Copying the Greats

grayscale photography of person holding pen

Artists steal their way to the top, writers copy their way to the top. It’s the way of the world and I’m okay with that.

I’m learning about the effectiveness of copy work, copycatting, or copy. Literally just taking someone else’s work and copying what they wrote verbatim. The trick is this, how long do I go?

Hunter Thompson did this with The Great Gatsby to solidify his own writing voice. Benjamin Franklin was famous for it while he would copy newspaper articles and magazines to familiarize himself with the structure of those types of publications.

I am going to do it with blogs.

I’m looking for some blogs that are real standouts compared to the normal stuff that’s floating around on the web. Paul Graham has a highly regarded blog that does not shy away from creating content. I’m sure there are plenty of other, but this is widely known and accepted as an elite blog.

How To Think For Yourself:

By Paul Graham

November 2020

There are some kind of work that you can’t do well without thinking differently about your peers. To be a successful scientist, for example, it’s not enough to just be correct. Your ideas have to be both correct and novel. You can’t publish papers saying things other people already know. You ned to say things no one else has realized yet.

The same is true for investors. It’s not enough for a public market investor to predict correctly how a company will do. If a lot of other people make the same prediction, the stock price will already reflect it, and there’s no room to make money. The only valuable insights are the ones most other investors don’t share.

You see this pattern with startup founders too. You don’t want to start a d startup to do something that everyone agrees is a good idea, or there will already be companies doing it. You have to do something that sounds to most other people like a bad idea, but that you know isn’t – like writing software for a tiny computer used bu a few thousand hobbyists, or starting a site to let people rent airbeds on strangers floors.

Ditto for essayists. An essay that told people things they already know would be boring. You have to tell them something new.

But this pattern isn’t universal. In fact, it doesn’t hold for most kinds of work. In most kinds of work – to be an administrators, for example – all you need is the first half. All you need is to be right. It’s not essential that everyone else be wrong.

There’e room for a little novelty in most kinds of work, but in practice there’s a fairly sharp distinction between the kinds of work where it’s essential to be independent-minded, and the kinds where it’s not.

I wish someone had told me about this distinction when I was a kind, because it’s one of the most important things to think about when you’re deciding what kind of work you want to do. Do you want to do the kind of work where you can only win by thinking differently from everyone else? I suspect most people’s unconscious mind will answer that question before the conscious mind has a chance to. I know mine does.

Independent-mindedness seems to be more a matter of nature than nurture. Which means if you pick the wrong type of work, you’re going to be unhappy. If you’re naturally independent-minded, you’re going to fin it frustrating to be a middle manager. And if you’re naturally conventional-minded, you’re going to be sailing into a headwind if you try to do original research.

One difficulty here, thought, is that people are often mistaken about where they fall on spectrum from conventional- to independent-minded. Conventional-minded people don’t like to think of themselves as conventional-minded. And in any case, it genuinely feels to them as if they make up their own minds about everything. It’s just a coincidence that their beliefs are identical to their peers’. And the independent-minded, meanwhile, are often unaware how different their ideas are from conventional ones, at least till they state them publicly.

By the time they reach adulthood, most people know roughly how smart they are (in the narrow sense of ability to solve preset problems), because they’re constantly being tested and ranked according to it. But schools generally ignore independent-mindedness, except to the extent they try to suppress it. So we don’t get anything like the same kind of feedback about how independent minded we are.

There may even be a phenomenon like Dunning-Kruger at work, where the most conventional-minded people are confident that they are independent-minded, while the genuinely independent-minded worry they might not be independent-minded enough.

Can you make yourself more independent-minded? I think so. This quality may be largely inborn, but there seem to be ways to magnify it, or at least not to suppress it.

One of the most effective techniques is one practiced unintentionally by most nerds: simply to be less aware what conventional beliefs ate. It’s hard to be a conformist if you don’t know what you’re supposed to conform to. Though again, it may be that such people already are independent-minded. A conventional minded person would probably feel anxious not knowing what other people thought, and make more effort to find out.

It matters a lot who you surround yourself with. If you’re surrounded by conventional-minded people, it will constrain which ideas you can express, and that in turn will constrain which ideas you have. But if you surround yourself with independent-minded people, you’ll have the opposite experience: hearing other people say surprising things will encourage you to, and to think of more.

Because the independent-minded find it uncomfortable to be surrounded by conventional-minded people, they tend to self-segregate once they have a chance to. The problem with high school is that they haven’t yet had a chance to. Plus high school tends to be an inward-looking little world whose inhabitants lack confidence, both of which magnify the forces of conformism. So high school is often a bad time for the independent-minded. But there is some advantage even here: it teaches you what to avoid. If you late find yourself in a situation that makes you think “this is like high school”, you know you should get out.

Another place where the independent- and conventional-minded are thrown together is in successful startups. The founders and early employees are almost always independent-minded; otherwise the startup wouldn’t be successful. But conventional-minded people greatly outnumber independent-minded ones, so as the company grows, the original spirit of independent-mindedness is inevitably diluted. This causes all kinds of problems besides the obvious one that the company starts to suck. One of the strangest is that the founders find themselves able to speak more freely with founders of other companies than with their own employees.

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