Should we imitate the best?

by Barnabas Piper
Posted on Friday, January 29, 2016, at 4:23 pm

Last month, Mark Jackson, a basketball commentator for ESPN and a former NBA player and coach, declared that Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry was bad for basketball—the same Stephen Curry who is basketball’s most dynamic player on the sport’s most dynamic team. Jackson’s reasoning? Curry’s otherworldly shooting would inspire younger players, high school and college athletes, to emulate him by shooting too many 3-pointers, which would ruin the game.

Critics used to say the same thing about a young man named Michael Jordan and all his dunking. You might have heard of him.

From one perspective, this criticism has some merit. If a less-skilled player tries to do what the best players do, results would be ugly, so it’s best if those players don’t even try. They can focus on other skills instead. The fundamentals, right?

We see this dynamic in other contexts besides sports, too. A rookie preacher tries to preach like a famous pastor, and what we hear is an awkward style and little substance. A writer imitates a best-selling novelist, but what we read is a flat story told with stilted, flowery language. A new manager tries to lead like the respected CEO, but comes off like a power-hungry tyrant. So the question we’re faced with is: Does imitating the best have any benefit at all? Should we just stick to the basics and do our best with that?

The answer is yes—and no. Yes, it’s a bad idea to try to do everything the best people do. If we seek to duplicate their results, their highlights, and their skill level, we are setting ourselves up for failure, frustrating everyone around us. We simply can’t do it. But the answer is no if we are willing to duplicate their process. If we do this, we might just find the beginnings of success.

The dichotomy I described earlier—imitate the best or stick to the fundamentals—is a false one. What makes the great ones great are the fundamentals. Well, fundamentals and God-given talent, but nobody rises to the top without mastering the foundational skills and making them second nature. Nobody becomes the best without countless hours of repetition of the basics—not athletes, preachers, writers, or leaders. Not anyone in any line of work.

Each of us has a set of skills, a level of giftedness. Some are athletic, some charismatic, some intuitive, and some creative. Our skill level is like our toolbox. Steph Curry and Michael Jordan have, or had, huge basketball toolboxes. But greatness at anything comes from first learning how to use those tools. What made those guys great wasn’t the number of tools they had but the skill in which they learned to use them. Most of us won’t achieve greatness, but if we become great at the process of pursuing greatness, the results will be special. If, though, we become so intent on arriving at greatness that we skip the process, we will have very little to show for it. 

Barnabas Piper

Barnabas works for Lifeway Christian Resources and is the author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith. He and his wife live in the Nashville area with their two daughters. Follow Barnabas on Twitter @BarnabasPiper.

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