The Secret to Creativity Is Knowing How to Hide Your Sources

Albert Einstein? C. E. M. Joad? Nolan Bushnell? Coco Chanel? Conan O’Brien? Franklin P. Jones? Charles Moore? Bruce Sterling? Joe Sedelmaier? Anonymous?

coco07Dear Quote Investigator: I have a difficult challenge for you. Here are three versions of a popular maxim:

1) The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.
2) Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.
3) The key to originality is hiding your sources.

These expressions are usually attributed to the famous scientist Albert Einstein. However, no one bothers to supply any supporting references. Somehow the true source has magically disappeared, it seems. Would you please help to uncover the accurate provenance?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein ever made a remark of this type. It is not listed in the comprehensive collection “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1

QI hypothesizes that this maxim evolved from a statement made in 1926 by a prominent English commentator and broadcaster named C. E. M. Joad. The initials abbreviated the full appellation Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad. Below is a dated series of phrases outlining the transformational process:

1926: the height of originality is skill in concealing origins
1933: originality is little more than skill in concealing origins
1938: originality was merely skill in concealing origins
1953: originality has been described as the art of concealing origins
1970: originality is the art of concealing your source
1985: creativity is the art of concealing your sources
1989: the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources

In 1926 Joad published “The Babbitt Warren” in England, and the following year “The New Republic” magazine printed a review. Joad evaluated the United States harshly in his volume, and the reviewer reprinted a sampling of his critical remarks including a precursor of the adage under investigation. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Whereas in Europe the height of originality is genius, in America the height of originality is skill in concealing origins.

In no country is personality valued as it is in America, and in no country is it so rare.

Joad was pleased with this expression, and he developed multiple variants which he placed in his later writings. As the saying continued to evolve it was attributed to Franklin P. Jones, Albert Einstein, Coco Chanel and others. Detailed citations are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1933 the journal “The Volta Review” printed an instance of the saying attributed to Joad. This version was not directed at any specific nationality: 3

Appropriate remarks are meant to be appropriated; and originality is little more than skill in concealing origins.
—C. E. M. Joad.

In 1938 Joad released a revised version of his work titled “Liberty To-Day” which included a discussion of the changes he perceived at a debating society closely connected to Oxford University called the Oxford Union. Interestingly, Joad claimed that the maxim now reflected the viewpoint of an Oxford Union orator instead of an American: 4

Five years ago the actual content of a speech at the Oxford Union was comparatively meagre. The epigram reigned supreme. To make a witticism, to point a jest, to coin a bon mot, to introduce the calculated patch of purple–these were the objects of the Union orator. Appropriate remarks, he would tell you, as he cheerfully ransacked the eighteenth-century wits for his epigrams, were meant to be appropriated; originality was merely skill in concealing origins.

In 1953 a book reviewer employed an instance of the adage in the pages of the “Journal of the Institute of Bankers”. The word “skill” was replaced with the word “art”, and no attribution was given. The book being evaluated was titled “Duxbury’s Notebook for Speakers”: 5

Originality has been described as the art of concealing origins: for Mr. Duxbury it “consists of judicious selection.”

In January 1970 “The Gettysburg Times” of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania printed the saying on its front page in a box in the upper right corner. Some newspapers printed pithy remarks considered wise or humorous in a corner slot of the front page. This instance replaced the word “origins” with “source” and used a tentative phrasing: 6

GOOD EVENING
Originality may be the art of concealing your source.

In March 1970 the above statement appeared in some other Pennsylvania newspapers under the title “Purloined Chuckle”, e.g., “Lebanon Daily News” of Lebanon 7 and “Centre Daily Times” of State College. 8 Both papers acknowledged “The Gettysburg Times”.

In May 1970 a columnist in Belton, Texas used the format of a definition when presenting the adage. No attribution was given: 9

This column may at times appear original, which brings up a deft definition of originality: The art of concealing your source. Actually, most of my stuff is ghost-written by my Siamese twin, who stays in seclusion (we have a very long cord).

In July 1970 an instance was printed in a Bennington, Vermont newspaper with an acknowledgment to a periodical called “Quote”: 10

Originality is the art of concealing your source.
—Quote.

In July 1974 the adage appeared in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania newspaper with an acknowledgment to “Quote” and an attribution to Franklin P. Jones: 11

Originality is the art of concealing your source.
— Franklin P. Jones in Quote.

