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The Originality Trap

This blog is not totally original.  Nor are any of the blogs I have written since Can Scorpions Smoke began in January 2012.  In fact, many others have written about the subject matter of this particular post long before me and realising this almost inhibited me from writing it.  And that’s the trap.  The beautifully alluring siren song of this mythical beast we call originality.

Many years ago Mark Twain wrote “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.”  And, after many years of being taught the opposite, I have come believe that what Twain suggests is absolutely true.  There is nothing new under the sun.  Creativity is a concept that is more about connection than creation.  The myth of the creative genius sitting alone conjuring up something 100% novel from literally nothing is simply not true.  As co-founder of the nomadic creative agency Genius Steals Faris Yakob is fond of saying “All ideas are remixes.”*

In my work I find that the biggest thing that creatively inhibits people isn’t necessarily the fact that they don’t have any ideas, it is because they judge the ideas they do have as unoriginal.  And this striving for the impossible either makes them despondent and give up or try even harder to be even more original which gets them even more stuck.  The only way out of this originality quick-sand is to stop struggling and try something counter-intuitive.  Legendary theatre director Keith Johnstone has the best advice for this – instead of striving to be original, strive to be obvious.  Strive to be more average.  Less interesting.  More boring.  Try less, not more.  If we let go of our attachment to originality in this way we allow our obviousness to flourish.  And contrary to what we were taught at school, if the most obvious thing to say or do in any particular moment is something that has already been said or done before then steal it!

Artist and writer Austin Kleon’s brilliant first book is called Steal Like an Artist based on Pablo Picasso’s suggestion that “All art is theft. Good artists copy. Great Artists steal.”  Kleon himself says of his art “I think of almost everything in terms of collage. I take Saul Steinberg’s faces, Otto Soglow’s hands, John Porcellino’s lines, Lynda Barry’s handwriting.”  I found these ideas incredibly liberating when I first read them and began to embrace my own work as a unique collage of influences from others who I have encountered over the years.  It meant that I became less despondent and more interested when I encountered a brilliant piece of art or writing that inspired me.  And whilst I always strive to give credit for specific influences in all areas of my work, the collage that has emerged is my own unique synthesis of my own unique experience of the world.  A scrapbook of things that already exist in some form that I have simply arranged and connected in a unique way.  Your own synthesis of your own experiences would be totally unique to you too.  One’s synthesis is one’s creative fingerprint.  This feels closer to what we are really seeking when we search for that elusive moment of pure originality.

So, as sad as it may be to admit to ourselves that the beautiful beast of originality is a myth, the absence of this belief gives us permission to simply be more of what we already are, knowing that it is enough. To embrace our lives and our work as an ongoing collage of experiences that will always be arranged in a way that is, at some level, totally unique to us. To let go of originality and instead nurture the natural synthesiser within us. To experience life as it is whilst staying awake to possibilities for creative connection when they inevitably emerge.  As Brian Eno suggests, to simply “stay alert for the moment when a number of things are just ready to collide with one another.”

I hope you enjoyed this remix.


* A great example of this is the legendary story of the screenwriters who successfully pitched the film Alien as “Jaws in space”

  1. Johnnie Moore says:

    Thanks, Steve. The idea that we are already enough is really quite liberating. Someone said that originality is about being from the origin not about being new or different, so to be original is to be true to oneself rather than struggling to be something different.

  2. dougshaw says:

    “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” Jim Jarmusch. I choose to add ‘acknowledge your sources’ to this.

  3. kayscorah says:

    “If you’re going to steal, steal from the best” someone said. I can’t remember who. And if I can’t remember, then I’m not stealing….am I?

  4. Nick says:

    Yes to this. The power of obviousness is a great way of thinking about it. I’m always uncomfortable when people call me ‘creative’ (which they’re often saying to mean some kind of ‘special gift’ that they wish they had). It doesn’t feel that way. It feels much more like being interested in lots of things, so having lots to steal from.

  5. James says:

    Granting self the permission not to be original seems simple but is such a seemingly paradoxical act, that many of us just disregard it.
    Creativity doesnt happen in a vacuum. It’s not like dark matter that suddenly appears into the light. I work from the view that creativity is what is formed when different things or ideas collide. The colliding things themselves will be changed and something else will also emerge.
    On that basis, creativity is making something different from the already existing. Therefore it can never be truly original. When we accept and realise that things are being created constantly and naturally, we can loosen our judgemental eye enough to appreciate our own creativity

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