Honour Amongst Thieves

Honour Amongst Thieves


Table of contents

“If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.“—Wilson Mizner

If you haven’t started your writing journey yet, you’ll learn an unfortunate truth. Creativity is bloody hard work. You only have to look at the grind many creators endure in order to produce original and subjectively ‘good’ work is staggering.

They spend hours painstakingly practising their craft.  Staring at a blank screen or piece of paper. Going through days, weeks and months of creative block. Then after all that they publish their work only to fail.

You might look at the above and think, “Who in their right mind wants to go through all that” and no one could blame you. But there is a way you can approach creating that doesn't involve locking yourself away from reality...  

“Standing on the shoulders of giants.”

In Greek mythology, Orion was a giant who was blinded by King Oenopion for his crimes committed against his daughter. Unable to see, he stumbled blindly across the waves to Crete, where the smith-god Hephaestus resided. Hephaestus took pity on the giant and granted him the use of his dwarf servant, Cedalion. To aid him on his quest for revenge, Orion placed the Cedalion upon his shoulders and used him as his eyes. Helping him on his journey back to regaining his sight and attempting to kill King Oenopion. To cut a long story short, Orion couldn’t find the king, he went on to take his hand at hunting, where he got a bit carried away and declared he would try and kill all the animals. That’s when Zeus sent a heroic scorpion of sorts to kill him. And Zeus sent Orion to the stars (i.e. the constellation of Orion and his belt).

Orion clearly wasn’t a good person, but this story is deemed as the origin of a a widely regarded metaphor. That if you don’t have a particular skill or ability, you can lean on others who do possess said skill. Leveraging them in order to get to where you’re going. It’s not about the who, but the how.

The term has also been applied to the fields of enlightenment and theology. Here one example by the Italian Tosaphist, Isaiah di Trani (c.1180-c.1250):

"Who sees further, a dwarf or a giant? Surely a giant for his eyes are situated at a higher level than those of the dwarf. But if the dwarf is placed on the shoulders of the giant who sees further? ... So too we are dwarfs astride the shoulders of giants. We master their wisdom and move beyond it. Due to their wisdom we grow wise and are able to say all that we say, but not because we are greater than they.”

The same can be said for building upon the research of others. In 1675, Sir Isaac Newton remarked in a letter to Robert Hooke about his work: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.

Let’s look at this on a larger scale. In “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari, he shares how humanity was able to take huge strides forward after we harnessed the ability to store existing knowledge.

Language, drawing, wider literacy skills, the printing press, and the internet to mention a few. All these technologies have allowed us to stop losing our shared progress and understanding of many subjects. Humanity began compounding knowledge.

The lesson here is that it’s a futile and unnecessary to master every pursuit from scratch. In every case, there will be others who have trod the same path as you.

It’s why instead of running out on the football field for a game, you have a few training sessions first. It’s why when you;re seriously ill do you seek medical advice from a qualified source instead of attempting to treat it yourself.

You can skip a lot of self-tutoring, trial and error and disappointment by simply extracting the information that will have the most impact. You learn from those who have already done the hard graft for you.

Time is a precious resource. Spending it immersing yourself in every interest or artistic pursuit will leave you with little opportunity to break new ground. It will deprive you of the chance to experiment with your style or direction. The truth is you’ll need to fail a lot too before you strike gold.

That’s why you should work smarter, not harder. Leverage the progress of those who have come before you. Build upon their work and give it your own flavour and twist. Don’t try to reach the highest of heights by building your own ladder a rung at a time. Stand on the shoulders of giants and start from there.

Stealing Like An Artist

The reason why standing on the shoulders of giants is a fair, honest and necessary pursuit is fairly simple: There’s no project you’re exploring that hasn’t already been started in some way by someone else. Even if your precise vision doesn’t exist yet, elements of it most certainly will somewhere in the world.

