The Thrill And Peril Of Imitation

Living in the Asian community in New Jersey, one can’t help learning stories about engineers and scientists. One of these widely circulated stories is this: A newcomer in one of the research institutions, where people are madly nerdy and competitive, finds that everybody in the department is sharpening their pencils with a knife. Everybody has a holder full of pencils and everybody sharpens his or her pencils now and then throughout the day. He is a little mystified. The modern technical advancement has made pencils quite obsolete in scientific research; even if pencils are still useful in this particular department, he can’t understand why people don’t use a pencil sharpener. After a round of inquiries, he learns that a Nobel Laureate from this department likes to sharpen his pencils with a knife when he thinks and he uses pencils to sketch out his ideas–he grew up in the pre-iPad pre-Internet dark age. Suddenly pencils become a good luck symbol and everybody starts to imitate. This is how a custom is born.

I can just imagine 500 years later, all scientists sharpen their pencils while legendary stories of 10 varieties circulate to explain the phenomenon.

When I first heard this story, I really laughed. I would never be so silly, I thought to myself, of thinking that I could have the same kind of good luck by imitating a peculiarity.

Here I am with Evelyn Waugh’s complete stories and Complete Saki and Carver’s short stories opening up in front of me. Am I sharpening the pencil with a knife here? What’s really bothering me is one don’t know which way to choose, how to best improve, if one has talent. A jungle of questions but no jungle dealing skills. Suddenly I understand why people sharpen the useless pencils. They don’t know what they should do and have no clue how to learn from this award winning colleague. So they pick up the most obvious eccentricity of his and imitate, wishing that they have done the right thing. It’s more of a human psychology thing than a real emulation.