How to Steal Great Content Ideas

Great Content Ideas

Bad artists copy. Great artists steal. –Pablo Picasso

“There’s nothing new under the sun,” is a saying I’m sure you’re familiar with. Yet how is it that we’re dazzled daily by the exciting and unique perspectives of emerging new voices?

The truth is, outside of cutting-edge theoretical science, there is nothing new. And even then, one might argue that scientists are merely discovering relationships amongst things already known.

And that’s the key to stealing great content ideas—discovering a relationship between your subject matter expertise and things already known. Don’t worry… it’s not really stealing, but the instant improvement in your content is almost like cheating.

Understand first that a unique perspective simply means you see a connection that others do not. So, you can still cite your sources and yet speak in a truly new voice, because the connection makes all the difference.

Henry Makes Some Money

It’s not plagiarism — I’m recycling words, as any good environmentally conscious writer would do. –Uniek Swain

Henry is a businessman who takes a tour of a meat-packing plant in Chicago, and is keenly interested in the established practice of dividing up the entire process into small specialized tasks. While this is common in the meat-packing field, no one does this in Henry’s industry. Henry Ford goes on to make a lot of money.

A guy named Gutenberg alters the course of human history by looking intently at a coin maker’s stamp and the way wine makers squeeze juice from grapes. His observations result in the printing press, and the Chinese, who at the time are the world technology leaders, are only now starting to catch up after that massive boost the Western world received.

Seth updated the 60-year-old unique selling proposition and the age-old practice of referral marketing by calling it a “purple cow” (a term borrowed from a poem) because he realized that in an inter-networked world, other people could sell remarkable stuff better than the seller could. And yet the fundamentals of uniqueness remain the same.

Your “New” Idea Most Likely Isn’t

All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients. –Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s often a shock to the thinking person when they find that their revolutionary new idea is not new at all. Most likely, someone in a robe thought of it thousands of years ago.

No worries, it just means you’re on the path to greatness. For a shortcut, read the ideas of smart people throughout history—from Socrates and Jesus to Anne Frank and Dorothy Parker.

You’ll never run out of inspiration.

Goofing Off to be Great

Loafing is the most productive part of a writer’s life. –James Norman Hall

You don’t need to hear it from me that you must read everything relevant to your niche to be an expert. Of course you do.

But will that make you great? Will it make you someone that people listen to and respect?

Not necessarily, and most likely no.

What makes you great is what you learn outside of your area of expertise, because that’s where the connections are made. Good luck comes to those who work hard, and part of working hard is paying attention when you’re not working.

I’ve found inspiration in novels, magazines, good television, bad movies, walks in the park, nights at the bar, the laughter in my children’s eyes and even something my mother-in-law once said.

Always look in the unlikely places.

A Unique Perspective Does Not Fear Attribution

It is the little writer rather than the great writer who seems never to quote, and the reason is that he is never really doing anything else. –Havelock Ellis

I ran across that Henry Ford story in Roy William’s book, The Wizard of Ads. I’d heard the Gutenberg story before, but it’s also in Roy’s book. The Seth story is my own observation, but I’m sure plenty of people realized the same thing long ago.

The point is that this article is simply a mishmash of things I’ve read, and things I’ve lived, and things I’ve thought. But I’m standing on the shoulders of giants every step of the way.

Umm … Sir Isaac Newton said that “shoulders of giants” thing long before me, and he ripped off borrowed it from some other guy who no one remembers. 😉

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Reader Comments (54)

  1. says


    This has been one of my secrets to success.

    I always look at what works well in other industries and try and figure out how I could apply it to my own.

    The key to all of this: You MUST be looking outside your domain for inspiration.


  2. says

    Great post Brian. So who wrote it before you?

    Experiencing outside your industry and understanding how those outside experiences apply to yours is the way to innovate.

    I think Van Gogh always saw himself as a link in a chain and all his work came out of what went before and would inspire what came after.

    Blues musicians are another link in the chain example. The idea is to copy a riff from someone you admire and add a piece of yourself to it thereby creating something both new and borrowed and continuing the evolution of the music itself.

  3. says

    you’re stealing one of your old quotes aren’t you? it’s one of my favourites by picasso. i use it often.

  4. says

    Most ideas are where someone has added their own view to it.

    There are new ideas, for example before we knew about the atom nobody had written about it.

  5. says

    I understand the Picasso quote, “Bad artists copy. Great artists steal.” as:

    Bad artists copy words. Great artists steal ideas.

    Attribution amnesia and copyright infringement are hallmarks of the “bad artist”. A great artist will lift ideas from others’ work like silly putty from newsprint.

  6. says

    Brian, this is a very inspiring post for me. I’ve been struggling with this concept for a while now, as the concept of “stealing” was holding me back to write on several occasions. That’s one of the drawback of naming my blog “How to be an original” I guess.

    I especially like the observation about having revolutionary ideas that have been thought of before by men in robes. Seeing that as a step on the road to greatness is very insightful, and very helpful. Thanks for that!

