“Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” – Steve Jobs. Or was it Picasso? Faulkner? T.S. Eliot? You can’t copy something mainstream because we’re socially biased against obvious plagiarism. However as fashions change and culture moves on, ideas get forgotten, sources get obscured, and something old gets reinvented for the modern age. Our brains still work the same as they did 200,000 years ago, and there are a limited list of memes that elicit a response. So we’re doomed to be continuously rediscovering them.
The hardest part of art is making a start. As Van Gogh lamented, “You don’t know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas, which says to the painter, ‘You can’t do a thing’.” The blank canvas represents unconstrained potential, which overwhelms and paralyzes us with fear and imposter syndrome. If we force ourselves to stare at a blank canvas long enough, we eventually come up with something that feels original. But we’re kidding ourselves if we believe anything we create hasn’t come before.
We’re not original, we’re just not consciously aware of our sources. Originality is in the eye of the beholder. Listen to the White Stripes and hear Lenny Kravitz. Listen to Kravitz and hear Led Zeppelin. Listen to Zeppelin and hear The Blues. Sometimes the inspiration comes consciously, but often influence is subconscious: you may have heard something similar a long time ago and can’t recall where, or you spent so much time listening to that type of music growing up, that it’s just sounds right when you ‘create’ something similar. Either way our ‘creation’ comes from our past experiences, influences, and culture, whether we can trace the source or not.
If everything is a remix and nothing is original, maybe the way we create is all wrong. What if instead of staring at a blank canvas and trying to come up with an original thought, we started by explicitly copying instead? Rather than starting from scratch, we have a solid foundation to build on. We can “stand on the shoulders of giants” and focus our energy on improving and adapting memes that are already proven. Great artists may steal, but as Eliot elaborated, they “make it into something better, or at least something different”.
First start with intentionally selecting your sources. When you look for patterns you’ll often find memes that has been popular for a long time in several guises: these are fair game. The really ‘innovative’ work comes from spotting memes with high potential, that got caught in an evolutionary dead end. This can happen because the vehicle they exist in – a book, movie, myth – didn’t achieve popularity, or has since faded from mainstream attention. It can also just be that their creator just wasn’t very good at marketing: academics, engineers, scientists all tend to be uncomfortable with self-promotion, or have an outright bias against marketing.
The key to making this more than pure plagiarism, is to extract the essence of the meme and recreate it from your own experience. Take for example this quote by George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”. The essence of what Shaw is saying, is that progress depends on irrationality, because if it were rational it would have already been done. That triggers in my memory my time running a marketing agency, where I shirked away from networking – the key sales channel for 99% of agencies – instead spending my time writing blog posts, which eventually became the source of 60% of our leads.
From here it’s easy to turn this into a social media post: “Don’t try to mould yourself into the person you think your business needs you to be, build your business around who you actually are. I hated networking so I wrote blog posts instead – eventually 60% of my agency’s new business came from our blog”. The audience has no idea I derived this from a George Bernard Shaw quote, but in essence it’s the same meme. Rather than trying to come up with something new from scratch, I took an idea that was already proven popular, and built on it with my own experience. That took a lot of risk and effort out of the equation for me, encouraging and inspiring me to keep creating.
“The Reasonable Man Adapts Himself to the World” Meaning
Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal