Viewpoint: The Ownership of Ideas

Where do you begin when you seek to stoke your imagination or fuel your curiosity? Personally, I seek out big ideas and bold action being taken by others – and one great place to find a LOT of those is TED. For anyone unfamiliar, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, and the organization boasts what is perhaps the largest repository of “ideas worth sharing” to be found anywhere on the Internet.

It has been a long-time dream of mine to share the TED stage, and I am humbled to say that I have been invited to deliver a TEDx talk at the upcoming TEDxQuinnipiacU on April 30th. I will be presenting one of the core ideas that is foundational to our work and vision at A Tipping Point. 

That said, the purpose of this post is much more important than a promotion for a talk that may or may not leave me in a flop sweat reminiscent of another Ted (from the TV show Scrubs).

As part of the preparation process for giving our talks, each speaker is receiving coaching on content and delivery, which in this case includes the analysis and fact-checking of statements we intend to make. A couple of days ago, I received the results of that research. The main conclusion: that the concepts at the heart of my presentation, while largely new to the public, are not “my own”.

Before I go any farther, let me express my sincere appreciation for the individual(s) who took the time to dig into my content, deep enough even to find origin points I was unaware of. It was impressive and informative.

Now, when I first read those comments, I will admit that I panicked a bit as my old frenemy Imposter Syndrome flared up (*side note – who knew that “frenemy” was officially added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary??). Although I was unfamiliar with several of the resources the researchers had found, I began to wonder whether everything I had to say was derivative.

Thankfully, amidst that moment of panic and self-doubt, a clear thought cut through.

Of course it’s derivative – all ideas are.

There has never been an idea that exists independent of thousands, probably millions, of others. The ideas we have been exposed to, combined with our lived experience, form the foundation of our unique worldview. That is not to say, of course, that there is no such thing as a new or original idea – although it is probably safe to assume that most ideas have occurred to others who may or may not have taken a different path to arrive at a similar concept. Rather, it simply means that the formation of a novel idea is really just a new way of processing existing information and connecting existing neural pathways and concepts. In fact, this is almost exactly how Head of TED Chris Anderson describes ideas.

It is for precisely this reason that deploying statements of ownership or possessive pronouns to describe the origin and merit of an idea is so odd. Every new idea is an amalgamation of extant ideas which have been compiled and shared across time, place, and even species. Furthermore, the conditions that allow an individual to develop their childlike curiosity and spend time and energy exploring their own lines of inquiry have a decidedly external bent and an overwhelmingly lopsided distribution along lines of race, class, and culture (I will expand on this in a separate post).

Claiming ownership of an idea would be like saying that a single tree owns the fruit that it bears after the soil, mycelial networks, sunlight, rain, and other conditions allow it to thrive. 

Yet, while such a statement seems absurd to some, it is often the way that capitalistic societies treat and reward ideas. A “big idea” is seen as something transcendent, and those who bring them into the public consciousness through business, authorship, or media are often celebrated as standouts, geniuses, and individuals who possess unique creative powers. To be clear – these individuals should be celebrated, and even rewarded – but the celebration should be of their curiosity and intellectual generosity, and not their individual brilliance or prowess. After all, who can say how many times that idea had occurred to others, and was simply never shared?

When I was going through business school, the message we received was that we should protect and harbor our ideas, sign non-disclosure agreements before sharing them with others, and pursue legal recourse if they were “stolen”. The first big idea I ever had languished and died, in large part because I took this advice.

Men are mortal. So are ideas. An idea needs propagation as much as a plant needs watering. Otherwise both will wither and die.
— B.R. Ambedkar

When I announced my intention to start A Tipping Point, I took the opposite approach. Before I did anything else, I went on a listening tour through more than a hundred conversations. Each time, I shared the idea as it currently existed in my mind before asking questions and listening for feedback, thoughts, and other ideas. This process has changed ATP for the better several times over and continues to shape my actions to this day. 

I would like to suggest that we reframe the way we approach and care for ideas from a perspective and language of ownership to one of appreciative stewardship. When a new idea forms, the response of the individual (or organization) should be to question, nurture, and mindfully share it for the purposes of co-development and inclusive enrichment. For example, at ATP we understand that the willingness of others to give of themselves and their ideas to foster our nascent organization confers a responsibility to share what we learn and open-source the ideas generated through our work.

Similarly, the tree does not hoard its own fruit, but rather offers it freely – a gift to ensure the regeneration of the ecosystem that gives it life and allows it to thrive. Now, that fruit may only be directly useful to a certain subset of the species that comprise that ecosystem, but it is offered for the benefit of all – even if only in its eventual enrichment of the soil.

A similar shift in frame is warranted in many aspects of our communities and economies. In order to transition from an unjust, extractive economy to one that is just and regenerative, it is my view that we must first transition from owning ideas to stewarding them. And that idea, also, is certainly not “my own”.