I had a get out of jail free card while writing this post. I stole every idea here from someone else. Stealing ideas is not only a good idea, it’s the only way to start.
Steal from as many sources as you can. Books, films, music, paintings, photographs, conversations, newspapers. Copy the people you’re inspired by, and the people you want to be.
There is no such thing as an original idea. Every idea builds on what came before it. Ideas are inevitable. We know this because people have the same ideas simultaneously all the time.
Edison gets credit for inventing the lightbulb, but there were over 20 people working on the lightbulb at the same time in different parts of the world. If Edison never existed, we’d still have the lightbulb.
Or take the telescope. Galileo took the idea for the telescope from Hans Lippershey. Yet 400 years later, Galileo is the one who gets the credit.
Copying is one of the oldest ways of learning how to do something. When you copy someone, you get an insight into their process. It opens your eyes to new possibilities, new techniques, and a new way of seeing.
Even The Beatles started by copying others. Paul McCartney said “I emulated Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis. We all did.” And the reason they started writing their own music was to stand out: “We’d hear our complete set being played by the band before us. It’s grown to something so big, but it really just started as a way to avoid the other bands being able to play our set.”
When it comes to creative expression, everyone says you need to find your own voice. John Cleese once said “steal, or borrow or, as the artists would say, ‘be influenced by’ anything that you think is really good and really funny and appeals to you. If you study that and try to reproduce it in some way, then it’ll have your own stamp on it.”
Steal lots of ideas, but then work on them in your own way. What you produce will be different because it’s you that’s doing the work.
Biology isn’t even original. Biology works by copying what came before it. DNA molecules (called replicators) create identical copies of themselves. Occasionally one of these replicators makes a random copying error, and these errors in duplication are called mutations. These errors are the reason why we exist. We wouldn’t be here if biology didn’t copy ideas. And we wouldn’t be here if biology didn’t make mistakes while copying ideas.
We should be more like replicators. Copy, but copy badly. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. The mistakes are where you find something new. Where you find your voice. The mistakes make it yours. It’s how evolution works, and it’s how creativity works.
Steal other people’s ideas until they become your ideas. Put your twist on them. And then expect others to steal from you. Ideas are free, so don’t claim ownership. If your idea isn’t worth stealing, then it’s not a good idea.
New ideas come from connecting the dots. If the dots are there to be connected, someone will connect them. So be the person that finds the dots and connect them.
Art is simply stealing ideas, and spitting them out in a way only you can.
(This post was inspired by Austin Kleon’s fantastic book Steal Like An Artist. It’s short and brilliant.)