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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once said, “There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.” You’ve probably noticed what happens when some brand or platform star stumbles on a viral success. Suddenly, everyone thinks this is the latest hot thing, and like lemmings, they race for the cliff.
And like lemmings, the results are pretty similar. Why do humans have a similar penchant for following suit?
Throughout evolutionary development, mammals (not just humans) experiment and observe. When we discover that a particular plant is bitter or that fire is hot, we know to avoid it next time. These observations help us make choices, including doubling down on the things that work.
When it comes to survival, at one point, prehistoric man determined that it was easier to catch fish with a spear than bare hands. Fellow tribesmen followed suit as the idea was observed and shared among the group.
This is the simple process of imitation. It’s easy, and it helps us quickly succeed by adopting successful behaviors that we witness in others. But imitation is lazy. It’s a shortcut. It’s more intriguing to ponder inspiration.
You might say, “Imitation, inspiration — it’s all the same thing. You’re just copying someone else’s idea.”
Well, yes and no.
Certainly, there are a limited number of ideas out there. When Helen Keller was distraught because she had been accused of plagiarism in 1903, Mark Twain wrote an encouraging note to her: “All ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.”
Twain admits that there are a limited number of ideas out there. The key to inspiration, though, is how we remix, recreate and remold these ideas to create a different and new expression. It’s the essence of the entrepreneurial spirit — the inspiration that drives us.
Inspiration is the spark, when observing something that causes us to think just a little bit differently and apply an idea in a new way. What do you need to bring inspiration to life, so that it fuels a marketable idea? Inspiration requires deeper thinking, a fit with strategy and culture, a well-articulated vision and the ability to effectively communicate that vision as you turn it into a reality.
Henry Ford observed textile factories and meat-packing and processing plants, put the ideas together and developed the moving assembly line for automotive manufacturing. He was inspired, but he didn’t imitate.
Thinking back to those prehistoric fishermen: What caused them to move beyond simple spearfishing? One of them might have come across a group of fish trapped in seaweed. That, in turn, may have inspired him to create a net to catch many fish at once, rather than relying on the one-off of spearfishing.
If we take the ideas of others and simply copy them for our own purposes, we’re likely to see less success. It’s the lesson we should have learned from the infamous Oreo “dunk in the dark” tweet, which was produced during the 2013 Super Bowl, famous for having a power outage in the middle of the game. Every brand thought it could replicate the real-time marketing success of Oreo.
Power out? No problem. pic.twitter.com/dnQ7pOgC
— OREO Cookie (@Oreo) February 4, 2013
Leaders ought to be helping their teams understand what’s been successful — and why.
That last part that’s so important. It’s easy to learn about what’s made others successful, but it takes more reflection and understanding to determine who you are and what drives you, whether you’re a brand or an individual.
By understanding yourself, you’ll be able to take your inspirations and apply them in a way that is authentically you. And that’s what people will buy. As Lev S. Vygotsky once said, “Through others we become ourselves.”