I do not know exactly when the Old Testament was written.
But as early as that time, Solomon already wrote “there is nothing new under the sun.“ (Ecclesiastes 1:9) Didn’t he anticipate that 2,000 years later, the world will be filled with so many inventions ?
Maybe he did. But just like Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like An Artist, he believed that “Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas.“ Kleon said in his bestselling book that our own styles are a result of our failed attempts to copy our heroes. " Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives. That is how we evolve. "
"Conan O’Brien has talked about how comedians try to emulate their heroes, fall short, and end up doing their own thing, Johnny Carson tried to be Jack Benny but ended up Johnny Carson. David Letterman tried to copy Johnny Carson but ended up being David Letterman. And Conan O’Brien tried to be David Letterman but ended up Conan O’Brien. “
Kleon also noted “Kobe Bryant has admitted that all of his moves on the court were stolen from watching tapes of his heroes. But initially, when Bryant stole a lot of those moves, he realized he couldn’t completely pull them off because he didn’t have the same body types as the guys he was thieving from. He had to adapt the moves to make them his own. “
“Stealing” from your heroes is not the same as plagiarizing other people’s work. In plagiarism, you reproduce something exactly like the original and claim it to be your own. To “steal” like an artist, you just get the inspiration and then create your original. Perhaps, you make your idol “enter your spirit” while you do your thing.
Kleon wrote, “Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.“
Don’t worry, you will not become an exact replica. Your own style will emerge because no two individuals are exactly alike.
In the book The Element, Sir Ken Robinson quoted Paul McCartney who narrated how he and John Lennon started on their journey to greatness. McCartney said “we were just copying and imitating everyone. I was Little Richard and Elvis. John was Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. I was Phil from Everly Brothers and John was Don. We just imitated other people and taught each other.”
Roger Von Oech wrote this book that I now consider to be my Bible on creativity. It’s entitled A Whack on the Side of the Head. He taught that one of the techniques to stretch your imagination is to imagine how great people would do your work. For example, how would Walt Disney run a school if he was the principal?
When I was a young advertising copywriter, my work partner Mario Monteagudo was well-known for his own style. But to come up with more ideas, he revealed to me that he imagined how five legendary advertising men would write the copy or approach the art direction. So, he always had at least six great ways to respond to one job order.
Mario won Ad of the Year awards for many years in succession, earned the Lifetime Achievement Award and is considered by many as one of the best ever in the profession.
My idols in painting and illustration are Henri Matisse and Ken Done. I tried to imitate their art before my own style evolved in time for my two art exhibits. Today when I admire other people’s work, I feel recharged and excited to paint again because I know new styles and techniques to steal from.
No person was born already equipped with the ability to speak. We all learn by copying. I think that to be able to find our own genius, we have to admit to ourselves that there is so much to learn (and copy) from people greater than us, those who came before us and even those still alongside us.
Former American President Woodrow Wilson said, “I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.“
Executips is a career advice column by Robert Labayen. He was a former Managing Partner and Executive Creative Director in an advertising company. He eventually moved to the country's largest media network where his job involves inspiring people to be their best. He's also a writer, painter, and songwriter.
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