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Ideas to stay generative in an increasingly saturated, information-rich world
Being original is overrated, and frequently impossible anyway: focus on being genuinely useful instead
Steve Jobs “stole” from Picasso when he said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”.
Picasso “stole” from T.S. Eliot who phrased it as, “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal”.
Eliot “stole” that from Oscar Wilde who gave us the line, “Talent borrows, genius steals”.
Who knows where Wilde “stole” it from…
Jobs is known for innovation but he didn’t make products for the innovators. That’s why Apple is the largest company in the world. [source]
All too often, we get caught up in trying to create ideas that are truly, 100% original. And yet this can prove difficult due to the very nature of the web, where on some days it seems as if everything possible has already been done (even though this is not true). There are an incredible amount of web and mobile apps being constantly churned out daily. There are even more e-commerce businesses, blogs, newspapers, and niche/large-social media products vying for your attention. And not just from brands or celebrities, but now normal people as well.
Saturation in terms of raw numbers of what’s happening in the digital world (and by transitive property, the physical too) is an understatement.
From a user perspective, there is no reason to feel overwhelmed – by now most have a personal set of tools they use to get the information they need daily in an efficient manner – and those who don’t already will soon. Turning the volume up or down is easy – we’re in total control of information flow from a consumption perspective, something that has has turned influence in a new direction (ex: celebs are currently out there torching remaining trust shilling various crypto/NFTs, something they’ll live to regret, and one reason of many future of influence as I’ve written prior will be our personal networks-not random C-list actors). “There’s also no information overload, only filter failure” as my friend Louis Gray likes to say. You decide how many people you follow on social, how you create lists, which sites you deem worthy of your inbox and time browsing, etc. I think many people seem to forget this, regardless it’s easily fixable.
From a creator/idea-generation perspective, it’s the opposite – and can sometimes feel like a saturation point has been reached. If you get to this point, that’s actually good news – it means you have been exposed to enough that it’s time to reflect, put everything in perspective and elevate your own ideas to the next level.
If you get to the point where you’re starting to worry if your projects are truly original, your videos contrived, your marketing seems forced, or that your words have all been said before, you simply need to reset your thought processes and make better use of this all too common headspace.
Following are some ideas how you should proceed to get back into a productive state and apply what you’ve learned and experienced to do better at work and in personal creative endeavors.
Stop worrying about conjuring 100% original ideas
Worrying or wondering about originality in ideas is time wasted, because whether something is completely original or not has no bearing on if it will actually be successful. Originality is overrated, creativity and usefulness underrated. Successful ideas are not always original, in many cases they are improved clones or iterations of something else, but who cares if it is effective or implemented better/for the current times. There is a population notion that “everything is a remix” which is definitely true to a good extent. So instead of trying to be original, focus on trying to be genuinely useful, interesting or some other quality that is much more attainable and in all likelihood, desirable. The percentage of originality necessary for something cool (not very high!) should actually take care of itself here if you stop overthinking it. We’ll go into why that is in a second.
And when do you come up with ideas that are completely novel, or just new enough, you actually have far more work to do to help them catch on. Might not be a bad thing, but just food for thought. As the the original conceptual designer of the IBM/Harvard Mark 1 Computer famously said:
“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If it’s original, you’ll have to ram it down their throats.”
-Howard Aiken, American physicist and pioneer in computing
Let your unique perspectives and specific industry experiences be your guide
Your opportunity is creating solutions or ideas from your unique perspective and vision in a way that solves a specific problem like no one else can. The personal way you interpret the world is in many cases what produces the best results. Your thought processes, refined from years of experience in your niche, allow you to see things from a unique and useful lens and identify problems people have and didn’t realize, or you know they will in the future as you’ve arrived at a space early. Ideally you are involved in multiple interests and passions in life and can form a hybrid view of the world, simultaneously drawing from multiple areas of interest and expertise. Interesting results always happen at the intersection.
Refine as you push forward
Sometimes you’re not sure the path that needs to be taken, and that’s okay. Just get started with your best thinking and refine as you go. In many cases, the best ideas stem from tangents or side projects. Twitter was the result of a pet project, and it is a huge success and the defining source of what’s happening new, right now in our world. Google was started in a garage and about as scrappy as you can get before evolving to be one of only a handful of trillion dollar companies. Both are constant works in progress. Don’t be afraid of failure and to ship. Try things and iterate. Just getting your idea out there or taking any action at all really is the hardest first step, but it is in many cases the most important. Momentum matters, so stop overthinking and just start.
Keep a personal knowledge base
A personal knowledge base of some sort (doesn’t have to be a fancy productivity app, even something as simple as a Google sheet aggregating links/ideas for reference/reflection later is fine) that maps ideas, concepts, stories etc you find important is super helpful as a reference point. You can even keep a section to document your own path of development if desired. If you ever feel lost, spend a few hours starting at the beginning and follow it to the end. After this, you’ll know exactly where you came from, where you left off and how your thinking should be re-aligned. This will help make your next steps be more clear.
Get perspective: take the 1,000-foot view and observe the landscape
Sometimes all it takes is you to step back and take a global view of an industry or niche to really start to see what is missing, step in and provide the answer. You’ll start to see the areas that are ignored, something that indicates an opportunity for you to fill the void. For example, find something from years ago that is an aging solution and still the only option. You’d be shocked how frequently this is the case in something like B2B tech. At that point, you’ll be well-positioned to map out something modern that may not necessarily be original, but builds upon where others stopped and takes advantages of new technologies/trends and ideas in a way the legacy solution cannot. This involves taking yourself out of your normal day-to-day processes and stepping away from emails and meetings for a bit, but may prove to be lucrative use of time.
If you find a formula that works, don’t be afraid to keep using it
You should continue to use a successful formula so long as it is producing the desired returns. Finding a great formula and stopping is analogous to leaving a perfectly good oasis in the middle of a endless journey through a desert. There will certainly be another oasis eventually, but you will have to work to get to it. Smarter to stay with what works for now, while devising a strategy for the best direction to head next when your current source runs dry. Finding a resource-rich mine and mining it deeply is smarter than flirting from smaller one to the next.
Many will try and push you to be original in your ideas all the time, however there is absolutely nothing wrong with building upon your previously proven concepts and refining as you go, or taking inspiration from/improving upon the works of others (with attribution, where appropriate, for certain types of creatives). In many cases this is a much smarter play. Trying too hard to be original is likely what is frustrating you and leaving you stuck, and biases you against trying to simply find the best solution from a perspective that is neutral to originality, which in majority of cases is overrated.