You attribute an idea to the person that introduced it to you.

For example, Derek Sivers introduced me to the value of surprise when writing. People read to learn and they only learn when they’re surprised. Thus, you should find something surprising in your writing. Once you’ve found it, cut everything else.

I loved this idea and brought it up in conversation, beginning with “Sivers said”.

Sometime later, I came across a similar idea from John D. Cook:

Had I read that tweet before a friend sent me Sivers’ article, I likely would have attributed the idea to Cook. But since I did not, I attributed the idea to Sivers.

And really, should I be attributing the idea to either Sivers or Cook? As the latter noted, the idea is fundamental to information theory, which was founded by Claude Shannon when he published A Mathematical Theory of Communication (PDF) in 1948.1Shannon refers to surprise as “entropy”.

Read the founding literature of any field and you’ll quickly realize just how “unoriginal” later works are.

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

Alfred Whitehead

While you should cite your influences, you needn’t and shouldn’t become a glorified bibliography. Take other ideas and do something with them. Add to, revise, combine, or port an idea over to a new domain. There, it’s yours now.

I think I arrived at this concept of idea attribution on my own, but I could be wrong. And if it’s novel to you, you might attribute it to me. Or build on and make it yours. ????

And then I stumble upon this article. Life is funny like that.

10/14/20: Seth Godin on not showing your work.

Thanks to Brad Sampson for providing feedback. Featured photo by Chris Lawton.