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Why Great Artists Steal...

Forget intellectual property theft; intellectual perspective theft is the way!

Last May, the software company Adobe released the results on their global survey on the state of creativity. Over 5,000 individuals in the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, and Japan, were polled. Key findings were familiar. Here’s their top ten list:

1. Across the boards, unlocking creativity is seen as the key to economic and societal growth.

2. Despite this fact, less than half the people surveyed considered themselves creative.

3. There is near universal concern that our educational system is stifling creativity.

4. Globally, only 1 out of 4 people believe they’re living up to their creative potential.

5. There is a “workplace creativity gap,” i.e. people are feeling increasing pressure to be creative rather than productive at work.

6. Most people feel they spend only 25 percent of their time at work creating.

7. Globally, Japan is regarded as the most creative country (except by the Japanese).

8. But Americans express the strongest concern they’re not living up to their creative potential.

9. Yet—and despite the global preference for the Japanese—Americans still believe theirs is the most creative country.

So what have we really learned? Well, other than the workplace creativity gap, what we can see in our education fears, personal frustrations and national creative pride is that the act of making something out of nothing (the best definition of creativity I know) is one of our highest, yet least understood values.

The biggest problem, it seems, is that everyone wants to be more creative, but no one is exactly sure how. The funny thing about this is that there’s no secret secret. Artists and writers and scientists have been telling people how to do this for years now and most people haven’t been listening.

Let me offer my favorite example: “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” Supposedly, Oscar Wilde said this sometime Nineteenth century. Possible it was Pablo Picasso, in the Twentieth century, with the variation: “Great artists borrow, great artists steal.” No one is entirely sure. We do know poet T.S. Eliot wrote “immature poets imitate, great poets steal” in 1920—but, whatever, the point is the same.

But what is the point? After all, theft of ideas isn’t something we take lightly around these parts. Plagiarism and forgery are serious charges. So what did these exemplars of ingenuity mean by “great creatives steal?”

Actually, they mean two things by this and both are important. The first is that style counts—but probably not in the way most suppose.

Every one of us has a built-in set of stylistic preferences. We like certain movies, we don’t like others. We love certain books, we hate others. Those who are truly creative trust these preferences—they assume they’re valid and important, even if they don’t know why.

And this is exactly the way towards greater creativity. Liking something intuitively, then trying to figure out the root of this attraction is the path.

And this is exactly where theft comes into play.

In the 10th grade, I stumbled across the poetry of e.e. cummings (which, yes, is often the kind of thing that happens in high school but bear with me). Cummings was doing things with language that I didn’t yet understand, but they still moved me.

Thus I spent years stealing from cummings. Sometimes this meant attempting to match his word rhythm. Sometimes it meant copying his sentences, then substituting my language for his, but keeping his grammar (or lack thereof) consistent.

I kept at it until I could produce words that—and this is the most important point—made me feel the same way his words made me feel.

Was I actually stealing cumming’s words? No. I was stealing a bit of his effect and a bunch of his worldview and the reason this process works so well as a creative stimulus comes down to how the brain makes something out of nothing.

Human beings have evolved two distinct systems for processing information. The first, the explicit system, is rule-based, can be expressed verbally, and is tied to conscious awareness. When the pre-frontal cortex is fired up, the explicit system is usually turned on.

But when the cold calculus of logic is swapped out for the gut-sense of intuition, this is the implicit system at work. This system relies on skill and experience. It is not consciously accessible and cannot be described verbally (i.e.—try to explain a hunch).

The explicit and implicit system are often described as “conscious” versus “unconscious,” but that’s not entirely accurate. What’s really going on comes down to networks. When the explicit system is involved, the neurons that are talking to one another are usually found in close proximity to one another. When the implicit system is at work, far flung corners of the brain are chit-chatting.

Making something from nothing requires the brain coming up with new patterns, making novel connections between seemingly disparate thoughts and memories. You can’t, or at least not very often, do this with the explicit system.

But when you are trying to steal another’s worldview, you are firing up the implicit system. By altering perspective (which, as I wrote in this recent blog, is the another big step towards creativity), the brain is forced to make exactly these kinds of far-flung unusual connections.

More than that, because the path towards those novel connections was built on a stylistic preference, you can assume there are worthwhile connections to be found. This again requires trust in the process, which creative tend to be better at than others.

Of course, because we’re all individuals, no matter who you start out trying to copy, keep it up long enough and you’ll actually end up back at yourself. In fact, that’s the thing about stealing from another—if you aim for stealing their affect rather than their intellectual property, you don’t end up a plagiarist or forger, you end up a more creative version of yourself.

The last thing is that you need to keep this up for a while. Don’t just steal from one person, thieve from many. Eventually, you end up (first) becoming an amalgamation of perspectives (second) coming into your own true voice—i.e. developing a personal creative thinking style.

Once you’ve gone that far, making something from nothing is no longer a mystery. It’s a habit. And then, you join that exclusive club: the 25 percent of the population who are really living up to their creative potential.