractive. But it often ends up working to their detriment.
The ‘hand-in-jacket’ pose and the ‘duck face’ pose share the same underlying dynamics: they bring seemingly big benefits (evolutionary advantages) at a small cost of effort.
Tupac Shakur was a cool guy. But he was cool despite the fact that he liked to wear bandanas on his head in a strange way. That was just a clever gimmick.
When I was in my teens there was a (white) guy I knew who was a BIG Tupac fan. He mindlessly mimicked Tupac’s entire style, and thought he’d be cool. But he just looked silly–I laugh when I think about it.
Mindless mimicry is when you cope with uncertainty by copying someone else’s behavior, without thinking about how it applies to you (like weighing pros versus cons, or considering why the other person does the thing to begin with).
Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his Essay Self-Reliance, wrote:
There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.
This is beautifully written. But many people, I think. . .
. . . have taken this too far.
They come to see all imitation as harmful and unoriginal.
But this only applies to mindless mimicry, not to intelligent imitation.
Contrary to the ‘popular Emersonian belief’, imitation is not suicide.
However, you can’t be a dumbass–you need to do it the right way. . .
When you study the greats, you have to consider that their way of doing things–their methods–may not be possible to superimpose on your own life.
You have to account for differences in cultural context, business environment, and other relevant factors. Otherwise, you’ll be mimicking mindlessly, and you’ll become a fake.
Consider the following. . .
A professional fighter may have some cool quirk that is unique to his style and natural talents, but cannot be used in the same way by others:
- If you try to rope-a-dope and “sting like a butterfly and float like a bee”, like Muhammad Ali, you’ll be picked apart like a flea, unless you also have his footwork.
- If you try to keep your guard down and feign attacks towards your opponent, like Lyoto Machida, you better be fast enough to evade the counter strikes.
- If you try to use Mike Tyson’s pendulum swing-like movements, you also need his unmatched speed and brutal knockout power.
It just won’t do otherwise.
You have to consider things in their proper context.
So. . .
Intelligent imitation means:
- Asking “is this necessary?” and–if it really is, ask —“why is that?” before copying something;
- When you’ve established that, then you weigh pros versus cons. Is it worth it? If so, then,
- Adapt the thing to your own unique situation (given your strengths/weaknesses).
However, even if you can copy someone else, or their strategy, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea to do it. It’s like David Letterman said about the comedian Johnny Carson:
Everyone else, myself included, were all kind of doing–secretly–Johnny’s Tonight Show. And the reason we’re all doing Johnny’s Tonight Show is because you think: “Well, if I do Johnny’s Tonight Show, maybe I’ll be a little like Johnny–and people will like me more.” But it sadly doesn’t work that way. [audience laughter]. If you’re not Johnny, you’re wasting your time.
Finally, intelligent imitation requires that you do your own thinking:
The essence of originality is not that it be new: [Samuel] Johnson believed altogether in the old; he found the old opinions credible for him, fit for him; and in a right heroic manner lived under them. He is well worth study in regard to that.
–Thomas Carlyle, The Hero as Man of Letters.
You are original because you draw your own conclusions and have your own beliefs and opinions, based on your own thinking.
‘Stealing’, ‘copying’, or ‘borrowing’ ideas, characteristics, or strategies from successful people you admire, does not make you unoriginal–as long as you consider how it meshes with your own life and adapt it appropriately.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said that:
It is the most foolish of all errors for young people of good intelligence to imagine that they will forfeit their originality if they acknowledge truth already acknowledged by others.
I call this phenomenon. . .
The Fallacy of Originality
–And, the fallacy of originality, is that people try to be ‘original’ without even knowing what it means!
You see it most in people aged 16-25, who are desperately trying to find their own way in the world.
Their worst fear is to be exposed as a ‘fraud’, as someone who is not ‘original’ (whatever that means to them–perhaps buying the ‘wrong’ type of clothes or listening to the ‘wrong’ type of music?).
