Does something need to be completely original in order to be creative?

How can you prove if something is original or not?

After all, if something which I produce is not original, is it not just a waste of time putting in time and effort creating it?

This is a challenge which can petrify many people, and prevent them from trying to produce anything creative.

As a result, many potential creative people never even get started.

While it is true that in order for something to be creative, it must be at least partially novel, unique or original, what this means is often blown out of proportion.

It results in people believing that if they create something which is in any way similar to something which already exists, it has no chance of being taken seriously or succeeding. There is a fear that it will make the creator look like a fraud, just copying what others have done and not having any original ideas of their own. Or even worse, being accused of stealing someone else’s ideas (which is something I hear often, but is not something you need to worry about).

Sometimes, this fear of coming across as your idea being a copy of what has come before it can paralyse people with fear.

In certain fields, like doctoral students looking for research topics to investigate and write about, a study in 2015 showed that the perceived need to be original causes significant burdens and limits on people.

Yet in reality, every creative idea builds on something which came before it.

Nothing is purely original.

Every new idea is a remix.

You do not have to try to force originality in order for something to be creative and appreciated by others.

Let us try and prove this with an example.

Imagine you and some friends have a deck of cards, and I set you the challenge to “Think of a new card game with rules which have never existed before”.

On the one hand, how would you try and find evidence of the rules for every card game ever created? How about the ones which are played in homes but where the rules are not published?

It would make the task almost impossible.

On the other hand, what would happen if you created a game which none of you had ever played before? Which was original for all of you?

Would it then be bad if someone else had previously had the same idea, but you truly had never heard of it?

No, from your perspective, it was original. And even if it was not 100% original, it could still be creative and fun.

Ideas do not need to be different from everything else in the world in order to be unique.

Sometimes, they just need to be different in some way.

When we are learning a topic or a set of skills in order to be creative, usually we begin by copying what others have done before us. Then we might transform it slightly, making it more creative than previously. Finally, we may begin combining ideas and aspects from multiple sources, creating something which never existed before.

Even if each part is similar to something which came before it, the final iteration will be original and unique.

And finally, let us not forget that great artists do liberally copy from what others have created.

The secret is not to pass off someone else’s ideas as your own, but to incorporate them into your own work.

As Austin Kleon writes in “Steal like an artist“:

Bad artists plagiarise.

But good artists steal from all over the place.

So do not worry about ensuring that what you produce is being original for the sake of being original.

Instead, just get going and focus on creating.

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.