Nothing is new. Everything is derivative. We’re all building on what has gone before.
Look at Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1726). Physicist, astronomer, philosopher and author. A key figure in the scientific revolution. A great mathematician and one of the most influential scientists in history. Yet despite this glowing CV (resumé), he humbly said this of his work: “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
From cavemen learning to cook their food to experimental helicopters on Mars, we’re all just adding bricks onto the top of the wall. Yet, in our modern world, building on the past is no longer enough. Ideas have to be unique, clothing has to be unique, we have to be unique. In fact, unique isn’t sufficiently unique anymore. Nowadays we have to have a Unique Selling Point. Once the preserve of marketing functions and products, USPs now apply to you and me. We must be a brand of one. Brand Me.
The Old Testament tells us that this obsession with being unique is nonsense. Ecclesiastes was written five thousand years ago and yet it’s still relevant: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9.
I’m a definite cheerleader for being authentic. But where I diverge from this trend is the idea that we are nothing unless we have something unique to offer. This is pretty hard. Take words for example. Unless we’re Shakespeare inventing new ones, we’re using the same mix of letters and syllables as everyone else. Robin Williams as Mork (in Mork and Mindy) is just an outlier. Na-Nu Na-Nu.
Martin Amor and Alex Pellew agree – it takes real effort to create something new. Martin and Alex spent much of their careers “helping big companies become richer.” They worked with their clients on “their tough questions” like: what will our new breakthrough product be? How can we turn this new technology into a product lots of people will buy? How can we expand our audience to include younger people?
Together they generated hundreds of ideas for companies and they turned this lifetime of idea generation into a book: “The Idea In You” – how to take an idea, build it and use it to change your life.
Amor and Pellew are the kings of new ideas, but even they say this: “The history of ideas is a tapestry of interconnecting ideas with one idea inspiring the next. Everything is connected.” They warn us that the search for originality is a lost cause. “If you insist on 100 per cent originality in your idea you will be searching for a very, very long time because nothing is entirely original. Just find something you are excited to do – and get started.”
It’s fine to beg and borrow since many new products are just tweaks anyway: novel flavours in chocolate bars or scents in washing powder, vacuum cleaners with new gadgets. Some new ideas are just old ones crashed together, such as Airbnb or Uber. Fewer things are totally new – like 3D printing, blockchain or wearable electronics.
This “obsession with new” can take us down strange paths – Evian’s Water Bra is one example. In 2005 the French company decided to diversify by manufacturing a bra that would cool the wearer during hotter months. It also featured a small pouch to hold a bottle of mineral water. Clearly this wasn’t going anywhere. Neither was the wearer, weighed down with bottles in their bra.
Or what about Juicero? In 2013 this California-based start-up raised $120M for its fresh-squeezed juice device. Retailing at $400, it’s wifi enabled machines were expensive, especially as they were no better than squeezing fruit with your hands. Of course the company folded within months.
Pamela Slim has written a book called Body Of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together. She’s also a coach and helps people to find their own thread, the story of their lives. Here she is coaching Amber Naslund (a marketeer, writer and public speaker) who feels she’s not particularly unique or original enough in her work. This is part of their conversation:
Amber: “That’s where my imposter syndrome comes in because I walk in going ‘well, somebody has already said that!’” Amber reveals she’s a self-professed Brené Brown devotee. “So much of what I’m saying, and doing and feeling, sounds like things she [Brené] has already said and done. So does the world really need another one of us?”
Pamela: “Yes. The answer is yes… it needs you, and it needs a whole bunch of other people. Because there are many people on the planet, with many different lived experiences with different values at different times that need to have discernment and different messages shared in different ways.”
Pamela asks a rhetorical question – how many people have written books on marketing or entrepreneurship. How many experts are there on these topics?
Pamela: “I don’t know about you, but I eat them all up. I can dork out on four different books about habits within a month. And it’s so interesting because each person has different stories and a different approach. So, we all need each other in order to be solving these bigger problems.”
When I watched this a few months ago I found it really helpful. I had also been wondering whether I had anything new to say when I write these blogs. What I took from the conversation between Pamela and Amber was this: the topic or idea doesn’t need to be different.
The “what” can be wholeheartedly borrowed from others. If Isaac Newton is standing on the shoulders of giants, then us ordinary folk are definitely doing the same. What we need to focus on is the “how.” This is where we can be utterly unique – using our voice.
So, there you have it: Ecclesiastes, Isaac, Martin, Alex and Pamela all agree. Mark Twain joins the gang as well:
“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.” Mark Twain, Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography
Here’s my last thought on the matter. If you’re trying to come up with The Killer Idea, stop now. If you keep asking “how can I stand out?” then you’ve missed the point. Save your energy. Stop looking to see where other travellers are heading and instead do what you enjoy. Savour the journey – you’ll only make it once.
This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.
Why not also take a look at my latest venture: guest writer on The Room Psy.
Second and third photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan