Sometimes It Pays (Big Time)
to Be a Copy Cat …

Remember when you were a little kid in school … and someone called you a “copy cat” for whatever reason?

Not the nicest thing to say back then.

But now that we’re adults, “copying” others is no longer taboo like it was in our childhood. In fact, observing the success of others – and emulating what they do – is not only acceptable, but perhaps the most efficient and effective success technique today.

On the surface, it’s simple to do. You see someone does something well. You imitate his actions. And you reap similar benefits.

Seems simple enough, right?

Yes, it is … but don’t let its simplicity fool you. And don’t let the idea of “being a copy cat” throw you off, either. For, as you’ll soon see, it’s an honored, time-tested technique that’s used by working professionals in just about every industry imaginable.

And you can do it, too.

Done right, this simple exercise in “mimicry” can help you become a wildly successful freelancer in a relatively short period of time. Not only that, but it can also help you save energy, frustration, time, and a lot of money, too.

In the next few minutes, I’m going to show you how you can emulate the success of winners in your chosen field – no matter what it is – and drastically reduce the amount of time it takes for you to reach the top as a freelance professional.

But before I get to that, I’d like to share with you a story about a young woman’s quick rise from relative obscurity to international superstardom.

It’ll give you an idea of the power of emulating successful people, and show you that it’s not so bad to be a “copy cat” after all.

From Small-Town Country Bumpkin to International Superstar

Not long ago, a small-town teenage girl was struggling to make it as a singer and entertainer.

She came from a town of only 2,600 residents in the gator-infested bayous of Louisiana … and didn’t have any big-name entertainment connections.

Her parents declared bankruptcy and wound up getting divorced, due to her father’s alcoholism and emotional abuse.

On top of all these obstacles, she got rejected by several recording labels at the beginning of her career, even though she showed promising talent.

However, this young girl was determined to make it big someday.

Eventually, she hit it big in October 1998 with her debut single, “Baby One More Time” which peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1999.

Her name? Britney Spears … one of the most successful singers and entertainers of all time at the ripe old age of 27.

Yes, Britney’s career hasn’t been perfect. As you probably know by now, she’s had her fair share of struggles in recent times, although she has made what appears to be a remarkable comeback.

However, on the whole, there’s no arguing that Britney Spears has achieved tremendous success and amassed incredible wealth in a short, short period of time.

How, exactly, did she do it?

Several prominent journalists and publications point to her emulation of pop superstar Madonna:

  • The British newspaper The Guardian commented that Britney’s fourth studio album, In the Zone, contained, “ … most importantly, oodles of Madonna” in Spears’ pop-heavy music tracks. In the Zone generated three worldwide #1 hits.
  • According to Joan Anderman of The Boston Globe, Madonna is one of Britney’s biggest influences, commenting that Britney adopted Madonna’s “‘Truth or Dare’-era dance moves” into her sizzling, provocative dance routines.
  • And just last week, a headline in the British tabloid The Sun read, “Pop princess Britney Spears is caught red-handed as she steals Madonna’s style crown – and wardrobe.”

Sounds like some good ol’ shameless copying to me!

But here’s the thing …

If you got the chance to ask Britney herself if she imitates Madonna, she’d probably tell you, “Absolutely!”

In fact, in the 2002 book Madonna Style by Carol Clerk, Britney is quoted as saying, “I have been a huge fan of Madonna since I was a little girl. I would really, really like to be a legend like Madonna.”

She sings like Madonna (well … sort of). She dresses like Madonna. She dances like Madonna. She even used to attend the same church as Madonna. And her strategy sure seems to have paid off.

Over the past decade, Britney’s album sales have totaled over 31 million in the United States alone … and over 83 million worldwide.

Her net worth? Last I heard, it was over $125 million.

Not bad for a girl from small-town USA …

And this is just one of many, many examples. In fact, name ANY famous musician or athlete or artist or writer or any other creative professional, and I bet you’ll almost definitely find they’ve got role models they imitate in one way or another:

  • Professional golfer Tiger Woods has based his career after Jack Nicklaus …
  • NBA basketball superstar LeBron James models his game after Michael Jordan …
  • Artists Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso both stated that French artist Paul Cézanne “is the father of us all.” Cézanne, in turn, was influenced by Camille Pissarro … who was influenced by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot … who was influenced by … well, you get the idea.
  • Writers J. D. Salinger, Hunter S. Thompson, and Jack Kerouac were all heavily influenced by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway …

 … and countless more examples.

That’s the power of emulating successful people.

And you can do it, too.

How to Emulate the Best in Your Field … and Expedite YOUR Success

So … how can you do this in YOUR chosen field?

Here are a few ideas …

First, find an accomplished person you want to emulate.

If you’re a photographer, find out who the best photographers in the business are. Same goes for writers … musicians … artists … web designers … whatever. Find out who the best are … and make a list.

Then, once you’ve found who you want to emulate, find out as much as you can about how they became successful.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to get started:

  • How did your chosen role models get proficient at their craft?
  • What did they practice – day-in and day-out – to improve … to get great at what they do (or did)?
  • When did they work? For how long? What tools did they use? Who helped them out? How?
  • What does their finished work look, sound, or feel like? Collect as many samples as you can for inspiration.
  • What particular style, philosophy, or structure do they espouse in their work? Organized? Chaotic? Linear? Intuitive? Structured? Unstructured? Other?
  • What parts or aspects of their work can you model directly?
  • How can you take this … and then add your own personality, flair, and creative genius?

In a nutshell, you want to ask yourself, “What did your role models do to become a huge success … and how can you do the same, with your own personal touch?”

For example, let’s say you want to become a web designer. Find out who the best web designers are in the business. Get their books on web design. Take classes. Meet them, either in person, or online. Find out how they got good at what they do. Look at the websites they’ve designed. Analyze them as much as you can … and start doing what they did to get successful.

Or, let’s say you want to become a travel writer. Find out who the best travel writers are! Get your hands on a bunch of articles or books they’ve written. Read the articles. Analyze the structure … the voice … and the content … and any other components of the articles worth noting.

If you can, contact the writers and ask them questions. And then use everything you’ve learned as inspiration when you start writing your own travel articles.

Or perhaps you’re an aspiring wildlife photographer, and your dream is to get one of your photos on the front page of National Geographic magazine. It’s a lofty goal, but hey, go for it!

Find out which photographers have photos in past issues of National Geographic. Learn as much as you can about these photographers and how they achieved their success. Make contact with them if you can and “pick their brain.” (Just don’t overdo it and annoy them. Use tact … and if possible, provide them with some information they might find helpful in their jobs). And then start your career how they started theirs.

Get the picture?

Just do what the experts do!

However, there’s a caveat.

You need to make sure you …

Put Your Own Personality Into It!

You don’t want to come across as a “cookie cutter,” a complete rip-off, or even worse, a plagiarizer, which can get you into legal trouble AND sully your professional reputation in one fell swoop.

So although it’s a good idea to model others, don’t overdo it. Put your own personality into it. Make it yours.

By the way, if you want a prime example of “making it yours,” simply turn on your television and watch the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner” before the Super Bowl a few weeks from today.

It’s always just a bit different every year, even though it’s the same song. The singer or singers put their own spin on it … and that’s part of what makes it so special. (Who could forget Whitney Houston’s stirring rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV in 1991 … just months after Operation Desert Storm got underway. I got goose bumps just watching that.)

So no matter what your chosen field is, don’t be afraid to emulate the success of others, but don’t take it too far. Put your own spin on it and make it yours.

A Mentor Points Out the Power of “Ethical Borrowing”

Before I wrap things up today, I’d like to share with you one more quick story about the power of emulating successful people in your field.

A few years ago, when I first started writing copy full-time, my first mentor was a wonderfully friendly and helpful guy named Thom Hickling.

Thank goodness for Thom. My first few months, I was struggling to find my writing voice. You see, at the time, I felt compelled to be 100% original. To break completely new ground and “wow” all my peers with my dazzling writing skills.

Then one night over a few pints of Guinness in a dimly lit pub in Waterford, Ireland, Thom brought me back to earth. He told me that I was wasting heaps of time and energy in my efforts to be original … and that it was threatening my still-brief-at-the-time copywriting career.

He also told me that I should start reading all the promotions that were doing well at the time … figure out what made them work … and borrow as much from them as made sense when I wrote copy.

He didn’t tell me to plagiarize, of course. But he did say to “copy” and “borrow” and “steal” (ethically, of course) as much as I could.

At the end of that conversation, he made sure I understood him loud and clear when he said …

“That’s why they call it COPYwriting!”

Well said, Thom.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: January 6, 2009

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