The My Work Myth

One of the more pernicious hidden lessons we learn in school is the "My Work" myth. From our first day of kindergarten, doing our own work is unquestionable dogma: our coloring sheet, project, portfolio, dissertation, etc. Lines and bylines are clear, and consultation with others is "cheating."

But after the school bell rings and we head back to play, we create imaginary worlds, products, and anything worthwhile with other people, not alone.

Dispelling the myth of My Work

Paradoxically, the more we believe in "our work," the less creative and original the work becomes. But the myth persists and weaves its way into our careers and beyond.

For example, George Lucas wielded the most individual creative freedom of his career when he wrote and directed The Phantom Menaceas the ultimate expression of "his" Star Wars universe. The result was one of the greatest movie disappointments in history.

"Good artists copy. Great artists steal."
- Pablo Picasso’s

I think that a more helpful way to picture creative work is as an evolving, collaborative graph of shared patterns:

With this picture, we can imagine a more natural way that great work develops integrally within the work of others:

  1. First, we shape our perspective from other people's perspectives: we mimic, read, discuss, debate, listen, and tweet. We refer to this evolving mental pattern as our worldview or opinion, even though it's entirely borrowed.
  2. Then, if we're curious and observant, we'll spot vague gaps and glitches in well-known patterns that we can't help but try and solve. Original ideas arise from the gaps in familiar patterns, not a random spark of creative genius. So if you're looking for an original idea, start by soaking in and trying out other people's ideas.
  3. To solve the gaps and glitches, we make new connections, bend and break others, and try out the new pattern. After enough trial and iteration, we'll come up with a better pattern.

This cycle of innovation repeats continuously at every scale and in every context - from world-changing technical innovations to the next popular fashion to tweaks to our favorite recipe.

But can you see how calling the new, optimized patterns "our work" is a bit disingenuous?  Sure, we've contributed, but thinking of it separately from its collaborative context is the wrong way to look at it.

Great creative work is fundamentally collaborative and evolving, not individual or static.

When we accept that originality and permanence don't matter nearly as much as collaboration and iteration, we're feer to:

(Speaking of giving credit, here's an ongoing list of credits for the Chaos Map.)

Each month, I write a short essay about the Chaos Map:

Thank you. Stay tuned for an introduction email.
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