Home > Culture > Creativity is Real, “Original” is Not

Creativity is Real, “Original” is Not

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Creativity. The ever elusive, hard-to-pin-down, sought-after trait. It’s the difference between those who “make cool stuff” and those who merely “do stuff.” It’s the reason people like Lady Gaga wear a dress made out of meat and get away with it. Being creative is very lucrative, so it’s searched for and cultivated in many industries. Creativity is as elusive as “cool,” and like the concept of “cool” people always try to chase it down and define it.

Being immersed in the advertising world online, I come across a lot of articles about creativity. I read about what it is, what it isn’t, and what it can be. Other articles instead focus on how to become creative. I’m interested in all of it.

Defining Creativity

We might as well start from the root and build on that: According to Wikipedia (the end-all for half-assed research), “creativity comes from the Latin term creō ‘to create, make.'”

Being creative is making art that gets a person thinking, stringing words together in a beautiful way, and making music that is catchy and remembered; these things (defined as “art” in one form or another) are undoubtedly creative. They evoke emotions of wonder, they make people laugh or cry, and they usually make people think “damn, I wish I thought of/could do that!”

But creativity can also show up in a well thought-out argument, or a perfect line of code in a website, or a new equation in mathematics. Creativity is a new product idea, but also a compromise between warring countries that nobody has tried before, or finding a different way to fix a leak in someone’s plumbing system. This is why it’s such a hard concept to nail down: Creativity comes in many forms.

Nothing is Original

You know that scene in Garden State where Natalie Portman says she wants to do something that nobody has done before? You don’t? Here. People think creativity is like that; “creative” people are able to invent something new and original.

Well, I’ve got a sad story to tell you: Nothing is original. Everything is a mutation of a previous idea; it came from somewhere. It’s a recombination of previous words, objects, and technology to build something different. There’s a quote that gets used a lot by Faris Yakob (which, of course, he stole from someone else): “Talent Imitates, Genius Steals.” Now, that doesn’t mean copying. We all know plagiarism is a bad idea, and taking credit for something someone else made isn’t cool.

One of my favorite musicians of all time, Bob Dylan, spent most of his early career appropriating identities from various cultural figures of the past, but he also injected new meanings into the music and words. He didn’t copy Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, and Rimbaud; he just stole from them, and that is a good thing).

Another quote from Chuck Palahniuk’s Book Invisible Monsters goes like this:

“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everybody I’ve ever known.”

Anything that happens now is a remix of something that already happened. We’re all just mashups of previous bits and pieces of culture.

All Past is Prologue

Nobody has experienced the world in exactly the same way. Anything you make, everything you do, and any ideas you think of are combinations of every bit of the world that you’ve ever encountered. Nobody has been subjected to the same stimuli. Nobody has had the exact same conversation with the same person, and nobody has devoured the exact same media, pop culture, and advertising as everyone else. Your creative output is defined by your past. It’s only fitting that creative things come in many different forms.

I think that truly “creative” people are simply able to take all of this information, mash it up into a broad insight about a group of people, and create something that evokes a response and becomes part of culture. Then, it can be stolen by others in the future to make more cool stuff. Creative people are curious about the world and love to tell stories. At its essence, advertising is simply telling a story.

So that’s my explanation of creativity. Feel free to steal any ideas I have…that’s sort of how it works.

What do you think creativity is?

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  1. September 21, 2010 at 12:33 am

    I wanted to thank you for including my work in your creativity reference, Tom! I really enjoyed reading your post. Your points about what creativity can be are perfect – I couldn’t agree more that creativity surfaces elegantly in an infinite number of ways, disciplines and fields (in general, we have to be more open to finding it there.). And when I got to the Yakob quote, which has become a bit of a controversial assertion, I was right with you. It’s a paradoxically saddening, but then a freeing/honorable point when you think about how originality and creativity becomes the way that we integrate pre-existing concepts and messages. Anyhow, sorry to ramble; but, I wanted to let you know I loved this piece and your enthusiasm. Also noticed your MN connection too! Cheers!

    • September 21, 2010 at 9:38 am


      Thanks so much for the kind words! I’m glad you liked this post. I owe you, because reading your post about creativity (plus some others) inspired me to think more about the notion of creativity and the idea of “new.”

      Yep, MN born-and-raised, Wisconsin-educated. Midwest through and through.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Chris
    September 21, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    I agree, nothing is original. Creativity seems to follow the idea of evolution. Everything that is created is a mutation of something from the past. While the result might be unique, it is eventually duplicated and reproduced so many times that it becomes the dominant thing. But slowly things start to change and mutate again and evolve into another idea that seems new, but you can trace its “DNA” back to many different influences.

    You know I’m huge into music and while mashups and remixes to songs may not be 100% original, what they did to the song to make it different is unique to that artist and in a way they created a new song from the old one, which if anyone knows anything about music history, is how nearly every new genre started….stripping down the music to its core elements and piecing it back together in a new, unique, creative way.

    • September 22, 2010 at 2:20 pm

      Spot-on, Christof.

  3. Liz Hunt
    September 30, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    I’m a graphic designer, so I have to be “creative” on demand, and it’s not always easy. But guess what one of the first things they teach you in school is? Nothing is original-just like you said. Everything is just another perspective/take on something that’s already been done.

    • September 30, 2010 at 11:15 pm

      Hey Liz,

      That’s really cool to hear; I think it’s really reassuring to know that you’re expected to dig into the past to create something new. It validates paying attention to history & past culture, which is cool. Thanks for commenting!

  1. September 24, 2010 at 3:34 pm
  2. September 27, 2010 at 11:38 pm

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