Ode to imitation


We’re often told that we should be original, independent and innovative. But sometimes copying is the best way to learn something. It teaches us about imitation, inspiration and the illusion of originality.

Can we ever be authentic when we copy someone? Joachim Duyndam, professor of humanism and philosophy at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht, thinks we can. “The crux is trying to turn imitation into following our inspiration. This is a subtle yet important distinction,” he says. “Inspiration isn’t just blindly imitating someone we admire; it’s putting certain qualities into practice in our own lives.

When we’re inspired, we are attracted to values that are important to us: courage, authenticity and openness. We instantly know: I also want to be that brave, honest and authentic. The trick is then to practice these values in your own life. Literally copying something is often impossible. Take authenticity. By definition, this is impossible to copy, because then it wouldn’t be authentic anymore. We have to translate it to our own lives: what makes this person so authentic and how can I make my life as authentic as possible?”

Inspiration can teach us a lot about ourselves, but we have to allow it to. “When I ask my students to write a paper about someone who is an example to them, the standard reply I get is ‘I don’t have examples. I’m just myself,’” says Duyndam. “I won’t contradict them, and yet I know that we are always inspired by examples, whether we like it or not. Everything you do and think, you borrowed at some point from people around you. Once you are clear on this, you can take a better look at yourself and see more clearly what is important to you.”

Resisting makes us more likely to be conformist, according to Duyndam. “People who desperately want to show that they are unique often tend to choose the same things as others within their group,” he says. “They travel to the same destinations and share the same unique taste. When people really are contrary, there is little tolerance for it. Imitation brings us together. It’s pleasant to share a taste, a passion or a talent with somebody.”

  • The full story ‘Ode to imitation’ can be found in Issue 11.

Text Otje van der Leij  Photography Daan Huttinga/Unsplash.com