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How To Be Original

New innovations seem to be numerous and ever-changing, until it comes to sitting down with your idea and finding out somebody else has already done it.

New innovations seem to be numerous and ever-changing, until it comes to sitting down with your idea and finding out somebody else has already done it. In an age when information is available instantly, and television and news is often produced in 140 characters or less, it has become increasingly difficult to be original. Some would even argue that it is impossible to be completely original. Like the book of Ecclesiastes states, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

Now, this statement can be criticized as just a cynical saying from a dead tome, but stepping back we can understand that what was meant, even if it is a bit depressing, is very true. I’m not making a claim that there are no longer any innovators or free thinkers, and that quote may have a lot of holes and grey spots. For instance, 15 years ago, if you told a random person that they could surf the internet, listen to music, talk to their spouse, and trade stocks instantly from the same device, they would have laughed in your face. At the same time, these ideas were never an impossibility, and were probably the dream of some computer scientist back in the 70s.

The most optimistic of cynics will argue that all ideas have already been thought up just not put into action; even Plato and Nietzche give some allusions to such philosophies. So then why do we keep creating and inventing? What is the point, if everything has been done? And how come a career in coming up with new ideas is so lucrative, when none of your ideas can really be new? 

As I see it, we recreate the old, cruddy ideas with the fine combinations of other old, cruddy ideas, to make something new and innovative. Take the Steve Jobs conundrum. In his authorized biography, Jobs accuses Google of stealing iPhone ideas for their up-coming Androids (a couple years ago). Whether or not this is accurate is irrelevant, because some of Apple’s breakthroughs were based on technology developed by others, as well. So, Google stole/borrowed (I prefer borrowed for our conversation here) ideas from the iPhone, and Jobs borrowed ideas from Xerox. I’m sure Xerox borrowed ideas and technologies as well. The problem here is that claiming originality is impossible with today’s market. Somebody has already had your idea, but maybe they just couldn’t execute it, or somebody paid them not to pursue it, or any number of other business-oriented strategies.

So everything’s been done, and all new ideas are just rehashed combinations of older technology. Do we stop innovating? No! Like piecing together Legos, there are always new ways to create with what we already have. Every once in a while a new material (which usually derives from a combination of other, already available materials) emerges to provide new insight and ways to recreate our technology, but usually we create with the same stuff.

Innovation is not based on original ideas. It is based on our ability to see what is possible; to see what is beyond the things that already exist. Finding a need, and molding our technology around it. The world of invention is a messy one, but we will continue to stumble and have happy eureka moments as long as there are needs that should be met. Having an original idea isn’t about discovering the unknown; it’s about rediscovering how we do things and ways to make them better.

What’s your take? Email [email protected].