Okay. This hap­pened to me recent­ly. I’m in bed. I’m ready to go to sleep. It’s been a long day. I’m tired. And all of a sud­den, my brain decides this is the per­fect time to remem­ber that real­ly embar­rass­ing thing that hap­pened years ago.

For me it was actu­al­ly twen­ty years ago. And then I’m up all night, toss­ing and turn­ing, reliv­ing the whole embar­rass­ing expe­ri­ence, over and over again…

To make it worse, now I’m going to stand up in front of all of you, and tell you that embar­rass­ing thing that hap­pened to me twen­ty years ago, so this is going to be fun. You ready?

I talk of free­dom, you talk of the flag.
I talk of rev­o­lu­tion, you’d much rather brag.
And as the deci­bels of this dis­en­chant­i­ng discourse
con­tin­ue to damp­en the day, the coin flips again
and again, and again, and again as our san­i­ty walks away. 

This is an excerpt from some­thing I sub­mit­ted to my junior high poet­ry mag­a­zine when I was in the 8th grade. Now, any­body has a right to be embar­rassed by their own 8th-grade poet­ry. But that’s not the real­ly bad part.

Two photos side by side of the album art for the Live album "Throwing Copper" and a portrait of lead singer Ed Kowalczyk

Because the truth is I did­n’t write this. This guy did. And he record­ed it on this multi-platinum album, which came out in 1994, the same year I tried to pass it off as some­thing I wrote. I’m just lucky that the judges review­ing the sub­mis­sions were high school stu­dents, so they rec­og­nized the song because it was on MTV. If it had been teach­ers they might not have noticed and then it just would’ve been print­ed and mailed to hun­dreds of peo­ple’s homes and been there for­ev­er. My per­ma­nent shame.

Why did I do it? Seriously. When they dragged me in to explain myself, the only answer I had, after the same answer that any 13 year-old has when you ask them why they did some­thing wrong: Iunno.” The only expla­na­tion I could come up with was that I want­ed to have writ­ten some­thing like that so much that I con­vinced myself that I had.

This was obvi­ous­ly a ter­ri­ble excuse, and a real­ly real­ly stu­pid thing to do. But I think I remem­ber that expe­ri­ence so vivid­ly not just because it was hor­ri­fy­ing­ly embar­rass­ing, but because some­thing about that excuse was true. That real­ly was how I felt some­times. When you’re 13 years old and you hear a song for the first time, and you feel like you’re the first per­son in the world to get it, that song, any song, and you’re sure if you had just been able to artic­u­late how you were feel­ing, before you heard that song, sure­ly you would’ve writ­ten it just like that.

And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burn­ing coal
Pouring off of every page
Like it was writ­ten in my soul from me to you
Bob Dylan, Tangled Up in Blue”

I learned the gui­tar in high school so I could play those songs. And I lis­tened to them over and over again. I wrote my own songs that I tried to make sound just like them. Music became some­thing that I loved so much that I did­n’t want to just lis­ten to it. I want­ed to absorb it. I want­ed to crawl inside those songs and live there.

Okay, why am I telling you this? I’m actu­al­ly start­ing to wonder.

But what does this have to do with our theme today, col­lab­o­ra­tion? I want to talk about col­lab­o­ra­tion, but I also want to talk about its awk­ward cousin, appropriation.

Appropriation is a fan­cy word for copy­ing,” but it’s more com­pli­cat­ed than that. When I appro­pri­ate some­thing you made, I take it and I make it my own. I can do that by lit­er­al­ly just tak­ing it for my own ben­e­fit or tak­ing cred­it for it like I did with the song lyrics. Or I can do it by trans­form­ing it and using it to cre­ate some­thing new.

Two portraits: Woody Guthrie holding a guitar, head tilted to the side with cigarette hanging from his lips, and Bob Dylan in an almost identical pose.

Photos: Getty Images, Michael Ochs archives

One of my favorite artists in the world is Bob Dylan, who wrote so many of those songs that I wished I could’ve writ­ten. But he was also one of the world’s most shame­less mas­ters of appro­pri­a­tion. That’s Dylan, and that’s Woody Guthrie. In the begin­ning, Dylan copied every­thing from Woody. His style, his sound, his songs, and even the way he talked. But then he just kept going, on and on, to some­thing new and strange and dif­fer­ent. And he nev­er stopped appro­pri­at­ing new influ­ences along the way. Bob Dylan became a leg­end in his own right, but he nev­er real­ly out­ran the crit­ics who said that he was just a thief all along. 

