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Creative Career Path

Don’t teach monkeys new tricks!2012.06.04

    Monkey see, monkey do. Monkeys are famous imitators. It is probably how the human species got its start, and it often works as quick way to learn new skills. Moreover, this kind of learning is viral. Search “monkeys learn” on Google, and you’ll find skills ranging from math to money to prostitution. And that study was conducted at Yale.


    Various studies have been conducted on how monkeys learn to use tools such as sticks to probe for insects, as walking sticks, and as weapons. They catch on quickly. And so do we.


    A friend and former Aikido student who now lives in the mountains of Yamanashi Prefecture told me that when a tree fell nearly missing his house, he went outside to inspect the damage. He found the tree was surrounded by about 30 monkeys foraging for food from the tree under the watchful eye of the boss zaru, or boss monkey. Spying my friend, they scampered away one at a time, with the boss monkey being the last to leave. It was a rather frightening spectacle right at his doorstep! I joked that he should have established his authority by using an Aikido technique on one of the monkeys, but we decided after all that it was a bad idea to show them how. Soon they would all be doing it!


    If monkeys used newly learned skills to help each other in constructive ways, it might be a good idea. However monkeys are also famous as bad boys who are all too willing to carry out monkey business. In the famous tourist area of Nikko, monkeys have become so bold as to openly steal from souvenir shops. I even heard one story of a monkey that boldly boarded a moving vehicle through the window, even though the car was moving at 30 km per hour!


    In human society as well, monkey business is rampant. As soon as one product or book is successful, you find a flood of wannabes trying too hard and pretending to be original, but they never are the first one to come up with a good idea. Japanese companies are often seen as being good at imitation and refinement, but not at innovation. That inclination led the quality revolution with kaizen, or continuous improvement, but it can be maddening to those who are first to create their own competition.


    With today’s technology it is easier than ever to copy, imitate, and reverse engineer your way into the market place. What happens then is that what was intended to be the only one, ends up just being just the first one, and often by a thin lead. Any monkey can imitate something after it has been demonstrated. It takes a genius to come up with the original idea, and to keep on inventing at the innovative edge.


    The story of the Egg of Columbus illustrates this well. Columbus was dining with Spanish Nobles after his discovery of the West Indies. They belittled his discovery, saying that in a country with the resources and talents of Spain, it was only a matter of time that anyone could have made such a discovery. he challenged them to a test of creative wits, asking if any of them could stand an egg on its end without any outside support. When none were successful, he showed them how by tapping it gently on the table to flatten one end of the egg, and thereby make it stand on its own. He made the point that once the thing has been done, it is easy for anyone to copy the idea.


    Was he promoting the idea that you should teach monkeys new tricks? Perhaps. But he also made the point that it was more significant to conceive and achieve an original idea than to imitate it after the fact.


    It isn’t that we shouldn’t teach monkeys new tricks, so much as that we should strive to discover and demonstrate new things. Ironically, the monkeys may end up actually making more money with their imitations. However, it is the creators and innovators who make the more significant contribution. They are the ones who are remembered in history. Columbus is the only one in the story whose name is remembered, and without whom the story of the Egg of Columbus would not exist.


    Let us do more than remember them. Let us give full appreciation and ample reward to originality wherever we find it, in art or in business.



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    Article Writer

    William Reed

    William Reed is a renowned author-speaker who coaches physical finesse and flexible focus for a creative career path. A certified Master Trainer in Guerrilla Marketing and 7th-dan in Aikido, he combines practical wisdom of East and West to help you learn personal branding at the Entrepreneurs Creative Edge.

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