But. . .
Does it make you a fake if you copy someone else? Yes, but only if you do it through mindless mimicry. Not if you do it through intelligent imitation.
Still though, doesn’t it make you unoriginal?
No, I don’t think so.
Philosopher Michele de Montaigne liked to quote Greeks and Romans. He said that “I quote others only to better express myself”.
Andrew Carnegie came up with the Master Mind principle (and told Napoleon Hill about it, who made it mainstream). But Carnegie ‘stole’ it right from the Bible, in the New Testament; the story about Christ and his 12 disciples. Was Carnegie ‘unoriginal’?
Walmart founder Sam Walton said that “almost everything I’ve done I copied from someone else”. Was Sam Walton ‘unoriginal’?
Lee Kuan Yew copied the drug policy of the U.S military for Singapore. Was he ‘unoriginal’?
It comes down to pragmatism.
What’s more important to you; reinventing the wheel, or being a little ‘unoriginal’, and inventing the automobile?
Why not stand on the shoulder of giants?
Besides, only fakes worry about being seen as unoriginal by others.
Real people are original without even having to try.
Why People Become Fake (and the 4 things every serious student of success must know to avoid becoming a fake)
Human, like all other animals, try to get by using the least amount of energy they can get away with. This is why we’re inclined to copying, instead of learning from scratch.
The least mentally demanding form of copying is mindless mimicry, which, over time, turns you into a fake. Mindless mimicry eventually turns you into an artificial abomination, with layer upon layer of copied characteristics that, when tangled together, don’t make any sense, and end up causing you more harm than good–like a bulky and overly muscular martial artist who gets penalized by moving more slowly.
Yet, copying is the best way to learn. But only when you become good at intelligent imitation, and adapt the thing you’re studying into your own life.
Consider Competence, Causation, And Alternative History
We have established that the best people don’t give a shit about copying others, nor do they care about ‘preserving originality’.
The best people copy like crazy, only that they’re intelligent imitators rather than mindless mimics.
The best way to learn stuff is truly by studying successful people.
But, how do you select a successful person to study?
And, who, exactly, is worthy of imitation?
Those are the questions to ask. . .
They’re bad at:
- Judging character and understanding that competence is relative;
- Bad at considering cause and effect (causation);
- Bad at understanding the role of luck (alternative history),
- And usually fail to consider multiple causes of success.
When you don’t understand these four things, you’re likely to end up as a fake or a failure (usually both).
1) Judge character and relative competence
Competence is relative, never absolute.
Just because a person is an expert on something, or has fame and status (like a celebrity), does not mean that they’re all-knowing, or good at everything. Nor does it mean that they should give advice on everything.
Yet, many people unconsciously believe this.
This is an example of attribution error.
When you ascribe the wrong cause for some action, effect, or behavior, you are making an attribution error. And, when your assumption is incorrect, you will inevitably end up with the wrong conclusion.
Let me tell you: ‘Internet fame’, or whatever you want to call it, is a strange thing. I get emails about weird things. . .
. . . like relationship advice.
Why would I be an expert on that? I don’t even talk about it on SGM.
Jerry Seinfeld is the world’s richest and most famous actor and comedian. But you wouldn’t ask him for advice on how to get in shape, would you?
I hope not.
You must. . .
2) Consider correlation between cause and effect:
There is a weak (if any) correlation between fame and worldly wisdom.
What I mean is this: it takes a completely different set of skills and personality traits to attract attention and become famous compared to, for example, becoming an expert at robotics or AI technology.
Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber, and Kanye West are extremely good at manipulating the media to get attention. But that does not mean that they should give business advice or tell people how to be happy. Still, I bet you, most people would probably take their advice on just about anything.
But most people are stupid.
Here are two other common examples of mistaking cause for effect. . .
- Example 1: Entrepreneurs and college drop-outs:
A substantial amount of successful entrepreneurs are college drop-outs. Does this mean you should also drop out of college to become an entrepreneur?
