One apparent paradox about cultural change is that often great innovations are immediately preceded by even greater imitation – and that the road ahead is best followed by staring into the rear-view mirror.
The originality of the Renaissance in art, letters, philosophy and science was the result of huge imitation. In letters, it all started with imitating Cicero. In philosophy, it was all about recovering the lost body of ancient thinking. In science, the exhaustion of ancient and medieval ideas led to the emergence of radically new ones. Copernicus had studied Hipparchus and Ptolemy obsessively before he developed his own ideas. There was no eureka moment for any of the figures of the Renaissance – their achievements were the result of recovery, imitation and emulation. In the long run, this backwards stare became a forward march towards new ideas and new horizons.
The lesson is that before we reject an idea, let’s make sure we’ve known it inside out and exhausted all its potential. Or, as George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air said: ‘Before you try to “revolutionize” my business, I’d like to know you actually know my business.’
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