Do Successful People Regularly Lie, Cheat and Steal?


Cheating at the Weekend

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:

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

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  1. You don’t have to be successful by stealing. I think it depends what you mean by success; success as in accomplishing something for yourself, or success in being able to find a window of opportunity and taking the decision to take it. Some people would even go far as to call this “luck” (The Luck Factor by Richard Wiseman). One example that he uses which figuratively sticks in my mind is in an experiment. Two people go into a restaurant to order a drink. In both cases, £5 has been left on the pavement. One person takes it and when they enter the cafe, begin a conversation with someone inside. The other person doesn’t take the £5 note and sits in the cafe alone. Wiseman says the person who took the £5 and begins the conversation is lucky because she is constantly taking opportunities to meet new people and accept bits of good fortune.

    He conducted another experiment. In this one, several people were asked to each pick a magazine (all of which were identical) and count all the pictures in the magazine. If they correctly counted the pictures, they would get £10. On Pg.10 there was an article saying “There are 43 pictures in this magazine, show this to Wiseman for £100” – the people who saw this and took it were seen as luckier. What’s the point in considering yourself lucky? Well people who consider themselves lucky, apparently feel happier financially, relationships, work-wise, and in general life.

    Basically, this comes down to a philosophical argument of what is the right way to live, and in that respect, if you were walking down the street and saw £5, would you take it? What about 10, 20, 50, or even more? At what point does it become wrong?

    Lance Armstrong took steroids to benefit himself and no-one else. But if you do something which makes you look like the good guy then it looks so much better. Or what if you’re constantly facing disappointment and failures wherever you go and suddenly, a window of opportunity arrives and you take it. Not by back-stabbing people to make yourself look good but because you want to change things. That’s the thing about all these people. They created change and that is what matters when it comes to success.

    If you want to be like any successful person “Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steve Jobs, or Chris Jericho if you know who that is” then you have to take opportunities, you have to not quit, but most important is you have to be different. Society has this system which conforms everyone into clones, and the ones who don’t conform are the ones who make the changes and succeed. All that matters is if you can make those changes as someone rising up against the odds rather then someone making changes by holding everyone else down.

    This is why I love wrestling so much. Since all the results are scripted, you can analyse the wrestlers and what they do. Why are you cheering for that wrestler in the match? Why are you booing another wrestler? And who wins? Because when the person you’re cheering for wins you know that things are changing right now, but if the person you’re booing wins, then things stay the same.

    It’s like if Manchester United constantly wins. You need a new team to take the opportunity to but new players and build a better team so a change can begin. Otherwise life isn’t very interesting if there aren’t any changes.

    If you can’t make sense of what I’m saying, I apologise for rambling. If you understood even 10% of what I was trying to say, could you reply?

    • This is a great reply, Ollie. I love when something I post gets people to write such long comments.

      You said a lot and I’m going to try to reply to your main points.

      First off, I think I know what studies you’re referring to when you talk about luck. If I remember right, the people who consider themselves lucky will see the money on the ground and the ad in the paper. It’s not that they’re actually lucky, it’s just that they’re more observant. That’s the big point about being lucky. With that comes a lot of opportunities. I wrote something about this in another post

      I remember watching a video by Derren Brown where he was trying to get this point across to someone. He had a truck drive past him several times with a giant ad on the side with his name on it telling him to call a phone number. He never saw it. I think you can find the video online somewhere if you’re interested in seeing it.

      So a lot of success does come from just taking opportunities. How many we see and how active we seek them out is up to each person.

      I think you make a lot of great points about being different or non-conformist. People who make a huge difference in the world usually are the ones who defy the norm. They do things radically different. In the end it changes things for the better. Of course doing things differently doesn’t always mean doing things better. But people rarely change the world by doing what everyone else is doing.

      Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of those people who always did things differently. That could be why he’s achieved so much.

  2. When I was in high school, one of my teachers harped on the fact that there are no original ideas. Everything has been thought of before. What my sixteen-year-old self didn’t understand at the time was that while everything might be variations on a theme, how we develop that theme allows us to put our unique stamp on it.

