Creativty, Originality, and Good Manners

If you do any creative work, you know that you will have a brilliant idea, fall in love with the idea, polish it, then release it to public view. As soon as you do that, you will see the same idea all over. You get angry. Who stole your idea? The answer is–nobody. There are several reasons this happens.


Parallel Universe from May 8, 2012 edition of the NY Times eXaminer. No photo credit is given.

1. Heightened awareness. Once you begin to concentrate on an idea, and certain words, phrases, images begin to repeat in your head. Your heightened awareness makes you see those words “more often,” when you are really simply more aware of seeing them. This happens when you learn a new word–you suddenly see it three times in a day when you don’t recall seeing it before. This is the same reason that gratitude journals work, but that’s another blog post.

2. Mysterious parallel universes. OK, I made that up. If you were to ask a Russian who invented the telephone it’s unlikely they would credit Alexander Graham Bell. They would mention a Russian who invented the device roughly at the same time. Simultaneous invention, writing, advertising ideas do happen. Regularly. And has happened for years. Now, with the increasing speed of knowledge shared through the internet, more people come up with similar ideas more often.



3. Your grass seed, my lawn. When we talk about our ideas to a friend, the friend often takes the next step with the idea. You talk about creating a journal page using a dictionary page, and suddenly your friend is teaching a class on altering dictionaries. And that’s when things get sticky.

This is the hard part. I know exactly how hard it is, because I just had to go through it. One of my favorite techniques (and the basis for the upcoming book) turned up on another site. Yes, I was angry. Yes, I felt cheated. But I also know that ideas can’t be copyrighted, and that my idea doesn’t belong to me exclusively. What to do? Well, break that list into legal, ethical and generous steps.

Legally, I notified my publisher, so if any of the images I shared or the journal prompts I created and shared appear on another website, the publisher can handle the copyright violation.

Ethically, if my idea is similar to another artists, I have to follow the rules The Ethics Guy uses to judge actions as ethical. (Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D. is the Ethic Guy). This isn’t that complicated:

  • Do no harm
  • Make things better
  • Be respectful
  • Be fair
  • Be compassionate

But the items may be hugely difficult to manage. If someone treats you unfairly, you don’t want to treat them (or anyone else) fairly. But you have to. The entire reason the world doesn’t collapse into savaging each other is that most of us want to be fair and even generous.

How do we act fairly and generously? We give credit. It doesn’t detract from our work, it adds to it. Giving other people credit for helping you get to your own idea is a wonderful way to increase your creativity and your peace of mind.

Saying thank you on your blog, in your classes, in your articles, even giving up some of those precious 140 characters in a Tweet to thank someone, is a gift to yourself.

Thanking and crediting others relieves you of guilt, makes you feel generous, expands your creativity. And I’d like to thank my editor, Tonia Jenny, for helping me come to that conclusion.

-Quinn McDonald keeps a gratitude journal and another one for ideas on change. Sometimes she writes one idea in another, and then alchemy happens.

13 thoughts on “Creativty, Originality, and Good Manners

  1. Some examples of heightened awareness: Buy a new car and see how many of the same make you now notice on the road. Same for clothing – those unique shoes you just bought? EVERYONE is wearing them! And on the same day you are! Why is it that every time I decide to try a new restaurant for lunch, EVERYONE else is going there too?
    Pete: I love it when Quinn writes something that interests you too. Your responses are like deep breaths of air filled with people and ideas foreign to me that inspire me to go find stuff out for myself. Thanks.

  2. About point #2, i’s not unusual at all for different people with no connection to solve the same problem in much the same way at much the same time, Edison was only one of the inventors of the light bulb, and that Russian telephone guy you’re thinking of may be Tivadar Puskas, a Hungarian (and possibly the reason why we answer with “hello”).

    The notion that an idea “belongs to someone” is pure arrogance. Ideas are a characteristic of consciousness, infinite, and given to you completely free of condition. It is impossible to “keep” an idea — if you tell me about it, I have it too. If you don’t tell anyone about it, see point #2.

    Yes, I know there are legal issues — if you think the world of copyright is made up of desparate people and companies savaging each other, try patents. Fairness and generosity are nowhere to be found.

    • Now that I’m thinking about it, I believe I first ran into the theory of multiple discovery in a seminar about diffusion of innovation. Robert Merton (the sociologist, not the economist with the same name–hey wait a sec, theory of multiple naming…) worked on the “sociology of science”, which suggests that science is itself a society of sorts and for centuries the same ideas and discoveries have happened simultaneously to multiple people in that society. Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (a super-interesting book) is in the same general area.

    • I know. That’s why I wrote the article. Patents, trademarks, whatever you invent belongs to your company, non-disclosure agreements are all built on fear and anger and less on letting people thrive on praise and fairness. All your bases are belong to us.

      • It’s even worse than that. More than one company has asserted that whatever thoughts are in your head — expressed or not — are their property as well.

        Not only that, but while you can’t copyright an idea, you can patent it. The old rule about needing a working model was abandoned years ago. It now appears to be “grant the patent and let them work it out later”; although patent examiners still exist, either they don’t understand, don’t actually do anything, or have very strange ideas about their jobs. There is at least one patent — perfectly valid — for a radio antenna that exceeds the speed of light. It’s funny, but it’s also a pretty serious problem.

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