In 2007, while hiking in Israel with a group of young professionals, I was actively pursuing photography as a hobby. Although there was ample opportunity for me to take unbelievable shots, I was struggling to take more than a handful of good photos. My frustration mounted: I had a vision, and I knew every feature of my camera, but something was missing. I started to wonder if maybe that missing piece was talent.
I decided to talk to a professional – not a psychiatrist, but rather a professional photographer hiking with my group. One night, after a day filled with hiking and snapping half-baked images, I asked the question: “Daniel, I have these stunning photos in my head, and I know how to use the camera, but I just cannot make my vision a reality. Does it mean I have no talent? Can it be fixed?”
The photographer’s first reaction was laughter, which gave me a glimmer of hope. And I have carried his response with me ever since that evening, and every time I start something new. “You have a poem in your head, but you do not know the language with which to write it,” he said.
Daniel went on to tell me that expressing a vision or a creative idea in photography requires building a library of images, techniques, creative devices, and other tricks of the trade. “Building the library” is not just about reading up on these techniques or seeing someone else use them, but about actually jumping in and using them – similar to the importance of practicing new words when you are learning a language.
“Ok, so how do I get there?” I asked him.
“You should copy.”
Now to me, copying lies somewhere between giving up and cheating. Yet, here is this professional photographer telling me that copying is the key to unlocking my creativity. Since I trusted him, I demanded the details.
Initially, human beings copy each other to get the hang of a tool or a method – for example, if you see a beautiful photo you can try to create one that looks similar. With practice, the process of taking this type of photo becomes a part of your toolbox and you can apply it almost instinctively as you snap more original images. As you take even more photos, you can start tweaking the process, and then finally work up to making it truly yours – creating originals that surpass anything that existed before.
This advice rings true in many areas of work and life. And why wouldn’t it? It’s a common approach in creative learning. Musicians learn to play by playing music created by others, painters train by making replicas of masterly paintings or painting something inspired by the greats, and so on.
I was reminded of this story after observing how my newborn daughter is learning to be a human. For the first two or three months, she copied facial expressions without even understanding what they mean – and now she has her own unique and charming smile that she uses remarkably well. She is yet to start talking, but she is already well on her way by replicating sounds that she hears from people around her.
Learning by copying is programmed into our nature, so the next time you need to learn something new or get to a new level of mastery in your current skill set – copy!
As co-founder and head of product strategy at Grammarly, Max Lytvyn drives the future direction and technical integration of Grammarly’s product portfolio. Connect with Max, the Grammarly team, and more than 1,000,000 Grammarly Facebook fans at www.facebook.com/grammarly.