A friend sent me a text the other day with this Oscar Wilde quote - "Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation."
I have a problem with it. Everyone is other people. It's not a bad thing. It's fact. First, we're our parents. Often, we're our friends. We're influenced every single day by everyone we collide into. It is the definition of education, economy, politics, social media, and the in-between.
Okay, maybe I'm being defensive. I love me some quotations.
But the fact remains that most people should be other people. Austin Kleon captured this idea perfectly in his book Steal Like An Artist. No art is original, he argues, it is a collection of past influences. And just as he writes about stealing as integral to the creative process, Kleon made a great blog post with other people's thoughts on the subject here and then more here.
We're all influenced by the world we absorb. Why wouldn't we grab and steal from everything around us? It's amazing!
My hunch is we don't admit this because there is still some lingering thought that stealing is bad and only original stuff is good. False. We don't exist in a vacuum on Earth. We can't. We're just unique mixes of the stuff we've experienced.
Quentin Tarantino is a great example. Although most people chalk up his genius to a quirky sense of humor and an encyclopedia-like brain, there is so much more to the process. Tarantino redefined cool. He created a cornucopia of cool. He grabbed from the best bits of some long-forgotten or never-seen movies. I sat down to re-watch Pulp Fiction the other day and the digging I did back in college with Tarantino's films came rushing back. The glowing briefcase is taken from the film noir Kiss Me Deadly. What Marcellus Wallace says he is going to do to Zed (the "hillbilly" who rapes him) is almost a direct quote from Charley Varrick. The stabbing of Mia Wallace with the adrenaline shot has a very striking resemblance to the slashing shower death in Psycho. Even Jules, the well-dressed gangster played by Sam Jackson, is a name taken from the French New Wave film Jules et Jim.
Tarantino even gets to a point where he references his own movies by tweaking his style in Kill Bill. You can see it for yourself in this amazing excerpt of Everything is a Remix.
What's even more personal are the references Tarantino grabs from the tidbits of his own life. Tarantino told Creative Screenwriting Magazine that he had heard the Sicilian story during a party years before he wrote it so ex-cop Clifford Worley (Dennis Hooper) would insult gangster Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken) with it in True Romance. Tarantino stashed it away in his brain as a great story to tell until he knew where to drop it into his own creation. And, boy, does it make a beautifully tense scene!
(If you haven't seen it, enjoy it here. Or, hell, watch the whole movie. It's a trip!)
You don't need to know the references to watch the films or know they're cool. In the end, it only matters to Tarantino himself. It is his creative process and it makes the movie for him. Everything is built upon itself and the value grows.
And it's not just Pulp Fiction. Or Kill Bill or True Romance. Or even Tarantino.
Comedian George Carlin was prolific and hilarious up until his dying day. And one could argue what made him so good was that he could open our eyes to every bit of daily life and tease us to see it from the most absurdist, elemental angle.
How did he do it? He gathered gems.
Of his writing process he said this:
"What I do is, I collect my notes. I have about 1,300 separate files in my computer – they change from week to week, because I combine or expand files – and they are 44 years worth of collecting thoughts, notions, ideas, pieces of data, and material. Anything I think might have promise for my writing sometime in the future goes on a piece of paper, and that becomes a stack of papers, and that gets a topic title. The scientist is at work with the little artist – he’s got a scientist buddy – and this guy’s indexing things and figuring out categories, and that stuff goes in the computer. And every time you see it, touch it, look at it, or think of it, it gets deeper in the brain, the network gets deeper, and at some point, it gets to be a telling mass that says to you, “OK. Take a look at this now. This is gonna be funny. You got enough data, take a look at this.” So I’m drawn to something and start writing about it, and then you really start writing, and that’s when the real ideas pounce out, and new ideas, and new thoughts and images, and then bing, ba-bam ba-boom, that’s the creative part."
The beauty is it's not just about creativity. There is a choice. You're collecting value all the time. You're asking friends for doctor recommendations and copying celebrity hairstyles. You're sharing silly Buzzfeed articles and ripping wedding invitation designs from Pinterest. You're re-telling jokes and cooking from grandma's recipes.
But don't get it twisted, this is not about being other people. This is about being you. We are social creatures creating something new. Author Matt Ridley makes it clear when he speaks about the computer mouse in his TED Talk: When Ideas Have Sex. He claims there is no single person on this planet that could make a computer mouse as we know it. You would need to know how to run an assembly line of machinery to cut and mold and assemble the plastic and metal just to create the casing. You would even need to grow and brew the coffee necessary to even undergo the endeavor!
The world is a product of human collaboration. Or, in other words, Ridley says, "What we’ve done in human society through exchange and specialization is we’ve created the ability to do things that we don’t even understand."
No one else can be you because you're everyone else you know. Forget the endless pressures of imagining you need to do it all yourself. Steal from the greats. Steal from your loved ones. Steal from yourself. And without even noticing you can give back in inexplicable ways.