It was a line that defined an era:
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.
In some ways, though, what John F. Kennedy did not say in January of 1961 was nearly as noteworthy. He didn’t end his inaugural address with “via my Choate School headmaster, George St. John.”
Chris Matthews recently uncovered a portion of an essay that Kennedy’s headmaster often read to students during chapel sermons:
As has often been said, the youth who loves his Alma Mater will always ask not “What can she do for me?” but “What can I do for her.”
So yeah. Some might argue that Kennedy plagiarized his headmaster.
Do you care, though?
What if Kennedy had attempted to attribute that line to his headmaster in the speech? Would the message, set in the context of the collective 1961 American psyche, have been as provocative?
What if Kennedy had scrapped the line all together to avoid controversy? How differently would the 1960s have looked? Would you even be sitting where you are right now?
I advocate attribution as much as anyone else who creates (occasionally) original content on the web. But I also find myself sometimes avoiding saying things when I can’t remember if I really got the idea from someone else. And sometimes I forget where I got great articles that took me weeks to get around to reading in Instapaper—so I skip quoting them, too. This is a mistake.
My advice to myself and you: Don’t let via become a mental roadblock. Don't let it keep you from saying something potentially profound. Most importantly, accept that most great art is stolen anyway. You will steal; you will likely be stolen from.