Everything’s Been Done

The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism.

MARK TWAIN

Can anything ever be original?

Read enough finance articles and you start to have a Groundhog Day experience, as the fundamental principles — spend less than you earn, save 10-15% of your income, focus only on what you can control, etc. — are generally the same for everyone.

Write long enough in finance (or any field, even fiction), you’re bound to ask yourself that question… unless you reject the notion of originality altogether.

***

About six years ago, I published an article on the “seven deadly sins of retirement,” a lighthearted parody of the seven deadly sins of Christianity. Not long after, I came across a similar article exploring similar “deadly financial sins”.

This article was more widely read than mine. And unlike an anonymous writer like me, writing for a financial firm’s corporate blog, he had his name on it — to be liked, shared and praised. Admittedly, I briefly succumbed to two deadly sins — envy and wrath. Did this person steal my idea? But then I wondered just how that it was a case of plagiarism.

The seven deadly sins are widely known, and a week doesn’t go by without someone publishing a list of major financial mistakes to avoid.

I simply connected the two, which is what much of writing is about.

Creativity is just connecting things.

STEVE JOBS

The probability of more than one person putting together the two concepts was quite high. So, I had no grounds for feeling slighted.

We are all swimming in the same pool of information. Originality exists only in the form of innumerable combinations.

I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.

MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE

In finance, the rules rarely change. We have access to the same data. And, the same ideas and topics circulate year after year. You can even time them by season. As the new year approaches, look for those tax saving tips; when the ice thaws and flowers being to bloom, here comes the financial advice for new grads.

Google “how much to save 401k” and the results are page after page of the same rules of thumb.

With the advent of SEO and social media, journalists, bloggers, advisors and marketers are now all competing with each other for readers. There is bound to be overlap on the supply side. More people writing equals more of the same articles.

The way to differentiate yourself isn’t by what you say, but how you say it. Sometimes though it can feel as if everything’s been done already.

That’s okay. The pressure to come up with interesting content is real. I would argue though that it isn’t worth wasting time worrying about.

The more original or exceptional you try to be, the less productive you become. It is better to aim a little lower. Just use your own experiences to push the conversation further.

***

I’ve been thinking about originality lately because I recently found myself on the other end. While doing some analytics research on Google for my article on fake financial news, I came across another article written two years prior on fake investing news.

Again, two people connecting the same two pieces.

People often use the analogy of stacking blocks, like LEGOs, to describe the evolution of ideas. I like to think of it more as a forest ecosystem, a land of tall, old trees next to young saplings, sharing the same soil, drinking in the light of an aging star that has lived long before and will live long after any of us, and breathing in the same air particles that are like tiny blots of memories of those who inhaled and exhaled them before us. A forest where we grow in our own unique shapes and sizes.

In this forest, plant yourself down and never worry about all that already rises above you. Plant yourself down and write.

A couple ideas and a passion is all the permission you need. Just don’t expect it to be original. If you do, then get used to blank spaces.

Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.

SALVADOR DALI

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