    IMHO the difference between Lance Armstrong and say Thomas Kinkade, who also uses a lot of other artists and then makes a few brush strokes on all his “originals,” is that the latter is upfront about it. He never says that he painted every stroke. Not only did Lance blatantly break the rules, he flat out lied about it. It is the deceit that angers me, and I would assume others as well.

    • I’ve heard teachers tell me that before. Supposedly there are no new stories, only new ways to tell those stories. Have you ever read anything by Joseph Campbell or know some of his stuff? He did a lot of work into myths and how they’re structured. From what I understand of his ideas, the same structures for stories have been around for thousands of years. All we do is just change around a few things here and there to tell those stories a little differently.

      I think you have a point about people being upfront about what they do. If you’re open and honest about what you’re doing, you can avoid a potential backlash later.

  3. You just blew my mind. Those examples were all new to me.

    Something you don’t discuss, but where I also think there is a gray area, is other areas of cheating. Stealing isn’t the only way to cheat. You can also, say, deceive.

    I’d say in the majority of cases, successful marketing requires deception – some form of exaggeration or tidying over of the negative. Is the deception bad? Oh boy… another complicated question.

    Going back to stealing, I’d say people don’t steal often enough. There’s already such a great foundation available, (for all sorts of things – stories, ideas, strategies) and yet so many people needlessly start from scratch.

    • You could expand this into things like marketing or PR work. It’s all how you present ideas and figures. When is deception considered good or bad? Where’s the line that can’t be crossed?

      Those are tough questions.

      You’re right that there is a foundation for so many things. Why start from the very beginning? I’ve seen way too many people try to come up with radically new ideas or ways of doing things when they could just jump off from some other people’s ideas.

  4. You make a great point, the line between what’s completely wrong and what is ignored is thin when it comes to stealing/cheating. It has a lot to do with what you first hear. If a lot of people say Lance Armstrong is a terrible athlete because he doped up then you’d have that impression as well. But imagine if the people around you just let it go then you wouldn’t make it a big deal either. Same with the guys who are still revered even though their history is well-known. But then that makes you wonder about the line that started the chain (or avoided it) in the first place.

    Just speculating but perhaps a lot of the judgment comes from “I can see myself doing that too if I were in that position” vs “No way would I ever do that.”

    If the situation presented itself and I was an artist, maybe I would take ideas from others. It’s harmless. No one will know. But if I’m an athlete? I could ruin my body and I’d be ruining other people’s chances for success when they earned it the hard way. That’s where you subconsciously begin to figure out what to judge.

    • There is a lot of room for judgment on this issue. While I think most people have come down hard on Lance Armstrong, I don’t doubt that there are those who don’t see anything wrong with what he did.

      I’m sure there are those people who base their judgments by what everyone else is saying around them. That happens quite often. So what we decide is ok or not could be influenced by popular opinion. It’s hard to say.

  5. Steve! Fun and thought provoking post, man. I am about as close to a misanthrope as one can be without going all the way, so I fall hard on the realistic/not so bright side of matters when it comes to humans. Having said so, adding value to something borrowed is a real skill. But using someone else’s work without any attempt to make it one’s own is unacceptable. As a composer and blogger, if someone were to quote me or elaborate on one of my themes, I’d be very pleased. Now, cheating and stealing and lying are words that have heavy, negative connotations too. These adaptations in our evolutionary past helped our species into the 21st century. So look on these skills as we may with such contempt, they have served us very well.

    • They do have negative connotations, but at the same time they have helped us. Like with my example of the wheel. Taking the idea from each other helped it spread quickly which was a good thing.

      On the other hand, it’s bad to steal someone’s individual work. I’ve had people take full posts from this blog and present it as their own.

      I’ve had people write posts inspired by or expanding on what I’ve written. That’s what I love to see.

  6. I’m with you on the disgrace of Armstrong but recycling ideas, especially in art, to create something new is just the creative process.

  7. I don’t want to believe that stat about lies on resumes and job applications, but I know it is true – and is something I coach folks on every week. You are dead on – originality IS overrated (and nothing is new anyway)so taking something that already exists and doing it even better (add value) is a great way to think about it.