Probably not. Those people didn’t become successful because they dropped out; they dropped out because they already had something going for them.
- Example 2: Expensive universities:
Many high status universities around the world can showcase an impressive list of alumni–people who went on to be (financially) successful later in life, after graduating from that specific university. Does this mean that the university is better than other universities, and that its courses are superior?
It could just be–and probably is–that the university is more selective in recruiting brighter and more ambitious students, people who would go on to be successful anyway. Ever consider that?
3) Understand alternative history and the role of luck:
Does fortune favor the bold? Yes, and no.
‘No’, in the sense that there are a lot of people who get wiped out, or fail at life, due to bad luck. But you rarely hear about them, unless it’s extreme–and the media thinks it’ll be a good story. This is called media bias.
‘Yes’, in the sense that you’ll typically (via the media) only hear about the ‘lucky ones’ that succeeded. This is called survivorship bias.
In ancient times, this was basically only true about generals and rulers. In the modern world–where perception, to a large degree, is dictated by the media–this is true about almost all highly successful people.
When markets are booming, the best results often go to those who take the most risk. Were they smart to anticipate good times and bulk up on beta, or just congenitally aggressive types who were bailed out by events? Most simply put, how often in our business are people right for the wrong reason?
–Howard Marks, The Most Important Thing
. . . and not just in finance, but in nearly all areas of life.
A good question is: Is it even possible to tell them apart?
Sometimes, no; usually, yes.
The easiest way to make sense of someone’s success is to study their process. If you can’t do that, there is little point in studying them, because that means there’s no guarantee that you’ll learn anything useful.
A decision is right or wrong; good or bad, intelligent or unintelligent, based on the information available to the decision-maker, the amount of time he has to think it over, and given his individual background.
That’s the luck part. . .
And what about understanding alternative history?
Glad you asked.
This means training yourself to habitually raise the question: “What if the bold move by [insert successful person] had NOT paid off?
And here’s what you’ll realize. . .
It is HARD to say that someone made the right decision in hindsight.
Because our brains are biased to look at what–actually–happened as obvious, whereas all the other possibilities–the alternative history –goes undetected.
There is an alternative history where Napoleon did not lose to Wellington in the Battle of Waterloo, but went on to conquer all of Europe. There is also an alternative history where Napoleon died from the stabbing wounds in his first battle as a commander, where his bold moves did not pay off.
See what I mean?
To clarify #1: Napoleon was definitely lucky many times, but overall, he was a genius–and probably the best commander who ever lived.
To clarify #2: Luck is luck, but to consistently capitalize on luck is a skill.
Sometimes it can be hard to separate the two. Most people think the world is divided into extremes, and few people can handle the cognitive dissonance that comes from staying in the grey zone (which requires mental toughness).
What I mean by extreme. . .
. . .is that most people either think every successful person was ‘destined’ to become successful, or they think it’s ‘just a matter of luck’, completely outside of their own control.
Here’s how this ties in with learning from successful people through intelligent imitation. . .
Just because someone is rich, famous, or has had success, doesn’t mean that:
a) they’ll be able to communicate it to you intelligently (they could be warped by survivorship bias);
b) you have anything useful to learn from them (but usually, you do),
c) that their ideas, methods, or strategies are transferable to what you’re trying to do.
Basically, ‘just’ because they were successful doesn’t mean that what worked for them will work for you; whether or not you can replicate what they’ve done depends on factors such as:
- Your talents and weaknesses.
- Your social network.
- Your environment or historic context.
- Your risk-appetite.
- Your grand strategy.
- And randomness (luck).
Remember, when it comes to success, process matters more than outcome.
The real question is. . .
Can you learn from, use, or replicate someone else’s process?
If the answer is ‘no’, then don’t even bother.
Study someone else instead.
When you practice this stuff for a while, it’ll become automatic, and you’ll become one of the select few capable of imitating intelligently.
Finally, you must also. . .
