How to Stop Imitating and Start Originating

By Tim Elmore


Years ago, social researchers revealed how little the average person thinks on their own. They reminded us that the law of diffusion is constantly in effect and explains human behavior:

  • 2.5 percent of us are innovators.
  • 13.5 percent of us are early adopters. 
  • 34 percent of us are the early majority.
  • 34 percent of us are the late majority. 
  • 16 percent of us are laggards who buy into new ideas late. 


Truth be told, most of us like to think of ourselves as creative, but the same majority would likely admit, “I’m not a very creative person.” Over time, most of us resort to a sort of copycat approach to our work, our families, and our personal lives. We look to others for cues. When we think of originals, we think of people like Steve Jobs with Apple, Reed Hastings with Netflix, or Larry Page and Sergey Brin with Google. But not us. We’re ordinary. 


But is it possible for you and me to be originals too? 


I think so—if we make some important changes to our life. Neither our IQ nor our temperament needs to change, but our approach to life and work must change. Have you ever wondered why we tend to play defense rather than offense with our originality and creativity?


Let me offer one big reason.


Stimulation Is Up. Critical Thinking Is Down.


We’ve all become accustomed to the constant pinging of our smartphones: notifications, text messages, alerts, pop-ups, you name it. I have no doubt, we are the most stimulated generation in history. Sadly, the unintended consequence is that we begin to depend on the ping or the ring and fail to pause and reflect on our own. We slip into reactionary mode and seldom make time for critical thinking, where we analyze or evaluate an idea without the input of someone else. 


Sometimes it seems Americans do no thinking on their own. They allow news feeds, commercials, ads, and billboards to tell them what to do. It’s alarming. If there’s a kernel of truth in this, we’re not in good shape to shape the future


When stimulation is high, we begin to be reactive rather than proactive in our lives. We can become overwhelmed with thousands of messages coming at us every day, and stop being preemptive with our time and energy. In this state of exhaustion, we tend to look to others for endorsements or suggestions on what to buy, where to travel, who to know, what to read…almost everything. We stop bossing our calendar and let it boss us. Obviously, this is not evil, but it prevents us from leading our lives well. We become imitators, not originators. We are ordinary instead of original. 


As I spotted this reality in my own work, I knew I had to change. I started a non-profit, Growing Leaders, in 2003. I launched something I felt was different than what anyone else was doing—to develop young leaders with engaging, transferable concepts: images, conversations, and experiences. 


Over time, I noticed what other leadership development organizations were doing and began to feel behind. Eventually, I was asking myself: Why didn’t I do that? How come we don’t have a million people following us? What’s wrong with us? I felt average. Soon, we took our cues from others and imitated them. 


Within months, however, I had a bad taste in my mouth. We were pursuing ideas that didn’t fit who we were. In response, I took the reins back. I began implementing three practices that have helped me stay original for many years. 


Three Changes to Move from Imitator to Original


Plan regular think time. 

I identify a place and a weekly time to sit alone and ponder. In the days prior, I often write down some issues I want to process during this time. I’ve noticed some of my best ideas arise when I pause to reflect in silence and to think my own thoughts. No doubt, they are informed by all I’ve consumed, but this time slot gives me space to interpret and translate them for myself and my work. 


Often, when I go to bed on a day that I’ve had my think time, I have fresh ideas come in the middle of the night. I write them down and return to sleep. But when I awaken the next morning, it feels like Christmas. In fact, it happened last night, and I was exhilarated by it all day today. 


It may go without saying, but my think time includes absolute silence and solitude. If I have my phone with me for ideas, it’s on silent. I say no to notifications, and yes to meditation. 


Connect unrelated ideas. 

Most creative people admit—there’s nothing new under the sun. However, creativity exists when we identify two current unrelated concepts and combine them to form a fresh third one. 


Orville and Wilbur Wright did this as they studied birds and worked on bicycles. Combining a bike and a bird, they introduced a new way to travel and a new industry: the airplane. Johann Gutenberg loved reflecting on scrolls he’d read as he worked on a wine press. He combined the two ideas and created the printing press from a wine press. Two unrelated concepts created a new one: mass published books. Cirque du Soleil was brought to us by an acrobat, a gymnast, and a street performer. They offered a new way to see a circus. 


What if you examine successful ideas in other industries and ask: Is there a way to connect existing ideas to create a new one? 


Repurpose and differentiate models.

There’s nothing wrong with observing and learning from others. But we must ensure we are pulling principles from others’ work, not merely copying them. 


For a long time, McDonald’s was the fast food restaurant model to follow, but over time, quality dropped. It’s been interesting to watch their menu items now imitate Chick-fil-A. They have an unattractive “me too!” model. No one wants to buy from a company that merely says, “We can do that too!” 


So, I spotted leaders in their industry and asked: what timeless principle can I learn from them? What model do they use? What action can we implement that will help us repurpose this fresh idea? The key is to differentiate. When you learn something, repurpose the model so it feels fresh to your tribe.


By the way, each of us really is an original. We become copycats by choice. 


How to Stop Imitating and Start Originating