The three I’s of innovation and creative imitation

by Jeremy Hodge on February 18, 2013

When I was at freshman at The New School studying jazz performance and composition, I had a professor who talked about how we would develop our own musical voice – impressing upon us the three I’s of innovation:

  1. Identify the things you like
  2. Imitate those things
  3. Innovate

As a jazz student, this meant finding other musicians whom you admired and transcribing as many solos as you could from their recordings. Next, you had to incorporate their style into your own playing, whether emulating the way they phrase a melody, or using pieces of their solos in your own playing. Finally, you had to “innovate” – develop your own voice and come up with something new. This last “I” was the toughest, and it’s one that very few musicians or artists will truly achieve. While it’s easy to be a clone, it is much harder to come up with something new.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these three I’s lately when it comes to professional and career development. Recently, when I’ve sat down to blog, I’ve struggled with what to write about. At times, I felt that I am simply repeating like I was saying what so many others who blog about content strategy, social media and marketing are saying. Yet I’ve realized that this is part of developing your craft, whether it’s music or marketing. You need to first listen and find out what your interests are, and once you start talking about it, there’s a good chance you’ll sound like those you follow and admire. Over time, though, you begin to refine your point of view, start to build upon what you know and develop new ideas. It’s frustrating at times, especially when you feel like you might be simply regurgitating what someone else said, but it’s all part of learning. If we’re going to encourage people to develop their skills and identify new areas to build out, we have to be ok with a little bit of imitation.

Social media platforms actually have this imitation phase built right into them. Retweeting someone on Twitter or reposting on Tumblr is a great way to synthesize what others are saying, add a bit of commentary and promote it as part of your overall view on a subject, while giving proper credit. In a way, a retweet or repost is similar to transcribing a solo and incorporating parts of it into your own playing; it’s all creative imitation.

So don’t be afraid to imitate others when trying to develop your own views on a subject, and always listen for new influences. Regardless of the field you’re in, whether it’s jazz, physics or business, you are standing on the shoulders of giants, and you should acknowledge that.

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