Originality is Overrated


Originality is overrated

There’s such a pressure in everything we do to be original. Original goals blog posts, music, products, etc, etc etc. It’s so prevalent that it actually makes me tired. I’m convinced the pursuit of originality is just a cover. A cover for procrastination. A reason not to do anything. Instead of taking action, we wait and wait and wait for something 100% original:

  • That one idea
  • That one product
  • That one business model
  • That one something….

It’s not going to happen. After trying & trying

All My Ideas Are Taken!

Ever say that to yourself? Well guess what? They probably are. Now get over it and start doing something.

It’s more important to do SOMETHING, even if it’s not 100% original, than to do nothing.

If you do SOMETHING, you can at least put your own unique [and smart] twist on it, but if you do nothing, then you still have nothing.

Lady Gaga & Problogger

A few months back, Karol Gajda wrote a guest post for ProBlogger.

A few days later [Several people corrected me here, so I thought I’d make the change. Mars actually published his article a few days before Karol’s went live ;)], Mars Dorian wrote a guest post for Think Traffic.

The cynical person would say one of them took the Lady Gaga idea from the other, but knowing the respect they have for each other as well as the work and preparation that go into guest posts, I know better. Sometimes people just have similar ideas.

But here’s the interesting part.

Even though Mars & Karol wrote on the same pop star with the same theme and even some of the same points, they still wrote two different articles, on two different blogs, to two different audiences, and got two different responses.

Karol wrote an article that Mars could never write and Mars wrote an article that Karol could never write.

Why? They’re both unique. They both have their own style and they both have their own thing that they’re known for. In other words, even though their blog post idea wasn’t necessarily “original”, it was unique.

This happens to me all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had posts on my “to-write” list only to find them already written on someone else’s site. It’s not that anyone ‘stole’ the idea at all, but it’s incredibly hard to be truly original.

People talk a lot about the greatness of meeting with like-minded people. I agree and I really do enjoy it, but the problem with like-minded people is that they all tend to think…alike.

Brain surgery, I know, but similar thoughts and ideas are constantly flowing through everyone’s brains at the same time and holding out for something 100% original can make you want to bang your head against the wall.

How ‘Bout Them Apples?

Whether or not you like Apple as a company, the iPhone has been one of the most disruptive product introductions of the last 5 years. It’s new, shiny, and Apple-y but you know what it’s not? Original. It wasn’t the first cell phone. It wasn’t the first smart phone. It wasn’t even the first phone that played music.

Steve Jobs & Jonathan Ive didn’t care what LG, Nokia, RIM or Sony were making. They didn’t care about being “original.” Instead they focused on creating a device that Apple and only Apple could make. They weren’t the originals, but they were unique. They were Apple and they did what only Apple could do. People don’t buy from Apple because they come out with the first iteration of a new hardware. They buy from Apple because they’re Apple and it’s the only place in town that does what Apple does.

Always Back To The List

I’m not the first person to have a bucket list impossible list of things I want to do with my life. A lot of my friends do too.

Sean, Mark, Tyler, Cody, and Steve all have their own lists with their own goals on it. Mine list isn’t original and I certainly wasn’t the first, but it is unique to me. And it is mine.

This weekend I’m running my first half-marathon. I’m not the first person to ever run one and I’m certainly not “the original person” to decide to go run 13.1 miles, but that doesn’t matter to me. To me, it’s not about what other people are doing, It’s about what I’m doing. It’s my list. It’s my experience. It’s my story.

It’s mine.

You have your own list. Your own experiences. Your own story.

In whatever you’re doing, don’t worry about being 100% original, just worry about being you.

[Photo by ThomasHawk]

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  1. says

    Joel, this is awesome! So many times I run across the originality monster and turn back discouraged. More and more, though, I just shout back — my voice will be heard. :)

    What mini are you running? Congratulations, and good luck!! (Let me know if you are doing the Indy half marathon in May!)

  2. says

    Good luck on the half Joel!

    Another thing to keep in mind (as we’re creating content) is that just because YOU have heard or read an idea before doesn’t mean your audience has.

