Assume You’re Not Original

My favorite Derek Sivers article is called “Assume You’re Below Average.”

Most people think they’re better than others, so he cites statistics like “Ninety-six percent of cancer patients claim to be in better health than the average cancer patient” and “Ninety-four percent of professors say they are better-than-average teachers.” But Sivers does the opposite. Assuming he’s below average encourages him to ask questions and listen more. Here’s how he justifies the mindset shift: “To assume you’re below average is to admit you’re still learning. You focus on what you need to improve, not your past accomplishments.”

There’s a parallel for online writing: Assume you’re not original. Assume you’re a rampant copycat with no capacity for independent thought. You’re a robot who mirrors your inputs. You produce what you consume, and no matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to generate new ideas. Here’s the “evidence” you need to realize you’re a copying machine: In Shakespeare’s time, the word “ape” meant both “primate” and “to imitate.” The philosopher Rene Girard argued that humans are giant imitation machines and Harvard anthropologist Joseph Henrich even argues that our imitative capacities are the “secret of our success.” The urge to copy is in our DNA. 

But how can you have unique ideas if you’re not capable of being original?

Use the Internet to curate your intellectual environment so you can copy the sliver of people who don’t copy people. As Tyler Cowen said: “What we’re trying to do with the web is we’re trying to mimic the cognitive strengths of autistic people.” Usually, those influences will be neuro-diverse with disabilities like ADHD and autism. While most of the world (especially the educational establishment) sees these traits as flaws to be cured, you should see them as talents to be nurtured. 

Autistics, for example, are natural cosmopolitans who are less likely to think in narratives or be fooled by endowment effects. They have gifts for pattern recognition, information collecting, and noticing small details, so they classify the world in unusual ways. They’re especially good at seeing details other people miss.

As autistic writer Naoise Dolan once wrote: “As a novelist, I find my autism is often an enormous strength. Many aspiring writers get caught up in what other people think of them… Autism makes it much easier to disregard all that.” 

My favorite example of neurodiversity as a strength is Stephen Wiltshire, an artist who was diagnosed with autism at age three and is now famous for reproducing detailed scenes from memory. It’s a gift as much as a disability.


Source:  Gobierno CDMX , CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Gobierno CDMX, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


Source:  Gobierno CDMX,  CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Gobierno CDMX, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


To be sure, I’m not saying that autism automatically makes you creative, and I certainly don’t want to ignore the challenges of living with it. Nevertheless, other examples of geniuses who showed signs of autism include Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Nikola Tesla.

Society has traditionally rewarded people who fit in, but the Internet rewards people who stand out with vivid Personal Monopolies. Rather than trying to find original ideas on your own, surround yourself with people who are missing the imitation gene and have a genetic disposition for originality. Then, build upon their best ideas.

Cover Photo: Gobierno CDMX, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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