Don’t Try to Be Original

SnowflakeShe was beautiful. I couldn’t believe my luck. She took my hand on the dance floor and smiled an ultraviolet smile. The pounding dance beat morphed into the beating of my heart as we found ourselves standing outside my flat. I fumbled with the keys. Somehow I got the door open. Taking her hand, I led her inside.

There was something strange about the flat – but what could it be? Was it a spaceship? A submarine? Maybe it was slowly sinking underground? Or occupied by chimps?

“Cut! CUT!” The director clapped her hands and we turned to face the audience.

Photo by LePetitPoulailler

She smiled: “Mark, you’re trying too hard! You’re trying to anticipate and think of a really good answer – I can see the cogs turning in your mind! Just relax and say the most obvious thing that comes into your head. Your obvious is your talent. It’s obvious to you, but the audience will love it, trust me!”

We started again:

Dancefloor. Outside flat. Keys. Door. Leading her inside …

“Here we are,” I said, “make yourself at home”.

“It’s a bit dark” she replied.

“Hang on a minute, I’ll fix that.”

“Where’s the switch?”

“Just here, don’t worry.” I reached out my hand and felt something soft and warm.

“Why do the walls feel funny? It’s like we’re…”

“… Inside something.”

“What’s that noise? It’s like a heart… beating.”

I looked up into the darkness and smiled. “I call her Nelly.”

The audience laughed and applauded. We bounded off the stage.

That was my first taste of stage improvisation. We were playing an acting game, where the class was split into pairs and had to take turns on the stage in front of the group, improvising a scene around the following scenario:

You two have just met at a nightclub. One of you has taken the other back to your flat. But when you get there, you find there’s something unusual about the flat…

By the time my partner and I took the stage, we’d watched several other couples perform. This was my first time doing any kind of acting since school, and the group included professional actors and some very talented amateurs. As I sat there, watching scene after witty, amusing, entertaining scene, I couldn’t help feeling anxious: What am I going to say? How am I going to do anything like that? Will it be funny? Will I just freeze up and look like an idiot?

But as the director – Deborah Frances-White of The Spontaneity Shop – pointed out, you can’t anticipate improvisation. You can only do it. In the moment. The harder you try to be original, funny or entertaining, the more unoriginal, stilted and boring you become.

Yet the moment I relaxed and said the first thing that came into my head, the scene came to life. It stopped being about me and my self-image, and started being fun. Like throwing a ball and trusting the other person will catch it. Or the actors’ ‘trust game’ where you have to deliberately fall backwards into the other person’s arms.

I don’t think I’m in any danger of being invited onto Whose Line Is It Anyway? but for me, something magical happened at that moment. I had no idea that we would find ourselves inside ‘Nelly’, and I couldn’t say which of us thought of the idea first. Nelly just appeared, in that charmed space where we found ourselves finishing each others’ sentences. And the audience laughed.

Is Originality Overrated?

We are used to thinking of originality as very important to creativity. An artist’s worst nightmare is to be called ‘unoriginal’ or accused of copying others’ work. But it wasn’t always like this.

Shakespeare famously never invented a plot. His Hamlet wasn’t the first Hamlet to grace the London stage – he was recycling material from an earlier play with the same title, as well as popular legends. A bit like a modern rock band playing a cover version of a classic song. He was working within a long tradition of writers whose chief concern wasn’t to create something original or radically new, but something that did the job – that entranced the audience and made them laugh or cry.

Compared to Shakespeare and his forebears, a lot of modern writers look like restless egomaniacs. They aren’t content to stand on the shoulders of giants. They not only try to reinvent the wheel but ask whether we need a wheel at all, or something completely different.

The danger with trying to be original is that – like me, waiting in the wings – we become so concerned with ourselves and our self-image that we forget to trust our instincts. Because as Deborah pointed out, your obvious is your talent. It may seem dull or unremarkable to you, but to others, with different life experience, it will seem fresh and surprising. Original.

This is the kind of originality you can’t help – any more than Shakespeare could help being original when he wrote Hamlet, or Michelangelo when producing throwaway sketches. It’s unconscious, part of your creative DNA. You may not even notice it – but the clues may come from your audience, or a sensitive critic like Deborah.

It doesn’t come from straining to think outside the box or trying to create something wild and wacky. It comes from being yourself and doing the obvious – and trusting that will be enough.

How Original Are You?

Do you think originality is overrated?

Have you ever created something amazing without realising it?

How do you stop yourself trying too hard?

PS – If you’re interested in improvisation, check out the amazing work of Keith Johnstone, starting with his classic book Impro. And if you’re in London I highly recommend the workshops at The Spontaneity Shop. Tell Deborah I sent you! Deborah and Tom Salinsky (co-founders of The Spontaneity Shop) also share their skills in The Improv Handbook.

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post


  1. I think that this also deals with the idea of self confidence. when I was younger I used to attend drama classes but was so painfully shy back then that when it came to improvisation I just daren’t jump in because I didn’t have a script and like you were, just wasn’t sure if I would be successful.

    Trusting your own instinct takes a lot of guts especially in a creative field. How often when creating something: fiction, art, our blogs, are we not thinking in a tiny part of our mind “how will this be received?”

    Working creatively without a thought to what you “should” do to please or attract an audience, whether in work or even just in your own day to day personality, will often garner you more long term respect.

    Not only that, but when you showcase more of your true personality, without trying to contrive a product or style which you think is original, the people you attract are likely to be more valuable. In my opinoin, niche interest groups are much more powerful to have as a following than a vast crowd who are mildly interested in you.

    I suppose it’s not just about producing something and wondering who will like it, but also producing, and not caring if people hate it.

    But it can take a lot of confidence to take that plunge and trust yourself.