    • Yeah, it’s a tough stat isn’t it? There was another one I almost included too – 70% of recent college grads admitted they would lie on a resume or job application if it was for a job “they really wanted”.

  8. My husband is a musician and, as he says, “there are only twelve notes.” At some point, intentionally or not, someone is going to borrow or steal. But, like your point about Shakespeare, that is often done intentionally and to put their own stamp. Stick with music and right off the top there’s Barry Manilow (stop laughing, please) sampling Chopin’s “Prelude in C Minor” and Billy Joel sampling Beethoven’s “Sonata No. 8 Pathetique.” Steinbeck alone used lines or phrases from the works of other authors for his titles — Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, and Winter of our Discontent all hail from someone else’s work. And his Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights is one of countless versions and interpretations of Arthurian Legend. There are countless versions of the German folktale of Faust. The lists go on and on. We describe writers, painters, sculptors, singers, etc. as doing their work “in the style of” or “with clear influence from…” Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? Using others’ work for inspiration is not a bad thing – what author wouldn’t want to get that nod? Outright plagiarism is a different thing. But like Peter said, borrowing and creating a new spin is all part of the creative process.

    Some of those Simpsons episodes, by the way, are awesome. The one with Poe’s “The Raven” is a favorite.

    • That’s a really funny point. Shakespeare took a lot of stories and plots from other people. And later writers took lines from his plays to make titles for their books. From there, who knows where people will take it.

      You’re right that intentionally or not, someone will borrow or steal something you’ve done. There’s only so many stories to tell or music to be made. Personally speaking, I’ve written a post or two only to see someone else writing on the same topic a day later. It was entirely coincidental.

      Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. When someone is taking parts of your work, that’s a sign you’re doing something right.

      By the way, the Simpsons version of “The Raven” is a favorite of mine too. I’m a huge Edgar Allan Poe fan so it’s fun to watch them do that poem.

  9. I am sure there will be a lot of different opinions on the subject.
    My point of view on this is the following: if you broke the law and misled people like Lance Armstrong, you are a cheater. There are no other words to describe that.
    If you used someone else’s ideas to create a new concept, that is not really cheating or stealing.
    For example, Robert William Kearns was an American inventor who invented the intermittent windshield wiper systems and won one of the best known patent infringement cases against Ford Motor Company & Chrysler Corporation.
    He had invented and patented the intermittent windshield wiper mechanism, which was useful in light rain or mist, and tried to interest automakers in licensing this technology. However, the above auto makers rejected it, yet began to install intermittent wipers in their cars. You know the rest of the story if you watched the movie “Flash of Genius”.

    • I haven’t watched that movie before, but I’m curious about it. So the car companies took his patent and didn’t reimburse him? That’s not right.

      You do make a good point about breaking the law. That’s usually an indicator that you’ve done something unacceptable. But even then some people are willing to look past all of that. Think about Mark Zuckerberg. What exactly did he steal from the Winklevoss twins? There was some shady things going on there, but he’s still widely respected. Also consider that Led Zeppelin refused to give credit to many of the songwriters they took songs from.

  10. I guess this is when patents, copyright, etc came into play – when people wanted to protect their ideas.

    But these can take us only so far.

    I agree with other folks here that have commented that the ‘stealing’ depends on the application and benefit – straight up rip-off, or totally personalised?

    There is an awesome, detailed post (and comments) on Erika Napoletano’s blog on how her stuff was copied and the aftermath of her finding out:

    • I just read that link. Yeah, that was a straight-up rip-off. That’s taking someone’s work and presenting it as your own; that’s not right. That’s why copyrights are so important.

  11. Fantastic point.

    I’m currently reading “From Dawn to Decadence” which tells the cultural history of the western world from 1500 to the present. The most interesting aspect of the book are the similarities in thought that repeat themselves in different forms, often times 10s or 100s of years apart. No good idea occurs in a vacuum and it’s only through the iteration and discussion of ideas that they mature and spread into mainstream culture.

    Often times, it’s not the first person who comes up with an idea that gets the credit and goes down as THE GUY in history books. That’s because most truly virgin ideas are so outlandish and novel at the time of their creation that they may be rejected well beyond the lifetime of the originator. By the time these ideas have been refined and put into practice, very few people remember their seed.

