The Right Kind of Original

Yuval Noah Harari sold 12 million copies of Sapiens without adding any original research.

He presented the literature in a new way and clarified it for normal people. While his success drives historians crazy, it’s a reminder that your writing doesn’t need to be 100% original. 

Every writer stands on the shoulders of those who came before them. A New Yorker profile about him says:

It still astonishes Harari that readers became so excited about the early pages of “Sapiens,” which describe the coexistence of various Homo species. “I thought, this is so banal!” he told me. “There is absolutely nothing there that is new. I’m not an archeologist. I’m not a primatologist. I mean, I did zero new research. . . . It was really reading the kind of common knowledge and just presenting it in a new way.”

As Harari knows, intellectual progress has always been combinatorial. That’s why there are 1,010 biographies of Winston Churchill. Likewise, Star Wars borrows from ancient mythology, the Flash Gordon series of the 1930s, and Japanese movie director Akira Kurosawa. 

Harvard anthropologist Joseph Henrich has shown that the human species is successful not because any individual is so smart, but because of how we utilize collective intelligence. In his book, The Secret of Our Success, Henrich writes: “Innovation in our species depends more on our sociality than on our intellect.” Evolution selected for people who could acquire, store, organize, and retransmit cultural information, which is why humans are such imitative creatures.” 

Our obsession with originality comes from a fear of plagiarism that’s instilled in school. It’s a serious offense, but by focusing so much on it, we’ve paralyzed people. Terrified students confuse plagiarism with taking inspiration from somebody, even though they are wildly different. Plagiarism happens when you copy and paste somebody else’s ideas without attribution. That’s not okay. You can avoid it by following two rules: (1) if you use an author’s ideas verbatim, give the original author credit, and (2) when in doubt, acknowledge the source of your ideas. 

Academics are so scared of plagiarism that they commit another sin: triviality, where their ideas are original but irrelevant. 

If you insist on being original, aim to create an original premise instead of using only original ideas. Surprise people with a fresh premise and half of your work is complete. That sounds hard until you realize that every industry is focused on the same few discussion points. But spend enough time falling down the rabbit hole of obscure ideas and it becomes inevitable. For an example, look at my essay about Peter Thiel. The common narrative about him focused on his relationship with Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory, but nobody had written at length about his Christian worldview. 

Richard Feynman once said: “Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” As a writer, your challenge is to look in places where nobody else is looking, so you can find worthy ideas that are hidden in plain sight. 

Sapiens is a best-selling book because Harari found a fresh way to present timeless ideas. Unlike most history books, it focuses on high-level generalizations instead of dense historical details. Reading the book is like riding on a tour bus and gazing at the ruins from far away instead of getting off to poke around them yourself. He entered the zeitgeist not by inventing big history, but by injecting it with futurology and self-help. And if you were wondering, this entire article is born out of two paragraphs in that aforementioned New Yorker profile.

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