The burden of originality

August 13, 2014

There’s a human impulse I’ve always found fascinating. You’ve probably experienced it first-hand because it happens all the time around us, especially on the Internet: you see someone doing an awesome thing and suddenly you get the urge to do awesome things yourself. We call this “being inspired” and for the most part, it’s great. It means more awesome things are being done and how could that not be great?

The problem is, “awesome things” is an awfully abstract concept, and finding your own awesome thing to do is a lot harder than it looks. Sure, you’ve always had that little voice in the back of your head saying that this idea of yours could indeed be awesome, but that’s not enough to get you into “doing” territory. Your lizard brain is trained to avoid situations where you could get hurt, and whenever you consider putting yourself out there you feel completely exposed, as if the whole world is out to get you. So naturally, you do nothing, and the years go by.

Then of course, along comes somebody else who decided not to listen to her lizard brain (or maybe she’s just a little hard of hearing) and does precisely what you wanted to do all along. It turns out, the thing is awesome and you know what? It actually works and people seem to genuinely appreciate it. At this point there are probably two conflicting emotions inside your head. First is the excited impulse to go and finally do the damn thing yourself, now that someone else has removed the uncertainty for you, proving that there’s value in it and that it can work. But then a very different feeling creeps in: now that someone else is doing it, what you hold so dear is no longer truly original, so how can you possibly do it without being perceived as little more than a copycat?

It can be even worse. What if you had no original idea to begin with? What if you didn’t know you loved something until you saw it for the first time? What if seeing what someone else did is enough to finally spur you into action, even if it’s just to try your hand at the same thing? Is it fundamentally wrong to say “I want to do that, too”? Does it diminish the value of what you could accomplish? Would it be better if everybody just stopped trying? These are great mysteries.

There are many theories out there that try to address the issue. Some say that everything’s fair game because there’s nothing truly original out there anyway, while others are quick to condemn such actions. I’m going to go ahead and say that at the end of the day, what matters most is that you do something instead of just thinking about doing it. Even if it’s by following someone else’s lead, the very fact that you got started doing something potentially great has merit. It has to have it. Clearly we all want to be as original as we possibly can, but how realistic is that? If fear of being unoriginal is keeping you from doing what you love, I say you’re looking at it the wrong way. At some point you just have to focus on your own work and pay less attention to what others are doing (or saying). Sure, you probably won’t come up with anything revolutionary right out of the gate, but if you keep at it in the end your voice will come through and the work will become truly yours.1

Think about that, for a second. If everyone got discouraged at the first sign of trouble, there would only be one instance of everything. Microsoft never would have created Windows because what was the point when the Macintosh was already there?2 Google wouldn’t even exist today, because Yahoo! was dominating search long before Google Search came into the scene. Apple never would have created the iPod because the market was already flooded with a bazillion different MP3 players at the time. None of those products were truly original and yet, they ended up taking the world by storm and leaving their predecessors far behind. And guess what: that’s just how competition works. It breeds diversity. It’s how we move forward, how we get better. In the end, the best products tend to succeed, even if they weren’t there first. And we’re all better off for it.

If there’s a lesson in here I believe it’s this: be respectful of the creations of others, but don’t let that respect keep you from doing what you love. It’s a lesson I’m struggling to apply myself, I admit. My lizard brain keeps shouting at me that the work I’m doing here is really nothing special, but you know what? I’ve decided I’m not going to listen to it any more. Sometimes I feel discouraged, but I refuse to give up. It won’t be easy, but I’m determined to pull through and I hope you do, too, because I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do next.

One thing I know, though. It’s going to be awesome.

  1. To be clear, I’m not talking about shamelessly ripping off other people’s work. Nor am I saying that you shouldn’t acknowledge the source of your inspiration. In fact, quite the contrary. I’m a firm believer in respecting your heroes and praising their hard work. Credit must be given where credit is due, it’s as simple as that.

  2. You could argue that Microsoft actually did in fact shamelessly rip off the Macintosh’s Graphical User Interface, but for all their similarities, both operating systems are profoundly different interpretations of the same idea. At the same time, you could argue that Windows forced the Mac OS to get better, and now we’re once again seeing it happen the other way around.