The surprising thing Elon Musk, Kanye West and Steve Jobs all have in common

L-R: Musician and designer Kanye West, late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
Jon Fazio for CNBC Make It

Tesla's Elon Musk revolutionized transportation. The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs reinvented the personal computer and changed the world with the iPhone. Artist Kanye West has shaped today's music and fashion landscape.

What do these influencers have in common?

While many revere them for their unique ideas, Allen Gannett, author of new book "The Creative Curve," argues that the secret to their success is much simpler.

"Entrepreneurs who are really good at what they do and have long-term success are actually just highly skilled at getting the right tension between novelty and familiarity," Gannett tells CNBC Make It.

Gannett, 27, is the founder and CEO of marketing analytics firm TrackMaven. While working with companies such as Microsoft, GE and Cisco, he's found that people underestimate their ability to come up with great ideas.

In "The Creative Curve," Gannett makes a surprising case for intellectual theft: To come up with your next best idea, you don't need to invent something completely new, he says. Instead, iterate on the past great ideas of others.

Elon Musk, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs all have these traits in common

"When we look at the stories of Elon Musk or Steve Jobs, the bar that we judge ourselves against as aspiring entrepreneurs is obscenely high," Gannett says. "But the truth is, they all worked in collaborative teams, they referenced the successes of others."

Gannett points out that West recently nailed this idea of combining the familiar with the novel in a tweet he recently posted: "Too much emphasis is put on originality. Feel free to take ideas and update them at your will. All great artists take and update," West said.

Kanye West tweet

Jobs made the same point in a segment of the PBS show "Triumph of the Nerds" in 1996, when he admitted that Apple's Macintosh personal computer was just a more user-friendly version of previous computers available then.

"It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you're doing," Jobs told PBS. "I mean, Picasso had a saying. He said, 'Good artists copy, great artists steal.' And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas."

Musk, meanwhile, borrowed ideas from everyday life and transformed them. With his first companies X.com and PayPal, Musk "took a lot of behaviors that were done offline and moved them online," Gannett says. "With Tesla, it was taking a car and making it electric. The original Tesla Roadster is very similar to the Lotus Elise car."

As for West, and much of the rest of today's music industry, one of his most popular songs, "Gold Digger," sampled the famous songwriter Ray Charles' 1954 hit "I've Got a Woman."

Picasso had a saying. He said, 'Good artists copy, great artists steal.' And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.
Steve Jobs
co-founder of Apple

"These great creators are very comfortable with copying and imitating the structure of a great piece of work — not the content itself, that's plagiarism — because they're creating something that's familiar with the audience and know it's going to work," Gannett says.

The same concept is just as useful in the context of day-to-day work as well, he adds. When you're thinking of new ideas to share with your boss or coworkers, don't propose a radically new plan. Instead, consider what has worked in the past and slightly update it, so it's new and refreshing but still somewhat familiar.

"Natural-born talent, at best, is oversold and more likely does not exist," Gannett says. "If you want to develop new skills, the biggest obstacle is yourself. If you are willing to put in hard, thoughtful work into coming up with the next best idea, there really are few limits on your potential."

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