We’ve all witnessed lawyers who can hold a jury spell-bound hanging on every word that they say. We strive to be like them, even going so far as to imitate them. In doing so, we may even abandon our own traits in order to take on the gestures, body language, mannerisms – even tone of voice – of our idols.
Imitating your idols is not a mortal sin. After all, nobody is born with a style or voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our idols.
At some point, however, we must advance past imitation to emulation. This is not a distinction without a difference. Imitation is about copying. Emulation is when imitation goes one step further, breaking through into your own thing.
The biggest tragedy in my mind is when a person gets stuck in the imitation rut, unable to jump the chasm between imitation and emulation. Outwardly, it’s as if the person is walking around behind a veil that conceals what they are actually thinking and feeling. What is the harm in this? When you walk around like F. Lee Bailey, Johnnie Cochran, or Edward Bennett Williams you become nothing more than a carbon copy of them – an impostor of sorts. The great Gerry Spence said it best, “Our uniqueness is the greatest gift of our creation … It’s what makes us valuable beyond all comprehension.” I could not agree more.
As idealistic as this might sound, there will never be another “you” that walks this Earth yet by disguising your true self from the world, you are depriving the world of the richest, most colorful, and most exciting parts of yourself – those parts that set you apart from the other seven and-a-half billion people and that gives you your unique, personal identity.
What are some of the reasons we get stuck in the imitation rut?
(1) We don’t think that we’re enough. We feel like the real person is not nearly as interesting as our idols.
(2) We are our own worst critics. We are painfully aware of our shortcomings and embarrassed at what we perceive to be “glaring defects” and imperfections. We spend our lives editing, censoring, and hiding ourselves from the world.
(3) We seek the approval of others. The excessive need for approval is a cruel master. You can spend your whole life currying favor and it will take its toll on your mental and physical well-being. Do the things you want and need to do and you will be at peace. Marlon Brando was by no means perfect but I love the fact that he didn’t live his life seeking approval. He had the rebel living inside of him. We can all use a little of that. Don’t live your life for approval. Accept yourself for who you are.
(4) We want to fit in. There is a puritanical goodness to avoiding attention. It’s almost a moral cleanliness, like an organized closet. Across geographic borders and cultural boundaries, attention attracts danger while anonymity can be seen as a virtue.
(5) We are perfectionists. There can be nothing more stifling to creativity than the need for perfection. It paralyzes us like a cobra’s venom and is the leading cause of procrastination. Yet, perfection is something that has been ingrained in us since the first day we were in law school. As elusive as it might be, it’s something that we strive for every day. Nevertheless, the transcripts of some of the best opening and closing statements are replete with some of the worst bastardizations of the English language as to cause any respectable First Grade English teacher to roll over in their graves.
(6) Finding the courage to be yourself requires a certain amount of emotional vulnerability, vulnerability which is viewed as a “weakness” by those in the legal community.
If you’ve been nagged by one ore more of these self-limiting beliefs, you can take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. Often actors are embarrassed about what makes them unique. Many are afraid that they are not enough. They think they are “too nice” or “not nice enough” and try to cover it up by attempting to be someone they’re not.
Ironically, those same traits that actors find embarrassing about themselves – the quirks, peculiarities, and idiosyncrasies – are often times an actors’ greatest strengths. As the great Robin Williams said in “Good Will Hunting”:
“… those are the things I miss the most. The little idiosyncrasies that only I knew about. That’s what made her my wife. Oh, and she had the goods on me, too, she knew all my little peccadillos. People call these things imperfections, but they’re not, aw, that’s the good stuff.”
How do we get out from behind the veil and reveal our inner truth? This is a deep question that requires some soul-searching. If we’re being honest with ourselves, I think that we’d have to admit that in life we often act in a way that is less than truthful. We actually pretend to be one way, hiding that we are another. To add insult to injury, we are so used to doing it that we even fool ourselves. For example, when was the last time you approached your adversary in court and said, “You are impossible to deal with. Getting a fair plea offer from you is like trying to get blood out of a stone!”
Of course you wouldn’t say that. Doing so would be a death wish. Indeed, if you thought your adversary was difficult to deal with before, imagine how much worse things are going to get after she hears you blurt out this rude comment? My point is that even though it helps to be grounded in truthful behavior in your daily life, there are times in our day-to-day life when we have no other choice but to lie in order to keep the peace and avoid conflict. There are real consequences to speaking the truth. If you tell your boss to “go fly a kite,” not only will you lose your job but you’ll lose your salary and your ability to pay your rent. Viewed in this light, lying is akin to a survival mechanism.
