Steal Ideas, Borrow Heavily
By Tom Peterson
“There is nothing new under the sun.” —Ecclesiastes, about 2,300 years ago
And Stand on the Shoulders of Giants.
Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” A great thought. Actually, he borrowed that image about borrowing. Here’s a quote on twelfth-century education borrowed from Wikipedia: “Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”
Artists talk about borrowing. Paul Gauguin said, “Out in the sun, some painters are lined up. The first is copying nature, the second is copying the first, the third is copying the second…. You see the sequence.” Another artist and social activist Ben Shahn was once asked by a student to name a quality art school. His response, “A good art school is one that has a good art museum you have to pass by to get to.”
Here’s Steve Jobs on stealing:
“Picasso had a saying: ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal.’ We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas… I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians, poets, artists, zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.”
If your group shelters homeless people, sends direct mail for support, has a Facebook page, makes micro-finance loans or even has a budget, you’re already in the borrowing/stealing business. You invented none of those. The point isn’t to do something unique, it’s to fix a problem. Borrow, adapt from wherever the hell you need to.
Some thoughts on Borrowing and Stealing:
- Look everywhere to steal ideas. Especially outside your field. Read books: biography, fiction, history, everything. If you read something you like, mark so you can get it later. Bookmark and visit the websites where you get good ideas. Get out. Talk with teens, kids, older folks. Watch documentaries. Hang out with creative folks. Go to a variety of events. Constantly feed your curiosity.
- Keep a Swipe File. In his book, Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon suggests that we carry a notebook to jot down things so we can save the thefts for later. “It’s just what it sounds like—a file to keep track of the stuff you’ve swiped from others. It can be digital or analog—it doesn’t matter what form it takes, so long as it works. You can keep a scrapbook and cut and paste thing into it. Or you can just take pictures of things with your camera phone. See something worth stealing? Put it in the swipe file. Need a little inspiration? Open up the swipe file.” I put ideas into computer files that I often don’t use till years later.
- Acknowledge whom you’re stealing from. For example, I got the following quote from Kleon’s book: “Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, drams, random street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.” He was quoting filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.
- Be Legal and Ethical. “Borrowing” your neighbor’s car without permission, could land you in jail. The same can be true for intellectual property. Even if you can legally steal something, you’ll know when you cross that ethical line. Don’t even get close to it. You’re better off with your integrity (even when no one else knows).
- Re-combine other’s ideas into a new context. Starbucks borrowed the idea of a coffee experience and culture from the espresso bars of Milan. Steal ideas from yourself: In 1933 the national Girl Scouts borrowed the idea of selling cookies from its Mistletoe Troop in Muskogee, Oklahoma. In a project I was part of, we combined a small plastic bank used by one group with a daily calendar used by other groups and fresh activities to create a “new” program that has raised millions of dollars.
- Borrow local ideas from other places. A great idea in another community may make sense in yours. Historically, if a public library made sense in Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia, it would make sense in Chicago or Savannah. Same with fire departments, food banks, farmer’s markets. If you see a great idea on vacation and wonder why you don’t have on in your town, you may be on to your next project.
Did this page steal ideas? At least two-dozen times. We should look from the shoulders of the giants who came before us. When it comes to The Movement, feel free to borrow and steal any idea from any place that may help those needing help, increase justice, save the planet. Oh, and soon others will borrow your ideas, in return. That’s how it works.
Thanks to the web, borrowing and stealing has never been easier. The above image is taken from Wikipedia, borrowed from the Library of Congress.
Steal Ideas Quotes:
“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit,” said Harry Truman (who got credit for a quote borrowed from David Montague, 1922).
“To steal from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.” —Author unknown