The Real World

You Don’t Have to Be Original

Quite literally the reason I didn’t start a blog sooner was that I wasn’t sure what I had to say was Totally Original. How can I be sure I haven’t missed someone else’s relevant work? What good would it be if I wrote something that’s been written before?

If you find yourself in a similar situation, hesitating to embark on some creative endeavor, here are some considerations that helped me decide to go for it anyway. I’ll focus on the particular case of non-fiction writing, but a lot of this could apply to various other creative pursuits.

I. A Story from My Field

Very often, among the most stressful aspects of writing a scientific paper is figuring out citations, i.e. acknowledging who did what when in a related field before we did our work. We do our very best to search and find as many relevant papers as possible; we learn a lot this way, and besides, being unaware of many seminal papers in the field probably suggests you’re not very knowledgeable about the topic. Still, mistakes happen. It’s a difficult task to get right, because in addition to the papers you know there are always many that you weren’t aware of, and their relevance might be hidden away in Section VI of a 50 page paper that you only skimmed.

If you are the person that has been inadvertently omitted from the reference list of a paper, there’s a solution: in my field, our papers get “preprinted” for free online (before going to a journal), which makes it possible for you to send a (friendly) message to the authors and point out your work. If relevant, it can be added in a later version of the manuscript. We sometimes make jokes about such “cite me” emails, but seriously, they are really an efficient aspect of the system; it works by putting some of the effort of checking citations in the hands of those who benefit from being cited.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, as hard as an author may try, they can never be 100% sure they’ve read every relevant paper. So sometimes, the “cite me” email looks like this:

Your work is very interesting. Allow me to point out my own relevant works [1-6] in which I [did everything you are trying to do years ago].

That is, the author finds out that the Novel Groundbreaking Research they’re writing about… has already been done. Someone else did it first. Their work is Not Original.

Is their work now useless? Should they throw it in the garbage? Far from it! Why? Well, in this specific context, it’s important that a cornerstone of science is replicability; it is useful to confirm the “old” result by another method. Besides that, it can also be useful for pedagogical purposes, for clarity of presentation or for updating old terminology or methodology.

Full disclosure: these two things are usually not sufficient to convince a journal to publish the work–there’s an actual rule that something has to be Original–but science is a particularly rigid example. When you write a blog, or give an argument in conversation, or make a piece of art, there are many more reasons to do things even if they are totally 100% Not Original, which I want to talk about below.

II. Is it Worth it to Even Try?

Before giving general arguments for Unoriginality, I wanted to talk about a few specific objections that might suggest that the whole creative thing is a fool’s errand.

“Everything has already been done”

There are (currently) 7.7 billion people on Earth. As the population rises, greater numbers of people participate in the modern economy (of money and ideas both), and this implies an increased likelihood that someone else has already done what you want to do. Do you really think you are the first of billions to have your great idea?

The full force of the argument, as stated, proves too much. If everything is already done, and if we should always avoid doing things that are already done, then the only conclusion is that nobody should do anything. But I think both premises are incorrect.

The first premise is essentially the joke about the economist and the $20 bill recast in a different form. We know that truly novel, innovative creations appear all the time! The first Harry Potter book was written in 1997; Facebook launched in 2003; the iPhone was invented in 2007; Beyoncé put out one of the best music videos of all time in 2008; etc. etc. etc. These are recent! A lot of music / fiction / technology is derivative of previous work, but I’d be hard-pressed to say that none of it is new at all. Truly, the iPhone changed the world.

(The second premise is the focus of a later section, the positive arguments for doing Unoriginal Work.)

This may seem like a straw-man (and it kind of is), but people actually do make this objection so I thought it was worth discussing (so did many other people). I also really just wanted the opportunity to state this explicitly: the market for ideas is definitely not efficient. People are still doing New and Original things. You can find $20 bills on the ground sometimes. Even if there’s no more low-hanging fruit, there’s fruit; you just may have to climb for it.

