Just Copy What Works

I’ve had an idea lingering for years about habits and behaviors and outcomes. If we accept that peoples’ output usually comes from their inputs, what if we just completely copied their inputs?

For example, I’m a heavy guy because I eat too much. I have a friend who eats way less. He’s very thin.

So here’s the crazy part: What if I just ate what he ate? No magic. No plan. No philosophy. Just copying what demonstrably works for someone I know directly.

Every thin person I know eats in a similar way, and same with heavy people. In this case, he eats like 6 times a day, with lots of salad and cereal, and some occasional meat added in. It’s also very small amounts. Like when we eat out he orders less and only eats half. He always takes half to go. I’m quite sure that if I just did that, I’d be thin too. Or at least not heavy.

Or let’s say someone is a total badass at making hacking videos on YouTube. And let’s say we want to be like them.Well maybe we don’t ask for ideas, or tips, or strategies. What if we instead ask for their schedule, and their calendar. In other words, their daily routine. And what if we simply mapped our day to copy their exact activities?

I bet we’d make some cool shit.

Now, this is probably sitting wrong in your skull. You might be thinking:

  • Well if it were that fucking easy everyone would be doing it, and

  • Bollocks, that sounds too easy

Yes, and yes. And that’s where I found the actual value in this whole thought exercise. t’s not hard to know what to do. What’s hard is actually doing it.

Let’s think about that, because it sounds like fortune cookie seminar bullshit. The new idea here is realizing which part exactly is hard.

When we look at someone doing something successfully we tend not to think about their daily routine, which they’ve been doing for days or weeks or decades. What we look at instead is the output, and we then look at our own lives and say, “Wow, I could never do that.”

But what if we don’t need to think about their output. What if we only think about their input? And what if it were trivially easy to figure out what those inputs are? Why? Because they talk about them. Or they wrote them down. Or you can just ask them.

Here’s a great example. Writing. Let’s say a writer named Stephan Kring captures his daily routine on his blog, or on a podcast, and it says:

  • Start with coffee at 7:30 AM.

  • Go for a long walk with no technology on me whatsoever.

  • Eat 14 peanuts and have another cup of coffee.

  • Sit down and write at 8:30 AM, no matter what. Keep writing until 11:30 AM.

  • Have lunch at 11:30 AM and don’t worry about writing for the rest of the day, unless I’m in a groove.

  • The key to my success is to write every day, no matter what, between 8:30am and 11:30am. No exceptions.

  • I’ve done that for 38 years and I’ve written 39 books.

Cool. What are we to take from this?

The old me took from this that, “Hard work pays off.” “Consistency matters.” “99% is showing up.” And a whole bunch of other cliches.

Fuck all that. The only thing that matters is what Stephan yelled at the summit of his voice (which many other successful writers also echo) that you have to set time aside every day to write. Period. That’s it.

So let me ask you this. How many people do you know, who are unsuccessful at something, have copied the actual inputs from someone who is successful? Here are some examples:

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  • Writing

  • Practicing an instrument

  • Losing weight

  • Instilling discipline in a household with kids

  • Learning to paint

  • Getting 90%+ of a high school to go to college

What percentage of people who are trying to make those things happen have actually outright copied the behaviors of those who are doing it well? In my experience the answer is virtually none.

They might copy some parts, as an add-on, as an experiment, with very little follow-through. But they don’t just say, “We’re going to do things that way from now on because it clearly works.”

Now, you might be thinking, “Well, that’s because it’s not always easy—or even possible—to copy certain things.” Sure. Absolutely. Like if you work nights you can’t wake up at 6:00am and do yoga. Or if you live in a bad part of town, and the schools are crap, and you have three jobs trying to feed your kids, it’s hard to get your 2 hours of solitary meditation in.

But here’s the thing, and this is why I think this idea is valuable: Let’s call out those obstacles as the actual obstacles.

Let’s acknowledge that the primary way to succeed is to perfectly emulate those who are succeeding. Copy everything. We don’t know what works. Use the same damn toothbrush. Walk the same on the sidewalk. Copy what works. And if life prohibits us from doing that, then that’s what we need to change.

For personal lifestyle changes, like someone with a good job who wants to become a writer, it’s all about making the required lifestyle sacrifices to write every day. Does that mean you give up watching TV? Playing video games? Working too much at your 9-5 job? You might need to make some hard choices.

But for bigger issues, like schools and school districts not graduating kids who can read, write, and do math—we need to break it into two pieces:

  • Do you have a model of what works in schools where the kids are literate and numerate when they graduate? And are you willing to put those policies and standards and expectations into effect in your schools? If so, you are set up for success.

  • Do you have the resources to make that happen? Do you have the books, the teachers, the public transit, the school lunches, etc., that would allow you to actually implement those policies? If not, that’s what we go to war for. That’s what society owes those kids.

But what we can’t do—either as an individual or as a system—is start by looking at different outcomes and assume it’s due to something outside of your control. You have to start with the inputs. You have to start with the routine. You have to start with the behaviors.

Just copy what works.