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Can You Label Yourself Original?

Too Many Fish to Fry has a great post that asks an interesting question: do you strive to be original?  I started writing a long comment on her blog, but when it crossed into its third paragraph, I decided to move it to my own blog rather than use up that much space on hers.

I think it’s a question without an answer.  Not because we should all be striving for originality, but because I don’t think we are the best judges of our own originality.  Once we start getting that conscious and thinking that hard about originality, we start moving into either conformity or rebelling against conformity.  Neither of those states are true originality.  And even worse than conforming or rebelling against conformity is being a colourless, definitionless blob that only holds form as a comparison to others.  That isn’t very original either.

I think originality, much like free-spiritedness — is something OTHERS use to describe a person vs. used by the person themselves.  I once had a person describe herself as a free-spirit while she was speaking to me.  All I could think was that true free-spirits are not trying to define themselves.  Therefore, by definition, that woman was not a free-spirit.  It’s an Escher-like trick!  Once you label yourself, you no longer are the label.*

And I think originality is a lot like that too.  It’s a word that we can use to describe others, describe their projects, ideas, etc.  But it’s not really a word we can apply to ourselves and do it authentically.  You know how you can always tell when someone is trying too damn hard to be quirky vs. someone who is naturally quirky?  I think striving for originality, stressing about it too much, can have the opposite effect on being able to march to the beat of your own drummer.  Because if you’re defining yourself like that, you’re thinking too much about what other people think, comparing yourself to much to others, caring too much about what others are doing.

In other words, you stop listening to your own drummer in order to listen to everyone else’s drummer just to make sure that your drummer is playing a different beat.

Some of my favourite work is derivative of others.  Some of my favourite blog posts are derivative of others!  This blog post is derivative of Jjiraffe’s.  I like it when people riff off of one another, expanding, changing, bending, and folding ideas or visuals.  And remember, originality isn’t always admirable.  There are plenty of horrible original ideas floating in space, ideas that you hopefully wouldn’t want to own or have attributed to you.  I think originality is held up as something we should want to strive to be, but I would argue a different world formation.

I’m not a fan of leadership.  I neither want to be a leader, nor do I want to follow a leader.  I am fine with the concept that someone needs to be in charge at times, and I can get behind the idea of a boss.  But overall in life, I prefer to surround myself with people who neither lead me somewhere nor follow me.

I am someone who is much more comfortable with the concept of sideways. Of tossing out ideas, conversing, building, supporting.  I hold the original idea sacred, and I believe all incarnations of the idea after that should honour the original thought, but I think there are millions of ways to do that, and all of those offshoots become originals in their own right once they have legs to stand on.  I think whether or not we strive for originality, we end up — inadvertently — with originality.

Hence how none of us are replaceable; why the world changes when any of us enter or leave it.

* I’ve used this Jedi-mind trick on the twins in so many ways.  People who call themselves stupid can’t truly be stupid because if they were, they wouldn’t be cognizant of their stupidity.  People who call themselves mean can’t truly be all mean because they care enough to recognize their cruelty.  And people who call themselves original probably aren’t that original because in order to know whether or not they are original, they need to spend a considerable amount of time looking at other people’s work to know whether or not they are repeating it.


1 clare { 01.19.13 at 5:46 pm }

I LOVE this response to when kids say they are stupid (or mean or other negative thing about themselves…).

I also really love your line: “I am someone who is much more comfortable with the concept of sideways. Of tossing out ideas, conversing, building, supporting. ” I think that rings so true Mel from the part of you we get to know through this blog. Sometimes there seems to be way too much emphasis on leadership and the next grand, original, risk-taking TED talk of an idea.. when really I think much of the good in the world is about sidewise. I wonder sometimes how much gets lost in the quest of originality versus how much originality would be just occur as a byproduct of people being themselves.

2 a { 01.19.13 at 7:46 pm }

I don’t think there’s much that’s original any more. Everything seems to remind me of something else these days. I find myself wondering when we’re going to run out of music that is pleasant to listen to, because it seems like all that’s left would be discordant combinations of sounds. It seems to me like we’re kind of in a stagnant period in society right now. On the other hand, progress has been so rapid throughout my lifetime that any sort of slowdown feels like stagnation.

Of course, I might be a little bitter on the topic of originality, because people in my life pretty consistently steal my ideas as their own. 🙂

3 Mary { 01.19.13 at 8:26 pm }

It’s like a humble button. They take it away from you if you wear it.

4 Amel { 01.20.13 at 8:09 am }

BRILLIANT post, Mel! I REALLY REALLY love the way you wrote about this topic. 😀

5 Kate (Bee In The Bonnet) { 01.20.13 at 10:08 am }

Yeah, so you pretty much just described my entire 9th-grade mindset… I argued all the time about “conforming to non-conformist standards” and how there was no true non-conformity, as you’d have to be aware of what was conformity in order to be “non-“, and that being aware of trends would inherently change your reactions whether you wanted it to change or not.

I still agree with those thoughts, but I’m less concerned with caring about defining myself as a “non-conformist” (obviously… I’m no longer the Robert Smith-haired, black-lipstick-wearing, goth-before-YOU-were,-posers, blah-blah-blah, 14-year-old-nonsense…). I’m more concerned with being authentic to myself, while also keeping other people in mind, meaning: I will do what I need to do to make myself happy as long as I’m not hurting others in the process.

I’ve said often that (for me) rules exist so I know how far I can push something before I cause problems. And that if I want to push further, *and* I assess that the risk of harm is negligible, then I’ll probably go ahead and break that rule. Does that make me original? Does that make me a non-conformist? No, I think that kind of makes me a borderline narcissist.

And that’s kind of what I think about originality. There’s this borderline narcissistic need to feel like we are all super-special-snowflakes, that *we* are truly the first or only person to have whatever thought/need/action, etc. And in truth, this human condition, at it’s base, is pretty boring and conventional. With rare exception (very rare exception), at our core, these feelings that we have are mundane. They don’t feel that way to us (again with the borderline narcissism…), but at an almost hierarchical-need level, they very much ARE mundane. The need to feel loved, the need to feel safe, the need to feel productive– these are all pretty common to the human experience. And expressions of these needs take a vast but still limited number of paths.

Originality is dead, but our need to feel original is not.

As for me, aside from the borderline narcissism, I do often think of myself as a sideways mover, like you do. I respect the original while attempting to maybe add my own branch of originality (or even a “root” to someone else’s “original” idea, to make it stronger). And sometimes, I approach things as a complete mimic before “riffing” on my own. I mean this in a broader sense, but the example that directly comes to mind is finding an awesome recipe, and then borrowing the general ideas to make something that ends up completely different. I read the recipe thoroughly, understand it completely, and then make it my own by making substantial changes. I rarely do things exactly as directed, unless I have a very good reason to.

Anyhow… yeah. Originality. Interesting topic.

6 Lori Lavender Luz { 01.20.13 at 12:00 pm }

LOL, Mary.

What’s going through my mind is “no man is an island.” Everything is derivative in some way, I suppose (though if I keep thinking about this maybe I could find some case where something is original and non-derivative).

This is one of those down-the-rabbit-hole thoughts.

7 Tiara { 01.20.13 at 3:58 pm }

” I prefer to surround myself with people who neither lead me somewhere nor follow me.” I really like that! Great post.

8 Sara { 01.20.13 at 7:12 pm }

Your comment about leadership just made my day. I had never been able to put my finger on why I don’t like the idea of being a leader, but you nailed it. Thank you!

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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