A prudent man should always follow in the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent – Niccolò Machiavelli
What does that mean?
This is another Twitter friendly version of a longer quote. “A prudent man should always follow in the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent, so that if he does not attain to their greatness, at any rate he will get some tinge of it.”
This is stated for the purpose of encouraging a new Prince to do what the other great rulers have done, even if the reason or ability is beyond them. The idea is to aim for the best, to try to imitate those who have achieved the goals the new Prince desires. In short, to learn from the actions of others.
The theory is that even if you don’t get the exact same result, you will get a better result than if you tried some random action and hoped for the desired result. By following a plan, even if it’s some one else’s plan, you have a fair chance of getting the same result.
Of course you’ll get closer to the same result if you can make as much else the same as possible. However, no one is exactly the same in skills, abilities, and knowledge, and no two situations are exactly the same, so something will always be different. By following a plan that has been successful at least once, we are in a better position than most for getting our desired results.
Why is being a copycat important?
Yes, it can be fun to blaze a new trail, but it’s more prone to errors as well as being slower, sometimes by a large amount. The statement reminds me of a saying that I have to say far too often: “If we’re going to reinvent the wheel AGAIN, can we try something a little closer to ROUND this time?!”
The most useful thing that being a copycat does for us is save us time and effort. How many people actually try to reinvent the wheel (well, besides NASA, where they’re building tires for very special applications, like Mars and the Moon)? As a copycat, you are learning from the experiences of others, which allows us to get ahead in the game of life.
Where can I apply this in my life?
Before we talk about being a copycat, I;d like to take a moment and talk about when it’s not appropriate to be a copycat. Unless the person you are copying from is a great person, or are excellent (outstanding in their field of endeavour), you probably shouldn’t be following their path.
Also, only follow the people who are going where you are going. Michael Jordan may have been one of the greatest basketball players ever, but if you want to be a swimmer, Michael Phelps might be the better person to follow, right?
The next thing to realize is that sometimes, people are great or excel because of special gifts or talents. Things the rest of us mere mortals lack. That doesn’t mean we can’t try, it just means we might not get the exact same results. Does that make sense?
Even if you never came within 15 seconds of Michael Phelps’ time in 100 meter freestyle, you will probably get better results following in his footsteps than if you just made up your own path. And that is the whole point of the quote, right?
So, to the quote. What are the sorts of things you want to either learn or at which you want to get better? Is it a skill, a base of knowledge, a new language, or something else entirely? Grab some paper and start writing ideas down. Was there something you wanted to do growing up which you might wish to revisit?
Pick the three or four that are of the most interest to you, and that you are most likely to complete. Now, for each of these, start a list of people you think are already good at the thing in which you are interested. This could be anyone from a friend or family member to a world famous expert.
Now, take a look at the list of people from whom you want to learn, and do a little research. Do they teach seminars? Do they have books (or are they the subjects of books)? How can you get in touch and pick their brain? Even if they are long dead, if you can read books by or about them, you can follow the path they laid down.
That’s why we read of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. In this manner, we can follow the path they trod. We can also read of others who followed their trails for a time, before heading off in their own directions.
We can learn from our own successes and mistakes, or we can learn from those made by others. One of those is a bit quicker and a little less painful. It’s up to you. I usually find the research to be quicker and less troublesome than making a mess of things. How about you, which do you prefer?