Great Artists Steal

Steve_Jobs_Headshot_2010-CROPFormer Apple CEO Steve Jobs once said, ““Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal.” Turns out great artists also hang out together and steal from each other.

So here’s a simple question, why do people who want to be actors or actresses go off to Broadway or Hollywood? The simple answer of course is, that’s where the work is. Same thing with people who want to be pioneers in the information technology world as they all head off to Silicon Valley. In the 1980s, if you had a decent amount of hair and a fifth of Jack (stealing a line from the Broadway play Rock of Ages), and could somewhat play music or sing, you headed to the Troubadour or the Whiskey a Go-Go in West Hollywood and the Sunset Strip. In the early 1990s if you wanted to be part of the grunge rock movement you headed to Seattle.

Why?

Because that’s where the action is.

It turns out as we left our agrarian society started gathering together in cities we had a sort of “knowledge spillover,” (Lehrer 182). Cities force us to mingle with people of different “social distances” and talk to strangers on the street – we are essentially open to a much wider range of worldviews (Lehrer 182-183). When people come together they become more productive, exchange more ideas and generate more innovation. And the larger the city, the more the innovation (Lehrer 186). In fact, each individual becomes more productive based on the size of the city he or she lives in. And several economic studies found that doubling urban density raises productivity by up to 28% (Lehrer 191). So if you want to get more work done, move to the city.

Again we hear another argument for people working together. Two groups of people were given the exact same problem, except one group had to solve the problem by only using email and instant messaging while the other group got to solve the problem by meeting in person (Lehrer 207. Turns out the group meeting in person quickly solved the problem, while the group using technology, was unable to solve it. This reinforces another principle about our email driven society – sometimes a phone call or visit is a quicker way to solve a problem rather than 30 well-crafted emails.

  • Intellectual property. Shakespeare, the great Bard arguably wrote some of the most brilliant works of all time. However he also existed at a time and lived in a place where there were an astonishing number of geniuses including great scientists, artist and yes other writers. Many of Shakespeare’s greatest works were based on previously published works by other authors, and in today’s world he may have even been sued for plagiarism. Shakespeare tracked many of his fellow playwrights like a spy. Virtually all of Shakespeare’s plots from Hamlet to Romeo and Juliet were adopted from other sources. He also never stopped stealing from his mentor Christopher Marlowe (Lehrer 220). But Shakespeare did not just read this other work and imitate the best parts, he made them his own and blended them together in his plays.
  • Today, we know that intellectual property has value, but this has hindered the ability to add onto to previous inventions and breakthroughs. It still hasn’t totally stopped innovation though, as both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates used other people’s software to develop both Mac’s WYSIWYG operating system and eventually Microsoft’s Windows. California’s loose application of corporate non-compete clauses has allowed more innovation throughout the Silicon Valley. We need to do a better job of managing the rewards of innovation. Inventors should profit from their invention but we also need to encourage a culture of borrowing and adaptation (Lehrer 244).
  • Another core concept is that we’re not promoting imagination in our schools (Lehrer 230). Most schools today, along with federal programs such as No Child Left Behind focus on insuring kids can take a standardized test. Obsessing over tests send the wrong message to our students by basically telling them that creativity is a bad idea and a waste of time (Lehrer 230). Several progressive schools have pioneered programs that encourage teenagers to exercise their imagination and evidence suggests it’s important to begin this process as soon as possible (Lehrer 231). They are learning how to persist and persevere and keep working until the work is done instead of just filling out the right bubble on a Scantron sheet (Lehrer 232). They learn how to cope with complexity, and connect ideas, bridge decisions and improve their first drafts – many of these schools have high graduation rates and high college entrance acceptance, as compared to other students from four-year colleges (Lehrer 235).

So it seems imagination is not as an elusive and mystical beast as we think. It is based on everything from understanding what dopamine does to our brain, how to activate it and when to shut it off so we can pay attention to what we have learned while under its influence; it’s a matter of  sometimes relaxing in the shower, getting “away from it all,” or pumping ourselves full of caffeine. Finally, it’s a matter of the right social networks and close interactions, and adapting and innovating from previous breakthroughs (Lehrer 251).

Lehrer, Jonah. Imagine: How Creativity Works. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.

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