How Imitation Breeds Success


“Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.”

~ Pablo Picasso

Many years ago, I heard a speaker say “you were born an original. Don’t die a copy.” Inherent in this statement is a core truth, and what can also be labeled a misleading fact. You were born an original; true. Don’t die a copy; true. But what happens between when you are born and when you die? Herein lies the misleading fact. At face value, this statement discourages living a life trying to be someone else. But it can also mislead us into thinking that imitating others is altogether bad. As a person who studies, teaches and coaches on talent development, I can tell you that imitation is critical to becoming very good or great at whatever it is you want to do.

In 2013, I attended a workshop on communication skills. The coach had a formula that he wanted us to use. Every good speech has a beginning, middle and end; how you begin makes the all the difference in how the rest of the presentation turns out. The coach wanted us to start with what was most important to the listener, and specifically to start with the statement “I understand that you…” And fill in the blanks with whatever was most important to our listener. There were a few people in the class who wanted to start with a question or a story. The coach kept insisting they start with the statement he wrote on the board. The push-back from these few folks was “this sounds mechanical, I want to use my own words.” To which the coach responded “you can put it in your own words later, but for now, use my words.” Was he being egotistical? No. The coach had learned a fundamental principle of personal development; you imitate before you innovate.

The students who followed the coach’s direction performed better at the end of the class than those who insisted on using their own words. He wanted us to know and imprint the principle of being listener focused with our presentation. Imitating the coach and his statement “I understand that you…” subconsciously forged in our minds the need to start with the listener always. Those who wanted to start with a question or story during the class, missed out on that critical learning experience because they were focused on doing it their way.

Every successful person at some point in their life learned from someone else. They imitated another successful person. I was listening to a world renowned leadership speaker at a conference, and he said that when we started out as a speaker, he imitated Zig Ziglar. He imitated Ziglar to get started, but developed his style to keep growing. It is really hard to develop something out of nothing. Almost all new inventions come from something already in use, or that was almost developed but failed.


1. Imitation Sets an Example For Us.

If you don’t have an idea of how your talent can be used, you will not put in the work to develop it. Tony Robbins is a leading self-help guru and is known around the world. But very few people know that he started out working for Jim Rohn, one of the fathers of the personal development movement. Jim Rohn was not just a motivational speaker but a teacher who ran all day and sometimes multi-day workshops. Anthony Robbins events runs 2-3 days long. I believe that the Robbins business model started by imitating Jim Rohn, and then making it uniquely Robbins’s. What he learned working for Rohn set the example for him to follow.

Who is a success in what you want to achieve? Find them, connect with them, observe them and learn from them. Imitate them to get started. Imitate them to imprint the process in your mind. This becomes the foundation from which you develop your unique style of operating in your field.

2. Imitation Sparks Imagination.

Many people credit Steve Jobs for the invention of the Mouse. Sorry, he didn’t invent the mouse. The first time he saw this device was at Xerox in 1979. He would later push his designers to develop their version of the mouse which would work better and cost less. What he saw at the Xerox office sparked his imagination. He first imitated them and then added more to it. This was classic Steve Jobs. He did the same with the MP3 player and the mobile phone. He didn’t invent them, he worked from what was and developed something better.

Use imitation as a form of practicing a skill or ability. Watch or learn from someone who is doing what you want to do; watch, listen, learn, and imitate for a while. Use this as your springboard to develop a better way of performing. When you aren’t thinking about how to perform or do something, you free up some brain power to seek out ways to improve what you’ve learned.

3.  Imitation Brings Focus

Focus is critical to personal development. We are taught to create a mental picture of our future self; see yourself doing what you desire to achieve. This is powerful. But has true meaning when you’ve seen someone else achieve it, and you model your future image after that person. It starts there, but it should not end there. As we work toward our goals in life, we will get knocked down and discouraged quite often. At times like this, it may be hard to hold on to the image of a “successful you.” Having someone you can imitate helps rekindle your image of the “successful you,” and gets you back on track.

The person you imitate helps you stay focused on what you are working to achieve. In my line of work, there are many opportunities for me to get discouraged. I keep an image of John Maxwell in my mind, and will often watch a video of him speaking on stage. This helps me regain focus on what I’m working to achieve. I have absolutely no shame in saying that for many years, I imitated John Maxwell; teaching from his book, using his quotes and some of his mannerisms. I have developed my personal style and I’m now focused on working to do for the topic of talent, what Maxwell has done for the topic of leadership. I still keep John Maxwell in my mind, and this gives me focus.

So, you were born an original. Don’t die a copy. But between birth and death, make sure you imitate and copy others. This is how you learn and grow and most importantly, ensure that you develop your uniqueness and you not die a copy.

Imitate to succeed!



Talent Resources

DNA of Talent
A Blueprint for Discovering Your Talents and Putting Them to Work

Finding Your Sweet Spot
Where your Talents, Interests and Passions converge to deliver the life you were born to live.