The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it, because it was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator, something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man's.
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Through mimicry, we learn. Seeing the heights reached by others gives us glimpses of our own potential. As we observe, and try on roles and strategies we see patterned around us, we can grow into that potential.
But there is a critical difference between learning the ways others approach their goals ― assimilating their tools and making them our own ― and trying to copy their goals. Recognizing that there are fundamentally two different kinds of knowledge, it is the technical knowledge, the knowledge of tools and the consequences of our action, which is amenable to mimicry. When we instead mimic the goals and drives people have, if they are not our own, we can end up disconnected from our own existence, motivated only through faint echoes of what we think our role model would themselves want, and detached from the consequences of our actions.
The most common form of despair is not being who you are.
― Soren Kierkegaard
There is a crippling kind of doubt, thinking that you do not belong in your own life. At times, any of us might feel such a dissonance, that the persona we present to the world is not quite who we are inside. In occasional doses, it can merely mark the natural waxing and waning of our own self-esteem.
But sometimes this doubt signifies more than the pattern of our confidence ― sometimes our Imposter Syndrome is more than self-doubt. When we feel not simply that we do not deserve to be in the positions we fill, but that the aims we claim are not our true aims, then we may feel like an imposter because we actually are.
Our motives for feigning false motives may be base; we might in an interview pretend to care about a company’s mission. Or our motives might seem somewhat noble; perhaps we earnestly wish to care, because we think it to be good, but simply can’t find that drive within ourselves, and so we “fake it until we make it”. Regardless of how we might try to justify to ourselves, the lie persists within us, either growing to crippling proportions, or else we become callous to the dissonance within ourselves. Even success on these borrowed paths is at best hollow; if we do not even wish to live our own lives, how can we ever be proud of the life we’ve lived?
When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.
Imitation of tools is a natural behavior, driven by admiration and our desire to improve. Imitation of aims, on the other hand, must have some more circuitous drive. Perhaps we might want to be socially accepted or esteemed, or perhaps we want to avoid conflict with our friends or family. Whatever the reason, imitating goals makes the reason bear all the weight of the imitated goals.
No longer can we simply feel a motivation and act; we force ourselves to filter our feelings through the cloudy lens that is our understanding of some other person, some external judge of our drives. The motivations of our model but dimly light our way, colored by whichever fear or greed drives our imitation. But our emotions are inherently contextual, so trying to impel our behavior in every context simply because of how we feel (however strongly) in one context can leave us quite thinly motivated.
And unlike with technical knowledge, imitating aims which do not resonate with us does not make them our own. We may pretend for all eternity, but faking goals does not internalize them; in imitating goals, “faking it” doesn’t lead to “making it”. Instead, we simply forget the motivations which originally drove us, and live as shadows in whatever shadow we have purposed to walk in.
We must make our experiment. We must make mistakes. We must live out our own version of life. And there will be error. If you avoid error you do not live.
― Carl Jung
Learning is transformation. Each mistake we make, if we let it, burns away the wrong parts of ourselves and refines us towards our potential.
But when we imitate, our goal is to live out a faithful copy. If we copy correctly but incur some negative consequence, then to us that is actually a success and not a failure, since the goal (of copying) has been achieved. By setting up copying as our goal, we insulate ourselves from the feedback of our environment. The errs which could guide us into transformative learning instead are funneled towards our object of imitation, and do not take hold in ourselves.
Here the critical difference between imitating tools and imitating aims is most evident. When imitating tools, we know what purpose the tool is supposed to serve; it is a purpose outside ourself, in the world, so even after we copy, success is measured by the effectivity of the new tool. If we can, through trial and error, improve on our newfound tool, then so much the better, and feedback from reality will guide us.
But when imitating aims, there is no greater purpose to guide us; the purpose is the very thing being assumed. Without an external compass, we are left dancing with our own shadow, validating our actions against some mirage disconnected from reality. The growth that comes from hard feedback is thwarted.
Far better than this half life, we should our own lives, pursue our own drives, not faking goals we think we “should” have, but finding our own ways to harmonize ourselves into the world around us. Only then can we grow, and thrive. It is a hard path, to forge our a way in the world, but ultimately it is the only path we can take, because it is our own.