The Day Someone Stole My Ideas

My ideas were stolen, but I ended up gaining much more than I thought possible

In the subject heading of the email were profuse accolades, thanking me for having offered a consultation to a colleague. A link to the article that my colleague had written was pasted, and I excitedly clicked on it to see where my name appeared.

I skimmed to find my name, smiled to myself at the quote that was taken and attributed to me. Ah, my name in print. Several weeks prior, I had written an article for Thrive Global and was astonished at how it took off. Checking for comments, recommends, and highlights gave my system a nice boost of dopamine and reassurance of myself as a professional. This was much the same.

The rush wore off soon enough as I continued to read. There it was. More of my words, but this time, no quotation marks, no indication that they were mine. My stomach dropped.

I felt incredulous that this could happen and double-checked my sent email to see if in fact I had really written those things, and after doing a word-by-word analysis discovered that I was not mistaken. I was catapulted into feelings of anger and betrayal that my ideas were taken from me. I even began the arduous punishment of mentally kicking myself for having sent the email in the first place — why couldn’t I have just ignored the request and banished it to a folder in my inbox? And then the depression. The sad pit within me that felt like something was robbed from me. A final stage of acceptance? Well, I’m not quite there.

Brief side note. I recently began teaching undergraduate students (my previous work has been in supervising and training doctoral-level students) and confided in several of my colleagues how the rampant acts of plagiarism in papers were destroying my soul. Every time I confronted an instance of plagiarism — literally stealing others’ ideas and failing to cite them — I felt defeated and deflated. It was not an issue of my teaching. I dedicated an entire class to APA style and guidelines. And another class devoted to ethics. I reviewed every assignment up until that point, with track changes to the most minute of details, pointing out instances of how style, formatting, and citations needed to take place.

I didn’t know why plagiarism had the effect that it did on me. Up until now, it had never been personal. Perhaps it’s a loyalty to the field? But I often think it’s much more than that. I struggle with my creativity and often connect my inability to quickly think of new ideas as indicative of my being an impostor. Previously an English major, poetry and writing were my outlets. There were many nights of anger and frustration that the ideas were not coming to me. Writer’s block, but for me, so much more than that.

I felt desperate in those moments, trying to come up with the next best idea, perhaps also a testament to my nascent self-esteem and professional identity.

Plagiarism, to me, is an act of desperation and fear that one’s ideas are not good enough. Knowing that I work hard to develop my ideas, it pains me knowing that others are quick to give 80% effort, rather than putting themselves wholly into the task at hand.

So now you can imagine how excited I was when my Thrive Global article took off, and my name was appearing in print yet again. Finally. Ideas. And this time my ideas were not requiring days upon days to evolve, but they were at the tips of my fingers. Though I’ve published book chapters and research articles, those were different in that they were written scientifically and systematically. By contrast, these blog articles are about creativity, uniqueness, and ingenuity. I was proud of these ideas far more than I have ever been proud of any article publication.

My words having been ripped from me stings. But like with everything in life, we have a choice in how we react. I am at a crossroads. Not just a decision point of whether to confront the issue, but one of my own identity and self-exploration. Something was taken, but something has also been given.

I recognize now how I have been standing in my own way and have advice for my former — and future — self:

1. Your ideas are sacred. Some you will let fade, but others you must purposefully kindle and develop. Treasure all of them. Value the process of thinking critically and analytically and do not be so quick to judge the content.

2. Be open. Hearing that your ideas are underdeveloped, fail to recognize alternate points of view, or are perhaps naive are opportunities for you to grow. This is not a mark of inability; this is a test of your strength and courage to hear these differing views, internalize them, and do something with them. This is your opportunity to make your ideas stronger. This is your chance to become stronger.

3. Do not be silent. It’s scary to speak up, to speak your mind. Be scared but also be loud. Your voice should not be silenced by anyone, most importantly, not by you. Take a risk. So what if it’s not perfect? Some ideas will be fail-proof. You’ll be praised and well supported. But with others, there will be push back. And that’s okay, too.

4. Seize the day. You may not have it all figured out just yet, and it may not be perfectly formed. Recognize that your anxiety, your at times debilitating fear of failure, may impede your ability to see the magnitude and importance of your ideas, and trust that tomorrow you can always revisit it and build upon it. The best ideas are those that are slow and deliberate. Take your time with developing an idea, but whatever you do, don’t sit around waiting for that perfect idea, the next big story to take your career to soaring new heights. Some things — most things — are good enough.

5. Paint on your own canvas. Your father will repeatedly tell you to cease painting on everyone else’s metaphorical canvas and to paint your own, a lesson in self-esteem and self-empowerment. After attending an actual paint class, you’ll recognize that your painting is lackluster; you followed the instructor to a “T” but your finished product lacks personality and pizazz. You’ll stare at it, hanging on the wall above your husband’s dresser, loathing its symbolic representation of imperfect perfection. And one day, you will finally become so infuriated that you will be thrusted into action, defiantly asking yourself “what are you waiting for?” You’ll grab stickers, scrapbooking materials, and glitter to turn your painting into a mixed media masterpiece that clearly lacks any and all artistic talent, but boldly shows that you are not afraid to embrace who you are.

And you know, having finally given voice to my experiences, without fear of Internet trolls, without concern that I might get too few reads or views, and without worry that my ideas and feelings will be judged or will not be good enough, I think I’ve finally reached my stage of acceptance.

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