In Defense of Idea-Poaching

How old were you when you began to second-guess your artistic ability? At what point did you get the idea that the act of making art is reserved for “artists” only? And how many times have you talked yourself out of creating something because you’ve thought it’s been done before?

If you were able to answer those questions, then Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creativehas a message for you: Don’t believe the hype! Everyone is capable of being creative, everyone is capable of being artistic, and everyone who has created some kind of art has stolen an idea or two, or a zillion, in their time.

“Creativity,” says Kleon in an interview with Jordan Kushins for Fast Company’s online publication Co.Design, “has become a kind of magic that only a few lone geniuses are supposed to perform.” Kleon is on a mission to change this widespread belief. “The truth is,” he continues, “creativity is a kind of magic, but unlike at Hogwart’s, any Muggle can learn to use it. A lot of people are waiting for the owl to show up with the invitation. I guess that’s how I see my book.” (Wands not required.)

All Harry Potter analogies aside, though, Kleon has identified a universal muse: idea-poaching. According to Kleon, when it comes to ideas, we all steal…and that’s okay. In fact, the sooner we creative types come to terms with this, he says, the sooner we’ll break free from the unnecessarily self-imposed plight of “trying to make something out of nothing.”

If Kleon’s endorsement of a universal License to Steal sounds like risky business to you, it may ease your apprehensions to know that he does distinguish between “good theft” and “bad theft.” With good theft, for example, you “honor” the ideas you steal, whereas with bad theft, you “degrade” them. Likewise, with good theft, you “study” the ideas you steal, whereas with bad theft, you only “skim” them.

Now, having established that it’s okay to nick ideas because, as Kleon reminds us, there’s nothing new under the sun anyway, how do we get past this whole right-and-wrong-approach-to-art thing? Sure, we can steal ideas to get started, but then we move on to the daunting task of using them to create something that we can proudly call our own. How exactly do we perform this “magic”?

In the Co.Design interview, Kleon discusses how he leads a “Newspaper Blackout” workshop that helps facilitate this part of the creative process. In this workshop, “everybody gets a newspaper and a marker and I tell them to just dive in. You’d be amazed at how quickly people take to it. People who don’t even like poetry, they have fun making blackout poems.” The beauty of this exercise is that it alleviates the stigma that the act of making art is unattainable for those who do not view themselves as artists.

Similarly, Visual Insight’s workshops teach visual language “muralling,” which enables people to communicate visually and, more importantly, frees them to think and express themselves creatively. As Bonnie DeVarco says,“words capture ideas, images free them.” This freedom is part of creativity, but since people are so worried about the risk of making “errors,” they often miss the opportunity to enjoy the creative expression and communication. Visual Insight’s workshops help people shed the creativity constraints by enabling them to focus on the high value and service they provide (to themselves and to others) with visual language.

Idea-poaching not only spawns creativity in the individual, it spawns co-creativity as well. One could argue that co-creativity and idea-poaching are inexorably linked. When you put an idea out there, you are inevitably sharing it so that it’s there for the poaching, and both sharing and, yes, stealing ideas yields innovation. To some extent, certain types of information synthesis could even be considered idea-poaching.

Because we live in a time when the need for innovation is greater than ever, the encouragement of ethical forms of idea-poaching is a big positive step in the way of creative problem-solving. The amount of good ideas in existence far exceeds the amount of ideas that bring about real change. Good ideas must be expanded upon, put into context, justified, and, above all, communicated well in order to have an impact, which is only possible with the presence of co-creativity. (Please see our blog post entitled, “Case for Creativity.” )


In Defense of Idea-Poaching

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