Li Shen: First and Foremost

Originality is overrated. Be second and et al., instead.

by Sabrina Li Shen | 11/7/17 12:30am

 Every time I sit down to write an opinion piece for The Dartmouth, I have to wrack my brain for a topic or issue that is new, fresh and original. Most of the time, I am sorely disappointed. My ideas originate from mealtime discussions with my friends. My opinions are easily influenced by any number of well-written articles, and the concluding arguments to my pieces are hardly revolutionary. It seems that after centuries of literacy, everything that can be argued has been done. The advent of the internet has only made that more obvious: A quick Google search will bring up someone else’s pros and cons list for every opinion I’ve ever had. As I continue to write, I bury the disappointment accompanied by my unoriginality with the rest of my teenage angst, hoping that one day my brain will do me a favor and spark up something the world has never seen before. But recently I’ve begun questioning why I care about originality so much. Why is it so important that my thoughts about the world, myself and school have to be different from everyone else’s? Is originality really so valuable?

Originality drives innovation, which drives us all forward. World history and the advancement of human civilization would have gone nowhere without the pioneers who braved the frontiers before anyone else: The first man on the moon, the first long-distance phone call, the first woman in office, the first Beyoncé single, the list goes on. Compared to originality, stasis has almost zero value, and some would say that it has negative value.

My questions are therefore not about inhibiting growth or stopping progress but about the value that our capitalist, Western society places on originality. Everything has to be new, from material things like cars and houses to more troublesome things like ideas and accomplishments. To stay relevant in the realm of research, scientists have to churn out new studies at dizzying speeds. The same can be said of academia. As a result, we leave old questions tentatively answered while the pressure of originality sends us chasing after newer answers to different questions.

This is the flaw with originality. There are some ideas so big and strange that it isn’t enough for the world to hear one visionary answer and move on. There are some arguments and conclusions that deserve a second look, then a third, a fourth, a fifth and so on until we have proven them beyond the shadow of a doubt. We cannot take one person’s answer and accept it as the be-all, end-all because a single iteration of a pros and cons list is not always representative of the whole answer. “Someone’s already thought of that” should not be an excuse to abandon an avenue of thought or a line of research. Grants should be given with equal weight toward those who are pursuing original research and those who are reaffirming the research of others. All those lofty ideas about equality, justice, truth and virtue should be reviewed and edited relentlessly and often. Important questions deserve more than merely tentative answers.

Originality is overrated. Apologies to all the hipsters out there, but originality is not a marker of your elevated taste. I refuse to feel less intelligent when I write about transitioning from high school to college or about the gendered nature of appearances, though countless others have written about the same. Just because my opinion is not my own pure creation does not mean that it is any less valuable. I have not grown into who I am in a vacuum; I will not shun those thoughts of mine that have been touched by the contribution of others. Here’s to the relentless pursuit of true answers, though that may require backtracking into the work of others. Here’s to the bravery required to take on someone else’s ideas. Here’s to unoriginality.