Here’s an original thought — or is it?
While we were trying to figure out the significance of original thought in contemporary culture during our lunch break at school last week, 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. Even Greek mathematician Archimedes found his Eureka moment springing from a tepid bath during a rare occasion of unfocused ambition (surely he didn’t think he was literally heading into new waters when he started to soap up?) and not when he was using his laptop. (I’m kidding, of course. They didn’t have soap back then.)
Instead, originality, like love or happiness, is a side effect and not a goal. It’s by-product of life.
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. They’re not changing the plot, but acting the role they’ve unwittingly been assigned. Fierce in their certainty of being insurgent, they’re merely inexperienced.
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.
As satirist Fran Lebowitz explained, “Original thought is like original sin: both happened before you were born to people you could not have possibly met.” 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. As Keely Buchanan, a senior manager in the technology industry, suggests, those “who not only question the status quo but dismantle it and envision a new place for things to stand are changing more than platforms.”
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. Writes Professor Chad Stanley of Wilkes University, the poet “who fashions language into levers and forces the unexpected to rise above the familiar makes us feel nostalgic for what we never knew.”
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.
Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.