    A lot of people, myself included, assume that people know everything I know – even basic things.

    We all have a lot of “unoriginal” ideas in our head that can be extremely valuable to our audience.

  3. says

    Hey Joel! Thanks for the comparison. Mars’s article was actually posted before mine and I was like “oh shit, my Problogger article is going to go live and everybody will think I stole the idea.” hehe In actuality, I submitted it to ProBlogger 2 months before it was posted. In any case, you make great points and it’s true that like-minded people will have similar ideas.

    Have a kick ass time on the run!

  4. says

    It doesn’t matter who gets there first, it matters who gets there best. And best is a rather subjective term so it can mean something different to a lot of different people.

    Plenty of room in the world to add your own touch to someone else’s idea.

  5. says

    Whatever! You’re just trying to make a case for why you always steal my ideas! BASTARD!!!


    Ok, so there might be something to this.

    I do agree that there is nothing wrong with presenting an idea with your own unique twist. The only problem I see is when people regurgitate information and have no true concept of what it means, only that they can paraphrase someone else in hopes that they are close to being right. There are too many people attempting to set themselves up as experts without knowing what they are talking about. (You are certainly not saying that here so it is not a critique.)

    I also think it gives us an opportunity to become thought leaders when we can take an area that others are already generating ideas in and push the limits with our own unique twist. Seth Godin didn’t invent marketing, yet his unique twist sets him apart. Lady Gaga didn’t invent pop music or shock tactics, but she is certainly unique nonetheless.

    I’m glad for the encouragement that brand-spanking-new doesn’t have to be the goal, but rather a smart twist based on my interpretation and thought.

    • says

      I believe you’re the one who steals MY ideas :).

      Regurgitation is a problem, and I’m staunchly opposed to it. I’m not a fan of people saying stuff they’ve heard and then adding their name to it. Add something valuable like your own story, personal experience or something unique to you. Otherwise you’re just creating noise.

      Maybe I’ll go change it from “unique twist” to “smart twist” in my post…

  6. says


    Yeah – if you take your entire personality into the game, you will always be original.

    It’s true – give 2 people the EXACT same topic and you will get 2 very different results.

    If you read both articles, you would see the different style.

    As long as you put yourself into it, and I mean FULLY (no censoring – full-geek mode !), then you will always be unique no matter what !

  7. says

    I was just on Skype chatting with someone about this same thing. There are SO many folks out there that have amazing ideas. And so many of us are influenced by the same sources of inspiration. It’s impossible to completely new in every aspect of a topic.

    I personally love reading similar things from different folks. To me, it’s more about finding out how they think. Besides, it’s generally pretty obvious when someone completely rips off another person. Those folks are quickly abandoned and move on.

    Good read, thanks.

    • says

      I talk to a lot of people and it’s funny how we’ll both bring up a similar solution to the same problem, but we always have our own unique signatures to it. With so much information flowing through our consciousness everyday it’s hard to completely isolate you from any and all outside influences. Sometimes, the most important thing you can do is to take ideas that are already out in the marketplace and mold them so they suit your (and your customer’s, reader’s, etc) needs.

  8. Stephanie M at Together In Food says

    Great post as usual, Joel. What I like about your writing is I feel like I am having an energizing dialogue even though I’m reading something on a screen. To echo Tyler and David (and perhaps DO what you’re talking about here, ha), being first doesn’t matter as much as being best, but I do think part of being best is being unique. I come from the nonprofit fundraising realm so the take there is: what social problem are you solving and why is your solution the most effective (ie why should we fund you, volunteer, get involved?)? As we all know, there are many huge social issues that haven’t been solved, so being able to do something differently and/OR more effectively than what’s come before is critical to moving the needle. Maybe it’s not originality, but it is innovation.

    • says

      Being able to do something differently and/OR more effectively than what’s come before is critical.

      Agreed. Moving forward is key and adding something of your own to the mix (whether it’s a smart or unique twist) is absolutely necessary.

  9. says

    Joel, Great post! As I find myself just starting out it’s intimidating to look at all the other incredible bloggers out there and try to stack up. Your post reminds me that my biggest asset is myself and how I document my own personal experiences. You’re absolutely right about people using lack of originality as a cover for never producing. You’ve inspired me. I’m writing my next post.

    • says

      Excellent Chuck. Don’t worry about being someone else (this is a big hurdle) worry about writing your blog and what you can bring to the table. Keep at it, you’ll probably screw up a couple of times, but sometimes thats what it takes to figure things out :).

  10. says

    I hear what you’re saying but I think you’re missing some nuance. Apple is a great example: they’re not the first to make an MP3 player, or a smartphone, or a phone that plays music. And you’re right that none of that matters because they create what only they can create. That’s a great perspective but you’re looking at it from the perspective of the successful company.

    What about all the other MP3 manufacturers? Smartphone producers? It’s easy to look at Apple and say: Wow, they didn’t have to be original and look at them go. I think a more helpful analysis is: what did Apple do differently to set them apart and what are all the other MP3, smartphone, and tablet producers NOT doing to make themselves exceptional.

    Or to put it in blogging terms: why should I care about YOUR bucket list impossible list and not someone else’s? (not specifically yours, the general blogsphere-wide your)

    • says

      Well I DON’T think you should necessarily care about my bucket list :). It’s fun that a lot of people do, but i’m not trying to compete with any of the other bucket list guys (Steve, Mark, Sean, Tyler, and Cody all have really good stuff, and I think everyone should read them anyways). But that’s sort of my point. It’s not about me vs. them vs what makes me better. I’d rather be me :)

      What makes Apple successful is that they focused on BEING APPLE. They do that by making great products. That’s what set them apart. Part of that means that they didn’t get caught up in the frenzy of everyone around them trying to make a smart phone that all were sub par. They watched the chaos around them, learned from what they were doing and then went and built what people really wanted. Something that just worked.

      Did that answer your question?

  11. says

    Hey Joel – I agree with you and the other commenters that even when you two ideas that sound the same, they can be completely original if the originators pour themselves into them. On the other hand though, I think that you can increase your originality by taking in a wider range of influences. “If you want a new idea, read an old book.” <– Exactly. So many of us are influenced by the same sources. We all read Chris Guillebeau and Seth Godin, you know? I think the wider the range of your experiences and your readings, the more material that you'll have to draw from and synthesize when creating your own output.

    • says

      That’s a good point. Making it a point to get out of your circle of like-minded people can be incredibly valuable and give you another unique perspective that you might otherwise not have had.

  12. says

    Well said! I remind myself of this every time I write. It’s not that my ideas are original, it’s the perspective I bring to it and the stories that illustrate that perspective.

    Have fun with the half! I’ve done a few of those, it’s not as monumental and scary as people might think. You can do it!

  13. says

    For idea disseminators, the more interesting question is…

    Why is Darwin universally known, yet we have to consult Wikipedia to remember the name of that other guy who discovered evolution simultaneously?

    Why is Newton the “inventor” of calculus, while Leibniz was accused of plagiarism for his own brilliance?

    If you can answer that question and put it into practice, you win.

    • says

      Leibniz who? :)

      I would say (and I’m very open to being wrong here) that they were the first to actively communicate their ideas succinctly to others in a way that others could understand & benefit from…

  14. says

    Great post, Joel. I think you’re absolutely right. My wife is working on starting her own food blog (she loves to cook and she’s a great photographer, so the two go well together), but she always tells me how many awesome food blogs are already out there. My response is that there are a ton of blogs about EVERYTHING out there. Just make yours different, make it better in some small way, and make it yours. I will show her this post and make sure she reads your line:

    “If you do SOMETHING, you can at least put your own unique [and smart] twist on it, but if you do nothing, then you still have nothing.”

    • says

      Awesome Hugh! I’m excited for her. There might be a lot of food blogs out there in the world, but there aren’t a lot of food blogs out there in the world by your wife.

      She can bring a whole new element to food blogging. Tell her good luck!

  15. says

    Great topic. I think I will post it on my blog – no wait – is that imitating or just plain copying?

    Originality an innovation will come once you achieve mastery of your craft. Until then learn from the ones who have gone before you.

