The Originality Trap: Why We Fear Unoriginality

Last week I noted that originality didn't always sell for entirely understandable reasons.  This reason was the simple fact that humans socialize via their media choices and interests, and originality did not necessarily play into that.  Sometimes originality produced social bonding, sometime common and derived media did, but the originality's importance was not in its existence, but what it meant for social connection.  Originality just is not as vital as we may think for people's choices, nor is not chosing something original a personal failing.

As I examined the issue of originality I began to wonder why so often creative people obsess over originality.  Why do we fear being unoriginal?  Why do we fear ideas we have are derivative?  Why does the fear of unoriginality cripple some (I'm sure we've ll been there or known someone who has been).  It was worth analyzing.

After some consideration, I've identified five reasons I think people obsess – pathologically – over originality in their creative works.  They are:

Culture.  A need to be original seems to be part of large parts of North American/European culture.  This doesn't mean the cultures in question value originality, but it seems to emphasized in many cases of media, art, and standards.  I suspect this is part of individual-oriented culture – we're somehow supposed to stand out and be 100% special and different.

Industry.  An unoriginal creation suggests to many that someone didn't put much work into it (which may not be true, but you understand why some may think that).  Unoriginal work is seen as lazy work.  Lazy is considered to be a bad thing, so thus unoriginality is frowned on.

Property.  An original creation we make is something we feel ownership of – this new thing that no one had seen before, and is now totally "ours."  Something unoriginal feels as if we're not truly owning it because it has its foundations in something else or someone else's work.  At the "low end" of creativity where something seems very unoriginal it goes into the territory of plagiarism, which people would regard as the equivalent of theft.

Notoriety.  Making something new is desirable as it makes you stand out.  People love to stand out, to be noticed, to be famous, as we can tell from most every human behavior.  This drive in turn feeds into the need for originality – as it is new and different and thus notable.

Contribution.  To be original is to bring something completely new into the world and thus make a unique contribution to everybody involved.  To be unoriginal is to at best continue a trend, and at worst do nothing of value in people's minds.  Unoriginality, to many, is the equivalent of "doing something anyone could do" (forgetting of course someone has to do those things).

After close analysis, that is my conclusion.  There are five cultural factors that drive people's obsession with originality.  The question remains – are these legitimate?

I would say "maybe", but these factors often get to sheer pathological levels.  How many times have you or someone you know obsessed over their unoriginality?  How many times have you or someone else turned up their knows at a fun book or inspiring film as it wasn't original?  You know the answers and they probably aren't pretty.

These factors help kill creativity in many ways,, and I believe we need to rethinking the nature and importance of originality in media.  That of course is for next essay . . .

Steven Savage