Students in creative disciplines sometimes worry that they might lose their personal style if they allow themselves to be influenced by teachers, practitioners, or other students. They reason that imitation is the enemy of innovation. They believe that if the unique talent they need isn’t there already, it never will be.

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There’s a kernel of truth to this. But only a kernel. Because the way we actually learn is by standing on the shoulders of others. We acquire skills by watching more advanced practitioners do their work, eventually growing strong enough to support the weight of newer practitioners.

To develop a strong personal style, open yourself to the widest possible range of influences. Look closely at the work of practitioners, groups, and cultures you admire. Appreciate with felonious intent. When you see something you wish you had done, copy it, photograph it, tear it out, take notes on it; put it in a file, pin it to a board, tape it into a book, or keep it on a shelf. Your natural likes and dislikes will act as a filter, so that the examples you collect will begin to resemble your future style.

Every time you start a new project, revisit your hero file and use the examples as benchmarks for quality. Don’t quit working until you’ve achieved something as good as one of items you admire.

Of course, standing on the shoulders of giants is one thing. Clinging to their pant legs is another. Make sure you steal the principles that underlie their work and not the work itself. Outright copying teaches very little. Learning to extract and apply principles is the path to genius.

Next week: Invest in your originality.
Master the four levels of innovation

The Rules of Genius is now a book with a bonus section called “How can I matter?” that includes 10 essential rules.  Buy here.