Artist and author Austin Kleon writes in his book Steal Like an Artist
that it’s important to study and imitate your heroes as you develop your own skills.
But a convenient flaw of human beings is that we’re incapable of making perfect copies: “Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives.”
For Kleon, a key part of identifying and developing your unique talents is imitating your heroes, examining where you fall short, then amplifying and transforming the difference into your own work.
He offers the following examples:
Basketball player Kobe Bryant has acknowledged that all of his moves were stolen from watching tapes of his heroes. As Bryant puts it, “There isn’t a move that’s a new move.”
But when Bryant initially stole a lot of the moves, he realized he couldn’t replicate them exactly because he didn’t have the same body type. He had to adapt the moves and make them his own.
Conan O’Brien has acknowledged the same phenomenon among fellow comedians. Johnny Carson tried to be Jack Benny, but ended up as Johnny Carson. David Letterman tried to copy Johnny Carson, but ended up as David Letterman. And O’Brien himself tried to emulate David Letterman, but ended up as a different and better version of Conan O’Brien.
As O'Brien observes, each case shares a common lesson: “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.”