The connection of the saying to Joad was remembered by some individuals. In 1977 a textbook titled “The Design of Advertising” included the following passage about originality: 12

In Voltaire’s view, originality was nothing more than judicious imitation. C. E. M. Joad thought it was little more than skill in concealing origins.

Also in 1977 the aphorism was included in the influential compilation “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” where the words were attached to Jones: 13

Originality is the art of concealing your source.
—Franklin P. Jones

In 1981 an instance was published in “The Washington Post” where it was credited to an anonymous pundit. Also, a slight modification replaced “source” with “sources”: 14

If originality, as one pundit put it, is the art of concealing your sources, then most contemporary bluesmen fail miserably.

In 1985 the “American Standard Handbook of Software Business Law” was authored, and it included a new version of the maxim. The word “originality” was replaced by “creativity”, and the expression was credited to video game pioneer Nolan Bushnell. However, a later citation listed further below showed Bushnell disclaiming credit by giving an anonymous ascription: 15

Creativity is the art of concealing your sources.
Nolan Bushnell
Creator, Pong/Founder, Atari

In 1989 an instance of the saying was assigned to the celebrated scientist Albert Einstein in a message distributed through the Usenet discussion system. Note that Einstein had died in 1955 which was more than three decades before this date. This version used the word “secret” instead of “skill” or “art”. Also, the verb “conceal” was replaced with “hide”: 16

The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.
– Albert Einstein

In 1990 the journal “Progressive Architecture” printed a remark by an associate editor named Kenneth Labs who ascribed the adage to the architect Charles Moore. This instance used the words “originality” and “hiding”: 17

Not many designers understand that there is a creative part of science and technology. Even detailing is a design activity at a micro scale. Charles Moore once said that “originality is hiding your sources.” Designers look at a lot of resources, but rarely admit that they do.

In 1992 “The New York Times” published a profile of Joe Sedelmaier who had created several successful television commercials. When asked about his imitators Sedelmaier responded by deploying an instance of the aphorism: 18

Mr. Sedelmaier is philosophical about his clones. “Originality is the art of concealing your sources,” he said in a telephone interview from Chicago, where his company, Sedelmaier Film Productions Inc., is based.

In 1998 the prize-winning science fiction author Bruce Sterling included the maxim in his novel “Distraction”: 19

Oscar was increasingly uncomfortable. “Well, I never said what happened here was entirely without precedent. The great secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

“You stole these ideas from Huey. You stole Huey’s clothes, didn’t you?”

Also in 1998 “The Art of the Shmooze” was released by two authors who obtained comments about schmoozing from several television stars. The adage was employed by the talk-show host Conan O’Brien according to the authors. The statement illustrated the assertion that self-deprecating humor was an effective conversational gambit: 20

Conan O’Brien
“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

In 2012 the Metropolitan Museum of Art held an exhibition comparing and contrasting the works of the fashion designers Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada. The juxtaposition suggested that Prada’s designs had been influenced by the earlier virtuoso, but Prada demurred. Fashion maven Tom Ford remarked on the situation in the pages of “The New York Times” while assigning the adage to Coco Chanel: 21

Mrs. Prada said in many interviews about the show that she had never been inspired by the work of her predecessor.

“Well,” Mr. Ford said, “Coco Chanel said that creativity is the art of concealing your sources.”

Fashion snap.

In 2013 the entrepreneur Nolan Bushnell who founded the video game company “Atari” and the restaurant chain “Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre” published “Finding the Next Steve Jobs: How to Find, Keep, and Nurture Talent”. Bushnell included the maxim in his book, but he did not assert creatorship: 22

It’s been said that creativity is the art of concealing your sources. You see something and say, “Gee, that is interesting. If it were this, or that, it would be successful.” Then, if and when you help make it happen and it works, you can take some form of credit for it. You didn’t come up with the idea, but you saw its potential.

In conclusion, QI believes that this aphorism began with a statement by C. E. M. Joad in 1926. The expression evolved for decades, and Joad himself employed more than one version. A central feature of the changes was a shift in vocabulary.

Several other well-known people verifiably wrote or spoke instances of the adage, e.g., Joe Sedelmaier, Nolan Bushnell, and Bruce Sterling. But it was already in circulation. It is unlikely that Albert Einstein ever said or wrote this maxim.

Finally, Joad apparently believed the maxim, and it is conceivable that he may have been influenced by as yet undiscovered expressions before 1926.

