How important is it to be original?

Have you ever written, spoken, drawn, molded, shaped, sewed, welded, or taught something, only to discover you were not the first? That your creation was derivative? Maybe deeply so?

It is a painful experience, especially when the work of the lone inventor, the creative genius, seems so vital. Across the crucibles of human progress, Mars, climate change, the internet, the world seems to be dragged forward by mavericks. The word innovation is now everywhere, and if my LinkedIn news feed is any indicator, it is here to stay.

Still, if we pause as our ego deflates, we might ask, what does it really mean to be original?

What does it mean to be original?

The question is taken up in this wonderful piece on literary imitation in the London Review of Books. The focus is writing, and the millennia long struggle with one’s literary predecessors. It charts how attitudes towards imitation have changed over time, from venerating historical influence. to hiding it.

The author pits Harold Bloom, who believed one’s predecessors must be struggled against before finally being overcome, and Burrow, who thought influence was inescapable and to be cherished.


In The Mathematical Experience, the authors ask a similar question: where should credit for mathematical discovery lie, the lone creative genius or the society that surrounds them? Here the tension is between the individual and their community, not their ancestry. The authors defer to William James, in his essay “Great Men and Their Environment:”

The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual; the impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community

Since originality is always in dialogue with ancestry and community, make sure to write them a letter of thanks.

I suspect we overemphasize the importance light-bulb-moment, bolt of lightning type creativity. The world is drowning in original thought, just in academia, hundreds of thousands of new PhD’s are minted each year. This rate of production, paired with our short lives and even shorter attention spans, means most information is immediately condemned to be forgotten. A 17th-century manuscript, wedged in a dusty corner of a provincial library is not lost, but it might as well be. For information to persist in a useful manner it must be passed on, it must circulate through the social body. In an information dense world, originality is nothing without transmission.

In an information dense world, those who search, filter, interpret, and apply are vital. Nor are interpretation and application mere rote tasks. Each generation re-imbues what it receives with new meaning. Application is not object-paste-surface so much as creative re-imagination – or at least it can be.

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