Cross-posted from my Substack, A Flood of Ideas: https://mflood.substack.com/p/lets-stop-pretending-we-are-original
Why Be Original?
Our society values and promotes original thinking and novelty. Or at least it pretends to. The result is a lot of pretended originality, a kind of Emperor’s New Clothes where everyone is the Emperor. Consider:
- Academics, though they are primarily paid for their teaching of undergraduates and graduate students, are expected to undertake (what is perceived to be) original research if they are ever to land the vanishingly rare, endangered, and on the way to extinction tenured positions.
- Artists need to be perceived as “daring,” “bold,” or “original,” if they are to achieve fame and success. It’s almost unthinkable to read a profile of a rising artist that describes them as “highly traditional,” or “strongly influenced by the Old Masters.”
- In business, entrepreneurs, founders, and CEOs, unless they are under criminal investigation, are described as bold visionaries, original thinkers, and people who “think outside the box.” Whether they follow sound business practices, make wise long-term decisions, or are honest dealers seems to be not worth mentioning (not until the indictments are opened, anyway).
- Speaking of business, during the mid-1990s to early 2000s, a second-tier computer manufacturer made the most of its outsider position by associating its products and whole brand with the phrase “Think Different.”(1)
- Psychologists and self-help/motivational gurus claim they have analyzed what makes people original thinkers and promise - through their articles, books, and public talks - to make us original thinkers as well. Their titles should give you cause to doubt whether their promises are honest (e.g. “Five Things That Original Thinkers Do Every Day Before Breakfast”). Also, the people who claim to teach original thinking don't seem to do much of it themselves.
- Job advertisements in a wide range of industries ask for original thinking and innovative problem solving skills, even in areas where innovation mostly generates fraud (Enron exercised highly original thinking in their accounting, for example). In job interviews, candidates are often expected to describe ways in which they solved problems with ‘outside the box’ thinking. As I wrote, innovative problem solving is even now being asked of vinyl siding installers and plumbers.
- Socially, just consider: would you ever describe yourself, or like to be described, as tradition-minded, parochial, or hide-bound?(2)
Innovation, novelty, and originality have almost universally positive connotations today, while their opposites are denigrated. So much so that faking the trait, or just claiming it is very common. Very few people ever check the claim, and there are no objective tests like there are for the purity of gold or whether you can calculate the derivative of a multivariable function.
Why this obsession with original thinking, and expectation that all of us manifest it, or at least appear to manifest it (an important distinction, about which more below), in our work and personal lives?
It’s not as if originality is a universal good. Mutations in DNA, produced by radiation, mutagens, or plain thermodynamic drift, are almost universally fatal to the cell, and can be fatal to the whole organism if they fail to kill the cell but render it cancerous. There are an infinity of wrong, though original, answers to “what positive integer is the sum of 7 + 5?” and only one correct one. Engineering, medicine, and law require adherence to standards and rules, otherwise their practitioners are at best driven out of their profession, at worst imprisoned. The leaders of cults exercise highly original thinking in their interpretations of Bible verses or Beatles lyrics, and they are spectacularly and often fatally wrong.
The situation is historically unprecedented. Until the invention of the printing press, when the cost in time and material needed to preserve knowledge fell exponentially, the primary duty of scholars was copying old texts to preserve them. Teaching those texts came second, then commenting on the texts, and last of all producing original work. Once Gutenberg made it cheap and easy to put things into books, the need for scribal copying disappeared rapidly.(3) Now rather than spend your time copying out texts, you could read more of them, and also spend time creating creating new knowledge - or propaganda, lies, and conspiracy theories, the technology being neutral between good and evil purposes.(4)
A clue to the change, and the promotion of novelty and originality as good things, comes from the breakdown of old systems of caste/class/guild/family/clan/tribe, driven by economic, political, cultural, and technological changes, including the printing press. Rather than having a predefined role to fit into, which you did either well or poorly against a socially defined image (think of chivalric romances’ descriptions of the perfect knight, or the Iliad’s portrayal of the ideal qualities for warriors and kings), people began to be judged by people other than their clan, guild, or family. A pressure to stand out in a situation where you are not previously known (by your parents’ reputation, if nothing else) becomes, in our epoch, a conscious imperative - you need to stand out to your interviewer to land a job, in an essay to earn high grade, and in romance to attract a mate, so it is a good thing if you are original or be perceived to be.