  16. says

    Thanks for the mention, Joel!

    How right you are . . . similar to feeling the need for perfection, feeling the need for 100% originality can be an enormous progress-killer. I’m as guilty as anyone of wasting way too much time waiting for that new, groundbreaking, never-before-thought-of idea to land on my head.

    And even if a concept is initially “stolen” from someone else we’re inspired by, our own personal experiences and outlooks will shape our final product into something uniquely . . . ours. Absorb, Adopt, Adapt.

    Yet another valuable B.I.T. post- kudos!

  17. says

    One of my favorite marketing classes taught me this idea: “Every wheel has already been invented, you just have to decide how to spin yours.”

    Talk about a metaphor laced statement. Whenever I’m struggling to come up with the next big thing, however, it filters it’s way into my head. And I then have to wonder if I’m doing something worthwhile, or if I’m just “spinning my wheels.”

  18. says

    Great post! I’ve caught myself in that exact mindset, so thanks for the encouragement and insight.

    PS- is that photo of Original Joe’s in San Jose? I just ate there a couple weeks ago. If not, guess Joe isn’t so original either. But, who cares, right?

  19. says

    I’m seeing so many mentions of “bucket lists” recently. Why no mentions of 43Things.com? Simple concept, and potentially one of the most useful sites on the web, if used effectively, IMHO.

    Several years ago it seemed like everybody had a 43Things list. Now, nobody (at least, nobody I know) cares. Internet fads are so transitory.

    This site is looking better all the time, by the way. I’m happy to see it growing.

    • says

      The problem with 43 things, is it’s just 43 things. It’s just a list and you check things off it. Blogs & bucket list focused blogs show a story & progression that you can follow along with and track. I think that’s the big difference. 43 things is a great tool, but I think it loses traction because there’s nothing more to it than the list.

      • says

        And the problem with a lot of bucket lists is that they have no due date, thus no sense of urgency. If my list just has to be completed before I die in (hopefully)60 or 70 years, then pshhh, I’ve got all the time in the world. No reason to work on any of that shit now. I’ll do it someday…

        I think that bucket lists should have due dates. I’m working on one that I’ll be posting on my blog, and right now there’s nothing on it that I plan on taking over 10 years to accomplish. I’d rather have 2 or 3 bucket lists over the course of my life, with the memories of the accomplishments to go along with them.

        P.S. – The term bucket list reminds me of that craptacular movie with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. I much prefer your Impossible List :-)

  20. says

    I know I am late to the game here, but just going through and consuming everything Joel has written down has been a lot of work! Albeit, very worthwhile.

    I do support the idea of a bucket list, however, what I am doing with mine, on the topic of deadlines for bucket lists, is creating a master bucket list (like a lot of people have) and then also creating more short term goals for myself.

    I have goals that I want to accomplish this month, goals i want to accomplish this quarter, and goals I want to accomplish this year. Then my bucket list. As the progression of things come and go, more near term goals (like learning how to cook better) are on my short term list and will fall off, things on my longer term lists (such as using my passport this year) start sliding up into priority as I knock them out.

    But otherwise, I agree, f*ck originality. :)

    • says

      Thanks Justin :).
      Breaking big goals into short term goals helps a lot. I’ve tried to do that with my monthly/bi-monthly reviews and I’ve noticed how much more focused you can be when you’re continually setting and revising your next goals.

  21. says

    Hey Joel,
    This is just a few months late 😉
    But I wanted to add that Lady Gaga’s own style isn’t that original!

    People argue it quite a bit but I feel that she got a lot of her costume style from the musician, Roisin Murphy.

    Roisin Murphy had quite the outrageous outfits just before Lady Gaga got huge.

    So it just reinforces, originality is overrated!

    • says

      And I bet you that before Rosin Murphy, there was someone who dressed up in meat outfits and other outrageous costumes as well. It all comes back around eventually.

  22. says

    Not everyone knows what you know, so its’ always a good idea to share regardless.

    Plus sharing is caring. Therefore personally, I tend to share each and every basic thing i know, because not everyone is the same.

    – Haya


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