Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Innovation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Doers and thinkers from Shakespeare to Jobs, liberally “stole” inspiration from the doers and thinkers who came before. Here’s how to do it right.

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“If I have seen further,” Isaac Newton wrote in a 1675 letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke, “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

It can be easy to look at great geniuses like Newton and imagine that their ideas and work came solely out of their minds, that they spun it from their own thoughts—that they were true originals. But that is rarely the case.

Innovative ideas have to come from somewhere. No matter how unique or unprecedented a work seems, dig a little deeper and you will always find that the creator stood on someone else’s shoulders. They mastered the best of what other people had already figured out, then made that expertise their own. With each iteration, they could see a little further, and they were content in the knowledge that future generations would, in turn, stand on their shoulders.

Standing on the shoulders of giants is a necessary part of creativity, innovation, and development. It doesn’t make what you do less valuable. Embrace it.

Everyone gets a lift up

Ironically, Newton’s turn of phrase wasn’t even entirely his own. The phrase can be traced back to the twelfth century, when the author John of Salisbury wrote that philosopher Bernard of Chartres compared people to dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants and said that “we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.”

Mary Shelley put it this way in the nineteenth century, in a preface for Frankenstein: “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.”

There are giants in every field. Don’t be intimidated by them. They offer an exciting perspective. As the film director Jim Jarmusch advised, “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.’”

That might sound demoralizing. Some might think, “My song, my book, my blog post, my startup, my app, my creation—surely they are original? Surely no one has done this before!” But that’s likely not the case. It’s also not a bad thing. Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson states in his TED Talk: “Admitting this to ourselves is not an embrace of mediocrity and derivativeness—it’s a liberation from our misconceptions, and it’s an incentive to not expect so much from ourselves and to simply begin.”

There lies the important fact. Standing on the shoulders of giants enables us to see further, not merely as far as before. When we build upon prior work, we often improve upon it and take humanity in new directions. However original your work seems to be, the influences are there—they might just be uncredited or not obvious. As we know from social proof, copying is a natural human tendency. It’s how we learn and figure out how to behave.

In Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Taleb describes the type of antifragile inventions and ideas that have lasted throughout history. He describes himself heading to a restaurant (the likes of which have been around for at least 2,500 years), in shoes similar to those worn at least 5,300 years ago, to use silverware designed by the Mesopotamians. During the evening, he drinks wine based on a 6,000-year-old recipe, from glasses invented 2,900 years ago, followed by cheese unchanged through the centuries. The dinner is prepared with one of our oldest tools, fire, and using utensils much like those the Romans developed.

Much about our societies and cultures has undeniably changed and continues to change at an ever-faster rate. But we continue to stand on the shoulders of those who came before in our everyday life, using their inventions and ideas, and sometimes building upon them.

Not invented here syndrome

When we discredit what came before or try to reinvent the wheel or refuse to learn from history, we hold ourselves back. After all, many of the best ideas are the oldest. “Not Invented Here Syndrome” is a term for situations when we avoid using ideas, products, or data created by someone else, preferring instead to develop our own (even if it is more expensive, time-consuming, and of lower quality.)

The syndrome can also manifest as reluctance to outsource or delegate work. People might think their output is intrinsically better if they do it themselves, becoming overconfident in their own abilities. After all, who likes getting told what to do, even by someone who knows better? Who wouldn’t want to be known as the genius who (re)invented the wheel?

Developing a new solution for a problem is more exciting than using someone else’s ideas. But new solutions, in turn, create new problems. Some people joke that, for example, the largest Silicon Valley companies are in fact just impromptu incubators for people who will eventually set up their own business, firm in the belief that what they create themselves will be better.

The syndrome is also a case of the sunk cost fallacy. If a company has spent a lot of time and money getting a square wheel to work, they may be resistant to buying the round ones that someone else comes out with. The opportunity costs can be tremendous. Not Invented Here Syndrome detracts from an organization or individual’s core competency, and results in wasting time and talent on what are ultimately distractions. Better to use someone else’s idea and be a giant for someone else.

Why Steve Jobs stole his ideas

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it. They just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while; that’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” 

— Steve Jobs

In The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World, Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman trace the path that led to the creation of the iPhone and track down the giants upon whose shoulders Steve Jobs perched. We often hail Jobs as a revolutionary figure who changed how we use technology. Few who were around in 2007 could have failed to notice the buzz created by the release of the iPhone. It seemed so new, a total departure from anything that had come before. The truth is a little messier.

The first touchscreen came about almost half a century before the iPhone, developed by E.A. Johnson for air traffic control. Other engineers built upon his work and developed usable models, filing a patent in 1975. Around the same time, the University of Illinois was developing touchscreen terminals for students. Prior to touchscreens, light pens used similar technology. The first commercial touchscreen computer came out in 1983, soon followed by graphics boards, tablets, watches, and video game consoles. Casio released a touchscreen pocket computer in 1987 (remember, this is still a full twenty years before the iPhone.)

However, early touchscreen devices were frustrating to use, with very limited functionality, often short battery lives, and minimal use cases for the average person. As touchscreen devices developed in complexity and usability, they laid down the groundwork for the iPhone.

Likewise, the iPod built upon the work of Kane Kramer, who took inspiration from the Sony Walkman. Kramer designed a small portable music player in the 1970s. The IXI, as he called it, looked similar to the iPod but arrived too early for a market to exist, and Kramer lacked the marketing skills to create one. When pitching to investors, Kramer described the potential for immediate delivery, digital inventory, taped live performances, back catalog availability, and the promotion of new artists and microtransactions. Sound familiar?

