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Unintentional plagiarism - your ideas belong to everyone

"Ideas are worthless, execution is everything!" It's the mantra of the modern entrepreneur. And yet we all do feel quite possessive of our ideas - at least of our best ideas.

Great ideas do seem to float around. Sometimes, they seem to do so magically, bridging gaps that seem uncrossable. But the reason why it looks magical is not because other people are telepathically stealing your thoughts, but because they weren't your ideas to begin with - at least not in the way we usually think of the concept.

Allow me to illustrate with two examples.

Stealing an article without knowing it

Accusations of plagiarism fly around every once in a while on the web. Sometimes they are warranted, sometimes not, but they are always emotional. And sometimes, things look like one party is clearly culpable, even though that's not actually the truth!

On Friday afternoon, Dan Shipper tweeted me the following message:

@swombat I really admire your blog and I wrote a post I think you might like. Would love your thoughts: http://bit.ly/wiyxaj :)

It was Friday afternoon, I was busy, out and about. I clicked on the link, had a quick glance through the article, and mentally filed it "to read later". Sometimes I get back to these articles, sometimes I don't (but my intention is actually to reply to people who tweet me!). It went out of my mind, I went about my day.

In the evening, I was trying to think up of an inspiring topic for the following Tuesday (my current plan is to structure my postings so that Mondays are practical advice, Tuesdays are inspiring, etc.). I wracked my brains. I thought about it while falling asleep... a title emerged... "Write your own story".

This morning, as I thought more about it, I liked the title. I saw a direct connection with this Paul Graham article, which states:

This leads us to the last and probably most powerful reason people get regular jobs: it's the default thing to do. Defaults are enormously powerful, precisely because they operate without any conscious choice.

I felt I could write a good, solid and at the same time inspiring article around this theme, of figuring out what your own "defaults" are, and changing them, and achieving improvement in your life patterns this way. Bingo. I started writing. I felt inspired. The idea was powerful, good, worth sharing.

Then my how to register a company in the UK article suddenly took off, and I took a break as someone called Oliver Cross engaged me with useful feedback about that article. While I was looking at my Twitter replies, I reopened Dan Shipper's article. My jaw dropped. Let me quote you an extract from his (rather good) article:

Default settings are all around us. Why do we go into work at 9 AM instead of 8 AM? Why do sales people work on commission? Why do we have an 8-hour work day?

The fact is that very often there are no good answers for why these default settings exist, they just do. And not only does that create a great deal of waste in a business environment, it also leads people to certain misconceptions about what is and isn't possible that are simply false.

Given the existence of our default settings, one of the most important questions in our lives then is: Why do we do the things that we do?

Holy shit.

If I'd gone on and written this article, and published it, then by today I would have been accused of plagiarising his article (that I hadn't even read all that carefully). And it would have looked very much like I was completely guilty - even though I was completely unaware of it. I read something like 50 articles a day (including the quick skims). There is absolutely no way for me to track every idea in my subconscious and where it came from.

Obviously, knowing that now, I won't finish writing it. Instead, I warmly encourage you to check out Dan's article, titled Why we do startups.

Subconscious pick-up

I watched a second example of this on TV a few days ago. Derren Brown, the famous hypno-showman who likes to play with out minds, gave a striking example of how actively our brains suck clues from our environment.

He took two advertising professionals, and asked them to draw up an advert, in half an hour, for his idea to start a chain of taxidermy (aka stuffed animals) stores. Before leaving, he placed an envelope containing "his ideas" under a stuffed cat, then let the pros get to work.

In half an hour, the pair wracked their brains and came up with a clever concept involving a bear playing a harp, with a logo of angel wings, the name "Animal Heaven" and the strap line "The best place for dead animals". Derren then pulled out his own "ideas", and they were, of course, strikingly similar.

How did two creative professionals do something so predictable? Well, it turns out Derren had peppered their environment, particularly on the cab journey to the shoot, with repeated cues that ended up in the advertising concept. He had basically primed their subconscious to generate those ideas. Since they are competent creative professionals, their subconscious is probably very efficient at picking up all the best ideas from their environment, and using those in their work.

Critically, the two victims were completely unaware that they had been so duped. If you'd asked them, they certainly would have claimed they came up with the ideas on the spot - and they did. The interesting experiment that Derren Brown didn't do would have been to take two pairs of creatives through the process simultaneously, and see how they reacted to finding out that they had come up with the same ideas. Would they have accused each other of plagiarism?

Your ideas

Of course, not all the ideas in your head are similarly arising in other people's heads.

However, the best ideas in your head, the ones that have the best potential for making a great startup, or project, or other venture, are probably there because your environment contains cues that lead to those ideas. And since you're not alone in that environment, they're not going to be just in your head, but in the heads of a great many people.

There are two takeaways from this.

First, if you see someone with an idea that's uncannily similar to yours, don't automatically assume they actively stole it from you. They may have been working from the same set of cues, or even have glanced at your idea and forgotten about it, and later imagined it again "on their own". Chances are, you did exactly that, too - so you have no moral right over there, even if they were inspired by your idea.

The second is, if you have a great idea, an idea whose time has come, chances are there's a million people who have had the same idea, a thousand who are actively planning how to implement it, and a dozen who have started the project already. This doesn't mean the idea is worthless, but it does mean that any great idea will face stiff competition. So don't worry about "keeping your idea secret". It was never a secret to begin with.

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