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The most dangerous form of imitation

Posted in the following categories: Creativity, Personal Development

Last week in Copenhagen, Kathy and I randomly walked into a small design studio called Studio Arhoj.

It wasn’t the beautiful ceramics on display that drew me in. It was the designers who were working on the ceramics.

The designers themselves were also on display. What you bought in the front of the store was thrown, glazed, and fired in real time in the back—for everyone to watch (in my case, to stare in awe).

Think Demi Moore from Ghost (without the overalls).

My visit to Arhoj inspired me to invite you into the back of my own design studio and write about my process more frequently.

Right now, I’m writing my next book. I’ve written a book before, so I assumed my second time in front of the pottery wheel would be a lot easier than the first.

But I was wrong. It’s actually been the opposite.

A quick Google search (Why is my second book harder to write?) revealed that I’m in very good company. There’s apparently a term for it: second book blues.

Where do the second book blues come from? For me, it’s been from an impulse to copy—not thinkers or authors, but a more dangerous type of imitation.

And that’s the impulse to imitate myself.

When I started to write my first book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist, I hadn’t written anything worth imitating. I had no notion of where the book would go. I was free to explore, play, and shape my clay in the way that I wanted.

With this second book, my record is no longer blank. My first book became a #1 bestseller in the United States and has been translated into 25 foreign languages and counting. I created something that I need to live up to—something that my next thing is going to be compared against.

When a writer first tastes success, there’s a strong temptation to cater to the same audience. To rinse and repeat. To copy the same formula that made Think Like a Rocket Scientist successful—the same word count, the same three parts, the same nine chapters, the same structure for each chapter.

The same everything.

This temptation exists far beyond writing. When we achieve success, our instinct is to plant the lightning rod where lightning struck last—and expect it to strike again. This worked before, so let’s do it again—and again and again.

But lightning rarely strikes the same spot twice. And copying dilutes the qualities that made the original sing. This is why sequels and remakes rarely ever capture the same magic.

The seductive pull of self-imitation also took the joyful play out of my writing. As I tried to impose the same formula on an entirely different book, sentences stopped flowing and writing became a drag.

Once I abandoned the formula—once I escaped my self-constructed jail cell—the words began to come. My fingers felt freer on the keyboard. They eventually began to dance. I wrote a record number of words in a month.

“You have two options,” Joni Mitchell says. “You can stay the same and protect the formula that gave you your initial success. They’re going to crucify you for staying the same. If you change, they’re going to crucify you for changing.”

I’d rather get crucified for changing. I don’t want to sit at the pottery wheel aiming to recreate the last best thing.

Staying the same isn’t fun. And identical mugs aren’t remarkable. There’s a reason why I’m talking about Arhoj and not about Walmart.

Remarkable happens when you stop copying others—especially your own past self—and start making the art that only your current self can make.

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