"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." -- Isaac Newton
Sitting in an open-air courtyard next to a gurgling fountain in Sonoma, swilling Chardonnay from oversized glasses, I ask a dear friend if she's familiar with the concept of "love languages." She shakes her head; no.
I give her a brief synopsis of the book I haven't read but heard about, then flesh it out with examples. The conversation continues and a joke is made about a sixth love language involving food. Then my friend turns to me and says: "that's some great wisdom right there."
"I can't claim it," I say. "It's from a book."
But she is adamant that although someone else wrote the book, the way I summarized and applied it to our conversation has given her something else that is valuable, at just the moment when she needed to hear it.
This story begs the question that haunts the dreams and aspirations of every creative person, everywhere:
When does our creation, which is necessarily borne of the discoveries of others, become something unique and original in itself?
How much do you have to change something, before it can stand on its own foundation? When does it become more valuable than whatever came before it? When can you say that you made it yourself?
The truth is that we tend to be either too modest or too arrogant about where our ideas come from, and with most creatives, it's the modesty that kills. Each of us has been guilty of deprecating the real contribution we make with our unique way of seeing and re-interpreting what we see for new contexts and applications.
Today, I'd like to invite you to challenge your own way of seeing the originality of your work, and therefore, of your contribution.
First, try this on for size: There is nothing new in the world.
Throughout all of human history, in art and literature and even business, there are a few core themes that repeat over and over, around love and war and honor and duty and the meaning of life, etc -- and YET the artists and creatives and entrepreneurs among us CONTINUE to explore and reinvent them, looking for that nugget of insight, that fresh way of seeing, that new way of rendering -- with the hope that their interpretation might strike someone as just what they needed, at just the moment they needed it.
And everyone else keeps looking to them to do this work, because we, as humans, never stop needing the reminders.
Now consider this: All the novelty, all the invention and innovation we can yet hope for, happens at the intersection of things.
It's not so much that you create something new; it's more that you take something already in existence, strip away the excess, mash the essence up with something else, tweak it for a different audience, and give it a chic hairdo -- and suddenly, you have something beautifully new.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Brené Brown backstage at Re:Make 2016, and I wish I'd told her that sometimes the first thing I ask my clients to do is watch her TED talk on the power of vulnerability, because it frames the rest of our work so beautifully.
The space that creates for the client -- at the intersection of her work and mine -- is something I would venture to guess is unique in the world.
Finally, they say that "good artists borrow, while great artists steal."
I confess: everything I know, I've stolen from someone else who knew it first.
One of the first big proposals I ever made was a mishmash of stolen elements. It proposed a radical new approach to communication for a centuries-old institution, and I had the books Made to Stick and True Story lying open in front of me as I wrote it. I lifted the proposal structure from a sample I'd discovered at Wendy Lipton-Dibner's Move People to Action seminar, changed the section headers to reflect the style I was advocating, and populated the thing with what I saw as the client's unique problems and opportunities.
But all the client saw? Was something made especially for him.
And I continue to steal -- shamelessly, and with joy! -- to this day.
Nobody creates in a vacuum. And it's important to remember that no matter how many of your ideas originated from someone else, this doesn't actually take away from your originality.
Our originality comes from how we adapt and reinvent what we've learned for a new situation, challenge or community. It's how we interpret and apply what others have provided that defines us as "original."
Each of us is essentially a curator of ideas and experience, sifting through an ocean of information to identify the gems we find helpful so we can turn around and offer them to others.
It's your vision that helps you distinguish a gem from a lump of coal, and your interpretation that allows you to turn around and explain it to someone else, and your creativity that allows you to use the gem you found while digging over there to solve a tough problem in a totally unrelated field over here.
And the longer you do this, the more entwined everything gets inside the petri dish that is your brain. After a time, it becomes genuinely difficult to distinguish between what originated from you and what originated from somewhere else.
So here is one fun and irreverent rule of thumb for giving credit that I invite you to try out this week:
"The first time, I credit your name. The second time, I heard it from a guy. The third time -- it's mine."
[NOTE: For a fun addendum to this post, see Malcolm Gladwell's podcast about the song Hallelujah, which would have been lost to obscurity forever had it not been picked up and played with by two subsequent artists AFTER the original composer had died. The song didn't explode into public consciousness until after the THIRD guy had re-shaped it to his liking.]