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Let's Learn How to Steal Better

Learn-How-to-Steal-BetterIn 2006, a friend explained to me that nearly every song in recorded music history — everything I'd ever heard on the radio or loaded onto my then 2nd-generation iPod — had been stolen from somewhere else.

Everything? I asked. How is that even possible?

Then he sent me a video of an Australian guy playing four chords — E, B, C-sharp minor, and A — over and over. Then he started singing No. 1 hit after No. 1 hit. They all synced up perfectly with those four chords.

http://youtu.be/8s13sASS5F4

And it clicked for me. All this time, we've just been taking the same old stuff and remixing it. The most creative people in today's world aren't necessarily the ones breaking new ground. Oftentimes, they're the ones stealing from the greats and turning that old stuff into something of their own.

Here's an example: My favorite Red Hot Chili Peppers song of all time is "Under the Bridge." The band's lead guitarist, John Frusciante, admits that part of the song was ripped off from a T-Rex song called, appropriately enough, "Rip Off."

http://youtu.be/xZNgRn2054Y

Let's look at the world of tech. I've got an iPad in my house. But what's an iPad but a slightly bigger iPhone that doesn't make calls? And isn't the iPhone just an iPod that makes calls?

http://youtu.be/RyWSEwKPo8s

Apple isn't breaking new ground with these devices — they're just tweaking them for new use cases.

Or say you're watching a football game this weekend. You might spot an NFL team running a quarterback out of the pistol formation. (For the uninitiated, the pistol is where the quarterback lines up a few yards behind the center with the running back behind him.) The pistol's just a mashup, too: It's a mix of the shotgun formation and the “I” formation.

You can see remixes in politics. The Affordable Care Act — President Barack Obama's health insurance law — is an adaptation of a law initially introduced in Massachusetts. Romneycare begot Obamacare.

The designer Frank Chimero realized — rather brilliantly, I might add — that even Chuck Norris is a remix. Because what is "Walker, Texas Ranger" but a combination of the Wild West (sheriffs and bandits) and the Far East (martial arts)?

The point is, we don't have many originals anymore. We adapt, we blend, we remix.

And yet, I find myself fighting it. I know I'm not alone. There's something about being first that drives us to break new ground. It makes us search for territory we can call our own.

But there's nothing wrong about these remixes. "Under the Bridge" is a great freaking song. The iPhone changed the way we think about the telephone. The pistol offense is less than 10 years old, but it's being used by teams at all levels of the game. Obamacare is going to insure millions of Americans.

I believe we spend too much time trying to come up with the next big thing. What if, instead, we spent more time looking back at what worked — and what we can learn or adapt from those things? What if we spent more time remixing?

Today, instead of trying to build something brand new, do yourself a favor and take a look around your world. Write down a list of things that you love. And next to each thing, write down what you love about that thing.

Then go through the list and mash them up. See what happens when you take two things from two different worlds.

Maybe the next big thing is already right there, just waiting for you to put one and one together to make something great.

Hey, it worked for "Walker, Texas Ranger," didn't it?

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