Think You're Original? Think again

One of the “best” and most ubiquitous pieces of advice given is “be yourself,” but one is never told how this cashes out in the real world. Well, this author argues that this domain of originality, in the aggregate, can’t be truly achieved. We are all involved in a certain type of doublespeak. Here’s why.

Originality in today’s society exists in a certain superposition where it is simultaneously challenging and more manageable to be original. Original merely means maximizing the “weirdness” that accrues to a person because of their experiences, temperament, and individual characteristics. This originality is subsidized by the internet (which is, by far, the most efficient and important tool for democratizing resources for success ever developed by man). One can now indulge their curiosities and the parts of themselves that they would not have been able to without the internet. This indulgence is for better or worse.

One also sees this manifesting in the proliferation of “communities,” where each individual can simultaneously exist in multiple communities, with each combination of communities being unique. At first glance, this might sound like a call to embrace how much of a special snowflake you are, but this is not the case because an “original” personality is almost impossible to attain. Further, it is somewhat incompatible with living in civil society because societies depend on some conformity. Still, we can all be more original at the margins.

Moreover, if everyone is original, then no one is. In other words, there’s much originality to be had, but as people and ideas proliferate, that which is seen as original in popular domains becomes monopolized by the truly off the wall, once in a generation individual. In this world, you compete with not only these individuals in your lifetime but lifetimes past. Therefore finding the niches in which your originality is an asset becomes more difficult.

What point do I seek to make? A plurality of people thinks they’re original when in reality, they are not, or at least, not in the domains they believe they are. This lens is quite the hammer because it exposes the inconsistencies in words and actions we all have. For example, corporations say they want self-starters and people with fresh ideas, but they select for a certain grey man who is apolitical, writes a certain way, and speaks the language. College administrators say they want intellectual diversity, but they select students that sound the same and act the same. Academia says they want groundbreaking scientists and the like, but each of these institutions ends up recruiting the same type of people. Academia recruits those that have a certain political skill to get approval from people higher than them. That said, don’t be too quick to moralize about this. I would stress that your “originality” necessarily demands a framework in which it can flourish. Further, true originality is alienating. Most fundamentally, we are social beings, and being so original that you lose your community is seldom a trade we are willing to make.

Certainty rating: 49%


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