There have been an estimated 100 billion or more people alive throughout the history of this earth. Each of these individuals had/have the ability to think and process tons and tons of information. It’s been estimated that we each have roughly 70,000 thoughts per day, and we live an average of 71 years. That means we could have somewhere around 1.8 billion thoughts in our lifetime. So, trillions of thoughts have been circling around throughout human existence.
When we think of it that way, it seems like there is no way we’d ever have an original thought. We’re just a speck in the massive thing called life. But, these minds of ours have some crazy abilities and are quite unique.
Let’s start with the idea of random combinations (or permutations) to help bring context to the word ‘unique.’ Three different colored dice with six sides have 63 (or two hundred and sixteen) possible permutations where ordering of the colors matter. Think of that like having six shirts, six pants and six shoes; and we can quickly see why picking clothes isn’t easy for everyone. At a place like McDonald’s, lets assume there’s at least 10 of each main, side, drink and desert option; that’s at least 104 (or ten thousand choices). Making a simple lunch choice, comes with taking into consideration ten thousand options without us even knowing it.
Using this concept, we can create a completely original combination of letters that can easily surpass the number of atoms in the universe in one paragraph. We can say with a pretty high level of confidence that this random combination of letters has *never* been written before (for those listening, it’s a random jumble of 209 upper and lowercase characters):
YnHmwYT sNYHfXC XTZo QBntLzXJ HaDYiE AkpA WnUNMsOj puVx hTqkQDy WCAihWe u prqcgJ eDS k EFuSl hcduh r TUeH bTso uXi XbgBDZQ CiQlAMdj FUAD rJprK iw TxtHXl d Fjq dFSVJLt xioNi JL arYVoP gHfseQ hx i gyGjY U MIWs iNgYL U YrOX jNi gAAeytx Pv yMGmDVb a kTg asdEtG
Since we have 209 characters in this blurb and roughly seven bits per character, we get 21463 possible permutations. It is said that the number of atoms in the universe is around 2256. Going beyond that by several orders of magnitude creates a ridiculous number of combinations.
Ok, Ok, Enough With the Numbers
So, what does that mean, aside from the fact that we just witnessed an original smattering of letters that have more possible combinations than the number of atoms in the universe? Great … now what? It’s still not really ‘original.’ It’s just a ‘unique’ combination of letters, just as most new articles or books are.
Being original, though, is supposed to capture concepts or actions that haven’t been done before or done to the same capacity. The smattering of letters in just this way may have never been done before, but the concept has. But what about context? Has anyone associated random characters to being original? Probably. But if we think about ourselves, we are just like that random smattering of characters except we also have thoughts, concepts, and take actions.
If we made the random words into a poem, that could be considered original thought. But has anyone made a poem from randomly created letters? Probably. Has anyone associated random characters of letters to notes with different pitches, frequency, etc. to make music? Probably. But if we created a different sounding beat that *people liked* by experimenting with these same letters, would that finally be original? It’s so difficult to prove that it becomes comical to even try. So then what’s the point?
Who created the first cell phone? Was it Eric Tigerstedt because he filed the first known patent for a ‘pocket-sized’ phone? Or was it Motorola since they created the first known ‘demonstration’ of a handheld phone? Who is to say someone else didn’t create it before Eric or someone else didn’t build it before Motorola? Once a concept or thought gets out, it can rapidly be incorporated into everyone else’s thoughts and actions, immediately taking off with no real ability to determine the origin. The fate of a writer who likes to put their ideas out there will find other’s taking those ideas and remixing them, sometimes without even knowing it.
If we can’t prove what is or isn’t truly original, then we have to depend on social credit or social acknowledgment. Edison arguably won social acknowledgment over most others as the pioneer of electricity in the US, but was he the ‘original’? Was he even better? So we can’t prove originality very well because it depends on social credit and is *completely subjective*. So what’s the point of chasing originality? Before answering that, let’s see if we can identify three ways to be more original.
Three Ways to Be Original
1. Study and work harder and smarter at an activity than everyone else. This one is self-explanatory. If we spend more time with an activity, we will naturally have more information about this activity and thus more opportunity to do things that others aren’t doing. Trying to do this with pursuits that a large portion of the world is doing makes for a very tough time, so we should be sure we have a passion for it in that case.
2. Engage in an activity that very few are doing – the sport, cheese-rolling, or shin-kicking, for example. The number of people who have been involved in these undertakings may be so few that we may bring something ‘original’ to the table just because our uniqueness has a much higher chance of shining.
3. Create something new by adding to something existing. Sticking to sports as our example, there are only around 10,000 sports in the books. Coming up with something new may not be as hard as it sounds if we *base it on what already exists*. Heck, let’s do it right now. Let’s strap an office chair to our butts and wear a rollerblade on one foot and a regular shoe on the other. We create a ball that is a mix between a rugby ball and a basketball to make a slightly lopsided basketball, so it bounces a little off. We can only touch the floor with our feet when dribbling, but we can roll in the chair for as long as we want without dribbling. The court is about the size of half a basketball court, and the rim is eight feet tall. We could play two on two. We’ll call it fail skate ball or FSB. Is our FSB sport original? Has anyone done that before? Maybe, but the chances are lower each time we add something ridiculous to it. Let’s add a light plastic bat in one hand, safety glasses, and headgear and give points for smacking someone in the face with the plastic bat, but only if hit while shooting. Being hit without shooting would mean a foul. Has anyone done this before? On and on, we can go.
There you have it: three ways to be more original. But what does this prove? Our fail skate ball, may still use a ball and a hoop. Some would argue that building on something existing isn’t really original. I disagree, but as we established, being original requires either the ‘all-knowing’ or completely subjective social acknowledgment.
Everything we learn is built on the backs of others. Every painting can arguably start with a single dot; everything else is built on top. Our ancestors had the proverbial ‘dot’ for language and everything else that is human. That doesn’t mean we can’t be original. Cell phones, robots, satellites, and space travel didn’t exist. We add on to our body of knowledge and achievements slowly, steadily to the point where original thought happens by all of us all the time; we just can’t recognize it as easily.
A Cliché Ending
We started off discussing a random bunch of characters and how being original involves something that hasn’t been done before through unique thoughts, concepts, or actions. Let’s close this out. I think we can probably agree that, mathematically, each and every one of us is like those characters, very unique (let’s just say more than 23,000,000,000 based on the human genome). Except unlike those characters, our unique combination includes our way of thinking, our experiences, our very detailed nuances, which are all different and thus unique.
Yet if we are all so unique, why are our thoughts and actions so similar? Why doesn’t it feel original? My theory is that we are built to generalize. We mimic each other as babies, and we are trained to socially interact with common structures (like language). If we didn’t, we’d have too massive an amount of information to compare and wouldn’t be able to interact. There are studies reducing the number of base emotions to four, yet we have more types of neurotransmitters than basic emotions (around seven types, with several in each type). We confine everything, including our own emotions, to very limited, generalized boxes and expect originality, which is based on other’s opinions. Anyone who says we’ve already thought of everything is stuck inside these very same boxes. Think of all the ways we can combine words, concepts, ideas, emotions, and actions just like we did with our random characters, and it should become obvious – the possibilities are literally endless.
We are all original thinkers despite the similarities, and it can be mathematically proven. So what is the completely unoriginal bottom line? Instead of focusing on being original, just focus on being ourselves; it’s the same thing anyway.
References (don’t judge me on the lack of scientific articles here…):