[May 24, 2020] An Army Colonel once told me that his path to success had a lot to do with him stealing good ideas from others. Initially, I was shocked. But I realized that we all steal ideas all the time; we call this learning. We take the ideas of others, make them our own, and integrate them into our memory and thinking process.
I came to understand the word “stealing,” in the Colonel’s comment, was a bit amorphous and fluid. He did not mean stealing copyrighted material, or their identity, or even taking the idea to give himself credit. What he meant by stealing was to take a good idea to make it his thinking better, stronger, and more resistant to defeat.
“We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.” – Steve Jobs
A good friend of mine, a very successful businessman, taught me a lesson that I will never forget. He said that your most unhappy customers are your most significant source of learning. They tell you where you lack in your service, as well as never asking anything else in return. My friend said that you should never be ashamed of asking them why and taking their wisdom to heart. It is not stealing but becoming a wiser man.
And yet, there is no end to education. It is not a book well-read, an educational degree awarded, or a life finished. Learning is forever. It is what distinguishes the animal from the human. We “take” ideas, and that includes terrible ideas that assure failure and misery. That is still learning. Make no mistake about it; wisdom is not served up quickly; it is dirty, hard, unceremonious work. Those that give us ideas, intentionally or not, are part of us as leaders, and we should be thankful.
In the early game of American football, it was a version of rugby until the forward pass was introduced with a rule change in 1906. The pass changed the way football was played forever. Gridiron American football has evolved the game and was the result of an idea that was “stolen” from a player in 1876. Perhaps the word “borrowed” might be a better choice of words. Regardless of what we call it, the idea of the forward pass was worth introducing into the game to make it faster moving and more entertaining.
Fairness, as some will undoubtedly argue, suggests giving credit to one’s idea source. Naturally, we cannot grant credit for everything as the root of these ideas in the past is frequently forgotten. Absorbing the ideas of others does not “take” or embezzle them away as those people still have their ideas. This act of stealing a good idea is what learning is about and will always be about.