Is Originality Overrated?

What is originality? It’s when you get ideas that have not been thought of before.

Why is it important? Because novelty subverts expectations. It leads to the creation of something fresh, new, and well…original. Nothing like it has existed before; it’s a true contribution to the knowledge pool of humanity.

The problem, however, is that if you have thought of something, it is very likely that someone else has also thought of it. That is what makes originality hard. There are 8 billion¹ brains thinking and what are the chances that your brain has thought of something that other brains haven’t? It’s 0.0000000125%. If that is not infinitesimal enough, consider all the humans that have ever walked on Earth - 117 billion² brains. What about the thoughts each brain has? The average human has 178 million thoughts during his/her lifetime. If we take that into account, then the chances of thinking something original is 5 x 10^(-20). Infinitesimally infinitesimal. For scale, the chances of a candidate cracking the Indian Civil Services exam (UPSC), one of the toughest exams in the world, is 0.13%³.

If it is this hard, can originality ever be overrated? And yet, it is overrated in some sense. But before we talk about that, let us look at how ideas themselves are formed.

What are ideas?

Ideas are the output generated by our brains. We can understand this using a mathematical analogy:

Y = f(x)

where Y are the ideas you create (output), function f() is your brain and x is what you feed your brain (input).

x is anything that you experience be it cognitive, sensory, social, or emotional; x is anything you feed your brain by consuming text (books, blogs, tweets), audio (podcasts, conversations with friends & family, Clubhouse conversations), video and images (memes, YouTube, Netflix); x is the experience you have accumulated so far.

Our brain is the function that operates on this input and generates an output i.e ideas. With that out of the way, let's look at why originality is overrated.

Ideas are art

Ideas are like a piece of art and like Todd from Bojack Horseman says, it’s more about what people get out of it than it is about what people put into it.

If someone benefits from an idea, does it really matter whether it was original or borrowed?

Originality is subjective

Inputs (x) are like your thumbprints4 but better. They’re a mental thumbprint; they uniquely identify you. x is what makes you, you. No two people have the same x. This allows for recycling.

You could be recycling the mental model you heard in a podcast or a philosophy you read in a book, it could be an investment strategy that you read in a blog or a productivity framework that your friend told you about. None of these are original in the sense that you did not come up with them, you simply heard it or saw it elsewhere. But it can be original to someone who did not read that blog or hear that podcast. Originality is subjective. Not everyone has the same inputs (x) and to those people, your ideas sound original.

Since originality is contextual, your output can simply be the input (Y = x) and still, sound original. Of course, one should not take credit for someone else’s idea (more on that below) but this kind of recycling is necessary. Because ideas, especially good ones, need to scale.

Ideas need to scale

How sad it would be if a good idea died with its creator; how sad it would be if its potentialities went unrealized by the masses. Original ideas don’t just have to be created, they also need to be propagated and the act of propagation is inherently unoriginal. So trying to scale ideas is a good idea (pun intended).

Not only does the idea itself benefit people (first-order effect), there are second-order effects with far-reaching ramifications. Take the example of a light bulb. The first-order effect is simple — it eliminates darkness. The second-order effects? Factories did not have to shut down after sunset which meant they could employ more people which meant that people could earn more which meant they could afford an education for their kids. It meant reduced robbery and crimes which in turn meant people could step out at night without fear which in turn meant they could hold gatherings, travel, and party at nightclubs. The second-order effects are innumerable. There is another powerful second-order effect: ideas, irrespective of their originality, can inspire other ideas in other people. This is the butterfly effect at work — “A small change can make much bigger changes happen; one small incident can have a big impact on the future.”

So it is okay to simply regurgitate what someone said but to a different audience for idea propagation is as important as idea creation. Just be honest with yourself about what you are doing though. Are you propagating an idea or are you creating one? If it’s the former, then give credit where it is due; don’t appropriate someone else’s creation. You can also scale ideas by building on top of the original idea. Start-ups do this all the time — Flipkart was inspired by Amazon, Ola by Uber, Google Cloud, and Azure by AWS. So do filmmakers; Quentin Tarantino, one of the greatest filmmakers, famously said “I steal from movies all the time”.

Avoid copy-pasting, though. It’s distasteful. Add your own twist, flair, and personality to it. If you’re doing that, you might as well share the OG material.

True originality is impossible

When there are 117 billion brains with each brain having 178 million thoughts during its lifetime, the chances that two brains had the same idea is pretty high. Many have experienced this first hand.

Derek Sivers, for example, in a podcast⁵ recounted: “I was 42 when I read my first book on stoicism and I went ‘HOLY SHIT!’ I thought it was just me! This is my quirky weird Derek philosophy that I have been living by since I was 14 years old. Like this whole thing about making life deliberately tough on yourself to strengthen yourself for the unknown future. All this is like..my quirky philosophy I have been living by for 25 years and holy shit. It’s got a name, it’s got an ‘ism’, it’s 2000 years old. It’s amazing. It blew my mind to realize it was not just me.”

Unsurprisingly, this is not uncommon. Issac Newton was not the only one to come up with Calculus. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz also came up with it at the same time independently. Darwin was not the only one who theorized that Natural Selection is how species evolve. Alfred Russel Wallace also came up with the exact same theory independently. It is called ‘Multiple Discovery’ or ‘Simultaneous Invention’ and it even has a Wikipedia page.

In the context of humanity, ideas being objectively original is near impossible. Given how hard it is, perhaps originality is correctly rated. It is being unoriginal that is underrated.

Thanks to Ananya and Krithika for reading drafts of this.

Footnotes

[1] Rounding off to the closest billion. And yeah, we are more closer to 8 billion than we are to 7 bil | Source.

[2] Source

[3] Year 2019 | Source

[4] The chances of two people having the same fingerprint is 1 in 64 billion (Source). The chances of two people being the same? Zero.

[5] Podcast episode

Views expressed are mine.

Thanks to Subasini, Ananya and Krithika for reading drafts of this.

Writer. Reader. Philomath. Optimist. Figuring out life one article at a time at bitsoveratoms.substack.com