Originality is Impossible, and That's Okay

Hi, Uniqueness! Meet Originality.

Honestly, I never got into The Office, but from the tidbits I’ve been exposed to over the years, it seems right up my alley, especially this hilarious ‘quote of a quote’ by the main character, Michael Scott. It’s a well-known fact that any great idea, no matter how unique, is never completely original. In fact, if something you create has absolutely zero influence from any one person or thought before you, it’s probably not worth pursuing. While Michael Scott’s blatant plagiarism of The Great One’s quote is over the top and satirical, it indirectly (or directly, based on the writer’s intent) reveals a vital aspect of creativity. Let me explain…

A Timeline of Influence

In order to prove the point that all unique ideas, thoughts and creations are a result of influence, let’s go through a couple of broad categories to prove to ourselves this is true. Start with innovative thinking. Perhaps one of the greatest thinkers alive today is Elon Musk. One of his most audacious goals is to create a self-sustaining colony on Mars for humanity. Musk was quoted saying the most influential book he’s ever read is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, written by Douglas Adams. Tracing backwards, Adams expressed multiple times his admiration for the great American novelist Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut has been quoted to say the classic Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift before him had a major impact on his thinking. I believe we’re beginning to see a trend here.

What Does "Original" Actually Mean?

Let’s jump over to another space and enter the realm of music. The old homage that there is no original music left to be written is far from true. The reason this misconception exists, however, is because of the seemingly infinite web of influence which transcends genre, instrumentation, and even language. Music is, after all, a language of its own. It's also important to define the word "original". While not a direct copy or imitation, something that is original will always have elements of a predecessor. How well you can implement and disguise those elements in your own style is what garners true success.

Inspiration Infusion

One of the hottest musicians in the game today is producer-engineer-multi-instrumentalist Pharrell Williams. At one point in his career, an estimated 43% of all songs on the radio were produced by The Neptunes, Pharrell’s production duo. Pharrell is on record to state the reason he makes music to this day is because of hip-hop pioneers A Tribe Called Quest. While many regard ATCQ’s sound to be rap music, the influence of jazz cannot be denied. That rap/jazz fusion is ultimately what differentiated ATCQ in a musical sense, enabling their messages on social issues to be so effective. 

Everyone is Flesh & Blood

The examples are endless, and you don’t have to be an artist for someone to influence you. It can be as simple as a quote or a small action of another person to change your entire life, and propel you to the place you were meant to arrive. There is both good and bad in the world, and often it’s easy to get overwhelmed and lose your way. At times like those, look to someone who inspires you, or who inspired the person who inspired you. While it may seem these trailblazers are other-worldly entities you can’t relate to, just remember that they walked on the same ground and looked up at the same sky as you do now.