It was the first lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic. Everyone was locked indoors, the streets devoid of life. Shut inside, we were all posed with the same questions. What do you do with all the free time? How do you prevent yourself from falling into the deep chasm of boredom?
The new silence of my days had me dabbling in several creative pursuits; sculpture, photography, writing. As I tinkered at these artistic domains, I pondered over the nature of creativity.
I noticed that among many creatives (such as myself), there is a desire to be completely original in your work. There mustn’t be a single hint of plagiarised content. You must conceive your art out of thin air.
But as I progressed, I found this task rather challenging. How can you be 100% original? How can one consistently develop new ideas that bear no resemblance to others’ work?
Desperate for an answer, I began to study the work of other creatives. And what I learned was a pleasant surprise. No one out there is 100% original. Everyone derives creative inspiration from others’ handiwork. I call this framework “The New Creative Approach”.
I stumbled across Austin Kleon, who is perhaps the most prominent thought leader around creativity. His work has dispelled many myths around creativity, infusing creators with a breath of fresh air.
Austin acknowledges that nothing in the sphere of art is truly original. Every artist has stood on the shoulders of those who came before them. Their styles have grown by copying and adapting the techniques of previous artists.
Austin brings up his initial foray into art, where he would collect newspapers, select some of his favourite words/phrases in the articles into poems, and then cover the rest of the paper in black ink. In a way, he joined different disparate terms together into poetry.
He posted these poems to his blog, where he gained a large following. But many told him that he was merely copying a British artist Tom Philips. They accused him as an unoriginal creator.
Turns out Tom got this idea from William Buroughs, who in turn took inspiration from his friend Brion Gysin. Each person built on insights from previous artists. Austin traced this idea all the way to the 1760s to a man named Caleb Whitford!
Austin learned that every “new idea” is, in fact, a remix of a set of old ideas. The genealogy of ideas goes on and on and on.
Based on this concept, Austin encourages you to “Steal Like an Artist”. He advocates for creative kleptomania. It is the only way one can blossom as an artist. (In fact, Austin wrote a book and gave a Tedx talk both under the same name).
He quotes Picasso, who said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal“.
Subscribe to my Newsletter – The Owlet
Every week I send an email with curated links about the Environment, Creativity and the Human Condition!
David Perell, an online writer, also advocates such an approach. He calls this framework “Imitate, then innovate“. When you find a creator you resonate with, copy their creation process. And in the act of imitation, you will encounter inner resistance at specific points. That is your emerging style, the seeds of your inner voice.
David describes this beautifully when he says, “Instead of trying to be original, mirror others so intensely that the glitter of their brilliance shines upon your craft.” Talk show host Conan O’Brien says, “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.” Imitation reveals your identity.
This was a revelation for me. It freed me from the chains of 100% originality. I began to explore the works of different creators and borrowed the portions that I admired. In my writing, I examined many writers’ styles and mirrored what gelled well with my technique. This opened several new doors in my creative journey.
Directly copying another’s work is wrong. But if we build on others’ ideas and give credit when it’s due, we can avert the plagiarism predicament. Using their work as a tinder for creativity, we can escalate our workflow.
I also learned that “Sapiens”, one of my all-time favourite books, was written with the same approach. Yuval Harari, the most notable polymath globally, was surprised at how well his book was received. He said nothing he wrote was anything new. He simply presented existing facts in a unique manner, explaining them in a novel style.
The pursuit of 100% originality is muzzling the voice of millions. But as Yuval notes, humans have always been imitative creatures. It is how we improve at tasks. David Perell examines this in his essay, “The Right Kind of Original”.
Our tendency to focus on originality stems from our school days. I recall many instances of teachers reprimanding classmates for copying others’ work. They implant the fear of plagiarism.
Now directly copying another’s work is wrong. But if we build on others’ ideas and give credit when it’s due, we can avert the plagiarism predicament. Using their work as a tinder for creativity, we can escalate our workflow.
Now in all my creative pursuits, I look through this lens. To reach originality, I combine ideas from others and add my personal touch. It could be either an anecdote, an insight, or a revelation. This framework provides a system to consistently produce novel content.
As I wrote in my article, “Lockdown, Consumption and the age of Creativity“, creativity, at its most basic, gives us a medium to express emotions that words can’t convey. It gives mass to that most intangible ardour in us. It fuels us like nothing else, taking us into another realm, beyond the materialistic world.”
So abandon the societal pressure of being 100% original, and embrace the new creative approach. Only then can you pursue projects with no inhibitions and discover what makes you unique. Creativity is combinatorial.
Brandon Sanderson illustrates this beautifully in his podcast with Ali Abdaal, when he talks about how humans came up with the mythical unicorn by merely taking a horse and placing a horn on it. He says, “the way that human creativity works is recombination“. I have incorporated this thought process in my “Tiger Fire” artwork.
And if you’re still unsure, look back at this essay. It is an amalgamation of the thinking of all the creators I mentioned. This article is a testament to the new creative approach.
If you found this insightful, consider subscribing! You’ll sign up for my personal newsletter, exclusive content and more!
Enter your email ID below. You will receive an email asking you to confirm your subscription. Once you confirm, sit back and enjoy content delivered right into your inbox. It’s free!
2 thoughts on “Creativity vs Originality”
Hey Ishan, Great article! I too have dabbled with the idea of “originality”. I feel, however, that it was imbibed in me through more ways than school; I feel that the pressure of being original is increasing everyday due to the economic and social systems that we have put up. Ones that give merit to novelty (the practice of patents, which I sometimes find to be quite stupid, being an example), and where individuality is a KPI and gives one a sense of identity. Niche markets are becoming even nicher, and a big reason I feel for that is that many people desire to be unique… for example, many youngsters in the design field, as I have noticed, take to the practice of “sustainability” without really knowing what it means, not because they truly have foresight and values of conserving, but because its a niche thing to do. Everyone wants to be different, and the economic and social systems are only supporting it. Your thoughts?
You bring up a great point! Why do we place such a premium on originality in the first place? That could be a point of discussion on its own! Why does our culture make one strive to be unique?
This has many spin-off topics. Think about the logic behind “Limited Edition” products. We tend to value them more simply because they are few in number, even if the product has little inherent value. Why?
We must have more conversations around this…