Ways of Originality (With a Short Digression into Ontology)
I am not denying there is something good about original thinking. Since my ultimate goal is to write things worth rereading, being original is going to be at least part of that - otherwise I’d just simply point at great works from the past, and you wouldn’t need a Substack to do that for you. My goal in this particular essay is to identify what the desirable thing about originality is.(5)
There are two views of originality, a shallow one and a deep one. More properly speaking, there is the originality perceived and applauded in people, and then there is the originality itself within the thinking mind, an appearance and a reality.
I’m going to elucidate this with the following fourfold division of Being:
- Being AND Seeming to Be, e.g. a duck that looks, walks, and quacks like a duck
- Being AND NOT Seeming to Be, e.g. a duck that does not look, walk, or quack like a duck (maybe a duck in disguise?)
- Not Being AND Seeming to Be, e.g. not a duck, but looks, walks, and quacks like one (maybe a convincing robot duck?)
- Not Being AND NOT Seeming to Be, e.g. a dog, not in disguise, that is clearly not a duck(6)
Before we get around to Being, always a difficult topic, let’s talk about Seeming. Specifically, let’s talk about Seeming to Be Original.
Most basically, originality is being different. Mere difference isn’t quite enough, though, not for the kinds of originality that we think praiseworthy. So difference in one’s way of thinking is necessary but not sufficient for what we’re seeking.
Consider the following ways of being seen to be an original thinker:
Option 1 - Stranger In A Strange Land
If you have most or all of the beliefs, prejudgments, and practices of your group - i.e. your beliefs/practices fall within the normal distribution for your context, such as that from progressive to conservative in politics - you by definition cannot be original, nor be perceived to be so. But if you move to a different group, one where your beliefs, prejudgments, and practices are unusual, then you get to be perceived as original by default. Think of how much an exotic foreigner stands out in a rural community where nearly everyone is from the same ethnic stock. In physics and chemistry terms, you move from an area of high concentration of your beliefs to one with low concentration. You’ll trigger more ‘reactions’ surrounded by different potential reactants.
The colors are chosen for visual appeal and clarity, not to represent any political or ideological positions.
So this is a quick and effective cheat if you’re in a hurry to be seen as an original thinker - move, or at least change whom you interact with. Be a fundamentalist evangelical in a liberal university’s humanities department, an avowed atheist at a Christian private school, or a Communist at a hedge fund. Perception of originality guaranteed.
But this is still just difference, not the kind we believe comes from thinking. What about something narrower in focus, becoming even more different in your beliefs than Group A is from Group B, or vice versa?
Option 2 - Fashionable Frauds
“The fashionable is already here, it’s just not widely distributed yet. Upon being widely distributed, it will cease to be fashionable.”
One other way of seeming to be an original thinker is riding a trend. Some people have a knack for spotting the latest trend and getting on board it before everyone else does, then moving on to the next one before the trend is widely diffused. This works because people pay attention to what is (a) new and (b) seems to be gaining in popularity. To be associated with the trend as an early adopter makes a person seem to be an original thinker, a “trend setter.”
Fashion is distorting to our understanding of original thinking because it is only tangentially related to thinking. We believe that people who think in original ways create and lead trends, and so someone near the leading edge is easy to mistake for an original thinker - certainly journalists and the media find this an easy short cut to producing articles. What thinking is involved is thinking about what other people will think is novel, and creating the appearance of both novelty and rapid adoption - that Trend X is something that will be coming to everyone’s milieu soon?(7)
Option 3 - Contrarian Conspiracy Theorists
(Bold thinker or crank? Without empirical testing, its impossible to decide. Popularity or unpopularity is not enough.)
