Creativity Element 8: Originality

3 minute read
Creativity Fourteen is a series of articles that explores the value of creativity for individuals and teams, starting from the fundamental principles.
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While originality is more of an outcome and as such isn’t part of the creative process itself, understanding it better can lead to a better ability to evaluate one’s own and others’ creative work.

Originality, as something inherently unpredictable and unexpected, depends on the context in which it arises: the same outcome could be obvious in a group of people, yet groundbreaking in another.

One special context that is often not recognized as such is the space inside ourself: our own mind, our perspective, our growth, and our mental flow are a different context from the outside one. In the process of learning new things we might be making original work in our internal context of reference. However once compared to the outside it’s not original anymore, it’s already existing, maybe even obvious. Still, it’s important to not dismiss it, and notice that the work was originated in ourselves first without knowing it already existed. Even if it’s not something new to the outside word, it’s still an important interplay of creativity and learning, and it’s a way to boost both our learning process and our creative process.

For example, while learning how to draw, we might find out that the density of the dots might lead to a way to fill shapes and give roundness and definition without filling them completely. This technique is called pointillism and is widely known but, if we “discover” it before learning about it, it’s our creativity at work. It’s an important sign telling us that we are assimilating the learning well.

As such, it’s important to not diminish these “small” creative moments, but to acknowledge and cherish them.

The understanding of the weight of context in originality leads us to a better awareness of our creative process, as well as an improved learning path: discovering something already existing on our own is one of the best ways to learn.

Perhaps it may be easier to understand this point if we first realize the fact that the ideas with which we deal in our apparently disciplined waking life are by no means as precise as we like to believe.
— C. G. Jung

Our brain can also play tricks on us. There’s a phenomenon called cryptomnesia, which manifests itself when we forget about something we have actually seen. It is different from knowing something and deciding to ignore it, or remembering that we know something but not being able to recall the details. Cryptomnesia happens when we truly forget something. This kind of memory obscuration can cause ideas to resurface from the unconscious during the creative process, leading us to create something that is original… but which might also be a close copy of something we saw before.

How can we sure then to avoid cryptomnesia to happen? We don’t: it rarely happens up to a level where it’s noticeable, so it’s not something we should worry too much about. More importantly, the creative process is in large part a remix process, where we recombine pieces of ideas until we find something else. There’s no such thing as complete originality, despite what people think. It’s a misconception: there are just combinations that work better than others, that are more of an improvement over others — later other people will build on that too. It’s an infinite chain of remixes.

Originality can sometimes be hard to evaluate too, because some outcomes of the creative process seem obvious when evaluated in hindsight. It’s important to notice however when this “obviousness” is brought to light by the finished work itself, and wasn’t there before. Even more, the goal of certain works might be exactly to reach that kind of perception of obviousness.

Be original, but don’t give originality too much weight.