The myth of originality

There’s a myth about creativity that you have to be original. I remember at art college sharing ideas and the response 95% of the time was ‘yeah but is that original?’ I think entrepreneurs worry about the same predicament. However, the truth is there is most ideas are just an old idea in a new guise, format, context, or an idea that has finally arrived at the right time for the world to be ready for it. This phenomenon is true for the art world, startups, design, but also other domains such as philosophy or even how to have sex. People have been at it for a pretty long time.

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

― Mark Twain, Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the North American Review

I think we should embrace this notion. We are influenced every day by so many sources of ideas, from the news, from social media, and in our daily interactions as we go about our day. Our brains’ neurons are firing constantly, about 200 times per second. And each neuron connects to about 1,000 other neurons — making countless associations collectively. So when we have that Eureka moment, it’s naturally hard to recall exactly what led us to it. Yet in some cultures, it’s abhorrent to not attribute your idea to someone else who has come before you, and I believe being more conscious of what’s influencing us and giving attribution where it’s due is key to being more influential.

If you’re writing an academic paper, or just submitting your first dissertation at college, you’ll know that examiners will first check your bibliography to see how well you’ve researched your subject. Without references, you are unconvincing.

Who were you inspired by?

I listen avidly to Tim Ferriss’ podcast. On it he interviews successful people and tries to decode what makes them so good at what they do. The Stoics seem to come up a lot. In fact, Ferriss has made an audiobook of some of Seneca’s work. There’s something about referencing ancient greek wisdom that makes you sound more convincing. It’s a bit like why quoting famous people (usually out of context) is such a reflex for anyone trying to sound smart. It’s harder to disagree with someone’s argument if they back it up with someone famous and even better, long dead. Let’s see if it works here:

Isaac Newton famously said,

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

Yet it has been said by James Gleick that he actually had a rather reclusive life:

“Isaac Newton said he had seen farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, but he did not believe it. He was born into a world of darkness, obscurity, and magic; led a strangely pure and obsessive life, lacking parents, lovers, and friends…”

So when is giving credit just a form of humble-brag? Just a way to appear more convincing and authoritative, only to really put our own point of view across.

Where I work at the innovation firm IDEO, we have a value that we hold up as essential to the culture: ‘build on the ideas of others’. It’s a rule in brainstorming, and it’s also something that employees are measured on in annual reviews. You can really tell when someone is genuinely building on your idea and when they are using the behaviour as a way to make their point, and at IDEO it’s pretty natural to see it in action. It’s such an important value because it recognises the whole and the individual parts of an idea.

We took influence from this idea of ‘building upon’ when we built OpenIDEO.com and the software that powers it, OI Engine. The platform encourages you when you are looking at someone else’s inspiration or idea on the platform, to build an idea directly from it. When you click the ‘Inspired by’ button you are presented with a submission form with the idea you just saw pre-linked to it. The author gets a notification (and warm fuzzies), prompting them to see what they inspired.

The antithesis of this is when you hear ‘my idea…’ ‘I did this…’ ‘that was my idea’. In a collaborative culture this is a party killer.

The other value we have is ‘talk less, do more’ — this demonstrates the value of doing something about an idea vs just having an idea. The two values have to go hand in hand. Otherwise, you have a team that talks a lot but produces nothing.

In an increasingly competitive world of self promotion — selfies, ‘likes’ and follows, maybe we can find pause to give a little more credit to those who helped us get where we are today.

Extending this idea to technology startups, we’ve all seen examples of ideas that were touted as life changing — take VR back in the nineties — films like Lawnmower man showed us a vision of a future which (thankfully) never arrived. VR has (only just) become a $1B industry this year, decades after its first appearance. Being original as an entrepreneur is about understanding the times and context in which you live — understanding and matching the human needs of the now and the near future to what is technologically feasible and can translate into a viable business model.

Being original as an entrepreneur is about understanding the times and context in which you live — understanding and matching the human needs of the now and the near future to what is technologically feasible and can translate into a viable business model.

How do you start to do that? Stop reading this, get outside and go interact with some real people. Keep a journal on you and take note of what people get frustrated with, what they don’t find intuitive, or look for workarounds.

Here’s an example from my morning commute in London. I get the ferry every day and it tends to rain here. This roof drain pipe would otherwise drip onto passengers’ heads as they disembark the ferry. On board is a Costa coffee shop. Some kind soul has ingeniuosly hollowed out the bottom of the cup and created this simple fix.

Here’s another — red telephone boxes that are now redundant thanks to mobile phone adoption turned into a local village sharing library. The protection from the rain and its central location being key elements. Two existing ideas mixed together.

What I love about these examples is that they are an indicators of a human need — if someone has gone to the effort to create this workaround, then it’s a sure sign that something needs to change.

So, let’s stop worrying about being original. Let’s embrace our mirror neurons and our innate behaviour to borrow ideas from each other. But let’s give credit where credit is due and be more conscious of what’s inspired us. Let’s give more value to the people around us who make ideas happen, rather than just talking about them. And in order to have ideas that make a difference, let’s spend more time understanding human behaviour and the needs of the people around us so that our ideas have an impact.

And with that, I’m going to stop thinking about tea, and go and make a cuppa.


Originally published at Nathan Waterhouse.