  2. I must be totally out of, but I don’t understand what the joke was. What or who is “Nelly”? Your apartment was Nelly? I don’t understand. I think I lost your point after that just because I didn’t understand the punchline. Oops.

  3. When I first started making artist trading cards I did an all red one that seemed obvious to me. It was based on my skills in fabric embroidery but I also glued a bit of one paper to the fabric and sewed on some other paper including doing a bit of traditional embroidery. I was stunned by how many compliments I got and most of them were on the mixing of media. For me it was a logical progression of what I’d been thinking about and working on.

    I don’t think originality is overrated. I think it’s a wonderful thing. It’s also not my strength. I’m much better at making modifications and combinations, especially in my career field (materials science). I’ve struggled over the years coming to grips with that idea and that maybe I’m not lesser for it. I have only recently begun trying to make myself better at the combinations instead of trying to figure out how to come up with what’s new.

  4. Amy — yes, I agree it takes a lot of confidence to just be yourself, without trying to add frills or strain to impress.

    Beth — excellent example! And to me, it sounds like originality IS one of your strengths — just because it feels like ‘a logical progression’ to you, don’t underestimate the impact this can have on other people.

  5. Great stuff. Also highly recommended is Rob Poynton’s latest:

  6. Darren — yes, that’s right, the apartment had turned into Nelly, some kind of unspecified gigantic creature … Sorry if that wasn’t clear, maybe you had to be there! πŸ™‚

    Mark — not surprised this topic appeal to you! Thanks for the book recommendation.

    Everyone — I’ve just added a link to Deborah’s book, which she wrote with Tom Salinsky, co-founder of The Spontaneity Shop and another excellent teacher:

  7. Interesting post. Kind of reminds me of Weird Al Yankovic … made (makes?) a living off parodies of other people’s work … the music isn’t original but the lyrics are, and he’s great at it.

    I do agree with Amy above where she says, “I suppose it’s not just about producing something and wondering who will like it, but also producing, and not caring if people hate it.”

    From a personal standpoint, I know that I struggle with originality a lot, I’d rather not write something than write “just another post about ____.” Yet, I’ve noticed that I can toil for hours on something that it seems nobody notices at all, but leave it to those times where I write a rant that I “just have to get off my chest” and it goes over like gangbusters. It’s those times where I don’t care if people like or hate what I’m working on that seem to shine.

  8. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to a pitching seminar I’m preparing.

    Looking back at all the times I’ve prepared a pitch, with a structured plan of what I’m going to say, complete with carefully chosen opening anecdote/startling fact/intriguing question to hook them in, I’ve suddenly realized that my most successful pitches (ie. the ones where I got a TV programme commissioned) were the ones were I was slightly on the back foot and pitched on the fly. I can’t remember what I said, but it obviously worked.

    I think it’s something to do with the need to impress someone can paralyze you (pitching/dating/stand up comedy – I’ve done them all…and it always goes better without a script. Maybe I just need a better scriptwriter..?).

    But if you are thrown into a situation where you don’t have time to prepare an over-think something, then the worst has already happened and. With having nothing to lose you can relax and just do it. I think the Americans call it speaking from the heart, and Brits might say just pitch it with passion. That works for dating too!

  9. This post reminded me of my favorite Paul Rand quote.

    “Don’t try to be original, just try to be good.”

    I believe this was the key to Rand’s phenomenal success and I try to remind myself (and my co-workers) of it everyday. Original is overrated in my opinion, because original is not always good. It’s not always the right direction to take.

    I love the idea that “your obvious is your talent”, I think that one is going up on the wall next to “Don’t try to be original, just try to be good.” Excellent post as usual.

  10. Originality is not over-rated, but is magical. It happens all the time and when I’m part of it I’m overjoyed. For example when I started reading your improv I had the snowflake in my mind only because you had it at the beginning. I did not make a connection between a snowflake and originality. Nor did I know what the context of the improv was (bringing home a date). I did however think you were telling me a story of how you caught a snowflake, danced with it and brought it into your apartment.
    I visualized the mitts you might be wearing, the look on your face when you caught it in perfection and what might happen if you brought it into your house, and what were you going to do with it….

  11. Stacy, Nicola – interesting that both of you describe being effective (and original) at times where you didn’t/couldn’t think too much beforehand, but just went with your instinct. Impro is very like that, from my limited experience. Ditto dating. πŸ™‚

    Tony — great quote! Thanks.

    Maureen — funnily enough, I’ve picked the snowflake out on Friday, when I uploaded the article to the blog, ready to publish on Monday. By which time London was covered in snow …

  12. Tony beat me to it with the Rand quote!

    For me, taking improv classes worked wonders in unlocking some of my most productive creativity – and in building confidence.

    It’s true, in an improv scene, the best you can hope for is just to say something that makes sense in the context of the scene. If you try too hard, the audience will see right through it, and the performance suffers. You have to be patient, and then the humor comes. But, an improv scene doesn’t *have* to be funny.

  13. kadavy – thanks, and a good reminder about Impro not having to be funny, that was another thing I learnt on the course — it’s amazing how much pathos and drama you can conjure out of thin air.

  14. Creativity is like a net. You hope it will be there to catch you, but you’ll only find out if you allow yourself to fall.

    Wow. That’s pretty good; I’ll have to remember that one. LOL

    Really though, being a writer I’ve tried something similar in doing free writes. I guess their the “improv” of the writing world. But instead of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” it’s more like “How Am I Going to Write That Next Line Anyway?”

    Either way, flying by the seat of your pants is good for creativity. Sometimes it’s the only way to meet your real genius.

  15. Your obvious is your talent. – I can’t thank you enough for this piece of wisdom. So simple yet right to the point. Now I have to meditate it until I stop trying to think outside my own box.