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Are You an Original Thinker?

Does originality matter when it comes to valuing ourselves and others? 

Key points

  • Originality, like love or happiness, is a side effect and not a goal. It’s a byproduct of life. You can't self-talk your way into it.
  • Behaving differently from others does not necessarily signal originality.
  • We are all unique—and that’s just one more way in which we are all alike.
  • Originality turns out to be essential in all fields, not only ones regarded as artistic. It should be cultivated, nourished, and rewarded.

Do you have an original mind?

Picture Julia, a senior and an honors student, as she's sitting in my office on the comfy chair near the lava lamp. We're talking about what, precisely, "counts" as originality and why it matters.

The lava lamp itself surely illustrates the power of what happens when an original design meets a method of cheap production and is joined by a series of effective marketing strategies.

But Julia's thinking about the topic in an ineffable way. “I’m a good student," she explains, as if trying to convince herself, "but do I have the kind of mind where I can actually come up with an innovative thought? I worry about it a lot. Maybe I’m destined to be one of those people who’ll spend her life listening to what genuinely creative people say.”

There's another student in the office, sitting in a chair across from mine; she and Julia have worked for me, and with one another, for two years. Abigail is a dean’s list materials engineering major; she helped me learn to consider how methods of production interact with the ineffable. A kind person, Abigail immediately reached across the small space between them and patted Julia on the arm. Abigail told Julia, “Everybody feels that way. Nobody feels original. It’s okay.”

I try to help the students who work in my office and those who stop by (pre-Covid, that would be about a dozen a day) to talk amongst themselves without interrupting too often, but I had to ask: “Abigail, did you just reassure Julia, whose big concern is being unoriginal, by saying she’s having exactly the same thoughts as everybody else?"

What could we do but shrug, laugh, and get back to the point—does originality matter when it comes to valuing ourselves and others?

Like Julia, many of us feel as if somehow we are not as original as we “should be,” as if originality is linked to virtue—and as if it is ours to control.

It isn’t. Even Greek mathematician Archimedes found his Eureka! moment springing from a tepid bath during a rare occasion of unfocused ambition (surely he didn’t think he was literally heading into new waters when starting to soap up?) and not when he was using his laptop. (I’m kidding, of course. They didn’t have soap back then.)

Instead, originality, like love or happiness, is a side effect and not a goal. It’s a byproduct of life.

Despite ads printed on the backs of magazines, you can’t self-talk yourself into originality. You can’t hire a life coach to make you creative. You can’t summon, purchase, or seduce singularity. Otherwise everybody would do it.

No one can sit down and say, “Okay, now I’ll be visionary, innovative, and original,” even though anyone can sit down and say “Now I’ll do something unusual, daring, and quite possibly annoying.”

Being different isn’t being original.

High schoolers do that on schedule, for example. It’s their job. They have to break away, rethink and push back against what they regard as the only reality ever to have existed. They’re doing what’s been done by every generation. They’re not changing the plot, but acting the role they’ve unwittingly been assigned. Fierce in their certainty of being insurgent, they’re merely inexperienced.

The greatest humility, and the greatest humanizing result, of growing older and learning more is the recognition that few of us will ever say or do anything new. Naturally, we are all unique—and that’s just one more way in which we are all the same. To rebel is one thing; we’ve all done that. But to revolutionize? That’s something else.

As satirist Fran Lebowitz explained, “Original thought is like original sin: Both happened before you were born to people you could not have possibly met.” So should we just sit down, be quiet, and in a post-modernist way accept that there’s nothing left to do except sip coffee from a megachain coffee shop?

No. What we need to do is recognize and cultivate—not seize and subjugate—creativity. We can’t capture it. But we can admire it—and feed it.

Originality turns out to be essential in all fields, not only ones regarded as artistic.

As Keely Buchanan, a senior manager in the technology industry, suggests, those “who not only question the status quo but dismantle it and envision a new place for things to stand are changing more than platforms.”

Originality dazzles us, makes us feel like children again because it makes the world new: Briefly but profoundly, we are intensely aware of what’s around us. Writes Professor Chad Stanley of Wilkes University, the poet “who fashions language into levers and forces the unexpected to rise above the familiar, makes us feel nostalgic for what we never knew.”

What appears original might well be something everybody's seen before but never imagined in that outfit, like the plot of a B movie where the lead character reveals beauty or strength previously hidden but always, somehow, suspected.

It’s as if we’ve known it all along.