Here was the life cycle of an insight:

“If I put this candle in an all-white gallery space, it looks like a piece of art. If I put it in a garage, it looks like a piece of trash. [...] I often use this analogy in design. I could either design the candle, [...] or I could just design the room that it sits in.”

— Virgil Abloh, the late founder & CEO of Off-White, artistic director at LVMH

That’s pretty insightful Virgil, I thought, so let’s look for evidence of this (earnestly) genius insight in your designs. And I searched on Google images, “off-white clothes,” and I didn’t find any genius innovation in his designs. Disappointing.

But wait—of course I wouldn’t find evidence in the products themselves. The whole point was the surrounding context, invisible to Google images and me: the store displays, the scarce releases, the celebrity collaborations.

But wait again—isn’t that just the 4 P’s of marketing? The ones you learn in highschool business class? Product, price, place, and promotion. What Virgil said is, don’t design the product, design the other three P’s. Disappointing.

Many such cases. An idea seems insightful, then I realize it’s actually one I already knew, just wearing a new coat. But you do have a choice of how to respond in these situations. Either, the idea is trite, commonplace, and unoriginal; nothing new under the sun... Or, the idea is a new aspect of the same essence, another facet of the same diamond, another petal from the same flower; there is nothing new under the sun!

When you rederive the same insight from a different direction, you aren’t merely back where you started. You are earning an intuition to notice the idea when it comes up, grasp which of its levers you can pull, and in which conditions it applies differently. And you can do all this easily, even subconsciously, because once you understand the way broadly, you see it in all things.

If you recognized Abloh’s quote as analogous to the 4 P’s of marketing, you’re getting closer to sensing the world like a marketing executive: naturally seeing the concept, its extensions and limitations, and using it to explain reality around you. This is far different from sensing the world like a highschooler: having just learned the 4 P’s, and straining to apply it in a closed-book exam.

Instead of pawing the idea like a beginner, you wield it like a master. You aren’t back where you started, you’re one level higher. You aren’t walking in circles, you’re climbing a spiral staircase.

Months after I conceived this by myself, and I’m sure I wasn’t the first, I read Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. In it, Siddhartha and his friend Govinda meditate for years, brief respites from the pain and pointlessness of life. Yet every time they escape the self, they inevitably reinhabit their selves. Siddhartha laments how they achieve nothing different than an alcoholic, guzzling to briefly drown his senses. Govinda argues, no, that’s not the same; they return more enlightened after each meditation, but the drunkard is just that after waking from his delusion. Siddhartha reflects:

“What now, oh Govinda, might we be on the right path? Might we get closer to enlightenment? Might we get closer to salvation? Or do we perhaps live in a circle—we, who have thought we were escaping the cycle?”

Quoth Govinda: “We have learned a lot, Siddhartha, there is still much to learn. We are not going around in circles, we are moving up, the circle is a spiral, we have already ascended many a level.”

Many such cases. Turns out, my treasured insight was long-trodden ground, trite down to the choice of imagery. I can’t help but feel disappointed... But wait a second—

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Other examples:

  • Math concepts can often be derived in a myriad different ways, and many derivations and explanations shed new lights on the concept and deepen your understanding.
  • In art, a popular saying is that everything is a remix, so complaining about lack of originality, or that A is just B in a different guise, seems a bit besides the point.
  • Popularisation of science is, to a significant extent, also about repackaging existing knowledge in a more comprehensible structure with better imagery and metaphors. And this is an immensely valuable endeavour.
    • Richard Dawkins' books on biology and evolution come to mind.
    • As does a significant chunk of the original LW Sequences. See this Yudkowsky comment on which fraction of the ideas in the LW Sequences he considers to be wholly original rather than re-explanation of existing ideas (15%), and what that implies (namely that academic papers often have a similar fraction of original ideas, and that furthermore deciding what to curate is also a kind of originality).

It's interesting to compare the first two points: novel math derivations and remixing old artwork can seem like disparate paths to greater understanding. Yet often, 'novel' math derivations are more like the artistic remixes, or pastiches. Gian-Carlo Rota, MIT math & philosophy prof, referenced two ways to come across as genius: either keep a bag of tricks and apply them to new problems, or keep a bag of problems and apply them to new tricks.

Eliezer's discussion about his work was interesting too, I hadn't seen that before. Rota also spoke of scientific popularization as your mentioned, saying you're more likely to be remembered for expository work than for original contributions:

Allow me to digress with a personal reminiscence. I sometimes publish in a branch of philosophy called phenomenology. After publishing my first paper in this subject, I felt deeply hurt when, at a meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, I was rudely told in no uncertain terms that everything I wrote in my paper was well known. This scenario occurred more than once, and I was eventually forced to reconsider my publishing standards in phenomenology.

It so happens that the fundamental treatises of phenomenology are written in thick, heavy philosophical German. Tradition demands that no examples ever be given of what one is talking about. One day I decided, not without serious misgivings, to publish a paper that was essentially an updating of some paragraphs from a book by Edmund Husserl, with a few examples added. While I was waiting for the worst at the next meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, a prominent phenomenologist rushed towards me with a smile on his face. He was full of praise for my paper, and he strongly encouraged me to further develop the novel and original ideas presented in it.

Here's the source from which I found Rota's speech—and the fact that I wouldn't have known of those ideas otherwise—validates the usefulness of repackaging good ideas again! And you're right that choosing what to curate is a form of originality; choosing the best out of several AI text generations is you applying your taste and sense of relevance, or in other words, bits of selection pressure. So both human contribution and human selectivity can indicate originality. But the same could go for sampling past human work too, in art, math, or otherwise.