Ralph Waldo Emerson famously lamented “All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients.” Abraham Lincoln insisted that “books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all.”
“For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources…” Mark Twain wrote to Hellen Keller, “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.” There are countless references to this theory that there is no such thing as original thought at this stage of human history. Basically, any ideas you have have been thought of before; your thoughts are not unique snowflakes.
How utterly depressing. And who are we to argue with these great figures from our history? Who, in fact? Our own unique combinations of genetics, experiences, influences, choices, beliefs, relationships, and dreams, that’s who.
It’s true that it isn’t easy to be original, but it’s easier than you might think. The most important part is to believe that you are original and
to be your authentic self in the process. In “The 10 Day Challenge to Live Your True Life,” Ashley asks us “What makes you a unique individual?” and lists values, theories, beliefs, experiences, our past, our present, our environment, friends and family. There are only so many unique combinations of language in this world, so it’s likely that any phrase, quote, or even speech has been assembled before by someone over the course of human history. Like a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time will eventually type the complete works of William Shakespeare. But even if the words are the same, what are the chances that all of those listed categories are exactly the same for the previous person or persons who said them? Not bloody likely. The inspirations and emotions that drive you to say something or do something or think something are yours and yours alone, and in that case make everything you do original.
We build upon the past, and ideas are recycled and repurposed all the time. That is how we evolve. Ironically, Shakespeare’s time writers did not value originality. Instead it was considered more of a skill to write in the style of other achievers, and likeness was thus celebrated. And yet The Bard stood out anyway because of who he was; he couldn’t help but let his own originality manifest in his work. We don’t have to take large leaps in originality. Little tweaks are enough. Who among us have walked through a Whole Foods parking lot with the same thoughts as DJ Dave of Smog and Fog Films
? Many. But who turned those thoughts into a song and video that went viral? Only one. And THAT is original.
I always liked that scene in Garden State when Sam (Natalie Portman) jumps up feeling unoriginal and insists on doing something completely unique. After doing a quirky dance and making the most random of noises, she announces “you just witnessed a completely original moment in human history. It’s refreshing. You should try it.” Yes, it really can be that easy. Why not try? What can you lose? And who knows where else it may lead?
There is a woman in Scotland who I was fortunate to know many years ago. Every now and then, when I need inspiration or need to know there are still new and imaginative things happening in the world of the arts, I look her up. Her name is Kate E. Deeming
and she is a performance artist, writer, filmmaker, dancer, and activist. “The world needs you, ” Kate writes on her blog, “It needs your wild, abundant, beautiful creative spirit and energy. Your challenge is to find a way to let that live.” Kate is a Pennsylvanian who has presented work in India, Japan, Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Lebanon, and Sri Lanka
(to name a few), has received a commendation from the Scottish Parliament for her contributions to dance and peacemaking, has collaborated on films and workshops and lectures around the world, is a single mom to the cutest baby boy you have ever seen, and who has an entirely unique and undoubtedly authentic view of the world. She’s strives towards uniqueness and encourages others to do the same, celebrating differences and everything that makes all of us original. Even if President Lincoln himself were to tell me that the ideas she comes up with using that combination of life experiences were not unique, he could not convince me so.
We don’t have to be artists to be creative, and we don’t have to grow up with artists. We all have the opportunity to bring our collection of experiences and thoughts together in a way that is completely unique. Turn to those around you for collaboration, believe in your own meaning, shake up your routine, and open the door to creativity. Take a new route to work. Talk to a stranger. See a play instead of a movie. Try to say “thank you” in a new language. DJ Dave said that new ideas are like truffles on the forest floor; you don’t always know when and where they will appear, but they will. And then what? As director Jean-Luc Godard has said, “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”