“You can’t know if your work is original”

So let’s ease back on the original, overly strong objection. More defensible is the claim that you can’t know whether your work is original, and you shouldn’t take the chance. Maybe it’s just really rare to find an original idea, like the improved joke about the $20 bill. (To stretch the bad metaphor: there’s fruit in the tree, but most of it is rotten, and it’s hard to tell which is which.) In college they taught me that plagiarism, however unintentional, is a crime punishable by death or F (your choice). Is it worth the risk?

Yes, I think so. I’ll admit, I’m agnostic about whether the official college rule they taught me is efficient in that context. But in the Real World, you have to make tradeoffs between uncertainty and impact; maybe you can be 90% sure your work is original after a month of research, but to get to 95% would take 6 months (numbers totally made up). It’s not clear where the line is, where it’s worth it, but it’s likely not at 100%. The only reasonable rule is to Do Your Best, and if after careful search you think you still have something original to say, then say it. (You might be wrong, but more on that later.)

“Someone else can do it better”

Maybe there’s a worse problem. Given any pursuit you wish to excel in, it is highly probable that you are near the middle of the distribution of skill and someone else will be able to do it better. (The fruit in your tree is not as ripe as the fruit in your neighbor’s tree. Ok ok, I’m done with the metaphor…) Should you do it anyway?

Probably. Even if someone else can do it better, they may not; given finite time, the most highly-skilled people won’t get to do everything they are highly skilled in. It’s comparative advantage in action. If LeBron James was the world’s best chef, he would likely still spend all his time playing basketball and not running a restaurant; if he split his time between the two, he couldn’t be as excellent at either. That means even if you’re not as good a chef as LeBron, you can make the soufflés while he does slam dunks, and you’ll both be better off.

III. Reasons it’s OK to be Unoriginal

Now I want to go over a few positive reasons to do Unoriginal Work. We’ve covered some of it already in response to the objections above.

0) It can be just for you

This is the zeroth point because it should be totally clear. Writing is clarifying; in the process you work through the ideas and realize where the gaps in your understanding are. It’s part of why I’m here. This is why journaling (essentially a blog with an audience of one) is so widely done; it’s useful even when nobody ever sees it.

Fine art has an analogous zeroth point: the act of making something artistic (or artisanal) can open one’s mind, break down barriers to creativity, or just be soothing or therapeutic. Those are real benefits even if only the author / creator experiences the work. It’s why an amateur craftsman spends his nights in the woodshop in his garage, making a table he doesn’t need. “Do we really need another table, Paul?” “No, but I didn’t do it for you; I did it for me.”

1) You can solve the citation problem

The example that I began with highlights a big reason why unoriginality can be fine. I covered it already above: do your best to find relevant sources, but don’t wait to be 100% sure, or else you’ll never do what you set out to do. Instead, give your best effort and then finish what you’re doing with the expectation that it is original.

You might still be wrong about that! “Acting as though” your work is new doesn’t mean you’re sure it is. Be open to suggestion from others. Modify your attitudes as new information comes in. As in the example above, others may bring other relevant sources to your attention after the fact, and that’s a good thing. It shouldn’t threaten your confidence in the relevance of what you’re doing, though it may shift your focus. Modify, adjust. That’s what life is like.

The fact that others may open your eyes to sources you’ve missed is a corollary argument in favor of putting your work out there sooner; others can’t point out relevant sources if they don’t know what you’re working on. It may have taken you an additional year to discover that source on your own, so delaying your work only sets you back, with no compensating benefit.

2) An example in the hand is worth two in a textbook

Clarity of presentation is another good reason to write things that are unoriginal. When I read a scientific paper, seeing the same result derived in a different way can truly be the difference between obscurity and clarity. More generally, there’s little reason to think that the first to figure something out will necessarily be the best at expressing it. Like a Bob Dylan song, the creator is not always the best performer (sorry, I prefer the covers).

