Imitatio, translatio, aemulatio and the paradox of one’s own style

Kamil Stanuch
3 min readNov 16, 2023

In a conversation with Alix Pasquet III about the qualities of a good investment analyst, Frederik Gieschen brings up the topic of the paradox of one’s own style. Alix Pasquet III quotes Miles Davis:

I like what, I think this was Miles Davis, somebody asked him, how do you play jazz and he says, easily: Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate!

Find the best, imitate them. Assimilate, understand why the imitation is working, and then make it better from there.

By the way, this is also a pattern of companies. So if you look at Apple, Steve Jobs goes to Xerox PARC, copies the interface, and makes it better. He imitates, he assimilates, and he innovates. Bill Gates looks at what Jobs did. He imitates, understands how to make it better and ties it to distribution. He innovates from there, so on and so forth.

The most valuable part is:

So, imitating is the way that you start. The way that mediocre people do it is they try to innovate, they see that it doesn’t work. And then they realize that they have to eat. So they imitate.

In the age of fetishizing innovation and creativity, this fragment about the important role of imitation resonates strongly with me and brings to mind the order derived from ancient Roman literature, namely the triad of translatio, imitatio, and aemulatio.

The term translatio (or sometimes interpretatio) meant translating or paraphrasing a text, as well as copying a work of art by an artist as an exercise.

Then, within imitatio, the style of a writer or artist was imitated, motifs were reproduced, leading to the creation of a new work with a similar core but differently emphasized accents, for example Seneca the Younger’s plays fitting into the fabula crepidata, which were Latin plays inspired by Greek motifs (Oedipus or Phaedra modeled after Euripides’ Hippolytus).

However, the ultimate goal was aemulatio, surpassing the model. The most striking example is probably Virgil’s Aeneid, an epic poem written under the patronage of Augustus Caesar, which in the 1st century AD at the height of Rome’s power was supposed to overshadow both the Iliad and the Odyssey and seal the superiority of Roman culture over Greek.

It is not surprising that building one’s own style requires understanding of previous practices, imitation, and assimilation, and then introducing innovations that surpass existing standards. In one interview, Marc Andreessen (my 11 notes here) argued that the best founders were and are actually experts in their domains, so they don’t just create a collection of functionalities in the spirit of cargo cult, but a real business based on understanding needs (“is it a feature or business?”). From his observation, a company usually needs 5 years, and “great founders usually require 5 to 10 years to understand the domain”.

If genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, then perhaps in this spirit it is also worth maintaining the balance between innovation and imitation.

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Kamil Stanuch

Angel Investor at RealResearch, EreborCapital & al. | OKRs | Tech | 📈 Newsletter: kamilstanuch.substack.com