Success Leaves Clues - Copy the Masters

As a child, I remember watching people on TV and in real life do amazing things and wished that I could do them too.

In high school and college, I played guitar in rock bands. Every week we had to reverse engineer the latest hit song, figure out the cords and lyrics and lead guitar licks. Little did I know that I was practicing one of the key skills in life. Even the Beatles and the Rolling Stones recorded Chuck Berry songs.

Between my junior and senior year in college, my friend Jim and I went to Europe.. Jim dragged me into every art museum in every major city we visited. When we visited the Louvre in Paris, I was amazed at the art students with their easels, canvas, paints and brushes who were patiently copying the works of masters like Picasso or Monet.

Copying Hemingway

Later in life as I returned to my interest in writing, I read everything anyone had ever written about writing. In one of Hemingway's books on writing I found the key to mastery. When asked how he learned to write, Hemingway replied:

"I copied the masters."

This was somewhat startling. What did he mean? Did he read Tolstoy and then try to write like him? No, the answer is much more obvious. As I read other books on writing, I often found a similar statement: I copied the masters. I began to wonder if Hemingway meant it literally…actually copying Tolstoy word for word.

I decided to give it a try. I started with Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: "We were somewhere outside of Barstow when the drugs began to take hold." Now there's an opening line to rival "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

As I discovered, reading isn't writing. You can read thousands of books and not have any idea how to write one. Only writing is writing. And copying the masters is the easiest way to learn. Actually sit down and write or type out a book by a favorite author page by page. Just don't try to resell their work as your own!

Channeling Robin Williams

As Karyn Ruth White and I were researching our new book, Your Seventh Sense-How to Think Like a Comedian, I found similar clues about new masters copying old masters. Robin Williams copied Jonathan Winters. Comedy writer Gene Perret learned how to write for Bob Hope by recording Bob's monologues off the TV and then transcribing every joke.

Growing up I was a big fan of Groucho Marx. (As Groucho once told Dick Cavett: "If it gets much hotter, I'll need a big fan.) I watched all of the Marx Brothers movies and Groucho's TV show. I must have been copying his style, because I still find myself in situations where Groucho just pops out, cigar gesture, wit, and all.

After the end of Mork and Mindy, I bought one of Robin William's comedy albums. I loved his humor and I wanted to learn how to be like him. I almost wore the grooves off that album as I did the same thing I used to do with rock songs: I learned the words and "sang" along to get the timing and delivery to be as close to the original as possible.

Most comedians won't admit it, but they copied the style of several comedians to learn comic timing and delivery. You can too. Get a recording of your favorite comedian and then "sing along" with them.

Sports Performance

The best athletes in the world say the same thing about sports: I copied the masters. Denver Broncos quarterback, John Elway, once said that he learned golf by watching the best players in the world and then mimicking what they were doing. (John went from zero to scratch golf in three years.) Great athletes can see an action, try it on in their own body using micro muscle movements, and then refine it by practice and playing.

My role models for great golf attitude and play are Fred Couples and Annika Sorenstam. I have found it easier to watch and learn from the LPGA players like Annika than to watch the PGA players like Tiger Woods. The LPGA players are a little smoother in their swing while the PGA's grip-it-and-rip-it is hard to study.

Business Performance

Toyota's lean manufacturing process is widely studied and copied as a model for excellence. Where did the original idea come from for minimizing inventory? Toyota copied the idea from American supermarkets. Just enough inventory to handle the demand.

Copy the Masters

So reading Hemingway isn't writing Hemingway. Listening to Jimi Hendrix isn't the same as playing his licks. Watching Robin Williams isn't channeling his wit and style. And watching the pros isn't playing like the pros.

Of course the objective of copying the masters isn't to become a clone. The goal is to get their mastery into your body, mind, and spirit so that your own unique mastery can emerge.

Who are your "heros" in any field: business, sports, entertainment, whatever? It could be another company. It could be a supervisor or coworker. It could be your postal carrier. Mark Sanborn, one of Colorado's professional speakers, developed a whole recipe for customer service called "the Fred Factor" which he "modeled" from his postal carrier, Fred.

How can you copy them? How can you dress like them, walk like them, talk like them, or think like them? Success leaves clues. Read what they've written or said. Watch their video, listen to their recordings, go see them perform. Then, in the privacy of your own home or office, copy their behavior as closely as possible to get it into your body, mind, and spirit. Turn their skill into an "ability suit" that you can put on whenever you need it.

You may never be as good as they are, but you'll be much better at it than average. When Gary Zukov asked Al Huang, a Tai Chi master, about mastery, Al replied: "A master is someone who started before you did."

Isn't it time to start your quest for mastery?

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