Technology, Culture, & Emotional Intelligence

The Real Story is Always More Complicated

No one has a monopoly on original ideas.

The Real Story is Always More Complicated
Photo by Robert Linder / Unsplash

Have you ever heard the story of how Monopoly was made? Chances are you have, after all, for several decades the story of the creation of the game was printed and shipped with the game.

The story, now legend, goes something like this:

In the middle of the Depression, a little-known salesman by the name of Charles Darrow lost everything. Like many average Joes struggling to put food on the table for his family, Darrow had to turn to his own wit and fortitude to find ways to make ends meet. He and his wife dreamed of one-day becoming business owners who would be wealthy and well-respected. In order to keep this dream alive, they began to pretend to be wealthy each night after dinner by playing a game they made up.

In this game, you would use a small amount of money and a little luck to turn your acquisitions into a Monopoly. Charles Darrow and his wife were so proud of their creation that they began to wonder if they could sell it. After many years of shopping the game around, they finally got a bite. The toy manufacturer Parker Brothers was interested in the game. Remarkably, they offered him 1 million dollars for his idea! It turns out that the very thing Darrow had created to pass the time while he worked toward his fortune became the source of the fulfillment to his dreams.

Queue the moral lesson: With a little luck, and a lot of hard work, you too can make your own fortune.

Pretty great right?

Until last week, this was the only story I ever knew. I’ve told this story on stage countless times to audiences with a glint in my eye and a smirk on my face. I never thought to challenge it. After all, why question something so inspiring (not to mention concise)?

But the real story is a lot more complex.

You’ll not be surprised at this point to learn that Charles Darrow is not the inventor of Monopoly. He got the idea from two friends, who showed him how to play. When Darrow sold the idea to Parker Brothers, those two friends couldn’t contest his claim as creator because they had learned it from someone else. That person had learned it from someone else, and that person had learned it from someone else, and on and on. The first real person who could claim to have created the game that became Monopoly was a woman named Lizzie Magie. So, why didn’t she contest the game’s origin? Well, she simply didn’t recognize it. Her game had been changed so many times as it passed from one person to the next that by the time it became the game Darrow pitched to Parker Brothers, it was nearly unrecognizable. When you add to it that Magie was a woman in a man’s world and that she was a radical for her time (ironically, her original game promoted an intentional message of “anti-land ownership”) it’s not too surprising that Darrow’s simple story was preferable to those who were marketing the game.

Of course, there was one group who realized pretty early on that Magie, not Darrow, was the actual creator and copyright holder of the game: Parker Brothers. When they found out about Magie’s creation, they approached her and offered a few thousand dollars for the rights. Magie eagerly sold the game. She believed Parker Brothers would take her idea further than she ever could to children all over the world. But of course, their actual intentions were to gain a monopoly on the game Monopoly.

If there is a lesson in the real story of Monopoly, it is this: the real story is always more complicated. This truth is a hard pill to swallow in a culture that wants things to be quick and fast and easy. True creation is never the work of one person, at one time, in one place. Each of us impacts and is impacted by others. We build on one another’s ideas. No one has ever written a book alone. No one has ever built a company alone. No one has ever shaped a policy alone.

Perhaps if we could remember this as we take our own stabs at trying to create our next book, post, or product, it would help shape the way we see our work. A broader and longer perspective on our own creativity would leave us more grateful, more humble, and more able to honor those giants standing behind us—those who made what we do possible.

No one has a monopoly on original ideas.


Subscribe to Andrew McPeak

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson