Monday Musings (Imitate, then Innovate, Paris Whispers, Cultural Patterns)

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Hi friends,

Greetings from Paris!

This has been one of the most intellectually rewarding trips of my life. The French have an exquisite sense of taste, and hopefully I can sprinkle some of it into Write of Passage and future Monday Musings editions.

In the past few days, I’ve visited the Louvre, Versailles, the Musée de l’Orangerie, and the Hemingway Bar. I just finished a literary tour of the city to learn about the writers who spent time here, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marcel Proust, and Simone de Beauvoir. Now, I’m sitting at La Closerie des Lilas where Fitzgerald showed Hemingway his first draft of The Great Gatsby.

While on the road, I’ve been working on two essays: one about how to build a Personal Monopoly and another about living in Austin, Texas.

Here’s what I want to share this week:

  1. Against 3x Speed: These days, there’s so much pressure to speed read, but I think it’s bogus. In this video (and this essay), I explain why I stopped trying to read a bunch of books every year.
  2. Imitate, then Innovate: This essay outlines a framework for all creative work — from starting a company, to making music, to writing on the Internet. It's the essay that inspired today’s newsletter and you can read it here.

Coolest Things I Learned This Week

What’s the difference between France and America?

I have a simple motto for getting good at any skill: Imitate, then Innovate.

Find people you admire, imitate their best qualities, and innovate upon what you learn.

Though it’s best to do both, many cultures are oriented towards one or the other. It seems that the French are high on imitation and low on innovation; while Americans are low on imitation, but high on innovation.

The French: High on Imitation, Low on Innovation

Today, the French have tremendous respect for their culture. But they didn’t always. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the French envied the Italians. In part this was because Italy had finer paintings and higher quality marble.

Palaces like Versailles forced the French to innovate. To create the famous symmetrical gardens, they had to invent new tools of measurement. Since Versailles didn’t have plumbing, the French developed perfumes to clean up the stench. The French style of cuisine, with three meals (starters, main courses, and desserts), were invented there too.

The Gardens of Versailles, where tools of measurement were invented to create order and symmetry.

Walking around Paris, you can feel how much the French esteem their culture. I swear: there are more statues in downtown Paris than all of America combined (one ironic gift of World War II is that France surrendered to Germany so fast. Had the war lasted longer, Paris could have been air raided and destroyed by bombs).

The French don’t just honor military generals and government officials. They honor artists too. This celebration of art infuses modern life in the way you see university students sketching in the parks and critiquing each other’s work.

Sketching statues in the park.

Paris is a manners-heavy culture. People say it borders on pretentiousness, but I dig it. To the extent that they’re rude to foreigners, it’s only because tourists are so quick to violate customs that’ve been developed so deliberately.

Even the smallest of things aren’t left to chance. When I ordered a cheese board at a local market, the shop owner didn’t just curate the cheeses. She also specified the order that I should eat them.

What Paris Whispers

Paul Graham once wrote that “every city whispers something.” Silicon Valley whispers that you should be more innovative. New York whispers that you should be wealthier. Los Angeles whispers that you should be more famous, and Paris whispers that you should have better taste.

That reverence for quality is steeped in the French tradition. It’s not necessarily a good thing though. I worry that France spends so much time celebrating the past that it’s forgotten about the future. The pioneering spirit is nowhere to be found.

Locals tell me that individualism is suppressed too. My tour guide takes classes in French and English. He says the French classes are more oriented towards history and honoring the greats of times past, whereas the English classes are more rooted in upward mobility and a “you can do it” attitude.

Americans are a sharp contrast: we over-value originality, and have an underdeveloped sense of history.

Sustained Cultural Patterns

In France, the social stratums feel more locked into place than they do n America. One man who I struck up a conversation with said: “Your family matters more in France because only children from wealthy families are told they can contribute to the culture. The rules don’t apply to them. Everybody else is expected to bow to authority. America is different because everybody there is told they can rise up the ranks and be innovative.”

It’s hard to know what to make of that statement, but he was wearing a swanky suit and looked like a grandpa who’d tell great stories, so I trust him.

His words echo those of the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, who said that America’s peculiar tendencies are born out of it being a place where people can rise and fall through the ranks of society. Thus, even in the 19th century, Tocqueville observed that compared to the French, Americans were much more interested in science and industry. America’s entrepreneurial climate made it ill-suited for the kind of sustained theoretical reflection that was so common in France.

Though Tocqueville published Democracy in America in 1835, nothing has really changed. Just look at the bookstores. American ones are defined by business, self-help, and pop-science. Meanwhile, the French ones promote obscure philosophers like Debord and Baudrillard on the front windows.

If you want creative excellence, it’s best to pair France’s reverence for the past with America’s belief in a better future. In the synthesis of the two, the motto of “Imitate, then Innovate” is born.

Photo of the Week

For a dose of inspiration, I visited the Hemingway Bar in Paris, one of the author's favorite places to write. The bar is featured in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. It’s also where Proust wrote Remembrance of Things Past.

The bar has one of the coolest menus I’ve ever seen. It mimics the front page of a newspaper, as Hemingway used to write for the Toronto Star.

Have a creative week,

David Perell Logo 2x

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