Episode 46 – Why Innovation Starts with Borrowing from Others


In this episode, I discuss why every act of creativity, and every creative person starts by stealing from others.

Many people believe that you are either born creative, or you are not. That is untrue. You can develop a creative talent. There are techniques for doing so. As William Ralph Inge said, “What is Originality? Undetected plagiarism.”

I am currently reading a small, but interesting book, titled, “Steal Like an Artist” by Austin Kleon. This book is really a collection of quotations, statements and short essays by various creative people. The underlying message of this book is that in order to be creative, you don’t start with a blank canvas or page, or a block of wood or marble. You start by stealing from other creative people.

This does not mean that you plagiarize, or claim their work as your own. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, what you do is to mimic the ideas of people you admire. A painter might faithfully copy a Van Gogh, Monet or El Greco. This is not to pass off the work as your own, but to practice the style, to perfect the art of form and brush. A sculptor might sculpt the Venus De Milo, an architect could emulate the work of Santiago Calatrava.

We all do this whether we know it or not. When we take up a musical instrument, we practice scales. Then we practice a waltz by Strauss, play a little blues by Eric Clapton. We may believe at some point that we can take the show on the road, and we play cover versions of other people’s songs. The more you understand about other people’s art, the more likely you are to produce your own.

The book, “Steal Like an Artist” recommends studying the work of an artist you admire. Then practice, over and over until you can produce a reasonable facsimile of that work. When you have that perfected as much as you want to, you move on to other artists and study their technique. Your creative nature will take all these ideas and mix them together to create a new vision, a new perspective.

The idea is to choose where you get your influences. Instead of trying to manage an entire genre of art or science, concentrate on individuals that you admire. Then study their techniques, their successes and failures, and learn from them. The artists around them influenced all the great musicians of the sixties. No single artist became that way on his of her own. They became great by emulating others, by mimicking them, not copying them.

When you select great people to study and emulate, and study the people who influenced them, you become part of their network of influence. You continue the tradition and help it to grow. The best part is that you don’t need their permission to study them; you can choose your heroes and they can never turn you down. They will never be upset with you because they will never know you.

When you choose your influences, don’t choose people who do things that you just tolerate. Choose those people who are doing things that make you want to get up in the morning. If analyzing stocks is not your thing, studying the techniques of Warren Buffett will only make you fail. If you hate designing technology, studying Steve Jobs is wasting your time.

Choose wisely. Choose your heroes with your goals and successes in mind, not theirs. The old quote about writing what you know does not work. You must create what you like with what you know. If you don’t feel the passion about what you are doing, you cannot expect others to be passionate for you. Find your passion, study the people already making it happen, and create what you think is missing.

The more you learn from the influences in your life, the more you need to take from the world around you. The more you study and immerse yourself in the creativity of great minds, the more you stimulate the ability of your own mind. No activities are wasted, because they all serve to stimulate your thinking in different ways. The music you listen to, the pictures and images you see, the buildings and books you read, the movies you see. They all stimulate your mind and broaden your perspective, allowing your creative juices to flow. That is why diversity in knowledge is so important. You never know what ideas you can steal from others to create new ideas.

People believe, wrongly, that creativity is innate, that you are born with it. Like so many things in life, innovation is something you can learn. You can learn how to think. When you study a person’s work, the idea is not to copy what that person produces. The idea is to look at the problem through that person’s eyes. See the world the way that person does. At least, try to see it that way. When you change your perspective, you can begin to become creative.

Imagine being that person looking at a piece of marble and imagining the potential locked inside. When Michelangelo looked at a particular piece of marble, he imagined the image of David. He merely carved away the excess marble and the figure appeared. Similarly, an aspiring sculptor might use the same technique to create his or her masterpiece. You aren’t innovative by copying an artist, but by copying his or her thinking, their perspective. Try to see the art as though you are that artist.

There comes a time that you start to deviate from the artists you study and admire. A little experiment here and there, still using your hero as the foundation of your art. As you advance, you find other artists to emulate and incorporate their work. Over time, you produce a style all your own by combining a wide variety of influences. You find that their style does not quite suit you and you invent a new style.

The important thing is to start. Never believe that you are not good enough, that your ideas need to be refined ad infinitum. Start today. Everyone has doubts about their abilities, their authenticity. Imagine the great ideas that have been lost to history because people want to be perfect. People feel like frauds No one is perfect. Steal today, create today and never stop creating, just as you never stop learning. As the saying goes, “fake it till you make it”.

Many people believe that they must produce innovative ideas to be unique. That is not the case. Most ideas can be improved and molded to fit new purposes. New ideas can supersede old ideas. There is little new under the sun. We just find new ways to express old ideas. Facebook is not a new idea. It is just a new way for people to socialize, often with people they have not seen for long periods of time, or even people they may not have met before.

Humans are social animals; it is how we evolved. The mail gave us a new way to communicate, as did telephones, radio and television. None of those changed the underlying need to communicate. They just provide better ways to do so. The Internet gives us access to vast panoply of ideas and heroes. Use the search engines for everything. That can spark your creativity. Read. Everything.

When you take ideas from others, give yourself time to digest what you experience. Turn off the electronic devices and go outside, enjoy the sunlight. Go for a swim or the gym, or stare at ducks on a pond for as long as you can. It allows your mind to ruminate on those experiences. It is astonishing how much work you can do while doing nothing.

Don’t ever believe that creativity will leap at you from your computer screen. You need to get out of that comfortable chair and experience things outside the electronic world. You mind needs time to wander and think and experience new things. Otherwise it is like a tortoise, embedded in a shell. If you cannot wander physically, let your mind wander. The Bronte sisters were cloistered in their home, but their minds explored the world around them and they produced beautiful literature.

None of us is entirely unique. We are an amalgam of influences. Surround yourself with talented people. As Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Go out and emulate your heroes.

I encourage you to continue to enhance your life with the Power of Three and search for a more innovative way to live.

Until next time, go well my friends.