Steve Jobs stood on the shoulders of the many unseen engineers, students, and scientists who worked for decades to build the technology he drew upon. Although Apple has a long history of merciless lawsuits against those they consider to have stolen their ideas, many were not truly their own in the first place. Brandt and Eagleman conclude that “human creativity does not emerge from a vacuum. We draw on our experience and the raw materials around us to refashion the world. Knowing where we’ve been, and where we are, points the way to the next big industries.”

How Shakespeare got his ideas

Nothing will come of nothing.”  

— William Shakespeare, King Lear

Most, if not all, of Shakespeare’s plays draw heavily upon prior works—so much so that some question whether he would have survived today’s copyright laws.

Hamlet took inspiration from Gesta Danorum, a twelfth-century work on Danish history by Saxo Grammaticus, consisting of sixteen Latin books. Although it is doubtful whether Shakespeare had access to the original text, scholars find the parallels undeniable and believe he may have read another play based on it, from which he drew inspiration. In particular, the accounts of the plight of Prince Amleth (which has the same letters as Hamlet) involves similar events.

Holinshed’s Chronicles, a co-authored account of British history from the late sixteenth century, tells stories that mimic the plot of Macbeth, including the three witches. Holinshed’s Chronicles itself was a mélange of earlier texts, which transferred their biases and fabrications to Shakespeare. It also likely inspired King Lear.

Parts of Antony and Cleopatra are copied verbatim from Plutarch’s Life of Mark Anthony. Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet was an undisguised template for Romeo and Juliet. Once again, there are more giants behind the scenes—Brooke copied a 1559 poem by Pierre Boaistuau, who in turn drew from a 1554 story by Matteo Bandello, who in turn drew inspiration from a 1530 work by Luigi da Porto. The list continues, with Plutarch, Chaucer, and the Bible acting as inspirations for many major literary, theatrical, and cultural works.

Yet what Shakespeare did with the works he sometimes copied, sometimes learned from, is remarkable. Take a look at any of the original texts and, despite the mimicry, you will find that they cannot compare to his plays. Many of the originals were dry, unengaging, and lacking any sort of poetic language. J.J. Munro wrote in 1908 that The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet “meanders on like a listless stream in a strange and impossible land; Shakespeare’s sweeps on like a broad and rushing river, singing and foaming, flashing in sunlight and darkening in cloud, carrying all things irresistibly to where it plunges over the precipice into a waste of waters below.”

Despite bordering on plagiarism at times, he overhauled the stories with an exceptional use of the English language, bringing drama and emotion to dreary chronicles or poems. He had a keen sense for the changes required to restructure plots, creating suspense and intensity in their stories. Shakespeare saw far further than those who wrote before him, and with their help, he ushered in a new era of the English language.

Of course, it’s not just Newton, Jobs, and Shakespeare who found a (sometimes willing, sometimes not) shoulder to stand upon. Facebook is presumed to have built upon Friendster. Cormac McCarthy’s books often replicate older history texts, with one character coming straight from Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confessions. John Lennon borrowed from diverse musicians, once writing in a letter to the New York Times that though the Beatles copied black musicians, “it wasn’t a rip off. It was a love in.”

In The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem points to many other instances of influences in classic works. In 1916, journalist Heinz von Lichberg published a story of a man who falls in love with his landlady’s daughter and begins a love affair, culminating in her death and his lasting loneliness. The title? Lolita. It’s hard to question that Nabokov must have read it, but aside from the plot and name, the style of language in his version is absent from the original.

The list continues. The point is not to be flippant about plagiarism but to cultivate sensitivity to the elements of value in a previous work, as well as the ability to build upon those elements. If we restrict the flow of ideas, everyone loses out.

The adjacent possible

What’s this about? Why can’t people come up with their own ideas? Why do so many people come up with a brilliant idea but never profit from it? The answer lies in what scientist Stuart Kauffman calls “the adjacent possible.” Quite simply, each new innovation or idea opens up the possibility of additional innovations and ideas. At any time, there are limits to what is possible, yet those limits are constantly expanding.

In Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson compares this process to being in a house where opening a door creates new rooms. Each time we open the door to a new room, new doors appear and the house grows. Johnson compares it to the formation of life, beginning with basic fatty acids. The first fatty acids to form were not capable of turning into living creatures. When they self-organized into spheres, the groundwork formed for cell membranes, and a new door opened to genetic codes, chloroplasts, and mitochondria. When dinosaurs evolved a new bone that meant they had more manual dexterity, they opened a new door to flight. When our distant ancestors evolved opposable thumbs, dozens of new doors opened to the use of tools, writing, and warfare. According to Johnson, the history of innovation has been about exploring new wings of the adjacent possible and expanding what we are capable of.

A new idea—like those of Newton, Jobs, and Shakespeare—is only possible because a previous giant opened a new door and made their work possible. They in turn opened new doors and expanded the realm of possibility. Technology, art, and other advances are only possible if someone else has laid the groundwork; nothing comes from nothing. Shakespeare could write his plays because other people had developed the structures and language that formed his tools. Newton could advance science because of the preliminary discoveries that others had made. Jobs built Apple out of the debris of many prior devices and technological advances.

The questions we all have to ask ourselves are these: What new doors can I open, based on the work of the giants that came before me? What opportunities can I spot that they couldn’t? Where can I take the adjacent possible? If you think all the good ideas have already been found, you are very wrong. Other people’s good ideas open new possibilities, rather than restricting them.

As time passes, the giants just keep getting taller and more willing to let us hop onto their shoulders. Their expertise is out there in books and blog posts, open-source software and TED talks, podcast interviews, and academic papers. Whatever we are trying to do, we have the option to find a suitable giant and see what can be learned from them. In the process, knowledge compounds, and everyone gets to see further as we open new doors to the adjacent possible.