Every time I begin writing a new post, an internal struggle takes place in my head.
“I’m not being original.”
“Someone else has already written about this.”
“There are a million articles like this — why would anyone read mine?”
Usually the struggle wins and stops me from writing. Instead of taking action, I wait. I go back to consuming rather than producing.
I realize now how completely futile and self-destructive this kind of mindset is. This is not the abundance mentality. This is not how creators think. My actions have proven Salvador Dali right.
Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing. — Salvador Dali
There’s a lot of undue pressure today to ‘be original.’
Here’s the definition of original: “created directly and personally by a particular artist; not a copy or imitation.”
The truth is, very little in this world can be considered wholly and unequivocally original. The phrase “there is nothing new under the sun” captures the essence of this. Every film, every book, every speech, every painting, every innovation, is built upon the prior work of thousands of others.
Take a look at this list of some of the people who have stolen, copied and imitated: Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Michael Jackson, Mark Zuckerberg, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, William Shakespeare… in fact, this exercise is just as pointless as trying to be original is, as I would have to name every single revered figure in the history of mankind.
Were it not for stealing, progress as we know it would grind to a halt in every last domain: poetry, science, writing, art, music, sports… it is simply not possible to create something out of nothing. Every innovation builds upon the past, standing on the shoulders of giants.
Creativity is not a spark of instantaneous inspiration, but rather a combinatorial process of assembling bits and pieces from various sources.
Laurence J. Peter said it best when he said, “originality is the fine art of remembering what you hear and forgetting where you heard it.”
Coming to terms with the notion that originality is overrated is liberating. There is nothing wrong with taking something old, adding a twist, and calling it new. Things need not be original to be of value.
In 2013, Hollywood had a record-setting year with $11 billion in box office revenues. The top grossing movies included Iron Man 3, Despicable Me 2, The Hunger Games 2, Fast & Furious 6, Man of Steel, Thor 2, and The Hobbit 2. Notice a trend?
The most popular movies of the year consisted almost completely of sequels and reboots based on prior pieces of work. They aren’t ‘original’ by definition, but people can’t seem to get enough of unoriginal work.
I’ve also come to appreciate imitation as a necessary component of the learning process. Just as a child learns how to write by spelling out the ABCs over and over and a programmer learns how to code by copying others’ code, the first step in any learning curve is doing by imitation.
After that, the fundamental process of improvement is based upon studying and emulating the masters in a given field.
Michael Jordan recently claimed that Kobe Bryant stole all of his moves. Indeed, there are numerous videos on YouTube showcasing the extent to which their playstyles are almost identical. But as Kobe responded, it is simply the domino effect at work. Each generation of players takes from those that came before them and makes it their own. This is how progress is achieved.
Imitation alone does not lead to success though. Every beginning basketball player tries to imitate Michael Jordan, yet there is only one Kobe Bryant. Every new investor tries to mimic Warren Buffett, yet few (if any) replicate his success.
The importance of imitation is to understand why the masters do what they do. Doing so gives you a glimpse into their minds to see what they see, to think what they think. Mimicry without understanding is akin to studying for a test through rote memorization rather than holistic learning: you will only ever scrape the surface of what you’re doing.
The late Hunter S. Thompson was ruthless about imitating his heroes. He rewrote the entirety of The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms on a typewriter to better understand the writing styles of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. He wanted to learn the magic and flow of a great writer and experience the feeling of writing a timeless masterpiece.
And perhaps it is only possible to find true authenticity after being callously unoriginal.
Conan O’Brien once remarked that he wanted to be David Letterman, and David Letterman wanted to be Johnny Carson, and Johnny Carson wanted to be Jack Benny. Each of them failed to become their heroes yet became something more. As Conan said, “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a catalyst for profound re-invention.”
So where do you get ideas from? Consider the advice of Jim Jarmush:
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.
I now take comfort knowing I’ve internalized what millions of creators before me have felt. The struggle I face when writing has been placed on mute. With the newfound quiet, I feel at ease to write and express myself, regardless how unoriginal my ideas may be. I’m reassembling the old into something new and making it mine; something that makes me tingle and gives me pleasure.
The key takeaway is this: stop worrying about being unoriginal and just DO it. You are only able to hone your craft and discover your uniqueness through action. Build something, draw something, write something, program something, record something, dance something, teach something. Create something.
Creating is scary, but the truth is everyone is scared. An artist’s fear never goes away, but, as Steven Pressfield says, “the battle must be fought anew every day.” The only solution for overcoming the fear of judgment is to create constantly.
Do not let the voices in your head convince you it’s already been done. Do not wait for that one idea, that one product, that one inspiration, that one something before you get started.
Embrace unoriginality, steal something, and don’t look back.
I hope this post has inspired you and I encourage you to take any ideas you’ve learned from me.
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