Sometimes, it is better to steal than borrow

So then, what do I mean by that title?

First off, I’m thinking in terms of music and the arts (actually, it could be any pursuit where you use others ideas). In this context, borrowing is simply taking an idea, not changing it in any way, and using it for your own work. If I was doing this in a musical context, other musicians and listeners would hear it and say, “ah, there’s that Beatles lick.” You haven’t put anything of yourself into in and it’s recognizable, but it’s lifeless because you didn’t inject any of your own personality into it.

However, the goal as musican or artist is stealing ideas and making them your own. This is where you add something of your personality to the idea, thereby making it yours and rendering it unrecognizable–at least somewhat if not 100% unrecognizable. This is renewal, and nothing in this life grows without it.

In this case folks would hear what I played and say, “that’s a very ‘Miguel’ thing to do.” If pressed, the more knowledgable folks would say that I was definitely influenced by the Beatles, but that wouldn’t be the first thing out of their mouths.

Chuck Berry once said, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” What he means by this is every musician uses ideas from those who went before them. There’s no avoiding this, and it’s actually very healthy for the evolution of the art form or whatever field you’re working in.

However, if all you’re doing is mimicking those who came before you and not adding anything of your own personality or preferences to the conversation, that does not move things forward. It doesn’t help things evolve and progress. This I call borrowing. In a way, this works against nature, as the only constant thing in our lives is change. If we want to live a full life we have to renew what came before us so we can give it new life and it can be passed on to future generations.

On a personal level, I have to watch out for wearing influences in my sleeve, and making my influences too obvious to read.

This is, on one hand, a natural part of the development process. As a beginner, you start out by mimicking your influences. Then, as you develop, you inject more of your own personality into the mix so you sound more and more unique, and more…well…you. On the other hand, these types of ideas eventually can become lifeless and stale if you don’t inject your own personality into it.

I feel strongly that our jobs as humans is to ‘pass it on’. Whatever it is that we care deeply about (family, relationships, your vocation, etc.), our job is to pass it along to the generations that follow us. If all we do is borrow ideas, renewal is in jeopardy, mostly because we haven’t injected any life of our own into it. Yes it can be a thing that some folks value–it might even be a popular thing–but it’s a dull, lifeless thing, and it doesn’t move things forward.

However, if we steal ideas–and by so doing make them our own–we renew them. We give them new life and there is a much better chance it will live on in future generations.

So then, to recap: borrowing = bad, stealing = good. What could be more intuitive? 😉 OK, it IS counter-intuitive.

My overall point here is that it is critical to inject your personality into the ideas you work with. This gives the ideas life and they are then more likely to have meaning to both the current and next generation of folks who are doing what you are doing.

I’ll close with a story I heard secondhand: a friend of a friend, Roger Kunkel, was in a band called Thin White Rope. They had done a cover of a song by the influential German rock group Can. One day, Roger met one the principal songwriters from Can (I think it was Holger Czukay) and he mentioned that they had done a cover of one of Can’s songs. Holger then asked, “Is it recognizable?” And Roger said, “no.” To which Holger said, “good.”

Thanks for reading. Cheers!

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