Why I don't want to steal your ideas

NB: This was a piece that grew out of a conversation with Nora Bateson last year, where we spoke about the phenomenon of nurturing an idea, a project, a piece of work, or art, and having it be replicated by somebody else. The article was meant to be written as a dialogue, but when I started to write I couldn’t stop. Which is funny because it kind of illustrates the whole energy of “taking”. Well. Living and learning…

Are ideas ours to keep?

An idea starts as a seed. A seed inside of a person, informed by every of their life experiences up to that point in time, every interaction, every spark, idea, emotion, blended into intuition. An intuition of how things could be, something that could come into being, a new way of doing things.

 Ideas are personal. They also have a lot of vulnerability, especially in the journey from the internal to external world. We don’t know if this seed will survive. If we cast it out into the world, to face the winds and weather external forces, opinions, systems, judgements and reality, it may not find right soil to germinate. It may just disintegrate.

What is even more vulnerable is to share an idea with others. But without sharing, the seed will go into dormancy. When you cast this seed out, it allows it to take up new materials: nutrients, water, information, energy. We have to let them go, in order to let them grow. It’s a delicate balance: how long to keep it in its tender, germination phase, as it comes into being? When is the right time to assign words to this idea, or put it down in writing? Language is limiting. To define in rigid language is to limit a being. To freeze something moving, evolving, flowing, in time.

However: without a form, substance cannot evolve. There is a quickening, a boundary that is reached, as the time comes when the formless establishes boundaries, gradients, edges and reaches a moment of crystallisation. Like the very first stage of an embryo. Now there is form, the form can evolve. And as your idea takes shape, it will evolve. Deep in the recesses of your subconscious as it bumps up against other ideas, forms, experiences.

As you begin to talk about this being, held inside of you, your priority is to ensure its viability. At the same time, a space is being held for growth, change and evolution. A careful balance of entropy and order is held. As you are questioned, challenged, these external forces help you crystallise the form, bring the edges into focus. There may be large disruptions, and it is up to you whether your idea and inner world can reach new equilibria. To ignore the new information coming in and to focus only on protection is to tend towards decay. To allow too much disruption and disequilibrium risks a tendency towards chaos.

It’s been a delicate process. This seed comes from a part of yourself. You’ve been careful, you’ve wished to protect it, and then you’ve also trusted, moved into vulnerability, sharing something precious!

So then it happens: someone ‘takes’ your idea. Punch in the stomach. Ugh. Unfortunately ideas are ephemeral - it is simple to create a copy, without the original idea holder noticing a thing. Something strange happens to the energy around the idea. Something has been breached. And a trust broken. How could you be so stupid? But to let go is to let grow. You took a risk and the risk backfired. There is another seed now germinating and could be taking up the same resources as your own. Aha: Nature sets in, red in tooth and claw. Time to compete! And compete you will, because your seed, as the “fittest”, will survive.

Of course, we want to stay connected, or attached to our ideas. Like a seed, they are created from our own substance.

But are ideas only ours to keep? An idea is an amalgamation of others and society at large — through conversations, other’s ideas, influences, maybe beyond conscious awareness. It may even be that someone else’s idea lodged itself deep inside you, and germinated with inputs of your own. No-one lives in isolation, and so ideas and seeds are born not in isolation.


Back to the seed: it’s a harsh world out there. And we know this already — we grow up with the mantra that the very operating system of life is based on competition. The phrase, “survival of the fittest”. not even Darwin’s himself, is the one that took hold in our society.

 Survival of the fittest is not written in high school text books of politics, or sociology. It’s written in biology. This is how life works. If you want to be alive, you compete. If you stop competing, you die.

Perhaps the right route for an idea is for it to enter the lively battleground of competition, scarcity of resource, and “stealing”. It’s very likely that somebody else could actually execute your idea better than you. If we look at ideas, like the lifeless cold genes at the heart of Darwin’s evolution, then the aim of the game is survival and replication. Does it matter which human is attached to it in the process? The best vector wins.

But. What if there’s more to life than survival? What if we were wrong about evolution, and life thrives on collaboration, cooperation, co-evolution? What if, instead of “stealing” your idea, I put out a signal into the battlefield, that together we might be stronger? What if instead of eating you and digesting you, your cell enters mine and sets up camp and incubates inside? What if we could both win? What if we create a mosaic that’s so damn beautiful that we create new lifeforms together?  

What if, instead of the priority being survival of the idea — a meme, a concept, a piece of information, like the fragments of DNA Darwin isolated too, the priority is in fact the human, and the idea is seen as inseparable to this whole human being?

A person is a system of systems, and an idea or a project is inextricably interdependent on the dynamic flows moving through a person’s life. To reduce a person’s work, projects, and ideas to a part that can be separated from their whole is missing out on the whole complex entangled mess and beauty of life. What are we on this planet for? Is it to ensure the survival of the fittest ideas? Or is it to ensure the thriving of whole living beings, in systems, together? What is the price we pay when we narrow into reduced experience of purpose, and life?


So, I say: take the idea. Run with it. There is no right and wrong. In fact, for the sake of the idea, it’s best that we all get a little bit less attached to our work, and take a colder attitude to these things: whoever can execute best, takes the prize.

But let’s not forget, there could be another way.