In reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “What The Dog Saw”, and watching his interview on WNYC talking about how someone lifted part of piece he wrote in the New Yorker as part of a larger Broadway play, I’ve been rethinking my approach to idea ownership.
There are tons of ideas out there. I say, I’m sure, hundreds of things daily that are both stupid and sublime. The difference tends to lie in what happens to them once they’re expressed- do they go on to become actions? Do they go on to help other people think differently about their lives? Do they muddle a picture for someone? Can they be fleshed out into meaningful projects? Are they content-free speech? Or are they meaningful, if they just had some place to take root and grow?
A couple of years ago, I sent a very close friend an email. Several of those points ended up as a blog post of theirs, and I felt like they had taken credit for something I brought up to them, and felt a little betrayed. We spoke about it, resolved the matter, and it has been long since left in the pile of silliness that passes between friends. But I thought about this as I heard what Malcolm Gladwell said in his interview and read the story in his book, and I was ashamed at myself in retrospect for having been so small about this matter.
I think Malcolm Gladwell is right- that we seem to fetish-ize ideas and intellectual property, yet everything we do is based on what’s come before us. We all use the internet- we didn’t create it ourselves. When I cook, I make dishes out of cookbooks written by others without giving credit always to the author. I drive a car without acknowledging everyone who contributed to the manufacture. I blog without crediting all the fine teachers, formal and informal, I have had over the years. We owe tons of credit to those who have come before us, fleshed out ideas, taken the next step, advanced things forward, and then we get a chance to add our own stuff on top, to do the same for others as others have done for us.
There’s clearly a line where you take someone else’s work and “steal it”- taking credit for something you did not think of on your own, to the other person’s detriment. And there’s a sense in which taking the work of someone else is really to your own detriment- you lose as well. For example, if you take your brother’s term paper and try to turn it in as your own- that’s intellectually dishonest on many levels, and in the end, the person who loses is not your brother or the teacher, but yourself, for never having had the guts to challenge yourself to do your own work, and have your own thoughts.
But I think if you take someone else’s thoughts and try to build on them, to interpret them and make the meaning clearer for your own self and others, that’s an addition rather than subtraction to the idea.
More importantly, ideas are like seeds. Out of the billions, only a few actually germinate, and fewer still make it to be fully grown and leaf out. A few of those actually make it into the world, and bear fruit, spawning action and changing the way things are done. Sometimes you may have an idea, but you don’t have the resources, money or platform to make it a reality. Should you hold on to the idea, hoping in time you can execute on it, or should you talk about it with friends and see if, with help, it can become something more?
I’m resolving to try to be less selfish with my ideas, and more generous both in the sharing and in helping others execute things I don’t have time to do myself. Because the real measure of a good idea comes from the execution as well as the initial flash of insight. And it’s that combination that really matters- hooking up inspiration with action.
Think about this- can you give a good idea to someone who can execute on it and make it come true if you can’t? And if so, what, if anything, do you need/deserve in return? Sometimes, seeing an idea come to life can be enough- to know that you can make a difference- and that in and of itself is much more rare than we think. Sometimes, we deserve some credit or some recompense for “birthing” the idea, but it’s the sweat equity where the value add truly lies, and this is what I think we all need to remember.
Ideas are awesome, but execution is what really matters in the end.