Copy Your Way to Success

The concept of innovation has been all the rage in 21st Century America. No matter where one looks – books, media or corporate board rooms – there is a focus on this concept. And for good reason. Innovation is critical to progress.

I would like to make the claim, however, that copying is at least as important as innovating. This is particularly true for those of lower income or young people who are just starting out.

No matter what domain you seek to enter, there is one Golden Rule of Success: Copy the Successful. It does not matter whether you seek to be an athlete, artist, business leader, political leader, doctor, farmer or welder. The simplest way to get better at something is to copy those who are most successful in the field. By copying the best, you are effectively learning from all the trial-and-error attempts made by those who came before you.

In a fascinating article entitled “Why Copy Others?” a research team documented a computer simulation designed to test the most effective learning strategies. The researchers asked experts to write algorithms that would compete against each other in a computer tournament that consisted of 10,000 rounds. The entries consisted of various blends of learning strategies, including trial-and-error learning, copying and executing on a decision.

At the end of each round, successful algorithms “lived” (i.e. they went onto the next round), while unsuccessful algorithms “died” (they were dropped from the tournament). In this way, the researchers created a simulated evolutionary process with each player using different strategies.

So which strategy won?: Those that relied heavily on copying what worked in the previous round (or what the researchers called “social learning”) repeatedly won.

This result was not expected by the researchers. No matter how many times they ran the simulation, they got roughly the same results. The variations were mainly dependent upon the length of time spent learning from others and the timing of when enough information had been gathered before actually making a decision.

Additional experiments by Joseph Henrich (who has made stellar contributions to the field) show that copying multiple people is better than copying one. Henrich and his assistant asked inexperienced students to recreate an image using image-editing software. Those students then passed on their image and instructions to the next set of students. Some of the students received the image and instructions from one student in the previous round; other students received the same from five different students.

The results were compelling. Students who received instructions from only one person hardly improved their skills at all. Among students who received instructions from five different persons, however, the average skill increased dramatically (by 20-80%). Every student who received instructions from five persons outperformed even the best student who received instructions from only one person.

This makes sense. As Henrich speculates, students who received instructions from five others were not just mindlessly copying. They were comparing the instructions from each of the five, looking for commonalities among those who were most successful. In addition, they were paying particular attention to the instructions written by the student who did best in the previous round.

By copying five persons instead of one, they were effectively recombining the lessons learned fro five different sources to create a new strategy that they could then try in the next round. The recombinations that succeeded best in the subsequent round were then given the most weight by the next round of students. So in each round students inherited the learning from students who participated in earlier rounds.

Just as innovators recombine successful simple technologies, skills and organizations to create more complex technologies, skills and organization, copiers do the same. As one delves into the concepts more deeply, the line between innovating and copying becomes increasingly blurred. Innovation requires copying, and copying involves at least some innovation (mainly by making decisions as to which ideas to combine).

This leads to a valuable lesson for us all. The fastest and most effective means of success is to copy the successful. Ideally copy a wide variety of successful people, and then figure out what they are doing in common. When in doubt, error towards copying the most successful.

Then once you have become one of those successful persons in your field, you can start focusing on innovating something new. Only once you have exhausted all the lessons learned by previous generations of successful people is it worth spending the time and energy to innovate.

Innovating and copying the most successful innovations are a critical factor in promoting progress.

If you would like to learn more about this or other related topics, read my book From Poverty to Progress.


Michael Magoon is the author of the “From Poverty to Progress” series of books. The first book in the series is already published with many more to follow.


The writings above are under the same copyright as the main book “From Poverty to Progress
Copyright © 2021 Michael Magoon

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