There is No Such Thing as An Original Idea

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.

So, first The Truth:

Then, Lost Generation:

From these came Easter is Coming.

The moral of the story: we all have the capacity to be creative, to be inspired, to feel like we’ve been given a gift and want to give something back in return. All we need, to borrow from Nike, is to “Just do it.”

Note: If you are interested in reading more about the combinatorial nature of creativity, no one, in my opinion, covers this material better than Maria Papova, curator of Brain Pickings. You can start with her full length article on the subject, which includes an interview with her, but really her whole wonderful site is often filled with examples of this kind of creativity at work. For a shorter take, see her guest post on the Smithsonian Institute’s Innovations blog, from which I borrowed the image used with this post (Ikon Images / Corbis).