Stop Repeating and Start Creating!

The mother of all learning is imitation and repetition.

Children learn mostly by first imitating and then repeating the movements, mannerisms, facial expressions, and words of the adults or of the older siblings in their lives. One well-studied phenomenon is the “babbling period” that begins at six months of age, during which infants repeat identical syllables, such as “kakaka” or “dododo.” The main vocabulary of toddlers comprises of words with repetitive syllables: mama, papa, ta-ta (there), nam-nam (food), woof-woof (dog). The fastest learning kids are those who have mastered the art of imitation and repetition.

Imitation and repetition are right there at the very beginning of our lives, and follow us thereafter. In school, university, and beyond, we are still versed in these two activities. To learn math or languages, we need to imitate the methods our teachers use. Although originality may theoretically be valued, and in some lessons, like art, is encouraged, still it is the law of imitation that reigns supreme in our schools. Art teachers place much emphasis on teaching the basics of drawing, perspective, and tool usage before ever assigning a “free subject” in one of their tests. And music teachers have to teach the students to press the right notes on the instrument or sing them correctly from a score sheet, before encouraging them to put their own soul into the performance of a musical phrase. The same principles apply to learning anything, whether it be any of the various sports, driving a car, cooking, typing, or yoga – the pupil must simply do what the teacher does.

But it is not by chance that we learn by imitation and repetition. Repetition is actually one of the reigning laws of the cosmos. Physics, chemistry, and all other natural sciences are immersed in repetition. The celestial sphere repeats its daily motions: the moon, the stars, the seasons move with a regularity that can be predicted to the millisecond. Similarly, an acid in chemistry will always be neutralized by a base. Even in biology, a domain where we assume that living organisms have some freedom to innovate by behaving outside the laws of repetition and imitation, we also see that the overwhelming majority of biological events follow a repetitive pattern: the pomegranate will always ripen in late October; the thrushes will start singing every day at exactly the time the sun sets; and of course, that mosquito hovering above you will always land on your skin to suck your blood. In fact, all of our sciences were born as sciences in the first place and persist as such because of the principle of the “repeatability of results”: What one scientist discovers in his lab must be corroborated by identical experiments repeated by others that follow the same prescription.

Yet, to create something new or unique or extraordinary, we must leave behind imitation and repetition. Paradoxically, we have to also stop learning. We must stop learning and start creating! For in as much as we are learning, we are immersed in a mode of being that, by its nature, is not creative, but imitative. Yet, again paradoxically, the moment we begin creating, we start learning again, though this new learning is of a different nature: We do not learn through imitation and repetition, but through the power inherent in the creative process itself. We learn by recombining, remolding, restructuring what we already know while simultaneously adding into the mix things that we have never been taught but discovered on our own. The creative process is by default a learning process, because what we do has not been done before; so it is as new for us as it is for others. The moment Beethoven was scribbling those first notes of his third symphony, the Eroica, in order to create something new and unique, he was also listening to them in his mind’s ear for the first time and therefore simultaneously “learning to compose” something so extraordinary. After he had finished it, raising his abilities and human civilization to a new level, he was another being: one who had just “learned” to compose Beethoven’s Eroica! Having “learned” that, he was now ready to “teach himself” how to advance to even higher levels, so that eventually, years later, he would compose his greatest masterpiece of all, his Ninth. Therefore, we have a third and last paradox: In order to keep on learning, one must stop learning and start creating!

In the same way that human civilization has been progressing due to the creative work of those who left imitation and repetitiveness behind, on a personal level we too move forward in our lives – without necessarily contributing to human civilization! – when we cease to simply walk along the well-known and repetitive paths we have gotten accustomed to. And this applies not just, as we already saw, to work – even though work remains central in our lives: All our acts and all of our thinking may either be repetitive or creative. Creativity permeates everything we do. So, just as there is a creative composer or writer or scientist, there may be a creative mother or traveler or hermit: The creative mother may invent a completely new way of dealing with a child’s problem, or creatively imagine her energetic but unstudious daughter becoming a ballerina and start her on that course. A creative traveler may knock on the door of an unknown person, invite himself in, and change the life of both himself and his host forever. And a creative hermit may have discovered new methods of exploring the inner world, and then original ways of sharing his experiences with others. It is when we depart from repetitiveness and imitation that we truly become ourselves and create a mark on our surroundings.

This is so, because the more your life is immersed in imitation, the less “yours” it is. You cannot truly carve your own unique path unless you stop doing what everybody does and venture out alone onto the creative path. Yet, once on that path, “your” life ceases to be yours again, since your creative work becomes the common possession of everybody. Just as Beethoven’s Ninth is not “his” anymore, every truly unique work, or act, or idea, or whatever else your little self creates, belongs to the world at large. So we move from a stagnant life that is not ours because it is immersed in imitation, to a life that is ours as long as we are creative, and which finally ceases to be ours again because our creativity flies out into the world and becomes impersonal.

Of course, creativity doesn’t just appear spontaneously simply by leaving behind imitation and repetition. There has to be some conscious effort, some willpower to move away from the known and leap into the unknown. The unknown, in this specific case, is the unique work, behavior, thoughts that Life demands we express in the reality of our personal life and in the world in general. It is not our imitative and repetitive self, but our creative self who not only thrusts our own life forward, but improves our society and contributes to the enrichment of our civilization.

In the end, although the law of repetition is one of the reigning laws of the cosmos, it is not the highest one. On the contrary: Once it performs the functions for which it is destined, it must give place to the higher and more significant law of creativity. For it is through constant creativity that the universe, life, and human beings evolve. Nowhere is this clearer than in biological evolution, where it is the organisms that leave imitation and repetition behind – the so-called biological mutants, i.e. the weird, strange, even seemingly monstrous ones – that create the great leaps in evolution. The same law that holds true in the grand evolution of living organisms, applies also to the evolution of our own personal life: In order to continue growing and learning, we must start creating.

© 2017 Nicos Hadjicostis