The Fake ID Theory of Starting Out

Why copying isn't so bad

I’d never thought of Nirvana as disco music — until I watched this interview of Dave Grohl admitting that, when he was starting out as a drummer, he didn’t have a ton of confidence or skill, so he ripped off a lot of his style from the disco greats. That iconic beat in Smells Like Teen Spirit? It came from Tony Thompson. Keep listening through Nirvana’s album, Nevermind, and you’ll hear notes of Cameo and The Gap Band.

The video was internet gold, and for obvious reasons. But there’s also a powerful lesson here about doing something that you don’t feel fully skilled to do.

I call this “the Fake ID theory” of starting a new skill. You copy someone else’s style until you’re comfortable enough to develop your own.

Why copy? Because it may make the difference between doing something and not even trying.

In fact, it may be the reason I have the career that I do.

The benefits of faking it

Ryan Reynolds gave me a great piece of advice once, which was, “You can’t be good at something unless you’re willing to be bad.”

That’s totally true. The only way to gain a new skill is to suck at it for the first time. And then a second time. And a third, and so on.

But that is easier said than done. No matter your age, and no matter what skill you’re trying to develop, being a beginner can be discouraging. You know you’re bad — but you’re not sure how to be good! And some people just can’t tolerate that. They’d rather give up early, and save themselves the trouble.

So how can you actually overcome the embarrassment and discomfort of being bad, and keep going until you’re actually good?

Dave Grohl knows the answer: You copy someone else!

You wouldn’t copy someone’s work, of course. That’s just stealing. But copying someone’s approach can be a powerful starting point. It’ll give you enough confidence to start working, and eventually, over time, if you’re really committed to it, you will start to develop your own style. Maybe a small amount of that other person’s style will remain with you, but at that point, it’s just an influence to be drawn upon.

This is what I did when I started out writing: I copied the novelist Dave Eggers. I was blown away by his 2000 book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which I read in college. Then I promptly started copying his style.

Was I a good copy of Dave Eggers? Not really. Dave was much better at it. But by using his sense of pacing and language, and the way he’d play with sentences, I felt confident enough to put my work out into the world.

That’s when I started pitching magazines, and as those pitches started to get accepted, I became more confident in my own writing, and my own style. Today maybe there’s 2% of Dave Eggers floating around in me somewhere, and that’s how it should be.

The same is true for Dave Grohl, whose disco influence dissolved into one of the most celebrated rock bands of our time. (Although — 90s kid alert! — my favorite song of his remains For All The Cows off the first album, which is absolute nonsense but just rocks.)

No one is born an expert at anything. Even people who are naturally gifted must develop skills. I think half of that battle is building confidence. And if the greats can help us find our footing, all the better.


How can you build solutions to people’s problems?

I discussed this recently on The James Altucher Show. It’s broken up into two episodes: In the first one, we explore how to understand people’s pain points (after first troubleshooting something causing me a lot of pain these days — my crappy home wifi!) In the second episode, I talk about how the elevator changed our world, and then detail how audience insights research led me to change my own brand.

That’s all for now! I’m now publishing this newsletter every Tuesday and Friday. See you then.


Cover photo: Dave Grohl, via From Cradle to Stage (Paramount+)