Very recently, I had a conversation with a colleague who was upset that her boss kept stealing her ideas. From what she explained, it seemed to go far beyond idea theft (which is terrible enough), her boss had started to clip elements of her style and even mimicked her Americanisms though she was English. “It’s starting to freak me out,” she said in between sips of her favorite bespoke cocktail (which is not mentioned here because she half-jokingly suggested she was feeling a bit protective of her identity and would like to keep that “one thing” as her own).
There is a line in my favorite movie, All About Eve, in which Bette Davis sneers, “It so happens there are particular aspects of my life to which I would like to maintain sole and exclusive rights and privileges!” In the movie, Davis plays Margo Channing, a famous theatre star who has taken in her die-hard fan, Eve Harrington, only to find herself edging towards her wits end due to Eve’s constant mimicking of everything from her drink preferences to her hip movements. Now, before I go any further and sound downright petty, let me lay a disclaimer: I am constantly inspired by the people around me and I have emulated women I have looked up to for years (and have been honored when others have found inspiration in me). It’s when someone switches into copycat mode or boldly commits fleeting moments of clear identity-theft that things get tricky for me.
The truth is that we live in a world of uninterrupted access to millions of images, many of them delivered in real time. Though beneficial in several ways, the price we have paid for this access is that original thought is now facing extinction. Today, it can feel like all you need to be competitive is an Instagram profile, a credit card, an iPhone and a few minutes a day to study the millions of posts copying the original which no one credits because no one knows (at least that’s what I tell myself to make myself feel better). My former boss and dear friend, Preston Bailey, is a man who inspires many and is continuously copied and has always paid it no mind. He gracefully refers to it as “a part of the business” and chooses to see it as flattering stating that his energy is best focused on his clients. Having experienced my own copycats in the past, I have realized that I am not so forgiving. A competitor copying a brand is infuriating for the original artist, but I find the idea of plagiarizing someone’s personality so creepy that I see it as an assault on their very existence. Dramatic, I know.
Still, extensive imitation is common. So common, in fact, that we call it “trending”. The fashion and beauty industries would be out of business (and we’d have less fun) if we only paid attention to couture. There’s no denying that formulas work but when someone begins to plagiarize parts of your personality (your words, your intellectual property, your style and mannerisms, your vision and your point-of-view) in a way that looks to annihilate you, it can feel suffocating and deeply threatening, at least initially. The key is learning to deal with it. Here are a few tips.
Get the facts
Did your boss steal your idea or share it as a team idea? Is your new friend copying your style or did she simply buy the same dress at the local Zara? It’s important to compile a little evidence before you move into making accusations, even in your own mind. I personally follow the rule of threes. As Pablo Cohelo says, “If it happens once, it may never happen again. If It happens twice, it will happen a third time.” I say, if it happens a third time, it’s time to draw a verbal boundary.
Hold onto your power
While it is infuriating when someone takes credit for your work or steals your ideas, nothing screams “help me, I lack self-awareness, confidence and a solid skillset” like a copycat. What this means is that, after the accolades and their 15 minutes in the spotlight, they will need to get to work and execute, and they will need to do this without your clever, creative and strategic mind that came up with the original idea in the first place. Imagine someone else stealing a sketch from Christian Dior. They can copy the dress, but then what?
Whatever You Do, Don’t Vent
Have you ever been in a situation where you share your valid annoyance at something and somehow wind up looking like the troublemaker? You want to avoid that. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the facts and how they are making you feel before you say anything to anyone, and when you do choose to speak up, make sure your concerns are shared with someone you can trust and ideally gain some insight from. You don’t want to be labelled a gossip, bitter or petty due to delivery.
Go to the source
Once you have compiled the evidence and can deliver your concerns in a seven-second pitch (clear, concise and effective), it’s time to make a move. Invite the copycat out for coffee or a face-to-face Skype meeting if that’s not possible and gently share your concerns. Instead of launching into a full-blown accusation, start with something softer such as, “I know there is no tone in email and that perception is not always reality, so I wanted to have a face-to-face chat with you about something I have felt recently.” Obviously, saying, “you’re copying my personality” isn’t going to be comfortable for you or them so perhaps consider highlighting things about them that are unique and stating that you have felt that, perhaps, they have followed your lead on a few things because they thought that was the only way to do something. If it becomes clear you’re dealing with a single white female-type in a social situation, cut off all contact. If it’s at the office, bring in a higher up if it is impacting your work and if you’re being plagiarized online, send a cease and desist letter. Ultimately, it’s up to you how much attention you give them (which might be their reward). When it’s less than an 8 on the irritation scale, let it go. Use your time and energy to create the things that can only come from you instead of.
Note: All About Eve will be playing at BFI in London on June 9, 2019.