Related to Option 1 and 2, but even more original: adopt a contrary position on an issue about which there is broad societal agreement. Unlike Option 2, you hope to not be on the leading edge of a trend, because that would require you to publicly switch what you believe to stay relevant, which would made people think you are a hypocrite. That a fashionable person change with the seasons, moving on to something new when the previous trend is widely adopted, is expected. That a contrarian changes his opinion when the opinion becomes widespread seems like fraud.
Being Contrarian has a special kind of failure mode: conspiracy theories. I’ll leave aside the extensive psychological literature on conspiratorial thinking, what character traits lead to it, and how it becomes more and less popular with changes in culture, technology, and the economy. What’s notable about conspiracy theorists, if you’ve ever had the misfortune to spend time around them, is their boundless pride and self-confidence. That people try to tell them they are wrong is an ego booster.
Conspiracy theory is a failure mode here because it’s only self-perception, or perception within a tiny group. Non-conspiracy theories don’t acknowledge the originality of the thinking, they just acknowledge how wrong it is. Though for human self-esteem and amour propre, intense respect by a small group that conceive of themselves as heroic free thinkers being ridiculed by “sheeple” can be more than enough to sustain even the most idiotically implausible beliefs.
Contrarianism is closer to what we’re seeking in original thinking, but still not quite enough. Merely believing the opposite of prevailing beliefs is not original thinking, it’s just being contrary. That it’s not actually thinking, properly speaking, but social calculation closer to fashion is evident from the fact so few contrarians ever act on their supposedly contrary beliefs, even when there is money to be made. You will find endless talking head pundits who will tell you a huge stock market crash is just around the corner, but they are never found to be holding short positions on major indexes. The contrarian prefers instead to ride the popularity/notoriety that can come from going against current beliefs, and dine out/sell books/give public talks based on that attention. So-called contrarians prefer to reap social rewards rather than convince others or actually be right. (8)
Taking proposition P and adding ¬ to the front to make ¬P (Not-P, for the non-logicians out there) is no guarantee of finding truth. It’s not even particularly effortful, mentally. But that original thinking tends to involve going against the mainstream gives us a further clue to what original thinking is, and why it can be good. Understanding why it can be good can help us to understand how it has come to be so widely praised, to the point we are expected to lie and pretend we are original thinkers when we’ve made no effort to do so.
To go back to the contrarian, consider this: if you come to believe, through your thinking, something that other people don’t, you may have discovered a secret. Secrets can be immensely valuable. Every radically successful new business, particularly in technology, exploits a secret known only to them, both about their product and about the market for it. Writers can, through inspiration and hard, focused work, create inexhaustible works of art that yield profit to generations of readers, ways of both presenting and understanding the world that eluded their peers and predecessors. (9)
Combining Options 1, 2, and 3, we can list some necessary but not sufficient criteria for original thinking:
(1) thinking differently than others in your group,
(2) not changing beliefs when others come to think your way, or your belief becomes widespread, and
(3) finding and exploiting secrets.
It’s the last quality, the finding of secrets through thinking, that provides the key to real original thinking.
Originality As The (Successful) Pursuit of Secrets
For a fashionable person, to not be perceived is to not exist. Their ‘originality’ is entirely in being seen and acknowledged to be original. If people look away, their being merely different doesn’t amount to anything. For the contrarian, to have other people think the same way they do is to cease to exist, because their views no longer mark them out as special.
On the other hand, it seems to be the case that even if they were not so widely recognized and praised as original thinkers, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein had something that a fashionable or merely contrarian person doesn’t have. What is it?
We can start to answer this by talking about what thinking differently helps you to do. It’s something the contrarian doesn’t do: find a secret, recognize it, and exploit it. This secret could be in new technology (the founders of Mosaic recognized that a graphical web browser would both ride the trend of increasing internet access and help accelerate it), a previously unrecognized natural force (Isaac Newton realizing that the force that drops apples to the Earth is the same that moves planets around the sun), or a potential in art (the inexhaustible well of richness in works like Crime & Punishment or King Lear).
