How to Steal and Get Rich

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My eight year old daughter is crying right now.  She’s trying to draw manga-style comic book figures. “The eyes look stupid!” she says, “and the arms look flimsy!” My oldest tries to calm her down, “Mollie, I’m three years older than you. Thats why my characters look so good,” she says, but somehow that doesn’t work and it doesn’t help when my oldest says, “Mollie, guess what, I finished drawing on the whole pad? Aren’t these pretty?”

I tell my youngest, “Mollie, look on the Internet and see how other artists do their eyes and arms. I bet there are some Manga artists who even have videos on how to do it.”

She says, “but that’s copying. I don’t want to copy. I refuse.”

So I tell her my favorite quote from Picasso, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” And my oldest says, “that would mean HE  stole.” And I tell her that’s right but still my youngest refuses to listen. She says, “I don’t want to copy.  I want to do something completely original.” But that’s impossible. Just about every idea worked on now is a result of the following recursive formula:

NI(X) = NI(1) + NI(2 )+ NI(3)… + MI

Where “NI” = “new idea” and NI1, NI2, etc equals various new ideas as of yesterday. And “MI” which could be a tiny component of the whole equation, is “My improvement”. Which, again, might be minimal, or zero, at best.

Examples:

–         telescope.  Galileo stole the telescope. He took the original invention by Hans Lippershey, made it a bit longer and more powerful and gets full credit 400 years later for the invention.

–          telephone. Who invented the telephone? Well, Alexander Graham Bell  of course? But only after the looked at the failed patent Antonio Meucci filed in 1874 (Meucci was too poor to send in the $10 patent charge. So…patent denied. Enter Bell).

–          relativity. Einstein stole part of the theory of relativity from Poincare. Poincare published countless papers on relativity that Einstein had studied before his own first book on relativity. Einstein cited hundreds of sources but didn’t mention Poincare once. Do the research but there are several instances of direct plagiarism in his initial book on relativity.

–         Search.  Google. Not quite a “steal” in the sense of the above but the entire concept of a “search engine” was dead and over by the time Google hit the scene. My little story on this: A company called “Oingo” came calling one of my partners one day in 2000 or 2001. I forget which year, that’s how little impact it made on me. They were working on some algorithm for matching ads with web pages on search engines, or something like that. They needed funding badly. We almost could’ve named our price. I said, because I was the resident genius, “No way. Isn’t the entire search engine business dead?” Somehow they survived, changed their name to Applied Semantics and were bought by a tiny search engine company with no revenues called Google. The Oingo algorithm became “Adsense” which accounts for 99% of Google’s revenues. The Applied Semantics deal would’ve been worth about $1bb – $2bb by now. Suffice to say, Google built on the backs of everyone from Lycos to Oingo to Altavista, etc.

–        Superman.   “Captain Marvel”, which was first put out by Fawcett Comics in 1940 was of course a direct ripoff of “Superman” and yet became very successful.

(check jamesaltucher.com to find original image intended for this spot).

And Superman himself may have been a plagiarism of sorts. 5 years before the first “Superman” came out, Jerry Siegel (Superman’s creator) reviewed the book “Gladiator” about a boy growing up in rural America who had super powers.

(check http://jamesaltucher.com to find image intended for here. An image i stole, by the way)

Siegel claimed in 1940 that Gladiator had not been an inspiration. He did not at that point note his 1932 review of the book.

–         Decl of Independence. Thomas Jefferson directly plagiarized John Locke when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. James Madison even admitted later: “The object was to assert, not to discover truths.”

–          Chess. Bobby Fischer learned Russian when he was 14 years old so he could steal ideas from the Russian chessplayers in the magazine “64”. He used those opening ideas to win the US Championship at the age of 15 in the mid 1950s.

–          Art. Roy Lichtenstein directly stole from the cartoon strip “True Romance” to repackage and then resell for (now) millions.

