As someone who did not grow up with a habit of inventing things, I wonder sometimes what it must be like to have that type of mind. It is less creativity that I’m referring to as much as the notion of originality. More precisely: how to cope and avoid going nuts when you cannot really come up with anything truly original!
Remember the time I was thinking about why we don’t consider more seriously the idea of social “replicaneurship” instead of the traditional “entrepreneurship”, in order to take some of that “wheel reinvention” habit out that we tend to see nowadays? At the time I wondered if sometimes we would be doing good enough if we could simply take well-conceived social change models that some brilliant person elsewhere had already come up with, say, microcredit, and simply replicate this idea in our own neighborhoods. Instead, what we tend to see is many people starting up their own social enterprise without much research about what has already been done, i.e., with little regard to existing best practices. Sometimes this wastes time, money, or both, or worse: it can create widespread confusion among the landscape of funders, beneficiaries and practitioners.
In that sense, the problem was that people sometimes overestimate the importance of originality to create breakthroughs and/or attain fame.
Today, I am pondering what we should do when we actually DO seek originality… but can’t find it because thanks to the Internet, you can find your awesome idea already done just about fourteen times over – five years ago, that is – maybe even by a guy or girl living in the town next to you!
Oh, the angst, the frustration!
Do you sometimes share this feeling? You may or may not be what people consider a “creative person”. But you have a much higher hope than creativity itself. You seek originality. Day in and day out you read news articles of innovators the world over and you wish you could come up with something unique as well. Perhaps even something you can get credit for, eventually (see my last article on the nature of ego)?
In an age where technology has enabled us to reach millions through as little as a single dumb, dumb, YouTube video; where our impact on the world just begs to occur if we can find the right idea, packaged in the right way, released to the right audience, issued at the right time, it may appear that we find ourselves at times less individually capable of unique innovation. But what’s more: with the enormous potential of this connected age arises also a daily tragedy that I’m sure must befall millions in their pajamas in front of their computers this instant.
The tragedy I refer to is not necessarily the limiting of originality itself. Instead, I would argue that what at least feels so tragic is that feeling of powerlessness and despair that occurs when you just had this massive stroke of genius, start thinking about buying that web domain name already right before you print the new business cards… just to find out on your last routine Google search that there are already half a dozen ways in which your idea has found beautiful shape, form, and (argh!) so many followers!
For what it’s worth, we may have to adjust our individual expectations about originality not because it in itself has increased in frequency, but that our technology and interconnectedness has enabled us to simply see how rare an original thought was to begin with as our human population reached the billions and billions. Given the increasing difficulty in establishing one’s individual originality, it could compel us by implication to get in the habit of giving “group credit” instead. In other words, we could consider it more important to give broader credit for originality to a whole set of people who coined an important term or idea around the same time, instead of paying IP lawyers the world around to prove that Joe was first.
But assuming we still live in the world ruled by IP lawyers, that brings me to wonder what the truly original person out there does when they see their originality evaporate in a *pouf* due to some diabolical search engine’s results that pop up 0.258 seconds after typing the phrase “making small peer to peer loans to poor people in Africa.” On the upside, the fact that many others have thought of something already means certainly someone is doing something to solve the world’s hardest problems, right? So we all can relax a little more, right? Aren’t we in good hands?
And that may be the risk that this type of feeling leads some of us to conclude: that our idea, by virtue of not being entirely original, is not worth pursuing, because we do not want to be reinventing the wheel again, after all. Now imagine yourself in those same pajamas, sitting in front of your computer, having about twelve or fifteen of these so-called original ideas of yours, one after the other, die quick “deaths from Google”. Doesn’t this dishearten you, or worse, make you complacent that’s all well with the world because the smart kids got it covered?
Well, it may indeed be disheartening if we did not have the small comfort that fortunately, originality itself may only be a signpost at the foot of a big mountain of work and refinement of an idea, which then becomes a company or social movement going through ups and downs in the course of changing the world… or falling by the wayside. And I suspect that the genius entrepreneurs amongst us know this deep down in their guts as well. Namely, that what matters to posterity (and what will determine the entrepreneurs’ mission effectiveness, fame, or wallets, depending on what they seek) is not whether they were the first or even second people to be blessed by the original idea. What matters is what they do despite knowing that it has already been done before. The answer presumably: execute, execute, and execute.
It may then come as an irony in the world of social entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs that originality may land them an invitation to TED Global or even win them a Nobel Prize. However, it won’t make a lick of difference really in the lives of those they seek to touch and improve. And that, as mentioned, happens only through perseverance, effort, the occasional failure, and enormous investment of sweat and tears, which together make up the proverbial 99% of the mass that lies below the tip of the iceberg, which is what we see and call on the surface as “originality”.
Perhaps then, the greatest consolation to our sorrows with respect to the ways originality eludes us is this: that although we may have a deep inner longing to possess and own it, being unoriginal will not necessarily stand in the way of us making the world a better place with the talents that we are blessed with today. It will also not stand in the way of us even revolutionizing the world as we see it. For that to happen, what we arguably need most is (1) a good reason for engagement, (2) courage to face uncertainty, (3) the will to overcome adversity, (4) luck in too many ways to count, and (5) a lot of coffee to stay awake long enough to do what it takes to make things happen… all of these not necessarily in that order.
It will either have to be that, or I may just have to lay off the Google next time I got a brilliant idea that surely has never been done by anyone ever before. Can you already see me shivering in my pajamas?
As they say, ignorance can be enormous bliss!