Most people learn only by mimicking what other people are doing

Most people, whether by students or not, learn only by mimicking what other people are doing. We see people doing something, and we try it until we gain proficiency. These activities range from the simple – following a step in a standard operating procedure or pressing the green button, to the more complex – racing a car around a track hoping for the best time.

We are hardwired to learn by mimicking. Toddlers learn to stand upright and walk by observing others. Even our animal ancestors learn by mimicry. In fact, mimicry is one of the only ways animals learn. Monkeys learn to climb branches by watching their parents climb from branch to branch. They develop the hand and arm strength over time. They learn which branches can support their weight. And they learn to depend on their tail for stability and security instead of relying on mom. There’s a saying for that.

Humans aren’t too different. We have many more resources available to us. We can read any subject, most college courses are available online, and we can talk about our experiences and ask questions. Despite all these advantages, most of our learning happens by mimicry.

I learned most of what I learned by mimicking others. Even reading and writing – I started these because someone I looked up to said I should read and write. He was a cool dude that got attention from when I didn’t. I wanted attention from chicks, so I decided I’d follow his advice. So, I developed the habits of reading and writing. Fortunately, I liked reading and writing, even though the habits didn’t get me too much closer to having sex with women.

I still wanted to get laid. So, I followed people that spend their lives trying to understand women. I became a student of Patrice O’Neal (a comedian) and Julian Blanc (a “pickup artist”). I learned how women think from Patrice O’Neal and social skills from Julian. I behaved like Julian, and I studied like Patrice. I went out in the world and interacted with women with the two of them in mind. That worked. I started to understand women, and I started to have sex with them.

When I turned to more virtuous endeavors, I followed intelligent, virtuous people that had done it before. The Thoreaus, Petersons, and Senecas – these became my teachers and my lab partners. I studied what they said, and I did what they did. And I found (and continue to find) virtue.

I wanted to be a podcast host. So I followed Anthony Cumia and Geno Bisconte. I talked like they talked. I structured my show like Geno structures his shows. And I created a podcast I was proud of.

Mimicking others is a great way to learn, but it requires two things. It requires following the right person, and it requires understanding what I want to learn.

I choose people that are both experts and people I want to be like when I set out to learn something. Geno has a podcast I love, so I chose him to emulate instead of a generic article online that explains how to host a podcast. Patrice and Julian have lots of sex, so I followed them instead of listening to the latest movie that shows two people falling in love and having sex. The reading and writing I fell into for the wrong reasons, but I emulated the man who could choose what he wanted – and even though I wasn’t searching for that, I found that by reading and writing and emulating his habits. If I never picked up reading years earlier, I never would have got into Walden or Peterson’s lectures.

I needed to understand what I wanted to learn. Each time I picked someone to emulate, it started with a goal (usually sex). From there I could pick someone that is an expert in that field and study from them.

Too many people don’t align themselves with a goal, and many that do don’t align themselves with the right goal. For instance, many people envision success as fame and money and women. So, we choose people to mimic that are celebrities that have those material things.

Athletes and actors end up being our role models, but not because we want to be the best at throwing a football or acting in a major motion film. We emulate them because we want their results.

Athletes and actors get women and fame, but those are results. They aren’t experts in women and status dynamics. Patrice O’Neal and Julian, who studied women in an academic setting and in practice, are much better people to emulate because they know the exact skills and knowledge it takes to accomplish that result.

Most people only learn by mimicking others. The information learned in textbooks rarely translates to real-life activity. Real-life activity is learned with the motivation of achieving the results of the people we choose to mimicking. This style of learning is hard-coded in us, and can be effective if you copy the right people.