(check http://jamesaltucher.com to see image that was supposed to be here)

–         Star Wars. Whether you call it inspiration or plagiarism, George Lucas took ideas from everything from Taoism to Asimov’s Foundation series, to Joseph cambell, Greek Mythology, King Arthur, etc.

Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut said he “cheerfully ripped off” the plot of Brave New World for his novel, “Player Piano”- and Aldous Huxley, in turn, stole it from Eugene Zamatian’s We

Groupon and every other business. Almost all current successful internet businesses are the result of lifting (and improving) the ideas from past businesses. Groupon is a direct descendant of the failed Paul Allen company, Mercata (remember?). Facebook (remember Geocities? Or, heaven forbid, Tripod). And why didn’t the “World Wide Web Worm:” succeed (the first search engine that I can think of).

Comedy. In standup comedy, stealing (or improving on) routines has been common. Robin Williams was constantly accused of this early in his career and his reply was that he was so stream of consciousness he sometimes had no idea where the ideas were coming from (i.e., they were coming from his friends even minutes after their acts). Bill Cosby has admitted stealing some jokes from George Carlin, Rosie O’Donnell was known to borrow from Jerry Seinfeld early in their careers. Sam Kinison has accused Bill Hicks of joke thievery who, in turn, has accused Denis Leary of stealing parts of his routine.

–  3AM. I personally think Comedy Central’s show “Insomnia” is somewhat a ripoff of my III:am idea for HBO (particularly since I pitched the idea to Comedy Central first).

Unfortunately, stealing is not a shortcut to success. Stealing is THE ONLY PATH to success.

How do you steal?  Try this.

–          Pick a field you are passionate about: whether its blogging, romance novel writing, comedy, internet entrepreneurship, art, cooking, cancer research, etc.

–          Read everything you can about the field. Here’s what you have to read minimally:

  • At least the history of that field from 1800 on. Try to read at least 10 different sources on the history
  • All of the latest blogs in the field. Try to have 100 different sources here.
  • All the basic techniques the current leading experts in the field use. Read all of their biographies or autobiographies.

–          Pick your five favorite sources in the field. For instance, if I wanted to write a novel: I’d pick my five favorite novelists. If I wanted to start a business in “local Internet” I’d pick my five favorite local Internet companies. If I wanted to blog, I’d pick my five favorite bloggers. If I wanted to be a management consultant, I’d steal directly from Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, etc.

–          Get one element that you like from each source. What element do you think stands out that makes them a success.

–          Add your own improvement. Or not. You can even start out with a direct copy and throw in your twist at the end.

–          Ignore all the haters.  The more people hate you, the more money you will make. Trust me on that.

I’m hoping Mollie grows up and learns how to be just as good a thief as her dad.

Related posts:

HBO and prostitutes at 3 in the morning, my best job ever.

Advice I wanted to give my daughters last weekend

Breakdancing and Mastery of the Universe

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  • Kurt

    Steal seems like a harsh term for the examples in this story.  How about why try to re-invent the wheel? Was there any copyright or patent stolen, thus potential monetary damages? It doesn’t seem so. 

  • Mike in the East

    Life is rare in the universe. These findings ought to cause people to reevaluate the glasses with which they view the world – particularly those of presupposed naturalism…. Check every assumption.

  • Fubar

    If you can appeal to something that people “care about”, their “buy in” is easier to obtain.

    If you had explained in minute details the engineering behind .NET and interoperability of MS applications, and the technical interfaces, they would have been horrified.

    You genius was presumably in understanding what they cared about.

  • Fubar

    are you really asking someone in the finance business that question? lol.

  • Fubar

    this was more or less the original meaning of “memes”.

  • Fubar

    re: “used to estimate the number of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations… ”

    Ok, so what are the actual number of estimated detectable extraterrestrial civilizations – according to the formula?

    Back to the main topic:

    Not only is innovation increasing, it is a great potential danger according to some of the leading visionaries:

    Bill Joy, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems, wrote an article years ago (in Wired magazine?) about how Artificial Intelligence, Nanotechnology and  Genetic Engineering were far more of a danger to near future society than Nuclear/Biological/Chemical weapons in the hands of failed states/terrorists or similar.

