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Originality is Old News

“I’m not original, I’m a tasteful thief.” David Bowie

As creatives, we pile the pressure on ourselves to come up with a truly original idea. Makes sense. We’re paid by clients to have great ideas for them. So those ideas had better be original. 

But here’s the thing – nothing is original. 

Not even that wisdom up top from the peerless, truly missed Bowie. A quick online search reveals versions of the insight from Jim Jarmusch, Picasso, TS Eliot. Even Steve Jobs paraphrased it and is sometimes quoted as its author. One of my heroes, Austin Kleon, titled his first book Steal Like an Artist

Think of your favourite film, song, book. Each has elements of other work. Alex Garland’s cult bestseller The Beach was described as Lord of The Flies meets Heart of Darkness (which itself inspired Apocalypse Now) for the backpacker set.

And in storytelling, it’s claimed there are only seven types of plot. John Gardner claims there are only two – a stranger comes to town, a hero goes on a journey. 

So what’s the point here? 

Well, that basically if you’re trying to come up with a truly original idea, chances are you’re on a hiding to nothing. 

You may see this as reductive, or depressing. 

After all, if your job is to come up with ideas for paying clients, you can feel bummed out to be told there are no new ideas to be had. 

But this should liberate you. 

Does a trumpet player bemoan the lack of new notes she can choose from? Does the LEGO enthusiast whine that there are no new-shaped blocks lately? 

No, they both just get on with remixing what they’ve got into magnificent new creations. 

Same with ideas.

No idea is truly new. Every idea we all have is influenced by everything we’ve ever seen, read, heard, touched, tasted. And that’s just on the unconscious side. 

Once we’re in fully conscious ‘having an idea’ mode, we’re actively pulling in all the resources we can find. Research is one of the first things we all do, right? 

Of course, you should never, ever, plagiarise. But you should embrace your creative magpie. 

Because what comes out the other end, the mash-up of all our experiences, the remix of all the ideas we’ve taken in, that is unique. That is original. And something only you can come up with. 

So stop worrying about creating something truly original. Allow yourself to be influenced, allow yourself to be inspired.

Cast your net as wide as you can. 

You don’t need to find new notes to play on your trumpet.

You already have all the notes you’ll ever need. 


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