Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal


Photo Credit: Factory at Horto de Ebro, 1909 by Pablo Picasso

One of the tenets of knowledge management, when I joined the field 10 years ago is “there is no need to reinvent the wheel.”

Great minds spanning from various centuries took a different spin to it. But the essence is the same.

Charles Colton, an 18th century English cleric, once said – “Imitation, is the sincerest form of flattery.”

One of the great artists of the 19th century, Pablo Picasso said – “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

Fast forward to the 21st century when we were witness to the genius of Steve Jobs – “We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”

I am not sure which came first though – when Steve Jobs first said the above, or when my high school crew and I were a bunch of skinny 15 year olds.

A friend from high school, who is now a successful professional in the investment banking industry, has this mantra – “It is better to cheat than to repeat.” Our crew, shamelessly (albeit in hushed tones), has adapted this mantra, and we have built ourselves successful careers in consulting, medicine, and other industries.

The titans of industry call this – the imitation strategy. And let me “steal” this one, with permission, from Bro. Woody Quiroz, who shared this in one of his talks at the Feast.

“South Korea became an economic power by resorting initially to an imitation strategy. They eventually introduced innovations in their products that made it more superior than the products they imitated.

This is true in the case of Samsung which early on imitated the products of Sony and Sharp. By eventually introducing their own innovative ideas to their products, Samsung has overtaken Sony and Sharp to become a global leader in home appliances.”

Wow! In a macro perspective, copying do have an upside. (Pardon the economic terms, I am an economist by training.) In a micro perspective, I can tell you it does.

There was a time when I was in high school, during an exam, I copied 80% of the answers of my seatmate, who was my seatmate by design because he was our salutatorian. And you know how this story ends – I got a higher grade.

Going back to the Samsung story, the 20% was my “innovation”. The essay part of the examination has always been my strongest point. And I got a better score there than my seatmate. That is why I got the higher grade.

As what was shared by Bro. Woody at the Feast – “If you want to win, you need to copy winners.”

But, we need not copy mindlessly. We need to be smart about it.

“Do not copy proclivity, copy perspective. Do not copy personality, copy productivity.”

To end, copy winners – and create your own version of success!