Does originality even exist?

I’m not a fan of motivational memes, but I’ve just stumbled across one that got me thinking: Be yourself, because an original is worth more than a copy.

In this article you will learn:

  • Why we’re not as original as we think
  • That your approach matters more than ideas
  • Why original thoughts aren’t new

Lately, I’ve seen loads of variations on this theme: It’s better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation. You were born an original; don’t die a copy. Being unique is better than being perfect.

Quotes like these make me feel antsy. Aren’t we under enough pressure in the modern age, without striving to be unique individuals or to achieve something truly original in the business world?

Originality is overrated

I get the sentiment. Those memes are an encouragement to pursue your own path in life instead of following the herd. They’re a clarion call to be ‘authentic’ – to use another buzzword that makes me bristle.

If we’re all slavishly worshipping at the altar of originality, doesn’t that makes us, well, not exactly original? The question of whether there’s any such thing as originality is an existential rabbit hole that brighter minds than mine have grappled with for centuries. My point is simply this: the current craze for authenticity and originality in business might be a bit of a red herring. A fashionable distraction.

If the old adage that ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ is true, that means everything – every word, idea or deed – has been spoken, thought of, or done before in some iteration or another. So, instead of freeing us to innovate, the quest for originality is tying some of us up in knots.

UK copyright law recognises the rights of the creator of an original body of work to protect it from being copied – so originality certainly exists in law, and can, rightly, be protected. But beyond ensuring you’re not infringing anyone’s intellectual property, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the pressure to be original can sometimes stymie creativity.

Approach is everything

“There isn’t a monopoly on ideas but as an entrepreneur, I believe my ideas and what we create as an agency are unique,” says Tim Gibbon, founder of communications consultancy Elemental.

“From a marketing perspective, a seemingly small and insignificant idea has the potential to generate hundreds, thousands or even millions of pounds so, given the influence and power of an idea, our pursuit is always to be unique and different.”

Several people can have the same idea, of course, without necessarily realising it. For that reason, Gibbon says an original approach to executing ideas is critical in business.

“In a creative agency, the application of ideas is often more important than the idea itself, because audiences engage and react with new and interesting approaches, which rarely come from an idea that’s been used more than once,” he says.

“We’re known for creating new and fresh ideas, from the approach and implementation we use, to the platforms, tools and vendors we choose. We’d never see an idea and think we should replicate it. That’s just not us. We’re more likely to see how we can flip it, push against or disrupt it, creating a completely new idea.”

Even disruptors draw inspiration from others

Ultimately, you can’t deconstruct an idea or disrupt a market, no matter how original your approach, without first drawing inspiration from the very thing you’re seeking to subvert.

Which brings me back to memes. Here’s another one that caught my eye: “Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren't very new after all.”

Abraham Lincoln was the originator (pun intended) of that quote, but I couldn’t have put it better myself.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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