Ideas are Free, Part the Millionth

In the latest New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell talks about ideas being free-floaters and how as a result many things get invented over and over again.

He never quite says the obvious: that ideas are nothing unless you can do something with them. And then he conflates the having of an idea with actual creation:

You can’t pool the talents of a dozen Salieris and get Mozart’s Requiem. You can’t put together a committee of really talented art students and get Matisse’s “La Danse.” A work of artistic genius is singular, and all the arguments over calculus, the accusations back and forth between the Bell and the Gray camps, and our persistent inability to come to terms with the existence of multiples are the result of our misplaced desire to impose the paradigm of artistic invention on a world where it doesn’t belong. Shakespeare owned Hamlet because he created him, as none other before or since could. Alexander Graham Bell owned the telephone only because his patent application landed on the examiner’s desk a few hours before Gray’s. The first kind of creation was sui generis; the second could be re-created in a warehouse outside Seattle.

Well, sure, but heaps of people could (and do) get the same ideas as some great musician or writer or artist. Getting an idea is not the same thing as creating the work of art. Lots of writers have told the exact same stories. Many composers have written variations on particular folk tunes.

It’s not the idea; it’s what you do with it.

This is one of the reasons most writers (and other artists) never know what to say when asked “Where do you get your ideas?”

Because it doesn’t really matter.

The idea is the least important part of writing a novel. You can have the best idea in the history of the universe but if you don’t do anything with it or you write a crappy novel out of it? Well, then it wasn’t that great an idea, was it?

No matter what your field—science, engineering, the creative arts, cocktail making—ideas are in the air for the grabbing. All you has to do is the hard part:

Turn them into something real.


  1. Corey J Feldman on #

    I need to go read the article to see the context, but I do take issue with his notion that creative genius is by definition singular. Even ignoring the fact that no one creates in a vacuum, there are many examples of collaborative artistic genius.

  2. Justine on #

    Corey: Oh for definite. There are lone wolf geniuses but not that many. I don’t know a single writer who writes without any input from other people. Not a single one.

    Without suggestions by my editors, my writer friends etc etc my books would suck.

  3. hillary! on #

    I read this book that said that all the music that is composed in this world isn’t original. What happens is that the composer thinks he hears music in his head, but really he’s just hearing music from Faerie/Tír na n’Óg.
    It was a good book.


  4. Dan Goodman on #

    Did Shakespeare create Hamlet? He took a pre-existing story, and I don’t think he did anything startlingly original with it.

    -“An original writer is not one who imitates no one, but one whom no one can imitate.”-

  5. Gwenda on #

    Gladwell seems to have just gotten sloppy with his thinking these days.

  6. ~grace~ on #

    So true!

    A bunch of my friends are taking a creative writing this semester (to fulfill their “arts” requirement in their final semester, so they can graduate) and it’s been really interesting watching these non-writers write.

    Aside from listening to them whine about how hard it is (no? writing is hard? really? who’da thunk it?) I also have to listen to them whining about how hard it is to “come up with ideas” and how people keep stealing their ideas.

    I have been trying to explain this “ideas are free” concept to them all semester. Do they get it yet? No. No they don’t.

    ps. Dan I really like that quote.

  7. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    I think I have the concept of recurring ideas lodged a little too firmly in my head. Rather than becoming fearful that my writing is awful (though that happens, too) most of my bouts of writing-related depression and anguish are the result of my certainty that everything I do has been done before by a hundred people, and they all did it better than me. It makes me feel very sad and hopeless at times. :C


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