Photo by Thiago Barletta on Unsplash

Imitating with Integrity: How to Learn by Copying Without Burning Bridges

“Imitation is the highest form of flattery.”

I believe this quote is true. When I find people I admire I naturally want to emulate them. I want to follow their routine, their mannerisms, and understand their way of thinking. Part of this is likely a lack of self-confidence on my part.

Pushing aside my confidence issues, part of it also comes from wanting what that person has. Logically, it seems to make sense that if I do what they’ve done I’ll get what they got. Einstein’s famous quote concerning insanity indirectly supports this.

If insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, then doing what someone I considered successful has done should garner me a similar outcome.

The Irritation with Imitation

We can all recall when that one annoying kid would start copying us and persist even after we asked them to cease. Especially when we are younger, we are attempting to establish ourselves as a person and are wrestling with personal identity.

If someone copies us, in some ways they are suggesting we are not unique and one of a kind.

As we age, we eventually don’t get annoyed with imitation for this reason. We realize their behavior isn’t a reflection of us, aside from them thinking we’re admirable or they just want to try and get under our skin.

Instead, we get annoyed when people copy us and proceed to take the credit. The shift is subtle but significant. If someone were to copy us for their personal benefit/entertainment we generally give them a pass.

Immitation infuriates us when people take credit and even profit from our work. We feel as though they violated a deep-seated social contract. Especially within the American context, we generally want to believe and promote meritocracy.

Gaining from someone else’s work is the direct antithesis of a meritocratic society. If I were to copy some famous YouTuber or writer and proceed to make money I didn’t succeed because of my work or effort. Instead, I simply succeeded because I siphoned some of their audience.

The reward wasn’t earned and people want their just deserts.

Immitation done for this purpose will always be met poorly. Fortunately, there are other, valid reasons to imitate, assuming it’s done with integrity.

Imitation for Learning

One of the best reasons to imitate someone else’s mannerisms or work is that you want to learn more about what they do and how they navigate their world. Social Learning Theory states our earliest behaviors are learned through imitation.

Often, younger children have similar mannerisms as the parent/family member they are constantly around. A younger child will pick up the behavior of the role model closest to them since that’s all they know.

Adult learners can benefit from imitation too. If you find a master of the craft you’re trying to learn and simply emulate their working style, you’ll soon start to understand some fundamentals. They do some things for a certain reason and you’ll start to intuit their reasoning as you mimic their actions.

People often believe this turns into dogma. I used to believe this too, but an amazing thing happens. As you’re learning through imitation, you’ll also invariably experiment. Some things your teacher does won’t sit right with you.

Attempts to improve their method will often be met with failure. This is fine, you’re learning which techniques cannot be bent, at least with your current knowledge and skill. Occasionally, you’ll personalize a technique and it’ll work better. This is where your own style will develop.

Masters of a given discipline are just as human as us. Some of their actions are due to effectiveness, but some a personal preference. Through experimentation, you can slowly discover the difference.

Through imitating the masters you’ll be saved some of their learning pains, although far from all. Some failure, even when mimicking, is inevitable and helpful. An unintentional consequence of imitation learning is the development of your own style while you learn good technique for your chosen craft.

Imitation with Integrity

Imitation can be a powerful ally for growth and self-discovery. With great power, comes great responsibility. We have to use this powerful technique with care. As noted before, if we break the social contract while imitation learning we will receive harsh criticism.

Additionally, we will likely cause more harm than good to ourselves in the long-run. In the case of blatant and intentional attempts to imitate for profit, we will kill most of the goodwill people have towards us and burn many future bridges.

Even if we accidentally submit imitated work as our own, we will have a long battle to regain the goodwill lost in this action. So, with that in mind, here are the three steps I think are the most important for maintaining our integrity.

This may sound obvious, and it is, but acknowledgment will go a long way to reducing any opposition people may have about mimicked works. Not only is acknowledgment the right thing to do, but it’ll help you stay out of some hot water legally.

Another bonus of acknowledging the source material is that you’re supporting the original creator this way, should you publish a version of the work that is distinct, but clearly inspired by the source material you used.

In general, this is a good move.

I feel as though this point should go without saying, but I’ll reiterate it here anyways. There are two reasons you should NEVER do this. Reason one is that by doing so you open yourself to legal action.

The second reason is more emotional in nature. Let’s assume that somehow nobody noticed this work was clearly plagiarised and you gained fame and success from this. How much do you trust that you could produce work of similar quality on your own merit?

It seems like this would be a difficult task. Further, if you managed to maintain the success, how would you feel if someone then took some of your subsequent writings and profited off them? If you answered anything other than good, you now have an emotional justification why you shouldn’t monetize someone else’s work.

The content creator who you are borrowing knowledge from worked long and hard to acquire their skill and style. Especially if they are helping you get to a place where you’re able to earn a living through what you learn, you should return the favor with support.

To be clear, support comes in many different forms. The first form which you should have already done is acknowledge their work as inspiration in any pieces which are clearly derived from their work.

A second, inexpensive way to support the creators is by sharing their content. Sharing takes almost none of your time but can mean the world of difference for the creator.

Lastly, if you’re able and you believe you’ll find value, you should purchase any of the books, courses, etc. they’re producing. At the end of the day, they still need to eat and provide for their families. If they inspire you and you value their work, this shouldn’t feel painful to do, should you have the means.

Wrapping Up

Imitation truly is a great form of flattery. This is especially true when it’s a learner trying to better understand a particular craft. Learning through imitation is completely fine and even intelligent, as long as you do it in the right way.

If you acknowledge the original content and inspiration, don’t monetize the works you copy for learning purposes. You should also support the master you’re emulating however you can. Following these three steps, you’ll respect their time and talent while growing yours.

Should you adhere to ethical imitation everyone stands to benefit and no one is harmed.

Here’s to becoming better artists in whatever craft we decide to hone and learn how to steal from other greats with integrity and good intentions.

I’m a nonprofit professional who’s deeply passionate about effective learning, self improvement, and chasing my curiosity wherever it leads.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store