The Imitation Trap

Imitating others is a skill we do naturally. Yet, there’s a time and place for it. Merely imitating others by following their advice or the way they live without considering their situation or goals can lead to frustration or burnout.

“When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” ― Eric Hoffer

My 11-month-old daughter scrunches her face with a big grin. She’s imitating an exaggerated smile I’ve made to her for the past few months. It’s one of the first few things she started mirroring back at us.

Chewing. Dancing, Teeth-brushing. The actions we want her to imitate are all basic. As she gets older, I’m certain this list will grow longer and more complicated. We’ll have to pay even closer attention to the things we do and say — especially the ones that we don’t want her to copy. Too bad the mimicking won’t end with cheesy smiles.

We start imitating very early in life. It’s how we learn. The first cassette I picked out for myself was Alan Jackson’s A Lot About Livin' (And a Little 'bout Love) because an uncle I admired liked him. Then, as an older kid, I remember the annoyance of being copied and followed around by a 5-year-old boy in our neighborhood. Persistent and prolonged mimicking crosses the border between flattering to annoying.

Yet, imitation doesn’t stop at a certain age. We keep imitating other people throughout life — peers, people we view as successful, our partners. Imitation is rooted deep into our social fabric. We believe mirroring will help us advance and achieve the outcomes we desire. It happens at both the conscious and unconscious levels.

Imitation can take several forms. As an adult, I think one of the most prevalent types is through advice from other people. Advice, in this sense, can be both explicit and implicit. It’s more powerful to be shown how to do something than be told. In survey design, I learned it’s more impactful to ask someone how they responded to a previous situation than a hypothetical future situation. Tell me what you did, not what you would do. Advice that’s rooted in proof carries more weight than a platitude.

During my time at Our State Magazine, Bernie Mann, the long-time publisher would frequently dismiss restaurant reviews on Yelp or the menu suggestions of waitstaff. “What do they know about what I like or don’t like,” he’d say. Bernie saw little reason to imitate, or take advice, from these people. We don’t imitate people we see as distinctly different from us. We don’t fully trust an anonymous other.

In a recent episode of the a16z podcast, Marc Andreessen cautioned listeners about copying his personal routines and organizational methods. When asked by the interviewer how he structures the time on his daily and weekly calendar, he said that it has changed over the years depending on his situation.

Essentially, he advised that you shouldn’t directly copy someone’s strategies for time management, fitness, or getting better at a sport. The advice a person gives you, no matter how much you look up to them, is situational and contextual to their current place in life.

Before imitating someone, ask yourself, “What mode is this person in? How closely do my objectives match theirs? How close am I to where they are in life?”

As a novice runner, copying the training regimen of an endurance athlete like David Goggins will likely lead to injury or burnout. Their success is seductive, but pure imitation is a trap.

Instead, I’ve found that it is helpful to refocus on the principles behind the advice. My long run this weekend won’t match Goggins, but it will be a stretch goal that puts enough stress on my mind and body to improve. My calendar won’t look like Marc Andreessen’s, but I will be intentional about protecting “focus” time each day.

And, if you find yourself as the advice-giver, I suggest offering principles or values instead of a literal translation of what you do. Very few people who want to imitate you actually should. Principles travel further even though they’re less voyeuristic. As interested as I am in what Warren Buffet eats for breakfast each day, it’s not worth imitating.

Advice on life, productivity, relationships, or anything else is only as helpful as the credibility, personal situation, and goals of the person offering the advice. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it can also be a trap. Copying someone else’s actions, habits, or practices is only as useful as it directly applies to your abilities and goals.