Consider the following model of knowledge:
Error is both things we believe that just aren’t so, and errors we could come to believe but don’t believe yet.) (10) (11)
Known truths are the white area - the things successful thinking has found, codified, and teaches.(12)
Soon to be known truths are the blue area - the things we will discover in due time with grinding effort or random experimentation: diligent lab work discovers the structure and folding potentials of an important protein, publishers searching through manuscripts find the asymmetric success - the title that will outsell every other book published that year. Every year entrepreneurs start companies in competitive marketplaces, some of which succeed more by the failure of their rivals or the “rising tide lifting all boats” phenomenon of a growing marketplace or investor frenzy than by their own merits (see the Dot Com Bubble of the 1990s to early 2000s). To quote the sage Donald Rumsfeld, these are the “known unknowns,” the things we know that we don’t know, and so can actively look to find out. In the present epoch (the 2020s), commercially viable fusion power may be this - presumably we know what we’re looking for, we just have to keep groping around in known areas of the dark to find the technical solutions.
Secret truths are those not accessible by grinding effort or random experimentation. They take effort and creative thinking to identify, explore, and exploit. Once they are found, they can be tied back into the rest of our known truths, and reveal frontiers of soon to be known truths beyond them. But till someone takes the risk - whether in money, time, reputation, or often all three - they will remain unknown.
Original thinking then, in the deep sense, is the qualities of mind - creativity, stubbornness, perception - that can sense secret truths and seek them out successfully. The last qualifier is very important, because it points to a high degree of survivorship bias in our estimates of truly original thinking. All of our contemporary society’s praise of original thinking, it’s encouraging people to be original thinkers, and its trying to educate children to be “creative/entrepreneurial/inventive” are focused solely on a small set of hits among an countless number of misses, the thinkers who:
(a) found a secret
(b) explored the secret, and
(c) successfully exploited the secret (we know nothing about the brilliant minds who found an ethical, poetic, business, or scientific/mathematical truth but told no one)
Everyone who failed, who were deluded, or who succeeded but told no one (Being AND NOT Seeming) we have forgotten. At best they are mentioned in textbooks as “this guy believed this other thing, which was wrong.”
Successful original thinking has given us our modern world with its safety, pleasures, and conveniences. Naturally, we want to encourage more of it. When something is praised but either not widely available or hard to identify (or both), you invariably will get fakery - both from the faker and the one asking to be fooled.
Let’s Stop Pretending to be Original Thinkers…
Whatever differences of opinion you, dear reader, and I have, or that we have with others, we are all, almost to the bone, conventional thinkers. Just about all of our beliefs and opinions fall on a Normal Distribution between socially agreed limits. We go about our days in conventional ways, work conventional jobs, and solve conventional problems - the kinds that admit to either (a) finding out something already known (finding a known unknown - the forgotten password, the right formula for a spreadsheet, the correct amount of salt in a soup) just require grinding effort and experimentation. We nod along and claim to think “outside the box” when it is required of us - website bios, job applications, interviews - in whatever less tacky way we can (to say you “think outside the box” directly calls attention to the whole charade).
Even the highly original thinkers we praise in the arts and sciences - those who succeeded in opening up new territory - were, in almost all the rest of their views, conventional. When they applied their original thinking outside of the domain we remember them for, they almost always failed, and we usually do them the honour of brushing those views aside (you need to know a fair bit about Isaac Newton to know he spent almost as much time on Biblical prophecy as he did on mathematics and physics, or about Linus Pauling’s ideas about cancer treatments).
And this is mostly, and overwhelmingly, to the good. In our dependence on other people for our physical survival - not to mention the rest of our difficult climb up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs - going along to get along is the order of the day. Almost all of the time it is the right strategy, so often that it is instilled into the genetic patterns that govern our mental growth and social development. (13)
Conventional thinking requires going along with many false beliefs, but most of these are of no consequence. Even the issues about which our society considers the “Defining Issue of Our Time” mean virtually nothing in the day to day context of life. We like novelty, but novelty within limits, and novelty that Seems to Be more than novelty that Is. We’re okay with actual original thinking when it is (a) successful and (b) yields some kind of benefit to society.
