A confession: I am a thief.
A compulsive, sneaky, sly thief.
I can't help it. I steal from everyone I meet and many people I have never met. It just happens.
But I don't steal anything physical. Instead, I find tiny little elements of people and incorporate them into my life. When I get obsessed with someone I pour over every bit of information I can find out about them. They might be a writer, musician, artist, anyone. I make notes. I ask myself: what can I learn from them? Then, I make it into a part of me. The objective is to figure out the most interesting and important facets of them, then make those work for me. Picasso famously said that good artists copy, great artists steal.
Inspiration is like energy - it cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred. Each generation passes its music, films, art, books and so on to the next. Everything is a remix of something else.
In Kirby Ferguson's brilliant TED talk on the topic, he says:
Our creativity comes from without, not from within. We are not self-made, we are dependent on one another. Admitting this to ourselves is not an embrace of mediocrity and derivativeness -- it's a liberation from our misconceptions, and it's an incentive to not expect so much from ourselves and to simply begin.
A strange preoccupation exists with originality, new ideas, and fresh concepts. Companies spend inordinate amounts on lawsuits to 'protect their ideas.' In truth, nothing is original. Humans have been making things and having ideas en masse for quite some time now. This creates a complex conflict. People naturally want to protect what they create. Yet sharing ideas and concepts is in everyone's best interests. It is what enables improvement and extension.
The most creative people are those who know how to steal from others. This is not about plagiarizing or being unoriginal. The objective is to absorb everything around you, then filter it through your personal lens. Every one of the people I steal from has in turn stolen from those who came before. Patti Smith is influenced by Bob Dylan who is influenced by Woody Guthrie. George Harrison drew from Elvis who drew from African American blues. Stephen King is inspired by HP Lovecraft who was inspired by Jonathan Swift. Need I continue?
When I was younger, I thought that mimicking the cool kids I saw would make me also cool. My goal was to worm my way into the groups which hung around in parks, drinking, smoking and occasionally beating each other up.
When they let me spend time with them, I watched everyone with great care. I went home and wrote dozens of meticulous pages of notes about each encounter. I recorded what they said, their body language, what they wore, what they did, everything. I studied these notes. Sometimes I even made profiles of each person to figure out the dynamics of a group. My notes will doubtless be of great interest to anthropologists in the future. Once I thought I had calculated their essence, I tried to be like them. This meant listening to the music they liked, watching their films, dressing like them, using their language and so on.
As you can guess, it never worked. No one thought I was cool. They just thought I was weird and kind of creepy. It was irrelevant how I did my makeup, I was still a nerdy 14-year-old living a double life.
There was the me who worked like a maniac at school, and enjoyed reading and making things. On the other hand, there was me who dressed up in spikes and too much eyeliner, listened to heavy metal I disliked and spent days watching stoned older kids do nothing more interesting than try to push each other into a river.
So, I started looking for more interesting people to steal from. When I became serious about my work that practice proved useful.
Now, I steal from a lot of people. They are like mentors to me, shaping who I am even if I have never met them. I read about their lives and learn from them, especially from their mistakes. Seneca taught me about controlling my own mind and how to stop being overwhelmed by my own mortality. Patti Smith taught me that being an artist is about giving a shit and connecting with people. Colin Wright taught me that traveling long term is a viable way to live. Many others - more people than I can count - have taught me key lessons. These are people like Seth Godin, Robert Greene, George Harrison, Christopher McCandless, Conor Oberst, Stephen King, Virginia Woolf and many others. Too many to list.
These words from Jim Jarmusch exemplify the way I live my life:
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery-celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
I consider myself to be a collage. In my notebooks, I rip apart images to create something new. In my life and work, I do the same. When I sit down to write, my first step is to read what others have written on the same topic. Only when I stand on their shoulders can my own ideas emerge. The same goes for my biggest life choices. I examine what people I admire have done in similar situations, then act accordingly.
We are all thieves in a sense. We are all collages. Of our ancestors, of the music we hear, the books we read, the art we see, the conversations we have, everything. We should be proud of that. We should be proud to steal from the very best of what came before. We should be proud to say, this was not my idea, but I did something better, fresher, more useful with it.