Are There Any Original Ideas?

“The best way to make history is to shape the future”

I came up with this quote today and was very pleased with myself. I thought I’d discovered some great insight into the world; something that may even be quotable. But then I googled it. And there it was; out there already in a Forbes article from 2015 with a nice quote from Winston Churchill: “History will be kind to me,” Winston Churchill said, “for I intend to write it myself.”

This happens to me a lot. I come up with an idea and then discover that it has been thought up already. It makes me wonder what it is that makes a thought original and how we might know one when we’ve had one. Some scholars would argue that there are no original thoughts, just new interpretations of previous ones. In literature, it is well discussed that all stories derive from 7 basic plots and that every story that has ever been written fits into one of these.

In academic research, originality is determined by peer review and the uniqueness of data means that it is unlikely that the insights will have been discovered before. However, even this is not really similar to what we think of as an idea.

Perhaps ideas alone are not particularly valuable. I have always championed the exercise of developing ideas. It is a wonderful way into discovering the world, a blank canvas onto which we can write anything. And, on one level, it really doesn’t matter if we discover that the ideas we’ve had are not original. It doesn’t diminish the joy of feeling like we have discovered something meaningful about life.

Furthermore, if the idea is compelling, then it may be reassuring that we have been able to discover something that others, especially those whom we revere, have also discovered the same thing in their own way. It is a great way to equalize humanity over time. No generation is wiser; no generation more special. Each of us is trying our best to figure out how to live well and discover more about the world.

Of course, there are ideas that have changed the world and, among ideas, these are the ones that we may value most. There may even be a hierarchy of ideas, from those that reveal something about our universe or nature that demonstrates all previous thought to be wrong, compared to ideas that endeavour to tell us something about the nature of being human. These may operate on entirely different spectrums of value.

Yet, I also appreciate that ideas alone are not enough. I feel often that writing a paper is 10% writing and 90% editing. It is easy to have an idea, but much harder to develop it in a way that withstands interrogation. I also wonder whether quotes, in themselves, do not do all of the work that leads them to be inspiring. Einstein’s famous quote that creativity is more important than intellect is powerful because we imagine Einstein’s most important contribution to be intellectual. We do not speak of Einstein as an artist, but rather as a thinker.

So, I conclude that the process of ideation is central to living well. Our humanity is most effectively demonstrated when we are pursuant of ideas, whether these are ideas about our universe, ourselves, or how we should orientate ourselves to others or other species. To be engage in such matters is the crucial thing, whether or not we are the first to think of them.

One of my life goals is to have enough time to develop an idea each day. To ask myself what I think about something, write it down, and perhaps to try to resolve it, in my own way. It need not be big, not groundbreaking, but it would be something. At the very least, it will be a record of things I thought about.

Like physical exercise, if we don’t keep our mind agile, then figuring out the biggest challenges isn’t even possible. While brain games on mobile phones and crosswords in newspapers do some of this work, there is nothing like a blank canvas and the endless possibilities it presents for really discovering something new.

At the very least, it may fascinate the people we leave behind to read what we really thought about the world and may even help them solve something in the future.

Chair in Science Communication & Future Media @SalfordUni / written 4 Washington Post, Wired + found on CNN, BBC Newsnight, TEDx #posthuman