On Originality


The other night, we saw Singing In The Rain in the theatre. It was a belated birthday gift – or experience – that was booked on my behalf, and while I was very much looking forward to it, I had no idea what to expect. What's more, I didn't do any research beforehand, not even a sneak peek online, because I like to be pleasantly surprised when I go to see a musical, play, or movie. Sure enough, I was blown away.

On my morning walk the next day, still high from the experience, I was in awe of how a story created in the 50s can still entrance audiences today. Everything about the production left a mark, from the singing to the dancing, the acting to the storytelling, the vibrant colours of the costumes to the actual rain that fell on the stage. Talk about a classic, timeless, work of art. 

This started me down a train of thought that sparked the crux of this blog post, as I got to thinking about an idea that's been percolating in my head for a while: 

The idea of originality.

Today's society, especially the western hemisphere, preaches originality. There's an emphasis on individuality, uniqueness, and rarity, emblematised by pithy sayings like 'be yourself, 'stand out from the crowd', 'follow the path less travelled'. We're bombarded with messages – subliminal and overt – that anything (or anyone) short of original is second rate at best, and an abject failure at worst. 

I've been guilty of this thinking too; even I have bought into the allure of originality in the past. For instance, my Good Times record features a song called Special Is What You Are, which opens with 'there's only one of you in this place'. I stand by the message in the song and I'll expand on that message in the future, but for now, I'd like to explore another facet of this concept of originality which can sometimes be insidious.

The longing for originality and uniqueness is even more pronounced in creative circles. When you start out as a musician, or artist, or writer, you're told to market yourself, and a message you're expected to belabour, more than most, is what sets you apart from the crowd. They ask you what your Unique Selling Point (USP) is, they ask what makes you different, why you're not just another boy with a guitar or another girl with a paintbrush. 

And we creatives, we eat it up. We go to extreme lengths to differentiate ourselves, even extending beyond our art. Some of these differentiating actions are conscious, but others are subconscious, and the line starts to blur between the former and the latter. It even catalyses a self-perpetuating cycle that could swing the virtuous way if you're lucky, or turn vicious if you're not.

A trivial example in my daily experience has to do with my sartorial choices. If you've ever seen me in the flesh, you'll know I have a penchant for colourful socks. My local music scene has cottoned onto this, so there are places and people that describe me as the guy with stripey socks. I don't mind this at all, I even lean into it. But what starts to happen is that I carry an expectation in my mind that I have to show up to the next gig in stripey socks; this is a thought I have every time I'm getting dressed to go out. It's easy to act on it and live up to the expectations; if I only have colourful socks in my sock drawer – and yes, I have one of those – then I'll always show up in colourful socks. 

The thing is, people notice, and something funny starts to happen; people start to buy me socks. I'm talking birthday presents, Christmas presents, I-saw-this-and-thought-of-you presents, and just because presents. It's typical too. Think about how you choose what presents to buy for the people in your life. More often than not, your first thought will be: 'What do they like? Let's get them more of that.' You probably don't punctuate that first thought with a second thought: 'But wait, don't they already have enough of it?' 

This is how my fiancée's nan ended up with more owl figurines than you'll find in a Harry Potter gift shop, why my fiancée herself has a collection of quirky rings and jewellery, and partly why I have a sock drawer, albeit an infinitesimal part. 

You might be wondering, what do stripey socks have to do with a post on originality for creatives? The truth is, not a lot, I did say it was a trivial example. But also, it has everything to do with originality because it's a tangible example of how self-perpetuating cycles take hold. By the way, on the issue of stripey socks, I'm not complaining; please feel free to keep them coming, I really do appreciate them and I still have room in my sock drawer.

The broader point is that this USP rhetoric creates a creative landscape that venerates the pursuit of uniqueness and originality, and we foster this landscape at our peril. 

Strong words, I know, but stay with me. I'm all for USPs, uniqueness, and being true to oneself. However – and this may sound counterintuitive – the pursuit of originality for its own sake isn't worthwhile. Here's why. 

  1. Originality lies at the far side of unoriginality

The Helsinki bus station theory, proposed by Arno Minkkinen, is a wonderful illustration of this. There are several bus lines coming out of the station, all travelling in parallel in the same direction. 

Imagine, now, that you're a first-time tourist in Helsinki, faced with the several bus routes emanating from the station, and you hop on a bus at random hoping to see some interesting sights. The bus travels in a straight line for a while and you get bored. You wonder if the bus will ever veer off to the inner city, you wonder if it'll ever take you anyplace interesting, you wonder if you made the wrong decision the first time around, since, you know, it was a random choice.

