Why copying can be good

Stephen King is one of the most prolific and successful writer in the world. Many of his most celebrated stories have also gone on to become best-selling films.

But, his success didn’t come without a lot of hard work. He wrote for lots of different types of publications. He got rejection after rejection early on. He used to have a nail on his wall where he put every rejection letter so he could be reminded. He was determined to succeed.

What’s interesting is that his very first piece was a complete copy of a children’s comic he used to read. He literally copied every picture, word and the layout. He did add some embellishments, but essentially it was a direct copy. When he showed it to his mother, she wasn’t aware. She was so happy with the end product which filled little Stephen with joy. She then asked if he had made it up, and he came clean. Apparently the happiness left her face. She was still impressed, but she urged him to do something unique. She told him not to copy – ‘do your own’. Stephen says the process of copying did help him understand the writing process and he engaged in the story in a way that helped him think about whether the story was good or not. So much so, he then went on to create his very own story quickly after. His mother was much happier the second time.

This wasn’t the last time that he used other peoples work as a way of learning his craft, but it was the last time he directly copied.

In the world of Agile, Lean, Product Management and other new ways of working there is a term that we hear a lot. It’s called the Cargo Cult. It’s a negative term used for clients who basically copy the mechanics, practices and approaches of others without really taking on the learning required to adapt it to context. It often attracts criticism and scorn. However, copying what others have done before you is not a bad strategy. It’s a good way to get started. But, you need someone like Stephen’s mother to help you then go further and ‘do your own’. Don’t believe that copying is enough. It’s when that next step is taken when the magic happens.

What can you copy that others have done before to get you started? What are you copying that now needs greater understanding and adaptation? 

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