The stereotypical textbook is dry, unexciting, and uninspired. Maybe in terms of conveyance of raw information, terse explanations are denser and go farther. And maybe there is so much more science to teach, as progress is made over centuries of research, that books have to condense an ever larger amount of information into a finite book size. I’m not sure, but I can tell you that in my personal experience, those kinds of books make good references but terrible teachers. Instead, some of my favorite papers, those most useful which I keep going back to, are not Original Works but rather reviews or lecture notes that summarize things in clearer ways.

The same is true about making something memorable. Even if a topic is very well understood in principle, expressing it in a simplified way can make it more likely to be remembered, and thus more useful in practice. One enlightening example can make a concept salient in a way that an entire chapter of dry explication cannot.

I read this week from Scott Alexander how his knowledge of history was greatly improved by seeing the simple “secular cycle” pattern advocated in the book of the same name; this is a real benefit, even if the cycle isn’t real. If tomorrow we all decide the secular cycle was a myth, Scott gets to go on with a better knowledge of history anyway. This is one reason why wrong models are good, and gives us motivation to look for new examples of old concepts.

3) Your personal bag of tricks

Most of what you can say won’t apply to everyone, but only to a small subset. But that highly localized knowledge could be extremely valuable to someone in a position similar to yours. In this case, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a large audience; this might be a feature (rather than a bug), in the sense that your message can be more focused on the sorts of people you have around you.

It’s the difference between a large lecture class and a small group discussion; the former is “one size fits all” where the latter can be more tailored. Now, unlike these examples, the author of a blog does not get to choose their audience; it’s the other way around. But still, the specific thing you have to say and the way you have to say it might be just what your small audience needs to hear. Maybe that’s what keeps them reading. Your audience is self-sorting in a way that the people who benefit from what you write are the ones that stay.

It’s yet another tradeoff (as everything is): you want many people to read what you write; but what you write may be most beneficial only to a select few, and maybe better to tailor specifically to them. Should you sacrifice the many small benefits in favor of the small number of large ones? Suffice it to say, it’s at least more complicated than “just reach as many people as possible”. My personal opinion is that, on the margin, most people would do well to focus more on their small group rather than growing the audience.

(I have some more fleshed-out answers that I’m thinking about, but since my audience is very small (hi mom!) I haven’t had to grapple with this fully yet. More in a future post, I think.)

So from Point 2 I would conclude that not all lectures are created equal; but now I go one step further, to say that actually a more personalized expression might be beneficial. An argument tailored to your small group of followers may go farther than one intended for a huge audience.

4) You reach people that others can’t

Case in point: you are reading this blog. (Thanks!!) Some of “my ideas” are likely written down somewhere else, by someone else, and so I add citations when I can to things that I know changed my own thinking on the topic. If you know of such sources, please please PLEASE tell me (see Point 1); but if you don’t, that makes this your first exposure to them. If I hadn’t written this Unoriginal post, you wouldn’t know about the ideas.

This is one of the points that tipped the scales in favor of me starting this blog. My audience, however small, might not be exposed to these ideas if I didn’t write them down. So here I am.

IV. Still, Don’t Plagiarize!

In summary, there are many good reasons to do creative work even if it is not original: Because…

  1. You can’t be aware of all previous work, and being open about what you’re working on allows others to help resolve that;
  2. The person who develops an idea first may not be the best at expressing it;
  3. When your audience is small, you can personalize your message to the particular needs of that group; and
  4. The people you can reach may not hear the message any other way.

All of this constitutes an argument for being a bit more lax about worrying that your work is totally New and Original.

But this does not mean you should slack on your due diligence! Cite anything relevant; give credit where credit is due, always. Read everything you can get your hands on, especially when it’s sent to you in response to what you put out into the world. Your writing / art / creation is an entity connected to you in such a way that the two of you can grow together. Don’t forget that your creation is not set in stone, and neither are you.

…unless it’s literally a sculpture, in which case I can’t help you.

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