Borrowed brilliance

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    They say there are no new ideas. Only old ones that get recycled. Of course Einstein might object to that. Or C. S. Lewis might write another witty, incisive piece about it. But one thing we can be sure of is this: once in a while, we say something clever or brilliant — and we know we’re quoting somebody — but we pass it off as our own.

    I call this “borrowed brilliance.” When we use someone’s ideas and words without giving credit to the source. It’s a “respectable offense.” An accepted malady of the ego. It is intellectual piracy that escapes penalties.

    We do it for maybe 15 seconds of glory. We do it to impress people, make them laugh, convince them we’re scintillating and clever. Because the “high” of being adored is too heady to refuse. These endorphin rushes can be so addictive!

    Integrity, of course, is the main issue here. One way to maintain our integrity in the things we say is to be careful to give credit where credit is due. We might not be able to do it perfectly, but if we do it most of the time, then we’re fine, integrity-wise. Hopefully, it will become second nature to us.

    For instance, if we’re speaking in public, we must be very clear when we’re quoting someone or using their ideas — especially when we’re using these as part of our main points. We should mention the name of the source. It’s the honest thing to do.

    If we’re paraphrasing, we must say so. If we suddenly black out and forget who we’re quoting, then we can just say a descriptive phrase about the source, like, “as a renowned educator once said,” or “as my teacher said,” or “as a human rights lawyer said…” then follow it with the quotation.

    If we’re in a hurry, we can just say, “As someone said…” Remember: those three simple words can preserve our integrity beyond you can imagine. It’s clearly telling people that we’re not claiming credit for something that’s not ours. In fact, it’s simply saying we’re borrowing someone’s brilliance — and acknowledging the person for it!

    In casual conversations, we can do this as well. Adages, proverbs, cliches, popular sayings, buzz words, anything that’s trending so much it becomes public property, etc. — these are the exceptions. But even in conversations, if we’re quoting something brilliant or exceptional, it’s always safe to put a lid on our ego by mentioning the source. Just precede the quote with, “Well, like someone said…” It takes less than 3 seconds to say this. But it’ll keep our integrity intact. And may save us from embarrassment or cracks in our credibility.

    When you’re posting something which isn’t yours, always start and end the quoted sentence/material with quotation marks. Why? Because the quotation marks make it obvious, even at first glance, that the material isn’t yours. At times, people don’t use quotation marks at all but put the name of the author or source at the bottom. That’s all right, I guess. But people don’t know that until they reach the end of the quoted material — if they ever do. So to avoid confusion from the very beginning, why not put the name of the author right under the title, so that it’s clear, from the start, that the material isn’t yours?
    Same thing goes for lecture or written outlines, research results, modes of approach, excerpts, etc. It will even boost your credibility if you mention your sources. It won’t lessen your reach or persuasive power if you acknowledge who said what.

    One time, I was listening to a lecture and I was aghast, shocked even, when I realized that it was my lecture outline that was being used — to the last detail. I gave the speaker the benefit of the doubt, waiting till the end if he’d even casually say “By the way, I’m using someone’s lecture outline…” somewhere in his lecture. I wasn’t even after him saying my name — just a sentence saying he borrowed someone’s outline. But it never happened. Of course I let it go, but it somehow made me doubt that person’s integrity after that. I was kind of wondering, every time I listened to him, if he was using someone’s lecture outline again.

    Another time, I was listening to a colleague give a talk. Imagine my surprise when she said something that I had said in one of my lectures! It was a unique, direct quote that elicited lots of laughter from the auditorium. And the speaker enjoyed it to the hilt. I must admit I was quite put off and annoyed. I felt like something had been stolen from me. It left a bad taste in my mouth.

    Not to be self-righteous but if I were the speaker, I would’ve said a simple, “as a friend of mine said…” I’m sure people would find it just as funny, even if they knew it didn’t come from me. And I’d have a clear conscience after.

    What bothers me is when people don’t flinch at all when they pass off something as their own when it’s not. They might’ve developed a seared conscience about it already — just to get that extra endorphin rush of admiration from their audience.

    Believe me, it’s not worth it! The person you’re stealing it from might be right there in the audience. Or some people listening to you might know who actually said it. In which case, your credibility just went down the drain.

    Yes. I’m a stickler for these things. Intellectual piracy is an ugly crime that’s hurts our reputation more than it builds up our competence and credibility.