There are few things we value today quite as much as originality: we treasure original voices, unique visions and unmistakable authenticity in the art and culture we consume; we seek people and products and companies and places which are like no other (that little place at the top of the old town in Pollenca that really captures the spirit of the place…).
The business world is obsessed with making new and original things – when was the last time you heard a business leader suggest that what’s needed is rather less innovation, thank you? Or a retailer announce, “We’ve got the same old stuff we had before and we haven’t even bothered to repackage it”? And if that’s not enough, it seems it even applies to ourselves: we’re constantly encouraged by the flotilla of self-help books alike to be(come) our own unique selves – to self (sic) actualize.
Conversely there are few things we despise more than copying – even if you dress it up (as for example Tarantino does, following his French heroes) as “homage”, there’s always a sense that copying is somehow deviant – like plagiarism in school or in publishing, it’s cheating, isn’t it? We dislike the “derivative” and look down on the “conformist” – those who satisfy themselves with copying their peers and never venture out to find their own voice or style or point of view – somehow things and people that are the product of copying feel less than they should or might be.
So far, so good (except that I stole most of that from a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago).
What if it turned out that originality was rather less important to us and copying rather more so – to the art we make and love? To the organisations and the businesses in which most of us spend our working days? Indeed to the society and the culture in which we all live? And to each of us as human beings? What if copying and not originality were the prime talent that enables us to make the work we make, to learn the things we need to know and to become the people we want to be?
In science, the very best and most original readily acknowledge what they have learned from others and on which they construct their own work. Isaac Newton – one of the greatest scientific minds of any age – confessed to his friend Robert Hooke that “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants”. The scientific method itself is a way of exploring the world around us which enables us to build on each other’s work in a reliable manner, rather than just accepting authority (as the early natural scientists did) or having to work from scratch “to work it out for (y)ourselves” as Monty Python’s Brian put it.
In the creative arts, copying is much more prevalent and important than we’d initially imagine. Picasso famously noted: “Good artists copy; great artists steal”; only 3 of Shakespeare’s plots were not nicked from someone else (and they are amongst his least performed). And still today, imitation lies at the heart of how we learn to practice any skill, be it drawing, photography, coding or making music. We copy until we can see the “influences” no more – until as Tennyson’s Ulysses puts it, “I am part of all that I have met”.
In business, it’s also increasingly clear that first is not necessarily best – no-one remembers the first fast-food burger restaurant (White Castle) but everybody knows McDonalds who copied their ideas and systems and philosophy. Business guru Ted Levitt recognized back in the 60s that even Playboy was copied from a previous model. More recent studies suggest that innovators don’t even benefit that much from their hard work - they capture less than 7% of the profit from their product inventions over the longer term.
And in everyday life, we use copying to navigate the world around us – those reader reviews and best-seller charts help us wade through a consumerist world of too many choices; social norms allow us to live easily in our highly populated cities. The clothes you wear, the names you give your children, the music you listen to – all of these are usefully copied from those around you. Not to mention the way you organize food on your plate – even this is learned from your parents who learned from theirs and so on…
And let’s not forget, at the most fundamental level, our lives depend on copying – of genetic material from one generation to the next. Without copying we’d have no means for the transmission or – through mis-copying – the creation of variation in genetic materials from one generation to the next. Without copying there’d be no evolution, nothing new, no me and no you.
In my Sunday Sermon, I’ll be picking at this difficult knot of issues and trying to make sense of questions like these: how do you know who you are if everything you are – as Oscar Wilde suggests – is a quotation from the lives of others? How can you avoid losing your soul? Is the struggle to be original helpful or harmful to creative projects? How can you use copying to make something new? And is part of the answer to taming the beast of consumerism to encourage more companies to forgo their efforts in innovation for some old fashioned copying?
He is the author of the vastly influential Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature (2009) and co-author of I'll Have What She’s Having: Mapping Social Behaviour (2011). As a leading behavioural expert, Mark will be also leading the first of our autumn tours: 'A Trip to the Zoo' on Saturday 15th September. A Trip to the Zoo