There’s this old commercial where a woman in white is walking through a crowd of people dressed in black while the voice-over says “We’re all born originals, some of us stay that way” followed by the punchline: “Don’t imitate, innovate”.

I thought of that the other day when I read an article by a young writer arguing that the best way—perhaps the only way—to find your own creative voice, is to start by imitating your idols; that in a very fundamental way, all creative acts are imitation games.

I think so too.

In fact, aiming to maintain ‘the original you’ probably isn’t even advisable, since the shaping that happens as we interact with other people is precisely what’s makes us human.

There are different interaction patterns of course. We can be moulded into a forced shape by authorities. Likewise fear can lead to self-policing, where we model ourselves to blend perfectly into a collective.

Imitation, by contrast, is an act of love. You see something you like, and you allow yourself to be inspired by it/her/him.

It’s brave too. Nobody likes the idea of being labeled a copycat, so daring to imitate also means taking the risk of being exposed to mockery.

In reality however, we’re all copycats, and trying too hard to be unique will most likely just cause stagnation.

The innovation scholar Steven Johnson uses the term Adjacent Possible to explain how any successful innovation is really just a clever recombination of concepts that have already found their way into your cultural sphere.

The term originally came from evolutionary biology, where if you look at carbon based compounds, it’s exceedingly clear that they gone through a combinatorial explosion; that there are more possible ways for a carbon molecule to bond now than ever before.

In the words of Johnson:

The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. In the case of prebiotic chemistry, the adjacent possible defined all those molecular reactions that were directly achievable in the primardial soup. Sunflowers and mosquitos and brains exist outside that circle of possibility. The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edge of the present state of things,  a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet it is not an infinite space or a totally open playing field. The number of first order reactions is vast, but it is a finite number, and it excludes most of the forms that now populate the biosphere. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen. 

The strange and beautiful truth with the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open.

Where Good Ideas Come From : the natural history of innovation

What all of this means is: very little is truly new under the sun. Evolution favours building things out of spare parts, and the same is true of ideas.

Although as with every rule, there are of course exceptions. Sometimes people really are ahead of their times and conjure things out of thin air, things that are fundamentally and integrally new.

Ada Lovelace was like that, for instance. She pretty much lay the foundation of computer science, a hundred years before the advent of electronic computers. She also died, age 36, without recognition from her contemporaries.

There have been others like her. In fact Walter Isaacson wrote a whole book – The Innovators – on the theme of people who had brilliant ideas but failed to bring them into the world, simply because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Another person who’s been giving this dynamic some thought, is Brian Eno. He’s looking at musical creativity, and finds that it’s often a collective thing, which arise from when people feel free enough to happily imitate each other. Eno invented a term for this, he calls it scenius.

The word obviously riffs on genius, but it also carries the connotation of being particular to a certain scene. Scene as an analogy that is, rather than as a concrete place. Think hiphop artists in New York in the 80’s, or young poets of a certain generation.

Austin Kleon wrote a whole book inspired by this idea, which is aptly named Steal Lika An Artist. Here’s how he thinks of scenius:

Great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals—artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakers—who make up an “ecology of talent.” If you look back closely at history, many of the people who we think of as lone geniuses were actually part of a whole scene of people who were supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas, and contributing ideas. Scenius doesn’t take away from the achievements of those great individuals: it just acknowledges that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds.

So at the end of the day maybe we shouldn’t try so hard to be innovative. Let’s look instead to what others are doing and let ourselves be inspired.