Imitation has been said to be the sincerest form of flattery. Is there merit in and any value in imitating someone? And why would anyone want to copy anything?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines 'imitate' as:
- To follow a pattern, model, or example.
- To be or appear like.
- To produce a copy of.
Another word I want to add here is 'emulate', which means:
- To strive to equal or excel.
- To equal or approach equality with.
I am going to use these two words interchangeably in the context of human endeavours as a form imitation and emulation. Why do we do it? What does it do for the imitator? And apart from flattery what's in it for the model who is being copied?
Firstly, we human beings learn by imitating. Babies watch their parents especially the way they make sounds and talk. Babies copy this as a way to learn their first 'da da' and 'ma ma' words.
As we grow up we emulate our parents even more. Boys will imitate their fathers and girls their mothers. This is not to say that boys do not learn from their mothers and girls from their dads. The very first and most important learning for any child begins at home and in the family. Most of that learning happens through watching and imitating. So whatever a child sees a parent do that is what will be ingrained in their young minds. Our first role models, therefore, are our parents and we are extremely fortunate, those of us who grew up in a two-parent family.
As of 2016, the number of children growing up in a single parent or no parent arrangement in the United States was 23 million children. In the UK for the same year, there were 1.9 million lone parent families with 1 in 4 children living in a lone-parent household. This creates a gap in the role models the children have to be able to emulate and learn. Thus children in single-parent or no-parent families are statistically more likely to have emotional and behavioural problems, run away and often end up in prison. This denial of a role model to emulate and learn has a devastating effect on children that carries on into their adult lives. Of course, some parents may set poor examples for their children to emulate, such as violence, alcoholism and lawbreaking. Apart from learning by imitation young children are becoming their own independent little human beings through the process of emulation. Plus, by imitating they are learning habits for success. So in those formative years, whatever a child sees a parent do they will copy believe it is okay and right for them to undertake. As parents, we are their first role models and our actions really do speak louder than our words.
Even the philosophers of old espoused the virtues of mimicry. The technique of emulation during the zenith of the Greek civilisation was known as exemplum or moral example. It was a key tenet of ancient Greek philosophy. Simply stated, the basis of exemplum was that we are social animals, therefore a majority of our moral behaviour comes from watching and imitating others. The philosophers of old were aware of how much people modelled and emulated those deemed to be more successful and had attained a higher status in society. Hence, they used exemplum in the form of examples of military heroes and wise men to guide people to be better citizens and all-around human beings.
Plutarch, a Greek philosopher who lived during 1st century AD was exemplum's most famous practitioner. His most reknown work Parallel Lives compared 46 of the greatest Greek and Roman military leaders and heroes. He analysed one Greek leader against one Roman hero, comparing and contrasting their strengths and skills. One of the main purposes of this was to inspire the reader to live by the deeds and actions of these heroes of old. Parallel Lives inspired many a Shakespeare's plays too. In his writings, he went into great detail about Alexander the Great, who was obsessed with Achilles. Alexander kept a motto of Achilles above his tent, "Ever to be the best and far above all". He even visited Achilles tomb in Troy to pay his respects. In turn, Julius Caesar emulated Alexander, after having read about his hero's life he started crying, upon being asked what was wrong, Julius Caesar stated,
"Do you think I have not just cause to weep when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable?"
Jim Rohn famously said that "You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with."
This is so true. When I first started work in London, it was with a major airline, which meant I was on duty at all hours and weekends. So my social time on the days I was off was not with my work colleagues who lived 30 odd miles away, but some of the guys I had grown up with in my old inner city neighbourhood. However, most of these guys had not gone onto university so their outlook was different. I had found solace with my friends of old and without a challenging set of ideals, I settled into a kind of mediocrity, in terms of learning, growing and expanding as an individual. It wasn't until an event that caused me to quit my job that I realised I had been doing myself a disservice with the company I had been keeping. Since then through my own 'learning', I have been on guard as to how I nurture my own path to achievement.
We have youngsters today who try and copy their sports heroes such as LeBron James, Tom Brady, Lionel Messi and Serena Williams among others. When we, whether we are a famous sports star, a TV personality or a humble geography teacher, have such a powerful ability to mould and influence the motivation, success and direction in the lives of today's youth. It is crucial that we are an exemplary figure of the best that we can be. Because those youth who watch us will learn both the good and the bad. One of my favourite roles models was my geography teacher, Mr Jarrett a great educator to whom I am very grateful for those years between the ages of 11 and 16.
By emulating the deeds, actions and heroics of men and women who have achieved great success in their lives, what we do is eliminate the need to re-invent the wheel. The paths to success have been trodden by many millions before our arrival on Earth. Therefore, why start from scratch with the increased chance of failure and discouragement. Today we can learn from living role models as well as those from history. The Internet has created an amazing resource at our disposal that simply did not exist two decades ago. One of the best ways to get hold of lessons on how to succeed and achieve something meaningful is to read biographies.
Read Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom to understand the sacrifice he made serving 27 years in prison for the freedom of his country. He was able to endure this as he had a goal and that was freedom from apartheid. Read Margaret Thatcher's biography to get a sense of her struggle to become the first female Prime Minister of United Kingdom. These are only a couple of books about leaders that you can read, there are thousands out there and depending on what your passion is I am sure there is a book whether biographical or otherwise out there that can highlight how someone achieved success in their field. On my bookshelf, I have Richard Branson, Mohammed Ali, Margaret Thatcher and Che Guevara.
For those being emulated giving back is a key path to growth, wisdom and further success. Once someone has reached the pinnacle of success in whatever field they operate it is not uncommon to turn around and give a helping hand to those behind trying to make a go of where they're trying to get to. Of course, this is not to say that there are some people who will not extend a hand. However, more often than not most people who get where they want to get to in life will reach out. That art of giving could be as a mentor, a coach or an advisor.
Of course, the greats from history can only impart their lessons to us in the 21st century through their writings and biographies. Yet, there are people today who are achieving amazing feats of success in business, in the arts, in social enterprise and much more. We have but to ask. The world is a phenomenally small place and with the communication tools at our disposal, we can watch videos, listen to podcasts, partake in webinars and last but not least simply ask our living heroes for some pearl of wisdom to help us on our journey to success.