Three quotes on originality

Here are three quotes on originality I’ve read recently. I’ll lay them out first then discuss how I think they relate to each other.

C. S. Lewis from The Weight of Glory, as quoted in a blog post by David Rogstad.

No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought.

Larry Wall, creator of Perl, in his talk Perl, the first postmodern programming language.

Modernism is also a Cult of Originality. It didn’t matter if the sculpture was hideous, as long as it was original. It didn’t matter if there was no music in the music. Plagiarism was the greatest sin. … The Cult of Originality shows up in computer science as well. For some reason, many languages that came out of academia suffer from this. Everything is reinvented from first principles (or in some cases, zeroeth principles), and nothing in the language resembles anything in any other language you’ve ever seen. And then the language designer wonders why the language never catches on. … In case you hadn’t noticed, Perl is not big on originality.

Paul Graham in the introduction to Founders at Work.

People like the idea of innovation in the abstract, but when you present them with any specific innovation, they tend to reject it because it doesn’t fit with what they already know. … As Howard Aiken said, “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

If you strive to be original, you might achieve it in some technical sense, but end up with something nobody cares about. Strive for authenticity and excellence and you’re more likely to do something valuable. But originality isn’t appreciated as much in practice as it is in theory.

Update: See this quote from Twyla Tharp on originality.

6 thoughts on “Three quotes on originality

  1. here is one from Chinweizu

    ‘He who must do
    Something altogether new
    Let him swallow his own head’

  2. Excellent persectives. I agree whole-heartedly. It’s easy for management in companiesto demand people to be innovative, but it’s another to appreciate/support the innovators when they do bring an innovation to the table. Paul Graham’s quote hits the point home.

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