The Myth of Originality
How the Art of the Past Molds Today's Creations
Have you ever stumbled upon something so innovative and disruptive that it just blows your mind? I’ve been there. It feels so… original, right? Especially if it’s the first time you’re seeing it. For a long time, we’ve been told that originality is the golden standard, the peak we should all aim for. If it’s not “original”, then it’s simply not groundbreaking enough.
But here’s a thought: What if originality has nothing to do with creativity? And that an invention or an idea is not truly original, alone. When we see something new for the first time—it feels original to us. But that’s just our perception. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder.
If we did our jobs properly and did our research, we can often trace back. Yet, most of us don’t do that. The truth is, what makes something feel original is how a person or collective of people blends various influences into something that feels new or unique.
So that’s good news. The pressure is off. You can take a breather. What’s unique, fresh, or innovative doesn’t translate to original. We just simply haven’t looked at what came before.
And the pressure to produce something that’s completely original is maybe the reason why most people are afraid of showing their work or sharing their ideas. Why? Afraid that the idea is not original enough or that it’s similar to something else. This fear holds back so many of us.
You know Isaac Newton, the physicist mostly famous for his discoveries in modern physics. He has this to say:
“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
Isaac Newton was influenced by the likes of Descartes, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Ibn Sina to name a few. Even the quote that I just shared can be traced back to a philosopher by the name of John of Salisbury:
“We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”
We all begin somewhere, and it’s rarely from a place of pure originality. It is by immersing ourselves in the process of copying from different sources in order to build a foundation of knowledge and understanding. Great artists, inventors, and entrepreneurs understand this. They have learned to see what’s around them and went one step further than their predecessors.
Think about it. Creativity is more about evolving what’s already present—playing around with the familiar and trying to figure out ways to make it new and unique—which is the unfamiliar, the surprise.
So what does that tell us who wants to make things happen? That it’s okay to look back. It’s okay to take inspiration. We’re not only honoring those who came before us but also we’re also contributing to a chain of inspiration for future generations to come. We’re doing collective learning. If that doesn’t sound awesome to you, then I don’t know what will.
So, the next time you create something yourself, remind yourself it’s not about being first (that’s too hard to beat by now haha), but it’s more about bringing your unique approach into your work. And what’s your unique approach you might think? It all stems from your experiences, insights, and inspirations to this very day. You might not have realized it yet.
A great point from the book Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon is that we can’t pick our biological genealogy (no brainer there), but we can actively choose our inspired genealogy—a family tree of people who have influenced the work that we do.
Thanks a lot for reading as always. In future newsletters, I want to expand upon this topic and dive deeper into the minds of historical figures and their influences.
This will naturally lead me to talk about the mind’s creative process and explore it from a cognitive and psychological perspective. If this is something you would love to see more of—this is for you.
If you enjoyed the issue, please share it with someone you think will enjoy it, too.
If you aren’t subscribed yet, you can do it here.
Until next time,