Music, art and design, most cre­ative indus­tries have a pret­ty uncom­fort­able rela­tion­ship with appro­pri­a­tion. And it’s worse when every­thing’s online. It’s so triv­ial to copy some­thing or just take cred­it for it. It can be real­ly scary to make some­thing and put it out there. 

Comic: Anthony Clark, "The Internet"; [rotated for space here; I made this.]

Comic: Anthony Clark, The Internet” [rotat­ed for space here; I made this.]

This is what appro­pri­a­tion looks like online. It’s imme­di­ate! It’s unnerv­ing. So appro­pri­a­tion is some­thing we’re real­ly uncom­fort­able with. We talk about it most­ly in neg­a­tive terms, when we even talk about it at all. But it’s also weird­ly a pret­ty fun­da­men­tal part of how we work. Sharing ideas and build­ing on oth­er peo­ple’s solu­tions are just basic parts of how we work togeth­er. In a lot of ways, we need appro­pri­a­tion for col­lab­o­ra­tion to exist. And I think when we only talk about the dark­er side of appro­pri­a­tion, when we make it some­thing to hide or some­thing to be ashamed of, I think we’re actu­al­ly mak­ing it hard­er to work together.

Okay. Fast for­ward from my mid­dle school dis­as­ter. Let’s go about ten years or so, the first time I came to California. I flew out to San Francisco to inter­view for a job at Apple, which I was very excit­ed about and not remote­ly qual­i­fied for. I’d some­how faked my way through the phone screen, and I think at some point the man­ag­er must have just decid­ed, Ah, what the hell. Just give him a shot,” because after they flew me out and I fum­bled my way through 8+ hours of in-person inter­views, it was abun­dant­ly clear to every­one, myself includ­ed, that there was no pos­si­ble way I could even pre­tend to do the job.

But I got lucky. I got a sec­ond chance. Because after they sent me back home, the man­ag­er passed my name on to anoth­er man­ag­er in anoth­er part of Apple, on the team that designed the web site. And even­tu­al­ly I made it back to inter­view for a job that I actu­al­ly had a hope of get­ting. And I did.

A younger Wilson Miner laying in the grass

Photo: Laura Brunow Miner, Untitled

This is me right after we moved to California, hope­ful­ly not think­ing about pla­gia­rized song lyrics. When I moved out here to start work­ing at Apple, I had the most incred­i­ble case of impos­tor syn­drome. For the first few weeks, I prac­ti­cal­ly hid every­thing that I was work­ing on. I was ter­ri­fied that after that whole first expe­ri­ence that I was going to be found out any sec­ond and exposed as a fraud and they were going to send me back to Kansas.

Before, when I was stuck work­ing on a design project, I would always look at what Apple was doing. Maybe you get some ideas, copy a few things. I remem­ber think­ing I work here. Now what am I sup­posed to do?” It took me a while before I fig­ured out the answer, which was basi­cal­ly keep doing the same thing. Except now it was­n’t called copy­ing, it was called stay­ing on brand.”

So instead of hid­ing every­thing that I was work­ing on, I start­ed to share every­thing. Not just per­fect, defen­si­ble, fin­ished work, but the real­ly rough and bro­ken and messy stuff. Problems I could­n’t even get my head around yet. And we copied each oth­er shame­less­ly. Literally we nev­er even thought to be ashamed of it. I spent as much time stand­ing over oth­er peo­ple’s shoul­ders as I did work­ing at my own com­put­er. If some­body came up with some­thing I could use, I used it. Nobody’s name ever went on any­thing. Nobody ever talked about cred­it; there was no rea­son to. It was all Designed by Apple in California” at the end of the day anyway.

So much work had already gone into every­thing by the time we got our hands on it, what a tri­umph of ego it would be for us at the end of the line to start mark­ing our ter­ri­to­ry. We were just try­ing not to screw it up. Somebody trust­ed us to do this job, so we trust­ed each other.

I learned so much that first year at Apple. The dead­lines were insane, but it was an amaz­ing expe­ri­ence. But the thing that still sticks with me ten years lat­er is that exam­ple of the kind of work you could do in a group of peo­ple who trust each oth­er. It’s real­ly hard to believe that was ten years ago. Do you remem­ber the first time you came to California? Maybe it was­n’t that long ago. Maybe you were born here and this isn’t going to make much sense to you, but I’m from Kansas. California is dif­fer­ent. San Francisco is dif­fer­ent. Coming here for the first time felt like step­ping through a por­tal to an alter­nate uni­verse. I mean, it gets weird here some­times, and so many peo­ple who want to be here for so many dif­fer­ent rea­sons, it can get claus­tro­pho­bic, and expen­sive. But I feel so lucky to be able to live here. To work here. And to be part of this incred­i­ble com­mu­ni­ty of cre­ative peo­ple in this mag­i­cal, sur­re­al place.

I work for a mag­a­zine now. It’s called The California Sunday Magazine. It’s a pret­ty new mag­a­zine. This is what some of the print cov­ers look like. It’s real­ly beau­ti­ful. You should buy a sub­scrip­tion today. Talking about tak­ing cred­it for oth­er peo­ple’s work, just putting these cov­ers on here. Leo [Jung] our cre­ative direc­tor, and Jacqui [Bates] is the pho­to direc­tor, who were respon­si­ble for these look­ing as beau­ti­ful as they are are here today. So please, direct your acco­lades towards them.

The mag­a­zine pub­lish­es these beau­ti­ful sto­ries, all con­nect­ed some­how to California and the West. But it’s not just about the place, it’s sort of about all the ideas and val­ues that we asso­ciate with California. And it is such a tal­ent­ed group of peo­ple who are mak­ing it. I’m not includ­ing myself in that state­ment yet, I’ve only had this job for a few months. But I feel like an impos­tor all over again. It’s fan­tas­tic. I’m still hov­er­ing over peo­ple’s shoul­ders and bor­row­ing ideas when­ev­er I get the chance. Maybe peo­ple are wait­ing for me to set­tle in and start leav­ing them alone but…sorry.

I’ve been real­ly lucky over the years to work with some real­ly amaz­ing peo­ple, and I’ve learned so much from them. But here we all are, togeth­er in this room. 300, maybe, super tal­ent­ed cre­ative peo­ple. Very few of us in this room will ever get a chance to work togeth­er. Most of us nev­er will. Think about how many places you’ve worked in your career so far. How many places do you think you’ll work in your life­time? How many chances will you have to learn, share, and grow like that? To ele­vate your game. To be inspired. To col­lab­o­rate. Why do we lim­it that to peo­ple we work with at a com­pa­ny? Why aren’t we always putting our work out in the open like that? Sharing with each oth­er. Helping each other. 

Because it’s scary. Because I don’t trust you. We’re all afraid of the worst in our­selves and each oth­er, and it’s very real. I’m not going to try to say that it’s not. But I think we get some­thing wrong about trust. We think it’s earned. I do this all the time. I hold back trust­ing oth­er peo­ple until they’ve earned it. 

But some of the most reward­ing expe­ri­ences in my life have come from the moments when I decid­ed, against all the very real worst-case sce­nar­ios, to reverse that order of oper­a­tions. The times I decid­ed to trust first, ask ques­tions lat­er. I’ll be hon­est, it has­n’t always worked out. But when it does, it’s kin­da spec­tac­u­lar. In a way, I’m giv­ing this talk and telling you all these embar­rass­ing things as a reminder to myself to take that risk more often. That’s some­thing I love about California, about this cre­ative com­mu­ni­ty. It feels like shar­ing and col­lab­o­ra­tion are part of the ideas and val­ues of this place. Like trust is the default state.

There’s this quote I love from an inter­view with Chad Robertson, who start­ed Tartine Bakery. Tartine is kind of a leg­end in San Francisco, and Chad is sort of a bread rock star. I mean, look at him. But he’s also devel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for inter­est­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions with oth­er restau­rants. In this inter­view he’s talk­ing about col­lab­o­ra­tion in the bak­ing scene, which in case you’re won­der­ing is total­ly a real thing. He said this:

I share infor­ma­tion, and infor­ma­tion is shared with me. People don’t shut me out because I don’t take cred­it for oth­er peo­ple’s shit. […] There is mutu­al respect. We don’t copy one anoth­er so much as we are inspired by one anoth­er. There are no secrets. It’s just bread.
Chad Robertson, Tartine’s Chad Robertson Plans to Take Over the World”

To me that just gets at the heart of it. Mutual respect, no secrets, don’t steal oth­er peo­ple’s shit. It’s just bread.

So look around the room. Look at the peo­ple sit­ting next to you. (Come on, actu­al­ly do it.) What would you learn from each oth­er if you had a chance to work togeth­er? What would you share with every­one in this room, if you knew you could trust them? What if you just did it anyway?


Further Reference

Event page for this talk at the Creative Mornings site.

Dylan Paintings Draw Scrutiny, on accu­sa­tions of pla­gia­rism regard­ing some of Bob Dylan’s paintings.