4) Understand That Success Stems from Multiple Factors
Fakes, who are much too lazy to figure anything out for themselves, are attracted to the extremes.
They don’t like complexity. Everything has to be simple: “do this and you’ll be strong/smart/successful.”
I had a long Skype conversation with Kyle recently on this topic.
One thing we talked about was the importance of living within the grey zone, and coping with the psychological uncertainty–the cognitive dissonance–that comes with it.
It’s not comfortable, but it hardens you. Especially when you’re young.
Another thing we talked about is that most people suck at synthesis; they’re not good at mixing and matching different ideas.
Most people–for various reasons–want answers right away, even if those answers are incorrect nonsense, or even lies.
They prefer the comfort of convenient lies over the discomfort of harsh realities, and the pain of not knowing.
For whatever reason, they don’t have the mental fortitude to remain in the ‘grey zone’ of life, work things out for themselves, and achieve some sort of synthesis answer. And, as a result, they drift toward the extremes–the ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’.
Over time, these people become handicapped in their ability to, as Bruce Lee put it, “absorb what is useful and disregard what is useless“.
A good example of this is when people buy into ENTIRE systems. They’ll say:
- “I am a Buddhist” instead of “I like values from Eastern Philosophy“.
- “I am a Paleo person” instead of “My diet is paleo-oriented”.
- “I am a good Christian” instead of “I practice the Golden Rule “.
Real recognize real, and these people are fake.
If you’re real, you’re comfortable with being in the grey zone. . .
. . . even if others don’t get it.
If you want success, be real.
Fakes rarely become successful, because they don’t understand that. . .
. . .Success stems from multiple factors:
To paraphrase best-selling historian Jared Diamond: if someone tells you there is a single factor to why they became successful, you know right away that they’re an IDIOT.
Actually, I think there’s an alternative explanation: that they’re smart–but they think you are an idiot–and they’re trying to sell you something.
Hehe, anyway. . .
Success, in any area of life, comes from doing MANY things right.
I could tell you that the one 80/20 thing to do for getting ripped would be to “do compound exercises and lift heavy weights”, but there’s obviously more to it than that (13 things, to be specific).
It’s like Miyamoto Musashi, the Japanese swordsman and strategist, said:
It is difficult to understand the universe if you only study one planet.
How to Be Real in a World of Fakes
So, to be real in a world of fakes, you have to realize that. . .
It’s HARDER to be real than it is to be fake. It’s easier to be a copy without substance than it is to be original and solid; anyone can build up an impressive exterior, but not everyone can establish a sturdy interior.
To be real in a world of fakes: Use intelligent imitation and never copy something, or someone else, without considering how the thing ties into your own life situation (your strengths, weaknesses, etc.,).
To be fake: Get by with mindless mimicry and become a Barney Stinson wannabe, who posts nonchalant ‘duck face’ selfies on Facebook. . .
To be real in a world of fakes: Always ask yourself three safeguard questions; is this necessary?”, “why?”, and “is it worth it?” before doing something new to preserve your integrity.
To be fake: Take on layer upon layer of unconscious behavior and beliefs, until you end up as an artificial abomination.
To be real in a world of fakes: Do your own thinking. Consider causation and understand alternative history. Acknowledge that things are rarely as they seem, and work hard (intellectually) to avoid lazy thinking.
To be fake: Don’t do your own thinking. Rely on lazy observationalism and look only at the thin exterior of things without examining their essence.
Finally, to intelligently imitate the best people in history, there are. . .
4 Things that every serious student of success must know:
- That competence is relative, and not absolute (avoid attribution error).
- That cause and effect can be tricky to distinguish between (correlation).
- That luck is easy to misunderstand (consider alternative histories).
- And that success stems from multiple factors.
Remember: Fakes make room for the real ones; innovative inventors, entrenched entrepreneurs, thoughtful thinkers, and bad-ass businessmen.
— LudvigSunstrom (@LudvigSGM) April 12, 2015