Imagine a creative genius who wants to make a new theatre production, set in a dystopian sci-fi universe using a soundtrack which combines Reggae and Heavy metal. It’s almost implausible to imagine them starting that creative journey without watching a bunch of Hollywood sci-fi movies, and listening to Iron Maiden and Bob Marley first. This hypothetical artist would be mad to not at least taste the existing creative work available and use it to inspire their own art, right?

This is the exact approach Austin Kleon, author of “Steal Like An Artist”, would suggest. A creative, artist, author and writer, Austin was asked to give a talk at the Broome Community College in upstate New York in the spring of 2011. He wanted to base his talk around the things he wished he'd heard when he was their age. Here is what he settled upon:

The resulting slides from his talk were posted to his blog, where it unexpectedly went viral. Striking a chord with creatives around the world. This new found 10-point manifesto for creatives resulted in his book: Steal Like An Artist. It’s a beautifully simple book with captivating sketches and brilliantly structured for easy reading. It’s so momentum enducing that I read it immediately, in an hour or so, resulting in pages of notes and priceless ideas and motivation.

In honour of his work, I’ve stolen his manifesto and used it for my Organized Thinking stack. Here are his ten points with a short summary of each:

1. Steal like an artist.

“Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal”

When you look at the world this way, you stop stressing about what’s “good” or “bad”—there’s only stuff worth stealing and stuff that isn’t.

2. Don’t Wait Until You Know Who You Are to Get Started

You’re not suddenly going to wake up one day and know what to create. "What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original. Learn your craft by stealing from all your favorites, replicating their work while adding your own a twist.  Keep making terrible things until you start getting good.

3. Write the book you want to read

Don’t write what you know; write what you like. Write the story you want to read. If you find something you quite like but it didn’t hit the finale you thought it should. Why not steal it and rewrite it the way you wanted. Whilst starting my first 30-day writing sprint I always wished I had a book to reference for how I should do it. So I wrote it. If you’re looking at just getting started and finding your voice. Write your story.

4. Use Your Hands

“We don’t know where we get our ideas from. What we do know is that we do not get them from our laptops.” —John Cleese. Your hands are the original digital devices. Use them. Find a way to bring your body into your work. Sketch, paint, speak your words aloud like a talk.

5. Side Projects and Hobbies are important

If you have two or three real passions, don’t feel like you have to pick and choose between them. Don’t discard. Keep all your passions in your life. “You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.”—Steve Jobs

6.The Secret: Do Good Work and Share It with People

When you’re unknown, there’s no pressure. You can do what you want. Experiment. Do things just for the fun of it. You’ll never get that freedom back again once people start paying you attention, and especially not once they start paying you money. Enjoy your obscurity while it lasts. Use it.

7. Geography Is No Longer Our Master

Surround yourself with books and objects that you love. Tape things up on the wall. Create your own world. Speak to people from different cities, countries and continents. Trust me, you’ll learn more speaking to people from different cultures than you ever learnt from reading about them.

8. Be Nice (The World Is a Small Town)

You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with. Create your own town. Follow the people who are way smarter and better than you, the people who are doing the really interesting work. Pay attention to what they’re talking about, what they’re doing, what they’re linking to.

9. Be Boring (It’s the Only Way to Get Work Done)

Amassing a body of work or building a career is a lot about the slow accumulation of little bits of effort over time. One page a day is not much. But do it for 365 days and you have enough to fill a novel. You might have to blend being interesting with being boring to create things worthwhile.

10. Creativity Is Subtraction

To get over creative blocks, place some constraints on yourself. When it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom. I’ll speak about this more in the chapter titled “Want to be free? Limit yourself”.

Don’t feel guilty

The reason I named this article ‘Honor Amongst Thieves’ is because theft, in the name of creativity, is a noble pursuit. The difference between plagiarism and inspiration is very clear. Plagiarism is directly publishing work someone else did trying to pass it off as your own. Inspiration is honoring the existing material and turning it into something new.

I want you to approach creation from now on with this article in mind. If you’re unsure how to start look at how I’ve written it. Reference your inspiration, tell stories about them, steal from many sources, add your own distinct innovations.

“When people call something ‘original,’ nine out of ten times they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved.” - Jonathan Lethem