Have you asked yourself this question?
I used to—a lot. It’s right up there with “Who am I to be writing on this topic?” and “What if nobody reads it?”
“Well, big-name-author-blogger-speaker already said something similar to this,” I’d say to myself, “So why should I bother? Isn’t it just better if people read their take on it? Theirs is much better than mine, anyway…”
And then I’d end up scrapping the blog post or the story or the tweet… and look for something I could create that was more interesting and original and revelatory… something that showed off my stunning brilliance. (Yeah, right.)
And then I wouldn’t end up making anything…
Maybe you’ve felt the same way. I’m sure you’ve all read those quotes that seem to confirm that nothing is original, with the implication that therefore we should just quit trying:
“Nothing is original.” –Jim Jarmusch)
“Everything has been said before…” –Andre Gide)
“There’s nothing new under the sun.” –Ecclesiastes 1:9, NIV Bible
And maybe those sorts of ideas have kept you from putting your own art (whatever it is) out into the world, because you feel like you have nothing unique or original or profound to offer. I’ve felt that way a lot.
Recently, though, I’ve been rethinking this. And I’ve come to the conclusion that—like many other crutches in my world—I was using this concept as an excuse not to put my own stuff out into the world. And that it was actually a fear of rejection or judgment… “What if someone criticizes me because my idea was similar to so-and-so’s? What if they accuse me of stealing that idea and making it my own? What if my art comes across as some cheap knock-off of the original?” …that was keeping the words in.
Maybe you feel the same way.
So I thought I’d share some observations that I’ve found that have helped me overcome that doubt.
Observation #1: Everything may have been said before, but some things bear repeating.
There’s a rule of seven in advertising/marketing/communications that says it takes someone hearing a message seven times before they internalize it and are ready to take action. Seven times! So even if they heard much the same message from someone else, they might need another six times before that story or concept or idea sinks in, and they’re ready and able to do something about it. You could be number two, or five, or even seven!
The rest of the “Everything has been said before…” quote above conveys much the same message:
“Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.” –Andre Gide
So if a message, an idea, a concept is important to you, get it out there! Repeat it. Find ways of restating, refining, repackaging your art so that you reach the people you care about serving.
Observation #2: “Nothing is original” may be somewhat true, but it’s not the whole story about art (and it’s not necessarily a bad thing).
In fact, “Nothing is original” is not even the whole of the quote, which goes like this:
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.” –Jim Jarmusch
And then Jim goes on to quote another director/screenwriter, Jean-Luc Godard, who said:
“It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”
So while each thought or creation you might have is not of itself “original”—and most likely comes from the influences that inspired you to take up your art in the first place—the way you combine those things into something new is what makes your art, and makes it uniquely, authentically you.
[There’s a great video series about the concept of creativity consisting of three important steps: Copy. Transform. Combine. It’s called Everything is a Remix. It’s short—go watch it. I’ll wait.]
Hopefully that helps you as you’re thinking about your art, your influences, and the nature of originality. If you’re still struggling a bit with the desire to do something completely unique and original, here’s another thing to remember: as humans, we often look for art that carefully balances the original with the familiar.
Stories are a great example of this. Think about your favorite books, or movies, or TV shows. They might try something new, but often they are new twists on old concepts, a blend of the exciting and the safe.
Example one: genre fiction, whether romance or mystery or suspense or fantasy or horror, continues to be very popular with readers because each genre has certain themes, certain tropes, certain formulas that even the most original stories follow, and the reader comes to expect them. For example, lovers of fantasy fiction often want long series, because they become familiar with the world and grow to love it. Even when the story and the characters are new, their connection to Middle-earth, or the Land, or Amber is comforting: expeditions into unknown territory with a base grounded in the familiar.
Example two: movies. Even though many of us complain that the movie studios don’t deliver original content, because they’re so busy delivering sequels, or borrowing popular stories from other media, we still watch them. We still pay our money, spend our time, and are entertained. We like seeing familiar characters in new situations. We like not knowing how the hero will get out of their newest predicament, but we’re comforted in knowing that the hero will prevail, and that we’ll see them again in a summer or two.
So embrace your influences and influencers. Honor them. Copy them. Steal from them (with credit where credit is due). Transform your faves into something new. Combine original with familiar. Copy and transform and combine those things that inspired you into something that tells your own authentic story.
Which brings me to….
Observation #3: Each of us has a different perspective from which we see the world, a different story to tell from that perspective, and a different voice to express that story in a way that’s authentically our own.
If two people approach the same idea, they’re going to see it, experience it, and express it differently.
Here’s an example: World Domination Summit. I wrote a blog post on it. So did another hundred-plus people (see the list here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). Some of those hundred-plus are much more famous, much more experienced, than I. Was I intimidated by that fact? Sure. But I didn’t let it stop me.
Because I realized that of the 3,000 people who attended WDS, and the 100 or so who wrote about it, I was the only one who’d have my unique perspective on the event. (Sounds obvious, huh? May have been obvious, but for me it was a realization, and an important one.) Only I would bring the lens of my experience, my perspective, my personality, through which I’d see the event. And only I would have my unique voice to tell about it. The same is true of every other person who wrote a post.
The same is true for you. You are the only person who can create that work that is authentically you. Only you can tell your unique story. Sure, it might have similarities to other peoples’ stories (how cool! an opportunity for connection!), but none will be exactly the same. This is where being a unique snowflake is a true and beautiful and necessary thing.
Also important: somewhere out there in the world someone is waiting for the moment when your specific gift, whether words or photography or music or coaching or cooking or dog-sitting, will touch them. Where your art (in the broadest sense of creative expression) resonates with them on some instinctual level. Where they “get” in some instantaneous, deep, religious, lightning-strike moment, the exact truth you’re trying to convey.
And for them, no other message will work. Only yours. Perhaps it’s timing (lucky number seven, baby), or the images you conjure, the expressions you use, the experiences you highlight… Whatever it is, whatever combination of things—it’s your art, your message that will touch that person in a way that nothing else can.
So if you find yourself doubting and fearing sending your next offering into the world, remember these things:
- Important stuff bears repeating.
- Your authentic work is a remix of your influences, your experiences, your stories, and your perspectives, and that’s a good thing.
- Your voice is unique, and is exactly the voice that someone else needs to hear.
Have a great rest of the week—I hope you fill it with art/work/play that lights you up, and that lights up the world in the doing.
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