Nothing New under the Sun: Why Your Ideas Aren’t Original

Allow me to take a minute to explain why sharing your insights with the world is a waste of time, and why I’m an idiot for sharing this with you.

Our Ideas Are Not Original, Including This One

To start, I am going to reference a quote. I usually find it pretentious to see literary quotes thrown into articles, but by doing so here, I will help to prove my overall point:

Most of the change we think we see in life is due to truths being in and out of favor. -Robert Frost, “The Black Cottage”

This sentiment applies to the largest and the smallest of life’s systems, in serious ways and in trivial ways. For instance, every time you ever read a new article on a given topic that begins “Top 5 Tips for…,” there is bound to be some repetition in the content espoused between authors, even if the authors really believe they are conveying new information. When you read enough articles on a given topic, eventually it will all start to sound the same, with rare seeds of originality sprouting in the margins. But like any good seed, they will grow, and soon they too will join the canon of knowledge that everybody (relatively speaking) already knows.

In other words, it takes a disproportionate amount of time and energy to generate an insight that is not already widely known by the world at large. And in this day and age, if you do discover a new insight in the margins (and indeed, it must be found in the margins, because humans have already had about 200,000 years to find everything else), it is not likely to cause a paradigm shift in human thought. There are of course exceptions, but in the gamut of human thought, these exceptions would be expressed in a ratio analogous with a drop of oil in the ocean.

Why We Continue to Parrot and Repeat

So why do we spend all our time sharing our life insights and opinions with friends and family (or, God forbid, the Internet) if we aren’t saying anything new? Why do we engage in political debates over the same exact issues over and over again, when we could instead be eating ice cream, learning an instrument, or drafting fan letters to our favorite sexy celeb? There are a couple reasons.

The first is that everything is new to somebody. A 4-year old girl who discovers that direct sunlight causes her to sneeze is going to want to share that information with everybody. Likewise, a 22-year old young man might truly consider it a revelation to realize that paying bills on time instead of consistently late is a great way to reduce stress. Any time you learn something that did not fit into your previous conception of the universe, your instinct is going to be to share it, whether for benevolent or egotistical reasons.

And that brings us to the second reason. Human ego is a strong motivator to share our insights, particularly if we think those insights will make us look intellectually superior. After all, there is a sense of ownership in sharing an insight: it was originally your great idea (supposedly), and now you are granting its use to the others around you, all of whom shall be enriched for and indebted to your genius. Intellect is a source of power, and by sharing your insights, you could stand to bolster that power.

But that is not always the motivation, of course. The little girl really is going to be happy to inform people not to look too much in the sun’s direction, and the young man will eagerly blow his friends’ minds that paying bills will help them to live more relaxing lives. In either case though, whether benevolence or ego rules, the motivation is likely to be an unconscious driver in sharing the insight. It is a rare, pitiable soul who will consciously think, “I am going to teach Amber how to make banana muffins, so that she shall worship me for the rest of her days.”

Frozen in Time

I’ll confess that I’ve gotten pretty off-topic from the original meaning of the Frost quote. The meaning of the Frost quote is essentially just that values (or virtues) are upheld by society in changing degrees, according to the culture at the time. When the majority of society decides to revitalize a given value–such as the value of privacy amidst government spying–this is really just the sharing of redundant information on the most grand scale.

Everybody already liked privacy; nobody wishes they had less privacy, outside of reality show stars. But now that privacy is at risk, it deserves special attention. What other significant value are we letting slip by the wayside as a result of our renewed efforts to defend privacy? The most important values collectively held by society are like rock layers, each aligning with a specific point in history.

Thus, redundant insights do not just happen between individuals; they are generational. The human culture, save for advances in art and technology, is cycling through the same few major “truths,” rediscovering them time and again, but just for a little while every time. And somehow, we live, prosper, and die around these recycled old notions and the excitement we muster for them. It’s kind of a romantic idea, to always be chasing the carrot, not knowing the carrot has already been captured and put into a hundred different recipes. How boring our lives would be if we could actually see life for what it is, instead of as a mystery that only you can solve.

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