There is No Such Thing as An Original Idea

big-mickDavid Lose writes:

Creativity is all the rage these days: what it is, how you develop it, the various ways in which you express it. A slew of bestselling books, including my favorite Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer, offers insight into the nature, origin and application of our fundamental, foundational, and phenomenal ability to engage in creative acts.

While the approaches and analyses differ somewhat at various points, one of the major points of convergence revolves around destroying the myth of the “solitary genius.” Creativity doesn’t, in other words, happen in a vacuum – creative ideas are always inspired, nurtured, cajoled, and spurred forward by other ideas. Which means that creative people are always drawing on the work of others, consciously or unconsciously.

Mark Twain said much the same in a letter to Helen Keller, reflecting on an incident years earlier when she had been charged – and acquitted – of plagiarism:

Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that ‘plagiarism’ farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his.  (Mark Twain’s Letters, Vol. 2 of 2, as sited at Brain Pickings.).

“For substantially all ideas are second-hand.” The technical terms that seems to be garnering support to capture Twain’s sentiment is the “combinatorial nature of creativity.” And while that may sound like a mouthful, the essence of the idea is that good ideas are always the product, to one degree or another, of collaboration.

One of the things that I love about this idea is that it removes the burden we may feel for being “original.” I’ve said for years – and there are few things more enjoyable than having one’s biases vindicated :) – that there is no such thing as an original idea. Rather, there are only ideas that are adapted, extended, or improved to meet one’s particular need or circumstances.

Further, naming and exploring the combinatorial, or collaborative, nature of creativity makes something that is often portrayed as mysterious and elusive far more accessible and down to earth. Anyone is capable of adapting ideas. Anyone can find something she loves and extend it, or discover an insight that changes his outlook and apply it differently. Creativity isn’t beyond the reach of anyone willing to learn from and share with others.

One of my first great experiences with this kind of creative, combinatorial process was in putting together an Easter video with my friends and colleagues Ben Cieslik (designer) and Karoline Lewis (narrator). The back-story is simple but, I think, illustrative. I’d come across what I thought was a fantastic and powerful example of a fairly elaborate word play called “Lost Generation” which, in turn, had been inspired by an Argentinean political commercial called “The Truth.” And I wanted to see if I could do it too. So after a weekend (Palm Sunday weekend, to boot) of feverishly playing with words and phrases, three days of exceptional design work, and several voice-over takes, “Easter is Coming” was born and released on Maundy Thursday of 2010. While I named both Jonathan Reed (creator of “Lost Generation”) and Ernesto Savaglio (“The Truth”) as inspirations, it’s terribly fun to lay bare the trail of combinatorial thought below.

Read more, and watch the videos he’s talking about, here.

16 Comments on "There is No Such Thing as An Original Idea"

  1. Antediluviancurrent | Nov 7, 2013 at 6:06 pm |

    We’re all our very own pastiche, but we can connect dots in a way that haven’t been connected before.

    • Punctuated Colon | Nov 8, 2013 at 12:56 am |

      Otherwise we would have had the combustion engine since the dawn of time

      • Calypso_1 | Nov 9, 2013 at 2:08 pm |

        At the very least it began with the dawn of recorded history as all the principles of mechanics were in place with the Greeks and mastering of the forge was well under way. The search for the control of explosive force is a great deal of the saga of technology over the next 1500 years. The limiting factors were materials engineering & math. If the Greeks had been able to get over Xeno’s paradox things might have been vastly different.

      • The Well Dressed Man | Nov 9, 2013 at 2:35 pm |

        The wheel is actually pretty amazing. We take it for granted, but the physics of rotational and translational kinetic energy are deeper than casual observation might suggest.

  2. drokhole | Nov 7, 2013 at 6:17 pm |

    Couldn’t agree more! (hey, there’s a phrase I didn’t come up with)

    I was having a conversation with a friend about this the other day and I thought they put it well: “You’re never the first to say anything, of course, and usually haven’t said it best, either–about all you can hope for is to have said it well this time around.”