Originality regularly goes wrong. There’s a reason most of my picture of Knowledge above is black - not only are many of our current beliefs mistaken, from the individual level (“my investment strategy is sound”), to academia (“Theory X is the truth about discipline Z”), to society as a whole (“Ethical Principle P is an eternal truth of the universe”), but our search for truth can not only spread errors but render them uncorrectable in large parts of the population.(14)
And Start Actually Being Them
So am I recommending a life of committed conventionality?
Paradoxical as it may seem, with all I’ve written about how originality is often not a good thing, I wrote this essay to encourage you to prefer trying to be an original thinker to merely seeming to be. Seeming to be original is easy - people have a weakness for novelty, and if your novelty is in the direction beliefs and attitudes are changing, you can claim to be in the fashion vanguard. Contrarians cheat by negating a handful of popular, commonly held beliefs, and dine out on talking about their daringly original vision.
Consider the following thought experiment: in a more limited universe, where everything that could possibly be known is known, originality would only lead to error. We don’t live in a limited universe.
It’s a platitude, though it shouldn’t be, that every person is unique. Not only is everyone unique, every thing is unique as well. To survive our perceptions filter and select for commonality between things - this is why we don’t stare slack jawed at each and every rock, blade of grass, and leaf we find on a nature trail. We just categorize them - rock, rock, rock, blade of grass, blade of grass, etcetera - and move on. The domain that deals with the most undifferentiated, most identical things is probably particle physics, but even here I suspect that atoms and their parts appear so nearly identical (universal, in metaphysics speak) because that is the only way we can approach them. (15) Their uniqueness is beyond our ability to grasp. As we lump all blades of grass together, we lump all hydrogen atoms together, distinguishing them only by their isotope, ionization, position, direction, and speed.
At the same time all things are unique, they are also miraculously like enough to one another that we can successfully “carve nature at the joints,” to paraphrase Plato’s Phaedrus. Knowledge is just such successful carving, when we find a commonality to split phenomena into categories - subatomic particles, vertebrates, reptiles, komodo dragons.
True original thinking is the disposition to look at the already divided up world afresh, and find new, hidden categories and causal connections. It’s not the kind of thing outsiders can easily judge until the searching yields a confirmable result - a successful company, a perennial work of art, a foundational scientific theory, or a unifying mathematical result. The infinity of our universe, in both spacetime and inner complexity, guarantees that there will always be new secrets to discover, new ‘joints’ upon which to carve, with meat to bring home to the tribe.
We need secrets - one of my favourite books, Peter Thiel’s Zero to One: Notes on Startups, Or How To Build The Future, is all about why secrets are important, how they are vital to all future thriving, and what it takes to pursue them.
Not only are secrets hard to find, their exploration and exploitation requires risk. Those who cheat with fashion or shallow contrarianism just make the world more dishonest, and worst of all provide models to waylay people who could be searching for truths directly. If you’re not able to go out and find the secrets, the best thing you can do, starting right now, is to stop pretending to yourself and others.
If we’re going to try to be original, we need to start by acknowledging we’re conventional - that we are starting from the conventional base of what our tribe/society/world believes. That’s why I’m not going to claim to be an original thinker, and wish you, dear reader, to try to stop doing so as much as you can. Err on the side of self-doubt; it’s easy to make yourself believe flattering descriptions, and original thinking is not a self-diagnosis (it’s hard enough for society to distinguish the appearance of it from the truth, in the individual mind it's probably impossible).
But if you think you might be able to search and find, don’t stop. Just stop settling for playing pretend.
1 It really helped that Apple’s products were genuinely innovative, easy to use, and well made. It’s an interesting thought experiment whether the company would have been anywhere near as successful, however, without its aura of being cool and innovative, and promising to make its customers so by association. Chiat/Day, their marketing firm, deserved every penny that Apple paid them.
2 If you’re reading this in a far future epoch, first of all thanks for reading my writing. Second of all, if perhaps your society is in some kind of stasis, know that there was a long period - several centuries, with increasing emphasis and promotion in the 20th and 21st - where original thinking was the most publicly desirable trait to possess.