  7. says

    Wherever I go, whatever I read, I have a little program running in my brain that wonders if this could be related to coping with physical pain, my blog topic.
    While talking with the sushi makers at the Japanese sushi bar, they talked about cramps and pain in their hands and back… hmmm… a post.
    While reading the throw-away magazine on American Airlines, I came across a story about a restaurant that tracks your satisfaction at multiple points during your dining experience… hmmm, how would this work in the doctor’s office? … a post.
    thanks for the interesting post.

  8. says

    I can’t believe you just wrote this post today, because I was thinking through very similar things on my blog. Would you do me a favor and take a look at today’s post and comment on it.

    I have been thinking where creativity and good ideas come from, and too often we try to create something out of “nothing”. But creativity is about borrowing other ideas and making NEW ASSOCIATIONS.

    great stuff.


  9. Kelly Erickson says

    Or, as Mister Rogers used to say, “You learn something old every day.”

    It’s the unique way you put it to use that makes others want to learn from your take on it.

  10. says

    I’ve seen that innovation doesn’t generally happen in big leaps. Instead, people figure out ways to evolve things better; they apply things that have worked before but in a new application. It’s this sort of cross-pollination that’s at the key to success.

  11. says

    On a similar vain I’d reccomend online copywriters buying a few papers everyday, Skim read them for anything that can all be related to your topic you’d be surprised how much you can find that just needs tying into your specialism.

  12. says

    The key, as I’m sure you all know, is to filter the information in new ways — through your senses, how you think and see the world. In fact, that is a must in adding value. Innovation is also looking at the same thing with new eyes.

    A good lesson in how to grab attention by headline, Brian 😉

  13. says

    I like the part you said about your “mother-in-law” the best — finding answers in unusual places. Priceless!

    For people who are concerned about plagiarism, an idea is one thing while a written piece of work is another one. Hopefully, if other sources are used, the proper citations are included.

  14. Marna Reinhardt says

    I’m going to read this article every time I try talk myself out of writing something that is important to me. My greatest struggle right now is in overcoming the fact that what I want to write about has been written about before, countless times, and in countless ways. I’m always ask myself, “What could I possibly do that is different, and who would really care?” Your statment that one’s special “connection” to the subject matter makes all the difference, and is difference enough, is encouraging to me.

    Thank you!

    Marna Reinhardt

  15. says

    Wonderful post and those quotes are superb.

    Here’s another:

    “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug” ~ Mark Twain

    The right word or words can make or break an ad – and the chances that those words (or the idea those words reflect) haven’t been used before are minuscule.

    If we learn from copy that has gone before – what works and what doesn’t – we’ll all be better at what we do.

    After all, we aren’t called Copy Writers for nuthin’



  16. Lisa Shaw says

    This is why the best writers will always be curious thinkers with a broad exposure to ideas and NOT products of a market-based curriculum designed to churn out workers. Fantastic post, Brian.

  17. says

    >>> “There’s nothing new under the sun,” is a saying I’m sure you’re familiar with.

    Translation: I’ve heard that somewhere, I don’t have a clue where it’s from.

    Hint: Ecclesiastes 1:9, Old Testament of The Bible.

  18. says

    I always liked the lines from an old Tom Lehrer song (sung with a bad Russian accent):
    Let no-one else’s work evade your eyes.
    Remember why the good lord made your eyes
    and plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize –
    Only be sure always to call it please, Research!”
    On a more serious note, one thing that often discourages me as a writer is the tendency, when I’ve had a good idea, to immediately find that idea expressed by someone else.

  19. says

    I think I’m doing this with my Integrated Marketing Comm classes. Brand = blog and product = content. I’d probably be bored to tears without the help of a good metaphor!

  20. says

    I find that a lot of people use the same content, the same news, the same videos, things like that. You can simply look around at what other bloggers are doing and then offer your own commentary on whatever content they’ve posted up.


  21. says

    Stuart, that’s exactly what you *should not* be doing. That’s why so many bloggers are unremarkable.

    Look instead to art, science, gardening or pop culture for inspiration, and thereby develop a unique perspective instead of a “me too and here’s my opinion that no one cares about” blog. There are enough of those.

  22. Patrick says

    Hi Brian, thanks for all this valuable information.

    I have a question for you about researching a topic:

    Where can I go to find information about different subjects? If I look information on it on the web I always run into OTHER articles that tell a lot of what I need to know but I don’t want to steal their work.

    What should I do??


    PS. My email is

  23. says

    Great post, even if you had to beg, borrow or steal it. I prefer to call it inspiration. Either that or my baby boomer brain syndrome that doesn’t recognize the familiar sound of my own and others’ thoughts. :-)

  24. says

    Some days you’re the windshield, and some days you’re the bug; after one or two bug days, you need a laugh.

    I appreciated this post because it made me laugh myself silly, and because it reminds me of things I’ve thought about previously.

    And all my best ideas were stolen by the ancients is one of the funniest comments on the planet, and I will be using that in an upcoming blogpost; after it’s been properly recycled by my independent imagination, of course.

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