Observe, Imitate, Create
You pick up a guitar for the first time; you would love to be a rock star, or just write a beautiful melody to express your love to your partner. Maybe you have a song in your soul that you ache to bring into the world. How can you do so? What steps should you take to make it happen?
It seems to me that the progression consists of three steps.
First, observe: put down the guitar and look at others who are already doing what you want to do. What have they done? What songs are already written, and in what styles? You don't know what kind of song you want to write, and how could you before hearing what is possible? And even if your goal is to be innovative and creative, developing styles unlike anything anyone's attempted before, how will you know you have done so if you don't know what has been done before?
Observing is hard. You will ache to pick up the guitar and start to play, but don't do it! Just watch, and read, and try to understand. There are functionally infinite songs you could try to play, and you have finite time available, so try to narrow it down before you begin. Yes skills sometimes translate, and yes you may change your mind as you go; this step never really ends, after all. Still, explore the landscape widely before you dare to bury your shovel for the first time, in an attempt to discover gold.
Second, you imitate: can you do what others have done before you? You can now pick up the guitar, and start to hone your skill. Do the hard work: the stretches, the exercises, the boring scales or problem sets. Take your careful observations and put them into practice, as you move your fingers up and down the scales as others do. Play and replay the same notes over and over until the licks are perfect, then move on to the next.
You can't imitate until you observe. If you try, you will end up imitating yourself rather than the other, and because you lack the skills, you will do it badly. You won't know if you are hitting the right notes badly, or the wrong notes skillfully. When you practice, you will practice your own half-assed version of a song rather than something beautiful, or that which would actually help you improve. And even as you start to imitate, you will see how much more you need to observe: How did they do that? Look closely, what are the tricks? You never stop observing.
Imitating is hard. Others have been at this longer than you, and they have more talent than you; your skills are not sufficient, at least not at first. And if you already feel your original song in your heart, you may be impatient to bring it into the world. But be patient; if your song is the hit (or creative achievement) you think it will be, then it is worth a bit more time, energy, and focus. The more skilled you become, through imitation and dedicated practice, the more effective your final result can be.
Third, and finally, you can create: bring your new, wondrous product into the world.
You can't create until you imitate. That which you create can only be as impressive as your level of skill in bringing it into being; your deepest, most beautiful creation will still have to come out through your tired, aching fingers. Creativity is largely the putting together already-existing disparate pieces into a novel whole, rather than building new pieces from scratch; in that sense, you will still be imitating, even as you create.
Creating is hard, likely the most difficult of the three. The guardrails are gone; the training wheels are off. Now is the time to finally see whether you are capable of something truly new, and (equally importantly) if it's actually any good. You may find that you are good at imitating, but bad at creating; many professional musicians are in this category. This is fine! Your ability to imitate, which is identical to your level of technical skill, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for creativity. Creation is a skill all on its own.
I was compelled to write this because I think others tend to focus on the third step, at the expense of the first two. "Just look into your heart," they tell you, "and play what's already there! Just create!" But your fingers are tools, and if you use your tools badly you will do a bad job; this is . You might be a creative genius, but we can't read your mind, so you still need to use the tools to express it to the rest of us.
I used the example of playing the guitar, but of course, I could have described any number of other pursuits. In physics (my day job), it's the same: to become an effective physicist, you must first observe (i.e. read the textbook and papers describing what others have done); then you must imitate (i.e. do the textbook problems, derive the famous theorems); and finally, you only then can you create (i.e. do some actually novel science and write a paper about it).
If you try to imitate before you observe in science, you may find yourself with calculation tools but no insight into the field, and no idea which calculations would be interesting to do and why; if you try to create before you imitate, you will fail to acknowledge what others have done and how your contribution fits into the broader field (this, I think, is a central element of crackpot-ism in science). Has someone else tried this before, and failed?
You might ask, what about this blog? Am I creating something truly new or not? For what it's worth, I see myself much more in Step 2 than Step 3; what I write here is largely just me doing an impression of bloggers I admire, like Scott Alexander or Jacob Falkovich. My tools, which range from low-resolution drawings and silly semi-joke posts to quasi-meta-analyses, are translated using a language I am largely learning from those that have been doing this for a longer time. Often, before I write a single word on a topic, I will ask: What would Scott say about this? And if I don't directly do a Scott impression, I at least use it as a jumping-off point.
That said, of course, these three steps are not fully discrete (nothing is); my imitations may, in some rare instances, bleed into genuine insight (I legitimately think my New Month Resolutions are a great idea, and I occasionally write something I'm really proud of). To the extent I can make this happen more and more regularly, I move increasingly into the Create step, which is clearly my goal. When I have something important to say, I hope I'll have honed my craft enough to say it well.