“Hence the competition […] was sharp between book and book, brain and brain, constituting […] almost a gladiatorial spectacle for the entertainment of the sophisticated.” –A. R. Hall, Philosophers at War (1980)
BEIJING – I hear stories like this a lot from colleagues: “I got this great idea and then my boss stole it from me.” “Really, how did he do that?” I replied, “did he perform neurosurgery on your skull and removed your idea from your brain?” We all know he didn’t; in fact most people volunteer and give away their most precious thoughts for free. They don’t have to.
Competition for ideas is fierce
There’s a pattern at work. Shamelessly, the boss (or professor, director, etc.) uses the company’s resources to build a new project around “his” new idea. Next he gets all the recognition and accolades, and is congratulated on his vision and foresight. Soon he is going to be featured big time by the media. Naturally, that boss has to find a way to fire the very guy that he stole the idea from. In fact, he is almost obliged to get rid of him. The boss abused him; he degraded him and now has zero respect left for such a complete loser. Besides, no one wants to be reminded of an intellectual property theft by having the victim working here.
Who came up with the idea first?
Most companies these days milk their staff for ideas like cattle. So do universities. So next time you go into a “brainstorming session” with your group leader, don’t give away your most precious ideas just yet. In academia, especially in the humanities which are all about thought, creativity, and inventiveness, this is absolutely crucial: You must be silent about your research findings until you’ve found a safe way to make your claim on your personal property. Otherwise, there’s always someone who is more resourceful or more famous than you are. If they hear about your idea, they’ll pick it up, tell it in their own words, and take all the credits.
Non-notable persons are especially vulnerable to idea theft
Sure, the boss in our example might be near retirement and seemingly altruistic and benevolent in character. Maybe he is family. Good for you. He may even offer patronage and promise to kindly acknowledge you in a footnote, or make you the third co-author. And, didn’t he just mention you by your first name during some brainstorming session? But ask yourself, can you be so sure? Once your idea is out in New York, they say, you have no control over where it’s going, and to whom. In Beijing or Shanghai, however, it is almost certain that someone else is picking it up. Besides, what was that “brainstorming session” for, anyway, if not for the staff harvesting of their dormant ideas?
A great idea is a marketable commodity
So now we know that successful and resourceful entrepreneurs snatch ideas away from their more creative but ultimately dull, dependent and weak fellow men all the time. So do many academics and journalists, by the way. That’s why great genius prefers to absorb their environment for inspirations but keeps silent about his own work that is discretely composed in solitary. Successful artists, writers, mathematicians, and entrepreneurs are all like closed books.
Patience is priceless
Whether we are dilettantes or professionals; whether we are academics, entrepreneurs, or apprentices: If we were to make a profound discovery or if we had a unique business idea, and if we thought that to be a golden opportunity for us and our career, just to be on the safe side we wouldn’t tell everyone about it. We simply do it, before we talk about it, no?
Because if we had carelessly given away our ideas, and too soon, they may be lost, and maybe forever.
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