    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html

    A recent version of the same basic concern:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_joy_muses_on_what_s_next.html

  • http://www.facebook.com/penny.dawe1 Penny Dawe

    James I know just what you mean. You are so right! Have you heard of the Bragg equasion?  Shared nobel science prize 4for electric x ray thing. No idea what it means. Diamnd light at Harwell owes something to Willie and Sir Lawrence Bragg. Grandpa’s inteligent side of the family!! I also have lost wallets and ids repeatedly. Last Sunday I hit the jackpot in London and managed to have my whole handbag sntched. A Gladstone one at that! Passport, Camera, Mobile or cell a so called smart one my whole life gone in a second at a Bus stop!! I just had to suck it up and feel totally humiliated and exhausted by CRIME in London where I used to feel so Safe. What is wrong with Britain, England, UK ?Have you got any helpful opinionor advice for me please?!

  • http://twitter.com/Justbennett Justbennett

    Avatar = Ernest Goes to Camp

    Think about it…

  • Adrian M

    you can add Facebook to your list of ‘thieves’ hehe

  • http://www.conorneill.com Conor

    This helps me get started.  Thanks ;-)

  • Tomaž Ščavničar

    In the same but official way works the education. Read articles, meet inventors and evolve or adjust it for your or current problem situation. Not bad to represntin it like a thief way evolving :)

  • Garrett Burke

    I definitely steal content from your blog on the regular. People thought I was genius, until I couldn’t bear the weight of the guilt having stolen your genius. That coupled with the fact that looking back I told people to go to your blog to read the rest of what you’d written cause your a frickin genius.

    So yea, actually strike the guilt part. it was an accident I spilled my secret. SHIT.

  • http://twitter.com/jhowardconsult James Howard

    Another great entry James and I appreciate you taking the time to provide examples from numerous fields and backgrounds. I also feel that taking the time to research your topic or product of interest gives you a stronger understanding in the ability to dissect.

    I’m a huge believer (and you have probably touched on this) that having a variety of “lens” opens up so many opportunities for you. I recall spending time studying film theory, digesting some Campbell 101 and reading articles on corrupt media plugs and scheming corporations within the same time frame of a couple of months.

    Following that nesting period I was beginning to open myself up to dissecting all forms of media, interactivity, architecture, environment, people and anything really! I wasn’t good at dissecting anything very accurately or expertly at first but being able to point out little references here and there in “so that’s where those plot devices came from” or “that building style seems familiar, could said architect have been inspired by…” was enough to get me started on the habit. Habits… are a good thing. 
    I also found that most of my circle of friends didn’t like that I could not just leave things alone or “let them be”. I’m currently re-evaluating my five closest friends as we speak knowing that the company I keep is going to affect my progress in this life.

  • Bork

    Someone has to have invented all these stuff first right? I know your daughter will invent something. It wouldn’t necessarily be something useful or something that will put her in the encyclopedia or some other thing that is important to people but I’m sure she will invent something original. It is actually pretty easy. It may sound egotistical but I sometimes get kicks when I see a movie or a drawing or even a way of looking at life from popular people and I know I came up with the same idea way before I’ve seen their version. But fame is shit, and the only thing important (imo) is it’s partner, wealth.

    So invent all your worthless original stuff on your own time and steal all the money-making ideas during business hours.

  • marlow

    Leibniz actually predated him on the discovery of the subconscious, but Leibniz was focusing on physics and philosophy not psychology so no one noticed. I’m not sure if Freud intentionally stole from Leibniz, but I’d be very surprised if Freud never studied him at least (especially since they were both German).

  • Mohamad

    Awesome article man!

  • Joseph cotton

    The author’s punctuation is often incorrect. Periods and commas are ALWAYS placed inside “quotations.” Not like “this”.

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