Here's the dirty little secret shared by the most creative people: They're not standing in front of an empty piece of paper (or a blank canvas) waiting for inspiration to strike. 

Instead, they're looking for an existing concept they can leverage, build on, jump off of . . . in short, steal.

As Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist, writes: "What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before."

In fact, "Nearly everything we create takes inspiration from something else," writes Lisa Congdon in Find Your Artistic Voice. "Sure, we each have something new to bring, but we depend on the brilliance of minds that came before us."

Artists aren't the only ones who rely on what Congdon calls "influence" to spark creativity. Scientists pore over studies. Product designers go shopping to check out what's new. Marketers attend conferences. As for me--I read everything I can to find ideas to share with you in this column and in my work helping companies engage employees.

Do I get stressed out because every column I write isn't wholly original? Nope. As Congdon writes, "Think about influence as a positive thing, a helpful thing. Influence is critical to our development and growth."

That doesn't mean copying (as in actually stealing) someone else's work. Instead, use these 3 strategies for what Congdon refers to as "navigating influence":

1. Collect and use as many influences as you can. "The more influences you have, the more of a fusion you'll create" among all those ideas. "When you have just one main influence, you are far more likely to just be mimicking that one artist," writes Congdon, "whereas when you use many influences in your work, you create a mash-up, which means you'll ultimately be making something totally new."

2. Analyze what aspects of people's work you admire. This analysis helps you go beyond the surface and figure out the elements you want to leverage. Congdon recommends getting to know and honor your influences. "Read about them. Ask them questions (even if they're dead and imagine how they might answer. Then, be conscious of how you are transferring those influences into your own work."

3. Use influences as a foundation to build your own ideas. This is the most important part of all. You're not a copier machine; you've got a smart, innovative brain you can use to:

  • Upcycle, which means to reuse (discarded objects or material) to create a product of higher quality or value than the original.The metaphor is this: Walking down the street one day, you find an old window frame in someone's trash. What can you do with it? Make a table? A mirror? A picture frame? Use the same principle with ideas.
  • Make a stew. Combine one influence, then another, then another, and see what you can do. Product designers do this all the time. That's how the simple cellphone became today's smartphone.
  • Reverse. Take a notion and turn it around. What's the opposite? 
  • Marinate. Great ideas come to those who wait. I carry around a folder of column ideas that sometimes need months (or even years) until they're ready to emerge. 

And here's a glimpse behind the curtain of how I created this piece. The first two tips are Congdon's, but the third is all mine. Congdon is my influence, but I used her concept to build my own advice to share with you.

That reminds me of a T.S. Eliot quote (that appears in both Congdon's and Kleon's books):

"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn."