Why greatness isn’t borrowed or stolen
“Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.” is a famous quote by the prolific Pablo Picasso. I used to believe it. It spoke to me. As a graphic designer, writer, photographer and doodler, I held the notion as sacrosanct. Experience comes first, ideas follow. Seems open and shut, right? No need to question. Just steal, steal and steal some more and one day you’ll be great.
Lately I’m having mixed feelings about Picasso’s immortal musing. I used to think it was constructive and enabling. Empowering even. Today not so much.
Before I slay this sacred cow, I’ll concede that “There is nothing new under the sun” or as one post-modern blogger observes, “Everything’s a remix.” There is unarguably some truth to these statements.
Whether you’re a “creative professional” or not, if you believe in these ideas strongly enough, guess what? You’re limiting yourself. To “create” is to make something from nothing. Yet, Picasso, Solomon the Wise and Kirby Ferguson would all have us believe that “creating” anything is an impossibility.
Do you believe that? Are you willing to surrender to the idea that you are incapable of having an original idea? If so, we’re all in big trouble.
Around 1676, Sir Isaac Newton remarked in a letter to his rival Robert Hooke, “If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”—an idea that dates back to the 12th century when John of Salisbury put a stake in the ground around when he wrote in his Metalogicon:
“Bernard of Chartres [circa 1100] used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more then they, and things at a greater distance, not buy virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”
When you compare Picasso’s idea of how we become great to Cartres’s idea of the same, the difference is clear. One idea suggests that in order to achieve to greatness, we must lift ideas from others. The other suggest that greatness is achieved by lifting ourselves above those who have gone before us.
Einstein neither borrowed nor stole anything from Newton. Instead, he used Newton’s ideas as a springboard for his own.
The ability to see beyond what is in front of us is the true measure of greatness. It is the very definition of creativity. It is also among the most difficult of all things.
Yet, to go where no one has gone before is how we change the world.
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Photo by: Khoi Nguyen