It’s one of the main challenges I experience with writing. One moment I’m struck with an idea or a revelation, something I feel compelled to write about. The very next moment I think, well, maybe somebody’s already written about this.
I Google it and sure enough, dozens of headlines appear on the subject. Many people have already written about it from every possible angle. It’s already covered. Why should I bullshit about it, likely with a lot less authority than some of these people, when it’s already been done before?
Few things kill creativity faster than fear. In this case, it’s the fear of sounding trite or naive. The fear of being dull, derivative or worse — irrelevant.
It’s funny how every human has their own unique experiences, ideologies and voice, yet are unfailingly the same. The same stories have been told in countless ways. The same character archetypes have appeared in books, TV shows and movies since before those mediums existed. The same emotions or ideas have been expressed in every imaginable form spanning centuries. And so it will continue until the end of time.
Nothing is original. Yet with each interpretation or adaptation of the same idea, it is slightly different. That's what innovation is. It's how our humanity moves forward. It may be something we’ve all seen and heard before, but now it’s been explored, reinvented and maybe even made better by someone else. It is new.
“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” - Einstein
I’ve written about perfectionism, about the imposter syndrome, about trusting your gut and competing with yourself. None of these articles are groundbreaking. We’ve beaten those themes to a pulp as creatives over the years, but I wrote about them anyway. They are worn topics but clichés are clichés for a reason — they are universally relatable and will be as long as human beings exist.
And I’ve heard from many readers who found these articles helpful or encouraging in some way. That may be because they personally haven’t read about it before, or it was a good reminder, or they just appreciated my perspective on the subject. Whatever the reason, they were useful to someone and that’s enough.
It’s all been done before. But it hasn’t been done by me.
The same truth applies to any form of creativity. Our writing, our designs, our music, our art. New creations and radical ideas are introduced all the time, but so are familiar ones. (This subject itself, that it's all been done before, has been done before.) They just take on a new shape. That doesn’t necessarily make them any less compelling, beautiful or valuable.
In fact, most designers, writers, artists, musicians and makers learn by copying first. Do a bit of research and you'll find some of the world's greatest inventions (Edison's light bulb, Apple computers, Ford cars) were just a better iteration of something someone else already did. My .mail email concept is a great example as well. I didn't invent the concept of an email client. I used preexisting elements and tried to make them better.
Image from "Everything is a Remix."
This is not to defend plagiarism. There’s an obvious difference between approaching a common angle or existing concept from your own perspective, and blatantly ripping off someone’s work. There’s also a difference between creating something because it’s trendy and creating it because it’s important to you.
As the prolific writer Maria Popova said, “creativity is simply the sum total of your mental resources, the catalog of ideas you’ve accumulated over the years by being alive and alert and attentive to the outside world.”
To create, whether it’s completely original, an homage to another idea or a reinterpretation of an old one, is enough.