Being original is a desirable quality in the western world. In contrast to our eastern neighbors who value a collective mindset that puts the needs of the group above that of the individual, here we strive for independence and the right to be our unique selves.
But in a world of mass commerce, trends, and fashions where “culture” means we’re all cued into the same Netflix shows, it’s hard to figure out what being original means.
Originally (pun intended) the word meant the source or cause from which something arises. But nowhere is original defined as the first to arrive at something—or the only one working on it.
This is an important distinction for small business owners.
Edison did not invent the light bulb; he was just the first to file a patent. Many people worked to make airplanes fly—not just the Wright brothers. And Rosa Parks wasn’t working alone in the civil rights movement, but rather was part of a whole network of activists working toward this end.
So, whether you are the source of an idea or a contributor to its progression doesn’t matter. It’s enough that you make a unique contribution. Your ideas and efforts that move along a cause, service, or product are your original contribution.
Because truly there isn’t much that hasn’t already been done.
This is quite the conundrum—unless you went to art school or are involved in the arts. That’s where they speak openly about how every artist, writer, or creative fill themselves with other’s work to fuel their own inspiration and creative process.
I went to art school and remember being amazed at how much time we took in class to study other’s work. Sometimes we even recreated another’s work so we could get a glimpse into their process and choice making. By stepping into Picasso or Van Gogh’s shoes—and literally trying to copy them—we were turning on our own internal artistic decision-making while building the skill-set we would need to create our own masterpieces.
Of course, if we had tried to sell our copies, that would have been wrong. But using them to propel our own process forward added to the world of artistic creations, and we became better prepared to make our own contributions.
I wish this concept was more widely taught, but just know that you can do the same by studying those around you who offer work that meets the same needs that you do.
This is why I ask all of my clients to spend time looking at how others in their field do things. What they offer, to whom, how they do it, and what their point of view is. You must digest what the other people in your industry are doing in order to create your own original approach.
I think this quote from the famous filmmaker, Jim Jarmusch, sums it up nicely. And hey, if it’s good for the famously creative, maybe there’s something there for you, right?
Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to”. —Jim Jarmusch
If you can drop the idea that learning from others is copying and embrace the idea that nothing is original except your unique stamp on it, you’ll experience more ease.
Of course, I’m not talking about direct copying, which is illegal and unethical, but digesting another’s approach and making it your own.
This can happen in little or big ways. We were all amazed when Apple came out with the iPod and then the iPhone. They were simply a new take on existing products but with so much originality that they seemed new. But they weren’t. The iPod was an upgrade to the Walkman and the iPhone was just a better cell phone.
On the other hand, your unique take on something doesn’t need to be huge to be original.
Maybe you have a unique twist on how to use an existing product that could enhance others’ lives. Or when you do that YouTube video to explain how you save time in your workday by doing x, y, or z, it’s just the thing that another person needed to hear.
You may be sharing information that others are also—but you have a way of saying it in your voice, in your own way, that will touch the people who resonate with you. I could share similar information but not be understood by your people, so it’s important that you do.
Little or big, there are many ways to be original in what you are presenting if you allow yourself to step fully into being yourself, digest the world around you and share in your own way.
From my soon to be published book The Authentic Marketer: Create the Mindset You Need to Grow Your Small Business and Love It.
Linda believes that small business owners can step into a better version of their business when they embrace authenticity and become more fully themselves. Her 25-year marketing career has included Kimpton Hotels, Jamba Juice, and Disney helping her clients win awards and placements in publications like The Wall Street Journal and TIME Magazine, as well as on the front cover of WIRED magazine. You can visit her website here: lindabasso.com or join her FB conversation.