Over the past few months, as I’ve worked to turn personal notes into public blog posts, I’ve been wrestling with a troubling notion: Do I have any original thoughts?
I’m not sure. I find that a lot of what I think and write is just rehashing what others have said before me.1
But the even bigger question is: Does it matter?
What Is an Original Thought?
There are very few true original ideas.2 By “original ideas” I mean true zero-to-one insights. Not zero-to-one in the way that term is casually thrown around by venture capitalists, but actual insights that change the world. Things like:
- Gutenberg’s printing press
- Shakespeare’s plays
- Kant’s moral philosophy and epistemology
- Einstein’s theory of relativity
- Newton / Leibniz inventing calculus3
If this is the bar for an original idea, few human beings will ever have one.
But let’s lower the bar a bit. We can define an “original thought” as an insight about the world that someone hasn’t had before. Even here, the notion that no one else has ever had a similar idea seems to strain credulity. I can’t know for sure (the problem of other minds), but it seems to me that someone at some point in history would have the same thought that I do.
Distilling Others’ Insights
For a long time, I resisted the fact that there is a value in repackaging and disseminating others’ ideas. For years, I’ve watched people like Mark Manson, James Clear, Tim Ferriss, and Ryan Holiday successfully implement the following playbook:
- Take a primary source (often one that has been around for hundreds of years)
- Distill key insights from it and summarizing them on a blog or podcast
- Grow an audience
- Parlay that audience into book deals, speaking engagements, investment opportunities, etc.
While following these authors, I held the contradictory thought that because I already knew something (or could go to the primary source myself) it didn’t make sense to write about it publicly. I was waiting for a new insight to share.
Yet this discounts the fact that just because I know something doesn’t mean that others know it. Many don’t, and they don’t have the time or inclination to dig into primary source material. I’ve found it helpful to think about this through the lens of abstraction layers. Some people want to understand a topic in great detail. Others are just focused on what key insights they can extract to better their lives. Additionally, for concepts to stick, people need to be taught in different ways: with different stories, through different media.
So you don’t need to have some breakthrough insight to share ideas. We’re all just putting our own spin on preexisting information. By writing online about some idea, you:
- Indicate that you’ve given the subject enough thought to understand it better than the majority of people
- Share the story of how to apply that idea to a particular set of circumstances.
Idea Generation vs. Application
We’ve established that:
- There are relatively few true original thoughts/ideas.
- It is likely that someone else has already had the thoughts that I have had.
- There is value in distilling key insights and disseminating them to a wider audience.
Should having original ideas even be our focus? One thing that I’ve learned in the startup world is that ideas are cheap. Everyone has ideas for the next billion dollar company, but it’s the execution – the application of those ideas in a specific context – that matters.
Elon Musk doesn’t have original ideas. He wasn’t a founder of Tesla. SpaceX was not the first private space company. He is an amazing marketer and draws attention to his projects, which attracts the capital and talent that allows his vision to become a reality. He is the epitome of “fake it until you make it”.4 I don’t mean this as a criticism – I admire Elon Musk and think that he is doing an incredible job of pushing the world forward and shifting the Overton window when it comes to space exploration and clean energy. His execution is what matters.
Further, why do I value original thoughts in the first place? Is it because I value logic and thinking from first principles? Or is it – if I’m brutally honest with myself – because others claim they value logic and originality and I want to be seen as someone who exhibits those traits? René Girard’s mimetic theory scores a point.
At the end of the day, it’s a good problem to have if I’ve managed to cultivate a space where the five people I spend the most metaphorical time with are those whose ideas elevate me. If I’m learning from the best and implementing smart ideas, the genesis of the idea doesn’t matter. Doctors don’t worry that they’re copying other doctors’ best practices. In fact, this is encouraged in the medical profession. Similarly, I can provide value by taking lessons from others, applying them to a specific situation, and writing about that process.
I find an argument that resonates and spit it out on my blog or at cocktail parties, and I’m not sure if I actually have a well-reasoned perspective, or if this is just the best argument I’ve found by someone else on that topic. The beginning of this Slate Star Codex post describes a related feeling:
“[T]here are people who can argue circles around me. Maybe not on every topic, but on topics where they are experts and have spent their whole lives honing their arguments. When I was young I used to read pseudohistory books; Immanuel Velikovsky’s Ages in Chaos is a good example of the best this genre has to offer. I read it and it seemed so obviously correct, so perfect, that I could barely bring myself to bother to search out rebuttals.
And then I read the rebuttals, and they were so obviously correct, so devastating, that I couldn’t believe I had ever been so dumb as to believe Velikovsky.
And then I read the rebuttals to the rebuttals, and they were so obviously correct that I felt silly for ever doubting.
And so on for several more iterations, until the labyrinth of doubt seemed inescapable.”
I use “thought” and “idea” interchangeably throughout this essay. ↩
Two people independently inventing calculus ironically would indicate that one of them didn’t have an original idea. ↩
This does beg the question: How many geniuses had insights that could have changed the world, were only those insights marketed better? ↩