It is said that, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” In fact, I’ve heard that line so often that it almost sounds true. There’s some truth to it, of course, as there’s some truth to just about anything you might hear that isn’t actually true.
But imitation isn’t flattery, and it certainly isn’t sincere. Moreover, imitation is a cheat, first of all to the one being imitated, but far more importantly, to the one doing the imitating.
Few things strike me with as much astonishment as the nearly universal belief that someone else’s contribution is superior to our own. Recently, I heard it put this way: “I feel like I’m constantly comparing the highlights reel from the lives of others with the bloopers reel from my own.” Our private YouTube channel is playing “Bloopers on a Loop,” and we’re both the solo star of the embarrassing video, and the only one watching!
In our personal lives, this belief – others do things that matter more than what we do – wreaks havoc. We’re conscious of some of this havoc because we’re the ones doing the wreaking. But what we are not conscious of is the price of this belief in the form of our non-contribution. We don’t notice the loss of the precious thing that we don’t contribute, which we don’t contribute because we don’t think it’s precious. And yet the world is rendered immeasurably poorer for what we keep tucked away in our little pockets.
In our business and organizational lives, this belief creates exactly the same kind of harms. Simply trying to imitate our competitors paradoxically reduces our competitiveness.
It’s certainly proper to want to understand what makes our competitors great—what they uniquely do, how they’ve gained special insight into customer wants and needs. Understanding these things is vital.
But of far greater importance is understanding what has brought our customers to us, how we stand apart from the crowd, why free and self-interested people have chosen to hand their money over to us. A far better use of our limited time and energy is discovering what the unique value is that we bring so that we can pursue excellence in that area. Imitating what someone else does will take just as much time and energy, and won’t produce a fraction of the return on our investments.
Two of the nastiest and most destructive phenomena on earth are: (1) that we are isolated from each other, and, (2) that we are jealous of each other. Separated, but imitative. Alone, yet similar. We don’t feel we can let our guard down with others—our lack of value might become apparent. But, we do feel we need to be more like others—our lack of value necessitates that we try to resemble those we believe do have value.
Conversely, two of the most powerful and world-shaking decisions a human being can make are: (1) to draw close to others, and, (2) to radically differentiate from others.
Together, yet distinct.
In community, and absolutely complementary.
We can choose to lay down our guard and affirm our common need for one another. And we can decide to take up our unique calling and become one of a kind in all the earth.
Let’s do this! We need each other, so let’s be together. We’re not alike, so let’s excel in our distinctiveness.
Imitation can still have a place in our lives, perhaps when we roast one another with love and laughter. Let’s spend the occasional evening impersonating each other, exaggerating to hilarity the very things that make us each unique. But most of the time, let’s love each other as we strive for excellence, let’s cheer each other on as we each endeavor to stretch to the very utmost of our capacity and contribution on earth.
We can excel in love and in calling, both.