This must have been surprising.
I felt the same, too, when I was introduced to this concept. I mean, come on, creativity is often linked to a lonesome pursuit of a creative genius — who not only transforms the world but also changes the perspective of the generations to follow. Creativity is meant to be personal and therefore, unique. This is supposed to be a universal truth that has to be unanimously agreed upon.
However, that’s not always the case.
According to classical Chinese philosophical literature, Zhuangzi, as translated by Burton Watson, creativity is not the end product of something unique or entirely original. Instead, creativity happens upon the integration of a pre-existing piece of art with another similar work or situation.
This concept is beautifully explained in the story of a wheelwright known as Pian, in chapter Tian Dao of the Zhuangzi. In this story, Pian points out to a duke that the book he was reading was ‘chaff and dregs’ and nothing more than that. This comment angered the duke who demanded an explanation. The wheelwright being an intelligent man, gave the analogy of the craft he practised. He wisely explained how over the years he developed a knack for his skill to which no amount of words can do justice.
‘So, I’ve gone along for 70 years, and at my age, I’m still chiselling wheels. When the men of old died, they took with them the things that couldn’t be handed down. So, what you are reading there must be nothing but the chaff and dregs of the men of old.’
Telling someone how to do something through words is different from showing how to do it. Likewise, only when you continually practice the art, you will understand minute details like precision with which you do and what results to expect at each step. No amount of perfect algorithmic set of instructions can do justice to the process of creativity itself.
Creativity is like raising a building on a pre-existing foundation and not building a new foundation altogether. This is why looking for originality in everything can be counterproductive sometimes — especially while striving towards exceptional results. This is what happens in scientific research too.
We do work on an entirely new scientific breakthrough from scratch. It takes decades of works on a particular topic to reach any conclusion. That is why every work that is carried out in any lab around the world is based on pre-existing results — a mere extension of other works. If every scientific work were supposed to be independent of the other, no research would have been possible. It’s the same with creativity. No creative work is viable on its own.
That is what Pian meant, as well. The ‘dregs’ or the instructions are simple and straightforward. Anybody can read and try living according to it. That’s not creativity. Rather, creativity stems from the integration of the dreg and the continuation of the foundation. There is nothing ‘original’ or ‘novel’ about the two — but it’s their integration that results in a creative pursuit.
How can accepting unoriginality benefit you?
For starters, de-emphasizing uniqueness in every aspect of life will reduce your mental strain and direct your focus towards more important matters — like perfecting your creativity — exactly how Pian tried emphasizing to the duke. When we start zooming in on originality alone, we lose the focus of other factors that could have helped us achieve the results.
This is because striving for originality can sometimes be counterproductive — especially when it comes to achieving genuinely new results. If we focus on the task of attaining something original, we’ll explore only the range of possibilities deemed sufficiently likely to yield that result — leaving out a lot that could have contributed to achieving something original.
The point I am trying to get across has nothing to do with giving up originality all together — your uniqueness makes you who you are. Instead, I want you to understand that fear of being unoriginal can be one of the factors slowing your creativity. Only if you accept that unoriginality is a part of creativity as much as your creativity is a part of you, can you ‘make good art’.
From my own experience, once you start integrating the two broad aspects, you will see how broad the notion of creativity is. You will be able to link creativity to totally mundane activities and feel more involved, more accepted, and to be honest — more you.
This take on creativity can be unconventional and maybe even unacceptable to most people. However, either you can see creativity always paired with originality and make yourself miserable by assuming not everybody has the luxury of being unique — which is why you are unsuccessful in starting your perfect creative career.
Or you can accept that the idea of embracing and learning through others’ hard-earned lessons and then work on your skills — just like the wheelwright — to move a step ahead from where they used to be.