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Original thoughts are pretty rare

January 22, 2019

While we were trying to figure out the significance of original thought in contemporary culture during our lunch break at school recently, the two young women who work in my office had an intriguing exchange.

Julia, who will graduate this year with a double major and an honors degree, was bemoaning the fact that she believes she has an unoriginal mind.

“I’m a good student, sure, but do I have the kind of mind where I can actually come up with an innovative thought? I worry about it a lot. Maybe I’m destined to be one of those people who’ll spend her life listening to what genuinely creative people say.”

The other student, Abigail, a dean’s list engineering major, immediately patted Julia on the arm and told her, “Everybody feels that way. It’s OK.”

About to bite into a slice, I stopped myself: “Did you just reassure Julia, whose big concern is being unoriginal, by saying she’s having exactly the same thoughts as everybody else?”

What could we do but shrug, laugh, and eat more pizza?

Abigail was correct, however: I’ll bet that most of us feel as if somehow we are not as original as we “should be,” as if originality is linked to virtue — and as if it is ours to control.

It isn’t.

Despite ads printed in the backs of magazines, you can’t self-talk yourself into originality. You can’t hire a life-coach to make you creative. You can’t summon, purchase or seduce singularity. Otherwise everybody would do it.

No one can sit down and say “OK, now I’ll be visionary, innovative and original” — even though any one can sit down and say “Now I’ll do something unusual, daring and quite possibly annoying.”

Being different isn’t being original.

High schoolers do that on schedule, for example. It’s their job. They have to break away, rethink and push back against what they regard as the only reality ever to have existed. They’re doing what’s been done by every generation.

The greatest humility, and the greatest humanizing result, of growing older and learning more is the recognition that few of us will ever say or do anything new. Naturally, we are all unique — and that’s just one more way in which we are all the same.

To rebel is one thing; we’ve all done that. But to revolutionize? That’s something else.

So should we just sit down, be quiet, and in a post-modernist way accept that there’s nothing left to do except eat pizza?

No. What we need to do is recognize and cultivate — not seize and subjugate — creativity. We can’t capture it. But we can feed it and admire it.

Originality turns out to be as essential in all fields, not only ones regarded as artistic.

Originality dazzles us, makes us feel like children again, because it makes the world new: briefly but profoundly, we are intensely aware of what’s around us.

What appears original might well be something everybody seen before but never imagined in that outfit, like the plot of a B-movie where the lead character reveals beauty or strength previously hidden but always, somehow, suspected.

It’s as if we’ve known it all along.

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