Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Tommy fallacy

Imitation is a powerful way to learn new skills, but the specific techniques and strategies that worked for other people won't necessarily work for you.

In the Who's rock opera Tommy, the title character experiences enlightenment and healing through obsessive practicing of pinball games. (Pinball is a mechanical predecessor to video games.) But when Tommy urges others to play pinball and follow his path to enlightenment, it doesn't work for other people. They play and play, but they only become frustrated, not enlightened.

The moral of the story is that everyone has to find their own path to enlightenment. A spiritual path is a personal thing, and if you randomly follow someone else's path, it won't necessarily work for you.

Guess what? This lesson applies to more than just your spiritual life. The path to success in life is just as personal as the spiritual path (and that's assuming that those two things can even be considered separately, which is debatable). And what about your path as a creative artist? That path is most emphatically a uniquely personal thing that you must discover yourself.

The Tommy syndrome is the misguided (but understandable) tendency of coaches, mentors, and advisors to expect their students to repeat their own path to success, no matter how ill-fitting it is.

The Tommy fallacy is the incorrect assumption that you can achieve the same results that someone else achieved, just by copying all of that person's actions. It's the assumption that you can do great stuff by carefully studying and exactly copying someone else's process for doing great stuff.

In practice, this copying process sometimes partly succeeds, but it often utterly fails. Imitating people who are good at something is a fastest and powerful way to learn — but you still have to find your own way to success.

Why doesn't it work to copy someone else? There are several reasons why it fails.
  • Everyone is different, with a unique set of strengths, limitations, interests, and values.
  • You're in a particular time, place, and set of circumstances. It's never a match for the situation of the person you're trying to copy.
  • While some behaviors are obvious and easy to copy, some behaviors are subtle and hard to discern — and these subtle differences sometimes make a big difference.
  • Noteworthy success is rarely a one-person effort, and key contributions can come from invisible supporting players who chose to stay out of the spotlight.
But the key flaw, the centerpiece of the Tommy fallacy, is this:
  • The successful person you're imitating did what they did as a natural expression of who and where they were and what they wanted to achieve. The one thing they didn't do is copy someone else's actions.
As a creative artist, you can certainly pick up tricks and techniques from others and use them as raw material. But you fundamentally can't find your creative way by copying someone else's path. This is a practical thing; not some moralistic imperative to "be original." The creative process simply doesn't work if you put someone else in the space where you are supposed to stand.

You, the artist, are the catalyst that sparks the chemical reaction. You provide the transformative space that makes magic happen. And the magic only works if you are whole and intact, taking ownership of the creative process and taking responsibility for the results.

But don't trust me on this. I don't want to be just another one of those coaches, mentors, and advisors that I warned you about eight paragraphs back. Check this out for yourself, and see what your own experiences tell you.

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