3 Reasons Why Originality is Overrated

Some of you may have already heard or otherwise knew the information in this blog post. To you, I say, “Great! This post is about the power of copying anyway…”

You see, originality – although something we tell ourselves to strive for – ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, most of the time. For example, some of you may recall that your friendly neighborhood Blogwolf is a practitioner of the Dark Arts (Law). Those of you who know me personally know that I am also a bit of a weirdo… at least cognitively speaking. My brain just doesn’t seem to function like the normal person’s. Which is fine. Most of the time.

In law, however, you don’t actually get points for being original… you get points for being successful for your clients. Being a weirdo in law makes for a lonely practice. Which leads me to the following reasons why we place far too much emphasis on being original in most cases:

1. Tall Trees Gather Much Wind

“What the hell are you talking about?” You may ask. The idiom above is actually an ancient Chinese saying (at least that’s what the internet tells me, I could have sworn it was Japanese… but I digress).

The gist of the saying is that people who stand out get knocked down. We take pride in these people,  but usually only after they have been drawn and quartered. Galileo had original ideas… didn’t work out so well for him. My grandfather once told me, “you don’t volunteer for anything… you get assigned.” He was a Master Chief in the Navy, so I would say the philosophy worked out pretty well for him.

I’m not saying that original thought is bad, only that most people do not find themselves in a position where such originality is likely to be of benefit to them personally. In those cases, it is better to:

2. Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

Back to this Galileo dude. After he was imprisoned for a large portion of his adult life for heresy, the Church decided that Galileo may have been on to something after all. Unhelpfully for him, Galileo had been dead for many years. Although it didn’t do a whole lot for him, there were just a few people coming after him who benefited from his new outlook on astronomy.

Originality was the impetus, but it was not nearly perfect. Over time, people built on and expanded Galileo’s original theories… and, though they are not perfect, we have a better grasp of what actually drives our universe than we ever would have without these hangers-on.

Original thoughts can be rough… over time, we can learn from these original thoughts and fine the sharper edges. The end product is superior to the original – even though the end result is not, itself, an original work of the final polisher.

3. Originally, we were wrong.

This is the other problem with original thought… Sometimes, the reason for your originality is that you’re wrong – and others know this. People have been around for a long time. Like years. These people have been thinking for almost as long as they’ve been around (some of the electorate notwithstanding).

If you have a novel idea, one that you’ve never heard from anyone else, there is a strong chance that someone else has had that idea and you can research it… for free.

Once, some dude thought up the idea that the Earth was a flat space observed by a supreme being. If you traveled too far from the being’s sight, you fell from the edge. WRONG. We finally admitted the truth… but THEN someone had the bright idea that the Earth was the center of the universe and that everything was created to revolve around it for our viewing pleasure. WRONG. Some people even thought that Donald Trump would make a great Republican candidate for president! How ORIGINAL! (I’m making no claim on the quality of D.T. as a candidate in general, though I find his remarks about Judge Curiel disgusting… Rather, I think that many in the GOP have been surprised at his candidacy thus far.)

Each of these were original thoughts… and each were wrong in their own way. That’s the problem with original thought… new thoughts are just as often incorrect as they are correct. There is a non-negligible chance that, by trying to be original, you will find yourself with a nice plate of crow for dinner.

I close by saying that I am not against originality… not at all! Rather, I just think that we, as a society, probably place way to much emphasis on the power of original thought. Originality, in fact, can be detrimental in many situations. If you find yourself in a novel situation (for you), just don’t be afraid to build on the work that others have done (with appropriate credit, of course). There’s nothing wrong with learning by example, after all!

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