    I don’t know the point of this, but I feel like it resonates with the message of the article. We all stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. Nobody starts off original. Of 6 billion people, only a handful will ever become THE ONE. But, that doesn’t matter because great achievements are usually collective and even those great thinkers of our time got their foundation from the great thinkers of the past.

    Your first idea may not be 100% original and maybe not your second, but that’s not the point. The point is that you are developing your ideas, infusing your personal experience, and furthering what you believe to be a valuable message.

    • What you said reminds me of a story I read about. A teacher and student were talking and the student asked why they kept reading books by people who lived a long time ago since we know so much more than they did. The teacher responded by saying we know so much more because we’re building off what they’ve already learned.

      Ideas do come in and out of fashion through history. We build off of them and expand into new areas – that’s the key. We keep the good ideas and get rid of the bad ones.

  12. Hello Steve! What an interesting post. I know that cheating has benefits for many species, but I know we humans have made rules and laws to try to get a handle on it. Using someone else’s work without giving them credit is easy to call – not good, not good at all.

    I am, however, a thief. Teachers are a thieving bunch. You see a master teacher doing a great lesson, you want to replicate it. We don’t borrow lessons, we steal them and use them for to benefit the students. Teachers are also (usually) good about giving credit where credit is due. I have had many great mentors who I give credit to for some of my best lessons. While I put a lot of my own spin on lessons I use in my tutoring, most of it is “stolen” and tweaked depending on the student.

    Thank you for such a unique post!

    • Haha, I know all about teachers being thieves. When I was getting my master’s degree, I had a lot of teachers tell me to just steal lesson plans or things off the internet. The line stopping us was copyright though. We wouldn’t infringe on that.

      Sometimes you have to do that too since you’re often under a time crunch. You have to just take something someone else made and tweak it into something of your own.

  13. This is a really interesting post man. I love how you integrate history into your content.

    I read a post a while back called “Every Artist Is A Thief” by AJ Leon. An he’s right…every artist has to steal to some degree.

    There is indeed that gray area where good and bad are blurred. But I think as long as a person is ethical about it, it is okay.

    If someone tweaks or adds value to an existing piece of work then they are utilizing there own creative mind. There not solely relying on the individual there taking it from.

    It’s natural to be influenced by others. I know for a fact I’m influenced by other bloggers. But as long as I stay true to my own creative roots I know I can’t go wrong.

    • We all have influences especially when we’re creative. Those are the people we learn from. I’ve been influenced by a lot of writers, both bloggers and other writers and I try to emulate them. It’s not exactly copying what they’re doing, but taking some of the things I think they did right in their style and tweaking them into something of my own.

  14. I guess you could say that I’m stealing the idea from the Choose Your Own Adventure books with my interactive stories website (linked at my name instead of my better known Deep Existence blog). But I’m also expanding on the initial great idea and doing things quite differently than the famous children’s books ever did. I think this is the ideal role that “stealing art” has in society.

    If you’re going to take an idea, expand on it and make it better than before.

    You mentioned Lance Armstrong and a few other “cheaters.” It’s interesting to think that some famous and inspiring success stories right now are unknown cheaters.

    Personally, I think I have too much pride to steal. I tend to think that I’m good at coming up with new ideas, so the thought of “stealing” another’s idea outright isn’t appealing to me. That said, I’ve accidentally done it. BJ Fogg is known for his “tiny habits” philosophy, and I had been teaching it for months when I found out he said it first.

    Really thought-provoking post, Steve!

    • I think if you do enough creative activities, you eventually do something someone else has already done. That’s not necessarily stealing. I know that I’ve written things before and later realized that I had read it somewhere else, but just forgot. It wasn’t my intention, but I guess you could say I stole it.

  15. A old proverbs says “there is nothing new under the sun.” While this is true, we can add our personal thoughts and ideas to a idea or topic. Making it unique because each person is created differently. Great thoughts man!

    • It’s all about the spin we put on to our creative activities. We’re all taking things from each other which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s all about what we do with it once we take it.

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