Being original means putting your own unique spin on things by drawing from your personal experiences and ideas. But being truly original requires a lot more than coming up with a clever approach to an existing idea. You must be daring enough to go against what’s conventional. Learn how some of the most well-known original thinkers from history do things differently than others, and how you can apply that in your own projects. (Estimated reading time: 7 minutes)
“In a world full of pebbles dare to be a diamond.”— Matshona Dhliwayo
There’s no shortage of smart people in the world. You can find them scouring bookshelves at elite university libraries or making lucrative deals with street vendors in rural backwaters.
Whether you’re book smart or street smart, you can reap the rewards and get ahead of the curve. But, intelligence alone isn’t enough to make you an “original” – something the dictionary defines as “an eccentric or unusual person who serves as a model or basis for imitation or copies.”
Our economy puts a premium on originality. Fashionistas are more willing to spend top dollar on authentic designer bags than buy cheap knock offs from pushy hustlers. Art enthusiasts will travel to Paris to see the original Mona Lisa because an imitation doesn’t inspire them.
In the world of business, original ideas, when done right, can make you a billionaire. The most commercially successful enterprises today, like Amazon, Facebook, Tesla, and Apple were born from the imaginations of ordinary people like you and me.
As a society, we revere Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos, crediting their worldly success to their unique talent and their pioneering streaks. We assume they have done something that no one else has done before. While there might be truth in the first supposition, the second is false.
There is nothing new under the sun. Anything that we create is the product of a combination of things we have read, thought about, seen, or experienced. Nothing is truly new or original, and if it were, it would seem unrelatable and alien. To have innovation be adopted, it must contain elements of familiarity.
If everything has already been done, what does it take to be original? As a content creator, I struggled with this question for the longest time. The internet is flooded with blogs, articles, books, and podcasts that cover subjects I care about extensively. As much as I love to shed light on topics that interest me, why would anyone want to read my take on them?
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the creative path is not all about coming up with brand new ideas. It’s about finding original ways to communicate your message and interpret existing knowledge. In other words, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. While people might have already heard everything you want to say, they have not heard it from you, in your own voice.
When you put your own unique spin on things by drawing from your personal experiences, ideas, and stories, you will stand out in a sea of sameness. You will add color to present paradigms, offering wisdom, insight, and those delicious “aha-moments” to those who consume your work.
This principle can be applied in any creative field. Writer, Tim Urban, distinguishes an original thinker from someone who imitates, with his “Cook and Chef” analogy. He writes, “A cook follows recipes and does things that have been done before. A chef invents recipes, puts new things together, creates new dishes.”
According to Urban, a chef uses a combination of experience, instincts, and taste buds when combining basic raw ingredients. They use existing ingredients as building blocks and work their way upwards from there. But their starting point is always something that already exists. He says, “Even the innovative cook is still making an iteration of a burger, a pizza, and a cake.”
But being truly original requires a lot more than coming up with a clever approach to an existing idea. We must be daring enough to be original – to being your full self and allowing your work to encompass who you really are. Many people find that a scary proposition.
It’s not in our DNA to be independent in our thinking. We’re taught that the only way to survive is to follow the rules—the tried-and-tested traditions that have worked for many generations. Going against what’s safe and known means taking risks and exposing ourselves to the possibility of failure and ridicule.
Original thinkers have found ways to quell those fears. Their dissatisfaction with the status quo, combined with their passion, pushes them onto the path of innovation. In addition to their curiosity and drive to be different, they have a certain sensibility that drives their originality.
Here are five things original thinkers do differently:
1. They study those they admire: Originality begins with inspiration. People who we consider to be original stand on the shoulders of figures who have come before. They learn from those who have made their mark and are masters of their craft, learning and adapting until they make it their own.
Michael Jackson credits singers like James Brown and Diana Ross, and dancers like Fred Astaire for the development of his artistic style. He was drawn to those figures because there was something in their style and approach that appealed to him. He studied them closely, took elements from each one, and incorporated them into his music and dance routines in a way that made him appear distinct.
2. They experiment and generate a ton of ideas: Originality doesn’t develop overnight. You need patience and tenacity to engage in an often-lengthy process of trial and error until you finally strike gold. Innovators take lots of swings and aren’t afraid to miss.
Colonel Sanders, founder of KFC, failed at multiple careers before finally nailing his timeless fried chicken formula at the age of 62. Novelist Emily Dickson wrote over 1,800 poems, and only a few were published. When you focus on producing more work and generating volume, you increase the odds of one of them being exceptionally great.
3. They learn from failures and constructive criticism: Since creating something unique requires experimentation, failure is inevitable. Original people don’t let failed attempts get them down because they know the value in what they’re doing. They befriend failures and use them as guideposts, not dead ends.
They also actively seek out mentors, peer groups, or trusted friends who offer constructive feedback on their work. Whether you’re writing a musical, movie scripts, or a journalistic piece, getting a fresh pair of eyes to look at it from another perspective can jump-start your creative engines and help you fine-tune your project.
4. They are fluid and open to inspiration: Original people are not stuck on their way of doing things. Instead, they are open to new influences—taking on a multidimensional approach and gaining inspiration from a broad range of interests. A study done on Nobel Prize-winning scientists over the last century revealed that most of them also had creative pursuits like music, sports, acting, and dancing.
This proves that when we broaden our frame of reference, our originality increases. Assimilating new mental models offers new insight. You can open your mind by learning a new skill or craft, taking on a job position that takes you out of your professional comfort zone, or traveling and experiencing new cultures.
5. They play to their strengths and take risks: Each of us have strengths and weaknesses. Original people are aware of both facets but capitalize on what they’re good at. They work on fine-tuning the areas where they have an edge and delegate or spend less time on everything else. Perfection doesn’t constrain their efforts or prevent them from being unconventional. They’re willing to take risks and invent your own rules instead of conforming.
Salvador Dalí, one of the most celebrated artists of all time, took great risks that inspired a new generation of imaginative expression. His quirky, dark and surrealist paintings and sculptures came from a fiercely individualistic spirit that dared to be different.
You have something unique to offer to the world. Expressing that is not always going to be easy. The potential challenges and backlash will tempt you to lie low and blend into the crowd. But the cost of not revealing your uniqueness far outweighs the consequences of taking that chance. A life of unlived potential is painful.
The good news is that all the courage you need to venture forth is within you, and when you tap into that, you’ll be able to live out your mission.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: What does being original mean to you? How can you add more originality into what you do?
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