3 "The effect of printing was more profound than simply making more books more available more quickly. It affected western European’s assumptions about knowledge and originality of thought. Before the invention of the printing, a major part of a scholar’s life was spent copying existing texts by hand, simply in order to have access to them. Now that printed copies of texts were increasingly available, there was less copying to do, and so there was more time to devote to thinking for oneself: that had implications for scholarly respect for what previous generations had said … A culture based on manuscripts is conscious of the fragility of knowledge, and the need to preserve it; a priority must be to keep it secure, simply to avoid the physical destruction of a single precious source, and that fosters an attitude which guards rather than spreads knowledge. Print culture multiplies copies, and the printer has a vested interest in as much multiplication as possible, to sell his wares. Similarly, a manuscript culture is going to believe very readily in decay, in knowledge as in everything else, because copying knowledge from one manuscript to another is a very literal source of corruption. This is much less obvious in the print medium: optimism may be the mood rather than pessimism.” - (Diarmaid MacCulloch, “The Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1519” (2003), p. 73-74)
4 Compare the Internet - universal access to human knowledge, and a platform for spreading lies, propaganda, conspiracies, and promoting genocde. More down to earth, consider ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) - both a vital fertilizer and a cheap, convenient explosive for terrorists when mixed with hydrocarbons.
5 I am going to recommend books and essays, of course, but rather than descriptions of why the book are great and you ought to read them, I will let the fact I read them through twice in quick succession speak for itself. The recommendation posts will instead be essays on what I gleaned from them, and thoughts I developed as a result of the reading, along with suggested supplementary readings on the same themes.
6 I am not enough of an artist to produce a cute graphic for this. I’m sorry. If you are skilled with graphic design, and want to be personally thanked on this Substack, feel free to send me one.
7 “Although moral fashions tend to arise from different sources than fashions in clothing, the mechanism of their adoption seems much the same. The early adopters will be driven by ambition: self-consciously cool people who want to distinguish themselves from the common herd. As the fashion becomes established they'll be joined by. a second, much larger group, driven by fear.  This second group adopt the fashion not because they want to stand out but because they are afraid of standing out.” (Paul Graham, “What You Can't Say”)
8 Often what contrarians are disputing is the socially approved answer to a mystery, something that no one is likely to ever figure out, and about which it is often difficult to imagine what definitive proof would look like (imagine: what proof could there be that humans have free will in the strongest sense? There are opinions, and those opinions get to be eternal because what would count as an answer is not clear.
9 This is the game I’m in. Success is very much not guaranteed, but I intend to try damn hard to find those secrets and bring them to you.
10 It’s sad to think that the future, while holding the promise for new knowledge, also will inevitably bring new errors, including old ones that we had thought we had moved past. Such is the unavoidable tragedy of mortal, intelligent life.
11 I regret that the stark color choices make it seem like error is easily recognizable as such, when this is obviously not the case. You can mentally correct this by imagining the black to shade into white, and the white area to be mottled with areas of gray. I chose these colors for visual starkness and clarity, not for total accuracy to our epistemic situation.
12 Except when our teaching is promoting errors and falsehoods.
13 “The outside influences are always pouring in upon us, and we are always obeying their orders and accepting their verdicts. The Smiths like the new play; the Joneses go to see it, and they copy the Smith verdict. Morals, religions, politics, get their following from surrounding influences and atmospheres, almost entirely; not from study, not from thinking. A man must and will have his own approval first of all, in each and every moment and circumstance of his life -- even if he must repent of a self-approved act the moment after its commission, in order to get his self-approval again: but, speaking in general terms, a man's self-approval in the large concerns of life has its source in the approval of the peoples about him, and not in a searching personal examination of the matter.” (Mark Twain, “Corn-pone Opinions,” )
14 See supposed vaccine “skepticism” which is actually invulnerable prejudice.
15 Possibly the enormous advances in physics within the last century, with their consequent applications in technology, have been due to just how identical the subjects of its inquiry appear to be. Alternatively, one loses less definition and fine-grain when one lumps all hydrogen atoms together to study them than when one lumps, say, all American men together.