    To exemplify this article even further, let me completely lift two other insights that I recently came across. One was from Brian Eno, who emphasized the part about there being the supportive environment from which all individuals emerge:

    “So I thought that originally those few individuals who’d survived in history – in the sort-of “Great Man” theory of history – they were called “geniuses”. But what I thought was interesting was the fact that they all came out of a scene that was very fertile and very intelligent. So I came up with this word “scenius” – and scenius is the intelligence of a whole… operation or group of people. And I think that’s a more useful way to think about culture, actually. I think that – let’s forget the idea of “genius” for a little while, let’s think about the whole ecology of ideas that give rise to good new thoughts and good new work.”

    Another quote comes from a man name Luigi Bonpensiere, who wrote a book called “New Pathways to Piano Technique.” Might come across as an odd reference, but the subtitle is “A Study of the Relations Between Mind and Body with Special Reference to Piano Playing.” In other words, it focuses more on cultivating a particular state of mind – almost Zen-like non-attachment – than on the piano in particular (something akin to mushin and wu-wei of Taoism). Aldous Huxley wrote the foreword to it, actually. Anyway, quote is as follows (which happens to brilliant way to frame the benefits of open source):

    “Great principles are not discovered for the glorification of the individual man. He who would cherish this thought would be, indeed, a poor servant to the Power of Life. Instead of launching a challenge to his fellow men and declaring his primacy in the field, it would be much wiser and more practical for him to say, ‘Here is this new thing. What can we do with it? I feel that if a new bit of knowledge is to be of extended use and benefit, it must be presented with utmost simplicity. Come. Help me.'”

    Anyway, great article, wish I had thought of it!

    • thisbliss | Nov 8, 2013 at 1:21 pm |

      Interesting term ‘scenius’. There’s a theory that the word genius derives from ‘genie’ as in some entity outside of the person being creative. So the original meaning meant that a person was not responsible for a new idea but only a receiver of it. All pressure and credit was removed and placed on the ‘genie’.

      • drokhole | Nov 8, 2013 at 5:17 pm |

        Whether true or not, that’s a fascinating take. First thing that comes to mind, of course, is Socrates’ “daemon.” Also, the Greek muses. The term music actually derives from it, meaning “art of the muses.” And I’ve read quotes from a ton of musicians attributing their creativity/output to tuning into some higher power/realm. Particularly classical composers. Richard Wagner once said:

        “I feel that I am one with this vibrating Force, that it is omniscient, and that I can draw upon it to an extent that is limited only by my own capacity.”

        There’s a few other quotes from others that I wish I had on hand/could recall. I think I remember reading them in the book “Harmonies of Heaven and Earth” by Joscelyn Godwin.

  3. Another thing I’ve found that helps ease the “burden of creativity” is to know that the ability to express your own personal style matters above technique. Your thing may not become a “great work” in the history of your medium, but it is the closest expression of what *you* have to say, and if people identify with that, then it doesn’t matter so much if your execution was imperfect. This is how you get outsiders like Henri Rousseau, Grandma Moses, etc.

  4. Cortacespedes | Nov 7, 2013 at 10:35 pm |

    Yes, a bit like this…

    “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”

    Igor Stravinsky

    Dare to be brazen! Steal with intent, flair and a pinch of panache. Never let anyone convince you that theft doesn’t pay. Eh, Banksy…

  5. Damien Quinn | Nov 8, 2013 at 5:15 am |

    Society supports the greatest level of creativity it can afford, luckily, this generation has managed to make creativity exceedingly cheap.

    • That’s because, for many of us, we’d rather do our “creativity” for free.

  6. Anarchy Pony | Nov 8, 2013 at 12:27 pm |

    I can’t help but feel that this is going to upset the Randian Ubermenschen.

  7. howiebledsoe | Nov 8, 2013 at 2:19 pm |

    Dude, I’ve read an article very similar before…… 😉

  8. This is among the dumbest things Ive read. Yes a tree exist first. Yes the metal exists first in the ground. Yes someone else figured out how to make nails and cut wood into usable pieces. Yes geniuses build on the materials that came before, but none of this diminishes the inspired unique geniuos and creativity it takes to composite the many parts and ideas into something truly revolutionary that is greater than the sum of those parts. There will always be people with good ideas, but there will also always be only a few who are able to take good ideas and out of that create something truly inspired. Its rediculous to even attempt to diminish it.

    • gustave courbet | Nov 9, 2013 at 10:51 pm |

      I’d be happy to direct you to some websites that will recalibrate your idea of what constitutes “the dumbest things Ive read.”

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