The way I back into any discussion about inner truth it to start with the simple and move to the complex, eventually arriving at a profound question.
A wonderful flaw about human beings is that we’re incapable of becoming carbon copies of each other. Our failure to copy our idols is how we discover our own talent. Conan O’Brien has talked about how comedians try to emulate their idols, fall short, and end up doing their own thing. In O’Brien’s words, “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.”
There is wisdom in this. It gives me the freedom to go ahead and copy my idols with the following caveat. I examine where I fall short and ask myself the question, “What’s in there that makes me different?” That’s what I amplify and transform into my own work.
A profound question that we must confront at some time or another is, “Who am I?” These days the most common piece of advice you hear seasoned trial lawyers giving new lawyers is, “Just be yourself.” I don’t mean to single out trial lawyers. Even the great Oscar Wilde once said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” Of course, this leads the new lawyer to ask the next, inevitable question: “Who am I?”
The way I see it is that our experiences are a big part of who we are. Every experience you’ve ever had is living inside of you and has shaped you into the person who you are today. Your hope, fear, anger, regret, joy, sadness, shame, is there to be triggered. Sadly, we learn to hide parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of. And we are not just hiding bushels of parts, but bundles.
We carry with us a lifetime’s worth of defenses in order to shield our true selves from the world. Many of our past experiences have smothered our true selves from the world to such an extent that it lies dead on the ground like a bug that was sprayed with Raid. In fact, we may have lost all awareness of who we really are.
However, what’s remarkable about human beings is how resilient we are. We’re like onions with many layers. By peeling back the layers and stripping away the impediments that block our instincts, we eventually get to the root of our inner truth.
I’m not trying to suggest that becoming uninhibited happens over night. It takes time. Those parts that you are most protective of unquestionably take longer to come out than others.
There is a great story that I turn to whenever I need inspiration. When Jack Nicholson discovered his quirky and eccentric side, he was mortified. Ironically, that rich inner life that he was so ashamed of became his signature trademark. Now, when Nicholson is cast in a movie, writers go out of their way to write scenes which will allow this colorful side of him to be on display.
Jack Nicholson’s story teaches us two things. First, the best and most human parts of you are those that you have inhabited and hidden from the world. Don’t be afraid to embrace those things that make you different. And second, we have “blind spots” when it comes to how the world sees us. These are not necessarily shortcomings (as in Nicholson’s case, they were artistic gold), and the key is not to “fix” them or to become self-conscious about them. Instead, it helps to see yourself from a new perspective so that the blind spots are no longer blind.
As the character Lorenzo famously said in “A Bronx Tale,” “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.” If the full extent of our talent was represented by all eighty-eight keys on a piano, the harsh reality is that most of us would be playing the same four keys.
This theme is echoed by a famous quote from Michael Chekhov, one of Russia’s most renowned actors and acting instructors:
“Deep, deep within ourselves within the treasure house of our souls are buried tremendous creative powers and abilities. But they remain unused as long as we do not know about them or as long as we deny them.”
I would add another reason to the list of why our creative powers remain dormant. This one has to do with vanity. To put it bluntly, we have this “ideal” self that we want the world to see. To say that we put a lot of energy into how we want to be perceived by the world is a complete understatement. Look no further than the online world and how it is being used by an entire generation to create an idealistic online identity that’s a world away from who they really are. Carefully constructing and editing social-media content to present a deceptively positive picture of your life has become a “thing.” We must flush all of this pretense down the toilet.
If we accept the fact that we haven’t even scratched the surface of our untapped potential, the next step is to start digging to find it. This is easier said than done. This journey of self-discovery requires patience and a willingness to let go of any judgments. It requires getting in touch with your emotions – taking a journey into the deepest recesses of your being to find that chest where your innermost fears and experiences are buried, opening it up, pulling them out and exclaiming, “Here! Here’s who I am!”
For many, this is downright frightening. It is very difficult to admit to our frailties. We tend to want to cover our hurt, doubt, shame, and weakness. But the greatest actors let us see them. This is why I have such a deep admiration for actors. They possess a unique vulnerability. They don’t hide; they expose the dark and the light.
Here are some tips to get you started. Take the time to step outside of yourself and examine the person that you play in real life. What makes you different and sets you apart from others? Go on the hunt! Listen to feedback and take it in. Ask your closest friends: “How would you describe me in three words?” Dig into yourself to ask, “Is there anything secret that I’m afraid to reveal?”
In the end, merely imitating your idols does nothing to endear yourself to them. Transforming their work into something of your own is how you impress them. Adding something to the world that only you can add. This is the key to overcoming the obstacles that threaten to hold your talents hostage.