The Difference Between Copying and Learning

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In seminary, I took an “Intro to Youth Ministry” class where a professor introduced me to the phrase, “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” His point was this: When developing ideas for ministry and programming, don’t hesitate to get ideas from other youth workers.

It makes sense, right? There’s no need to reinvent the wheel each and every week or each and every event. The idea can be applied to any area of ministry…or can it? Some would say that there are places where we absolutely not copy from other ministries, such as preaching another pastor’s sermon as your own. What is the line between “borrow” and “steal”?

When you get down to it, there’s nothing inherently wrong with copying great ideas from other ministries, churches, and leaders. I’ve been in vocational ministry for over ten years, and I don’t know if even one idea I’ve had hasn’t been at least partially borrowed from someone else. Instead of asking how much it’s okay to borrow from others, there’s a better question to ask: What’s the difference between copying and learning?

Think about it: when you get an idea from someone else and you apply it to your own context, what you’re really doing is learning. Apprentices have learned this way for millennia: learn and develop a skill from someone, then take it and use it in your own context, continually developing it.

Copying, on the other hand, isn’t about learning: it’s about seeing something that works in someone else’s context, then reproducing it as closely as possible in your own context, hoping for similar results. Sometimes it works, but usually, the results are disappointing, leaving the “copyist” looking for another idea to copy.

Here are a few differences between learning and copying:

Copying usually happens when we’re looking for a shortcut.

Leading an organization can feel like an uphill battle at times. You might know that you’re doing all the right things, but it can take time to see the outcomes that you’ve been hoping for. That’s why it’s so tempting to find a short cut, usually in the form of copying another organization that we perceive to be successful (whatever that means to us). However, the short cut is usually anything but.

Learning is hard work.

On the other hand, learning takes time, and it’s hard. Really hard sometimes. There is no playbook or step-by-step plan for innovation and making your organization — and yourself — better.

Copying is about desiring someone else’s success.

Confession: When I am most tempted to copy what someone else has done, it’s usually about me wanting what they have. Usually we copy not just because we think what someone else is doing is exactly what we need to be doing, but because there’s something inside of us that wants to be that person or organization somehow…and that’s not a good thing.

Learning is about understanding the principles at work.

When you learn from someone else — even when that means trying something similar to what they have tried — it means finding the principles that are involved and transferring them to your own context. On the surface, it’s a very subtle difference from copying. But when you dive beneath the surface, there’s a huge difference between “How does this work?” and “Just give me what they’re having.”

Copying expects the exact same results in our own context.

When you copy someone else outright, you usually expect that you’ll get the same results as the person or organization you copied from. Copying just leads you one more step into the comparison trap.

Learning simply tries its best and trusts God with the results.

When you learn from others rather than copying them, you understand that that there’s more than your own faithfulness and hard work in play: God’s plan and God’s faithfulness. This doesn’t mean that we don’t put the work in; it just means that we leave the results up to God. After all, whatever you’re working on is his, not yours.

 

Chime in: What are some other differences between learning and copying?

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