I generally like to look on the bright side of things. There is good in everyone if you just look closely.
At the same time I try to be a realist. As good as people are, they sometimes do some really unethical things.
I once read that 53% of all resumes and job applications contain falsifications – everything from misleading dates of employment to degrees listed that were never actually earned.
It seems like a week can’t go by without a sports doping scandal.
This wouldn’t be such a problem if people were always found out. But cheating must work to some extent otherwise people wouldn’t do it.
The Long Winding Road
Of course, just because some successful people lie, cheat and steal their way to the top doesn’t mean you should take this path as well.
A path like that can lead you to disaster.
Lance Armstrong was a hero to many for years, until his drug doping use was uncovered. The same goes for Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds.
In the past four years, bloggers discovered two German politicians had plagiarized most of their doctoral dissertations. As a result, their PhDs were revoked and they were forced to resign in disgrace.
You can look at these examples and argue that the answer is clear: cheating and stealing doesn’t pay.
But like most things in life there is always a shade of gray and the answer to this question is no exception.
There are countless examples of people who have cheated and stole their way to success.
What these people have done is common knowledge. Yet people love them despite what they’ve done.
Look at these examples:
- William Shakespeare stole most of his stories from other writers.
- Thomas Edison had staff working on new designs and technology. When they made something, he took all the credit.
- Led Zeppelin took a lot of songs wholly or partly from other songwriters without giving them credit.
- Artists from Andy Warhol, Damien Hurst to Rembrandt had others actually create the paintings. When they were finished, all they did was sign it before selling it.
- Many early episodes of The Simpsons were plots pulled right from science fiction, TV shows, musicals or movies.
There are so many more examples I could include here.
People know they’ve done this. Even if you didn’t, you still would probably look past what they did and still think they’re awesome.
Into the Gray Area
So why are some cheaters like Lance Armstrong reviled while others like Led Zeppelin remain beloved?
A fine line separates the two.
What matters is the value people add.
It is true that Shakespeare stole his stories from other writers. It’s also true he retold those stories in extremely beautiful and poetic ways.
Let Zeppelin stole a lot of material, but they transformed it in a new, exciting rocking way.
Nobody cares that Warhol or Rembrandt had artists do their work. People loved the work they were creating.
Each of these people could get away with what they did because they added so much great value in the end.
A writer can steal the general outline to a story as long as they add enough new, exciting fresh things to make it uniquely awesome.
People will often look the other way on a piece of art if the artwork itself is transformed into something they love.
The reason people don’t like Lance Armstrong now is because they suspect he would never have achieved what he did if he hadn’t doped up.
The same goes for those German ministers caught plagiarizing their PhD dissertations. They took someone else’s work directly with nothing added of their own.
If they had just been influenced by that work instead of taking it outright, they would never have got into trouble.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but some real good can actually come out of these activities.
Stealing is often how ideas spread. People see someone doing something a certain way and they copy it. It’s easily the fastest way to spread good ideas – and good ideas everywhere benefits everyone.
Think about it this way:
When our earliest ancestors invented the wheel, it spread because everyone else copied it. Imagine how long it would have taken if we all had to invent it one by one.
Eventually someone who stole that idea decided to add value to it. They put a couple wheels on the side of a box and presto – a cart was created. A great idea was made even better.
It’s a good idea to watch what others are doing and copy what works. Just make sure to add value to them to make those great ideas even better.
Remember – stealing someone’s work outright is wrong.
It’s good only when you can use it to jump off into something new and uniquely awesome.
That distinction is extremely important.
Being a good stealer is something great writers and artists have known for a long time.
Just look at this quote: “Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.”
I thought it was attributed to T.S. Eliot, but I also saw similar quotes attributed to Pablo Picasso, Aaron Sorkin and Oscar Wilde.
Apparently they all kept stealing the quote from each other and adding their own twist to it. Now I can’t even find out who originally said it. I guess that fact makes the point stronger than the quote ever could.
What are your thoughts? Where would you draw the line between when it’s good and when it’s bad?
photo credit: Nick Watts