You decide that you got on the wrong bus, so you get off and go back to the station; there are other buses after all. You hop on a second bus, it travels on the same route, still not turning off to any place interesting. You're moving in the same straight line, just on a different track. You've seen it all before, and you're not impressed. 

You get on a third bus, and a fourth, and a fifth. Now, you've wasted all that time and energy trying out several buses in search of the hallowed route, your golden path, expecting it to reveal itself instantly, and giving up when it doesn't.

This is what the search for originality is like. The thing about those buses is that they branch out onto their own unique paths eventually, but only after staying on the same boring route for the first few legs of the journey. If you're willing to stay on a bus – any bus you choose – long enough, it'll take you to cool and interesting places, on the most satisfying paths and the most rewarding journeys. You just have to stay on the bus. Staying on the bus means learning the basics of a creative pursuit, exploring and replicating the works of the masters in your chosen craft, and laying a foundation on which to build your art. All of this takes time, like riding on a bus travelling in a predictable, seemingly straight line.

Now, I feel the need to state that this isn't an argument against quitting. If you're reading this and you're tempted to interpret it as slaving away at pursuits for the sake of it, please don't, just don't. There's a right time and a right way to quit a pursuit that isn't worthwhile. 

The idea of quitting, and its concomitant stigma, deserves a post in itself, and I'll write that post someday (now's a good time to subscribe so you don't miss out on future posts). For now, the thing to bear in mind is the concept of the sunk cost fallacy. This is the idea that the more time you spend pursuing something, the more attractive it seems to you, and the less likely you are to quit it because your mind can't handle the notion that you've spent all that time on something that may amount to nothing if you quit. 

This is a trap. The way to get around this fallacy is to remind yourself that your time is a resource, and like all other resources, like money, it is subject to the concept of opportunity cost. Succinctly put, time spent doing something is time not spent doing something else. Time spent sticking at a failing pursuit is time not spent exploring new ventures that may be more fulfilling to you than the failing pursuit. 

So, stay on the bus. Travel through the familiar, the banal, and the unoriginal, and you might just find your originality on the other side.

  1. Creativity, and therefore originality, thrives on recombination

There's that old expression that there's nothing new under the sun. I don't quite think that's true. There's so much we've yet to discover and uncover, so much we've yet to explore or even understand. 

And yet, the expression has a certain verity to it, at least in the context of originality. I say this because we tend to think that creatives have to discover new things, conjure up new concepts out of thin air, and manifest never before seen or heard content. Except, we're only creatives, not sorcerers. 

A lot of the creative works we've come to know and love, and think of as original, just aren't so. What happens is old concepts are applied in new contexts. Old (and often familiar) ideas, things, and stories, are adapted, combined, or recombined, and expressed in new, fitting ways. 

Old concept, new context. The public domain is overflowing with examples. Case in point, consider the following storyline: A young prince is driven into exile by a mean uncle who orchestrates the demise of his dad – the reigning king – and seizes the throne for himself. In exile, the lost prince finds himself, and armed with a few helpers, he returns to reclaim the throne. 

If this plot sounds familiar, it's because it's the story of The Lion King. Or Hamlet. One features lions, the other, people. One is set in eastern Africa, the other, in northern Europe. One is a feel-good Disney film for kids and adults alike, the other, a Shakespearean tragedy. One was created in the 20th century, the other, the 16th.

What about the similarities between Aladdin and Les Miserables? Or Finding Nemo and Taken? I could go on, but I need not do so. The point is, some of the most prolific artists in history weren't afraid to borrow, adapt or even steal ideas.  

Thank you for making it this far, or skipping to this point. You get a reward either way, in the form of a recap. To sum up, in the early days of a creative journey, it takes time to find your niche, the thing that'll make you original. Stay on the bus and you just might find it. While you're at it, feel free to borrow some tried and tested ideas, and apply them in new ways that interest you. In the words of Austin Kleon, don't be scared to 'Steal Like An Artist'. In a roundabout, meta way, that's what I'm doing right now. Arno Minkkinen came up with the bus station theory,  and there've been numerous proponents of recombination through the ages, from Picasso to Austin Kleon. I've simply borrowed these two ideas and strung them together in this post, because it's important to me, and I hope, you too.

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