I remember the first time that I copied someone else’s work. It was in 6th grade. The teacher had sent home a worksheet full of math problems, and I had brought it back the next day, complete. Math has never been my strong suit, but I’m always up for a challenge, and the night before, I had felt confident in my work.
Before we reviewed the homework as a class, I compared my answers to the students who sat next to me. Moving my eyes from one sheet to the next, I noticed something that alarmed me. No one else had the same answers as I did. No one else’s work looked like mine.
So I assumed I was wrong.
Quickly, before the teacher noticed, I erased all my work. I slashed that huge pink eraser back and forth across the paper with one hand as my eyes searched my friends’ worksheets to absorb their strategies and solutions. My pencil moved at lightning speed to transform my assignment into a mirror image of my peers. I meticulously copied all my answers to match theirs. When the teacher called us to attention, I was ready to show her my finished paper, filled with correct answers.
The Cost of Being “Right”
My 6th-grade self wanted to be right so badly that I was willing to erase my work to copy someone else’s. Having the right answer was more important than how I got there. I was so focused on the goal that I ignored the process.
Many leaders, particularly women, still have this problem. We look to the right and to the left to see what everyone else is doing before we move forward with what we want to do. We compare and contrast our work with that of others. We judge someone else to be better, to know more, to have the right answers, so we choose to erase what we’ve done and try to copy them. We trick ourselves into believing that there is a right answer and that someone else has it, so we just need to get it from them and then we’ll be set. Or that we need to do it their way in order to succeed.
When did leaders stop believing in their ability to forge new paths and choose, instead, to retreat to what’s already been done?
When did we stop believing that our way was good enough and that we didn’t need to prove it to anyone else?
When did we decide that imitation was better than being an original?
I don’t know when it happened, but I do know that we miss out in three important areas when we choose to copy instead of create.
We give our power to someone else
When leaders hold back from innovating and only borrow from others, we ignore our own strengths. Rather than put our talents into the world – however quirky, weird, or unusual they may be – we silence our voices. Copying someone else’s success makes the other person stronger, not the other way around.
We stunt our growth
There are definitely times and places to take shortcuts – it is wise to learn how to work smarter, not harder. But mistakes are often the mother of invention. Becoming intimately aware of all the ways that things don’t work is what inspires us to find the way that does. Leaders solve problems, but if we’re just looking for the right answer, and we’re willing to copy someone else to get it, then we won’t gain the perseverance and resilience needed to sustain our work.
We miss out on serving our people
There’s nothing new under the sun. All ideas are recycled versions of something that came before. But leaders keep creating because each of us is unique, and the time and place that I speak, with the words and experiences that only I can share, will matter to the audience that needs me. If I neglect my individual contribution in favor of copying someone else, then I do a disservice to the people who need to hear from me.
The good news is that I don’t have to make myself smaller in order to let someone else succeed. Instead, community is strengthened and change is made when many different voices come together and speak up.
I can own my power, test my way, and serve my mission without sacrificing myself or overshadowing anyone else.
The (Non) Importance of Being Right
When my 6th-grade class sat down to review our math homework together, I discovered that all my peers had been wrong. It turns out that I, alone, had all the correct answers in the first place.
I had doubted myself, and my doubts were my downfall.
I had judged and rejected my work but blindly trusted someone else’s. I had assumed that because my process looked different, and my answers weren’t the same, then I must be wrong. It had never occurred to me that my peers were mistaken.
But the fact that I had the right answers all along is not really the point. Even if my answers had been incorrect, I believe it still would have been better for me to have stuck to my original work.
If I had chosen to trust myself, then I would have taken responsibility for my efforts. It takes courage to own mistakes, and I would have learned that if I had been wrong.
If I had stuck to my first instincts, then I would have gained confidence when the answers were revealed. I would have had the pride of realizing that doing it differently does not equate to being incorrect.
If I had refused to erase my work, then I would have had an opportunity to lead my classmates. Either with humility, had I been wrong, or with grace, had I been right. Both are necessary for leadership, but I missed a chance to experience either.
Get More By Creating It
6th grade was the first – and last – time I ever copied someone else. I’ve made a lot of mistakes since then! I’ve taken risks that didn’t work out. I’ve been embarrassed, made wrong turns, and had to ask for another chance.
But creating my own way instead of copying another’s has also made me a stronger, more confident, and more courageous leader. And you can’t copy those traits – you actually have to create it for yourself.