Before I began writing this column, I had to resist the urge to scour the Internet for similar pieces. I had to resist going through Spec's archives, to see if anyone had said something similar to what I wanted to say. I had to resist asking others if they'd read a column like this before.
In general, this sort of background research is a good idea; it helps the writer avoid unnecessary restatement, plagiarism, or even just triteness.
But this is a column about originality, and it is precisely because of this subject that I have resisted the urge to check.
As students, we're asked not only to consume information, but to create it. At this stage in our education, our creations are a little more nuanced than the crudely drawn stick figures and squiggles of our childhood (that were nevertheless proudly displayed on refrigerators). At this stage, we're writing essays comparing Lysistrata to Girls or crafting videos about race or writing research papers about our lab work (even if we hardly understand it). Our work is more complex, our ideas are more complex, and so we must be held to a different standard.
We can see this most clearly in our rules against plagiarism. At Columbia—and many other universities—you can face severe disciplinary action if you plagiarize. It is a form of cheating and intellectual dishonesty. Don't get me wrong here: I'm in favor of our strong stance against plagiarism.
But it's foolish to assume that the fight against plagiarism ends at the limits of rules and honor codes. This sentiment against plagiarism can all too easily turn into a fear of even being suspected of plagiarism. I know I've felt it. I've discarded essay topics and paragraphs because they seemed too similar to that which was already Googleable. We're pressured to be "as original as possible" by our fear of being unoriginal, or FOBU.
This isn't something that results solely from our notions of plagiarism. In our age of information—in which there is more content than ever—to be read, watched, or heard at all is a privilege. To be unoriginal is to be stale. To be stale is to be inconspicuous. To be inconspicuous is to be dead.
Under this pressure, we are often dissatisfied with ourselves and our work. Over 2,000 years ago, Ecclesiastes explained the reason behind our FOBU best: "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun."
The idea that everything has been done before is pervasive—writing is not the only medium in which we're afraid of being unoriginal. I think many of us are afraid of being unoriginal people, comprised only of the thoughts and actions of others. To be sure, this is an intellectual problem that we are privileged to have. We're lucky to be in a position where we can worry about what influences us and where our ideas come from. But it's still a fear we face, and the relative gravity of the issue as compared to more pressing matters outside the Columbia bubble doesn't negate its importance to us.
Thankfully, our fear doesn't always have negative effects. It can motivate creativity and intellectual diversity, and, perhaps most importantly, it can ensure integrity.
But still, even with those positives, we worry too much. We fear unoriginality to the point of stagnation, to the point where we cannot pick up the pen or set our fingers to the keyboard. After all, what are our words worth if they have been said before?
It doesn't stop there, though—the fear of being unoriginal exists in other parts of our lives as well. It's often more insidious than a conspicuously dyed streak of hair that exists solely for the purpose of differentiation. Hell, I know people who have changed their Chipotle orders so that they're not the same as those of their three friends before them. (What could be more insidious?)
Conviction in our ideas—or simply in our mien—is much harder to come by when we know that we lack originality. Because of this, many of us settle for a form of detached irony to hide our perceived unoriginality. At the risk of being unoriginal, I'll just direct you to Jake Goldwasser's excellent column on the benefits of conviction.
But there is value in unoriginality. That which has been under the sun for a while often has a reason for lasting. Moreover, there is value in restatement; things often must be said again. There is value in your own formulation. Maybe that means writing something that doesn't strike out in an entirely new direction, or being OK with wearing that shirt from J.Crew everyone has. Just don't leave the shirt out in the sun—it'll fade.
Unoriginality isn't the worst thing in the world. Remembering that so we can get over our FOBU is something we would all do well to keep in mind.
Daniel Garisto is a Columbia College junior majoring in physics. He is a former editorial page editor for Spectator. Danthology runs every Wednesday.
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