On the Quest for Originality, Recombine the Familiar

Often, the best way to get unstuck on the quest for originality is to combine two old ideas to form a new one, rather than searching for a single, novel creative nugget. That was certainly true for a young singer at the dawn of his colossal career in the 1960s.

Robert Zimmerman was a freshman at the University of Minnesota as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s. Soon after arriving, Zimmerman began singing and playing guitar at a local coffeehouse. Occasionally he would introduce himself as Bob Dylan, but he remained Robert Zimmerman officially until 1962. Zimmerman was toying with different musical identities when he heard a record that nudged him away from rock ’n’ roll toward folk—and therefore changed the course of popular Western music.

Browsing a local record store, Zimmerman bought a copy of folk singer Odetta’s 1957 Ballads and Blues. He later remembered that the first time he heard her, “I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson … I learned almost every song off the record, right then and there, even borrowing the hammering-on style.” Odetta passed through Minnesota that year, and she and Zimmerman met briefly—but long enough for her to praise the young musician who was a decade her junior.

Zimmerman reported “falling in love” with Odetta. He dropped out of college at the end of that first year and moved to New York City to find his musical fortune. He saw Odetta again, in 1961, this time when she was performing the antislavery hymn “No More Auction Block for Me.” Black soldiers had sung the hymn while marching during the Civil War, lamenting their former lives as slaves, and vowing never to return to “the auction block,” where their enslavement began.

Zimmerman was so moved by the song that it lodged itself in his memory. It lay dormant for a couple of years as he released his first studio album, formally changed his name to Bob Dylan, and grew to become a commercial star. Then, in anticipation of his second album, Dylan recorded one of his first big hits, “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

The one description you’ll read of Bob Dylan, over and over, is that he’s unique. Regardless of how people feel about his music, they seem to believe there is no one else quite like Dylan. Filmmaker David Lynch—an original himself—said of Dylan, “He tapped into some kind of vein, and it keeps on keeping on. There’s no one like him. He’s unique, and just . . . way cool.”

Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Jackson Browne said, “The biggest influence? I’ve had several at different times, but the biggest for me was Bob Dylan, who was a guy that came along when I was twelve or thirteen and just changed all the rules about what it meant to write songs.” Likewise, John Mellencamp called Dylan “the ultimate songwriter.… Nobody could ever write a song as good as him, and nobody ever has written a song as good as him.”

Often, the best way to get unstuck on the quest for originality is to combine two old ideas to form a new one, rather than searching for a single, novel creative nugget.

What’s striking is that for all these claims of originality, “Blowin’ in the Wind” sounds a lot like “No More Auction Block for Me.” They begin with the same melody and follow the same structure throughout. Dylan knows this, and Odetta knew it, too. She was good-humored about it, but she recognized the two songs overlapped to an extent that could not be attributed to chance. On her death, in 2008, The New York Times published a recently taped video interview with Odetta:

Interviewer: “’Cause he stole liberally from you.”

Odetta, chuckling: “No, no, no, no. We call it . . . in folk music we don’t call it stealin’ or appropriation. It’s ‘passing on the folk tradition.’ It ain’t what you say, it’s the way you say it, right? That influence was just like a key that opened up something that was his own stuff . . . so I can’t even take credit for how he heard something.”

Even true originals like Dylan are prone to appropriation, borrowing, or “passing on the folk tradition.”

From least to most charitable, here are three ways to explain cases of blatant similarity. The first is to argue that creative people cheat, lie, and steal all the time, and that it’s naive to believe that creatives strive for originality. According to this view, musicians, artists, writers, and other people who produce creative output are expedient by nature, mining past successes for nuggets they might lightly reshape for themselves. I think this is rare—that few creatives actively seek to plagiarize the work of other people (if for no other reason than that the penalties are severe, and many plagiarists are caught).

Even true originals like Dylan are prone to appropriation, borrowing, or “passing on the folk tradition.”

The second explanation is that people are naturally cryptomnesic. Cryptomnesia occurs when we mistake a forgotten memory for a new idea, and it’s one of the primary explanations for inadvertent plagiarism. Say you hear the song “Happy Birthday” a couple of times as a child, and then it pops into your head decades later when you’re an adult. Having forgotten hearing it as a child, you might imagine you created it from thin air—and so, if you were writing a new melody, you might inadvertently copy “Happy Birthday.”

We encounter new ideas like this all the time, and sometimes we remember the content of those ideas longer than we remember where, when, or how we encountered them. As our memory for their sources decays, we often forget having encountered those ideas at all, believing instead that they’ve miraculously made their way to our heads as unexplained flashes of invention. The difference between this explanation and the first one is that cryptomnesia is unintentional and so isn’t as dishonest as willfully stealing. I believe cryptomnesia is relatively common, explaining many obvious similarities between pairs of nearly identical songs, books, and artworks.

The third explanation for blatant overlap among creatives—my preferred explanation, and the most important if you’re on the hunt for a breakthrough—is that there’s no such thing as genuine originality; there are only degrees of overlap. Put simply, everything is a remix of something else. Dylan remixed Odetta, and Odetta remixed the thousands of artists she’d encountered during her life. Some remixing is more blatant than other remixing, but every creative work stands on the shoulders of earlier works.

Here’s why this watered-down interpretation of originality matters: it’s incredibly liberating.

Many of today’s most prominent creatives know that borrowing is endemic. When listeners accused teen artist Olivia Rodrigo of plagiarizing Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up,” Costello said, “It’s fine! It’s how it works. You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a brand-new toy.”

Nirvana’s drummer Dave Grohl was responsible for the thumping beats that drove “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the band’s breakout hit in 1991. Grohl was disarmingly open about borrowing ideas from the unlikeliest of places, including disco bands that couldn’t have been more different in tone and style from early 1990s Seattle grunge. “I pulled so much stuff from [disco bands] the Gap Band and Cameo, and [disco drummer] Tony Thompson on every one of those songs,” Grohl admitted in an interview.

Questlove is a polymath—an author, a musician who plays six or seven instruments, the backbone of seven or eight bands—and he, too, has admitted that his apparent originality obscured liberal borrowing. “The DNA of every song lies in another song,” he says. “All creative ideas are derivative of another.”

Here’s why this watered-down interpretation of originality matters: it’s incredibly liberating.

Trying to do something completely new is a recipe for paralysis. I’ve advised dozens of start-ups, and dozens of entrepreneurs who were searching for something new and different, and one of the commonest roadblocks they encounter is the drive to be profoundly original. Instead of searching for an incremental innovation that people actually need, they search for a radical innovation that no one wants. Most of the time, success comes from a well-placed tweak, a novel combination of two or more existing elements, or the better version of an idea or product not yet perfected.

Excerpted from Anatomy of a Breakthrough: How to Get Unstuck When It Matters Most by Adam Alter. Published by Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2023 by Adam Alter. All rights reserved.