Image Notes: Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel circa 1920 via Wikimedia Commons. Magic Hat from OpenClips on Pixabay. Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921 via Wikimedia Commons. Images are cropped.

(Great thanks to the Library West of the University of Florida, Gainesville for help verifying the 1985 citation. Many thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake for help checking the 1953 citation.)

Update History: On June 13, 2014 the verified bibliographic data for the 1953 citation was added.

Notes:

  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Examined on paper)
  2. 1927 March 9, The New Republic, Raspberries from England by Robert Littell, (Book Review of “The Babbitt Warren” by C. E. M. Joad), Start Page 74, Quote Page 74, Column 1, The Republic Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  3. 1933 June, The Volta Review, Kernels, Selected by A. H. Damon, Quote Page 278, Column 2, Volta Speech Association for the Deaf, Washington, D.C. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1938, Liberty To-Day by C. E. M. Joad, (Revised edition of book first published 1934), Series: The Thinker’s Library: Number 68, Quote Page 27, Published by Watt’s & Company, Fleet Street, London. (Internet Archive Full View) link link
  5. 1953, Journal of the Institute of Bankers, Volumes 74, Section: Libary, (Book Review by G. H. Dix of “Duxbury’s Notebook for Speakers” by Arthur Duxbury), Start Page 54, Quote Page 54, Published by Institute of Bankers, London, England. (Verified with scans; thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake and the library system of the University of North Carolina)
  6. 1970 January 14, The Gettysburg Times, (Text in upper right corner of front page in a box with title: “Good Evening”), Quote Page 1. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)
  7. 1970 March 2, Lebanon Daily News, Purloined Chuckle, (Short freestanding item), Quote Page 19, Column 7, Lebanon, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)
  8. 1970 March 3, Centre Daily Times, Purloined Chuckle, (Short freestanding item), Quote Page 16, Column 3, State College, Pennsylvania, (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1970 May 7, The Belton Journal, Russelling Around, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Belton, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  10. 1970 July 21, Bennington Banner, (Short freestanding item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Bennington, Vermont. (NewspaperArchive)
  11. 1974 November 30, New Pittsburgh Courier (City Edition), Quips and Quotes, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (ProQuest)
  12. 1977, The Design of Advertising by Roy Paul Nelson (University of Oregon), Third Edition, Quote Page 30, William C. Brown Company, Dubuque, Iowa. (Verified with scans)
  13. 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Originality, Quote Page 362, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  14. 1981 March 22, Washington Post, Blues on Parade by Mike Joyce, Quote Page L12, Column 1, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  15. 1985 Copyright, American Standard Handbook of Software Business Law by John C. Lautsch, (One of two quotations listed at the beginning of a chapter), Quote Page 176, Reston Publishing Company, Reston, Virginia. (Verified visually; thanks to the University of Florida, Gainesville for help)
  16. 1989 February 9, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: comp.sys.dec.micro, From: @PENNDRLS.BITNET (George A. Theall), Subject: MSKermit for Rainbow, (Google Groups Search; Accessed May 31, 2014) link
  17. 1990 January, Progressive Architecture, Editors’ Roundtable, Start Page 126, Quote Page 126, Column 3, (Speaker: Associate Editor: Kenneth Labs), Reinhold Publishing, New York, A Division of Penton Publishing, Cleveland, Ohio. (Verified on paper)
  18. 1992 March 25, New York Times, The Media Business: Advertising: The Director Who Started a Revolution by Stuart Elliott, Quote Page D5, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  19. 1999 (Original hardback 1998), Distraction by Bruce Sterling, Quote Page 474, Bantam Spectra Book: Bantam Books: Division of Random House, New York. (Verified with 1999 paperback edition images using Amazon Look Inside)
  20. 1998, The Art of the Shmooze by Bret Saxon and ‎Steve Stein, Chapter: Television Stars on Shmoozing, Subsection: Conan O’Brien, Quote Page 156, S.P.I. Books, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  21. 2012 May 8, New York Times, At Met’s Fashion Benefit, Stars Honor Two Designers by Eric Wilson (Metropolitan Desk), Quote Page A24, New York. (ProQuest)
  22. 2013, Finding the Next Steve Jobs: How to Find, Keep, and Nurture Talent by Nolan Bushnell with Gene Stone, Chapter 33, Quote Page 145, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Google Books Preview; Amazon Look Inside)