Just recently I re-read Steal Like An Artist, a fantastic book on the art of stealing ideas and being creative. And how the two concepts are not too far apart. In fact, they both sort of need each other in a way. Musicians are inspired by other musicians, and artists are inspired by other artists. So you can think of every creative idea as a combination of many stolen concepts. But for this to work, we'll have to change the way we feel about the word steal.
art is theft - Pablo Picasso
This also applies to our technical world. We steal everyday for the most part. A web designer wouldn't be very good unless they have spent a substantial amount of time looking at other websites and web designs. Except that in this case we don't call it stealing. We call it inspiration.
thin line between theft and inspiration
But there's a right way to steal. A stealing that's unnoticeable and beneficial to everyone. A stealing that shows respect to the originating source and that produces something useful and meaningful in the end. So let's discuss that today.
Steal from everyone
Don't just take an idea from one source and copy it in the hopes that you'll strike it rich. For a few reasons. For one, it's pretty boring, as you're not really thinking and or being creative with it. And secondly, it's of no use to anyone, as it already exists. But now take that one idea, and combine it with this other neat thing that you a while ago, and remove the features that you thought were too boring. Now it's getting interesting.
Keep track of other bits of technology that you find interesting and caught your attention. Whether it be a blog post or a news article or a new website that just came out even. Keep a page somewhere on your laptop or notebook for these type of inspirational ideas. Think of it like fishing in the ocean. If you take a crab and a lobster and a tuna fish, it's fine, you can make very fine dinner. You can be creative with the preparation. But now go to the beach and bring back a sack of seaweed. Your options are now limited.
It already exists
Many times we talk ourselves out of building something because it's already been done. We Google it, see 1 or 2 sites that for the most part do the same thing and we move on. It was still your own idea however. It popped into your mind, along with how it works and the gears and such and it got you excited. Then you went ahead and Googled it, and your energy went along with it. This is different than the steal that exact idea scenario, because technically you were unaware of the stealing in this case.
Whatever idea you may think that is unique, is not. Maybe it's configuration is unique to some extent. But for the most part it is built upon the combination of multiple already existing parts. So you can't create something that's completely unique, at least not in this particular dimension.
If a painter has the aha moment that they want to go ahead and paint a cabin in the woods, but this time they'll make it different! They're going to add a rabbit and a deer somewhere into the mix. Nope, already exists. But they're going to paint it anyway, because why not. The initial energy or aha! if you will is still there, and that's what sets stealing and creativity apart just enough for it to make sense.
Make it personal
Now make it personal. Put your own twist on it. Everyone knows what a search is. It's a texbox, followed by a list of links. There isn't much that you can do to not steal the concept on this one. But you can modify it a bit and add a feature that you want to see. The algorithm will be your own. The way you store data will be your own.
This blog for example has many unique features that you probably won't find on other blogs. Some aren't even blog related, but they were built anyway, because fun. Which brings my next point.
Have fun with your heist
Before you go ahead and steal an idea and make it your own, make sure it's an idea that you want to steal. Our time is limited, so we must plan our heists accordingly. Have fun with your work. No painter ever painted what they hated. Unless they were going for that, which, is possible in the painter world. But it's not in the programmer world. So steal fun ideas. Ideas that are tough and challenging and will take you places.
Code is art
Programming is a new type of art form. Because it is built up of many past iterations and influences, either from code you found online or from previous mentors and teachers. Any project begins with an idea. Your mind then gets to work in building up this idea, one line of code at a time. You'll hover around a certain area as you try to perfect it. You'll add new elements all over the place putting the whole thing together. And in the end, a user will see it the final masterpiece and they will get an experience out of it.
So visit cool websites and take notes
and the next time you see something that you find interesting online, steal like an artist.
Did you find this article helpful?
Stay up to date with my weekly coding tips!
Walter G. is a software engineer, startup co-founder, former CTO of several tech companies and currently teaches programming for a coding bootcamp. He has been blogging for the past 5 years and is an avid BMX rider, bio-hacker
and performance enthusiast.