I’ve gotten into arguments about the nature of creativity. Most people use creativity and originality interchangeably, but I think there is value in specifying the natural distinction, albeit one not encapsulated by their standard definitions. First, let’s start with the actual definitions.
Originality: 1) the quality or state of being original (the source or cause from which something arises; that from which a copy is made); 2) freshness of aspect, design, or style; 3) the power of independent thought or imagination.
Both definitions belie a relatively similar notion; churning out that which is new and different. Despite colloquial usage tying these words together, they’ve always seemed to be functionally differentiated to me. The very root of the word originality is origin, which caries with it the context of primacy, of being first. Creativity has no such stigma; the usage of the root word ‘create’ as a synonym for ‘producing’ or ‘making’ lends an additional layer to it as well, such that creativity does not imply an order of occurrence. An artistic re-interpretation of a famous painting is likely quite creative. What’s more, it is probably the first time that that specific combination of design elements has come together. In the end though, it is still a re-interpretation, and while it may be ingenious, it isn’t the first true look at the underlying material.
And that, I think is the difference between originality and creativity. Originality should be treated as the first instance of an interpretation. It is a subset of creativity, being the most fundamental building block. All originality is creativity, but not all creativity is originality.
But then, what about two individuals who come to the same conclusion at different times? Are they to be treated the same? I’d choose to recognize both individuals as having original ideas, though I would clarify them as first or second order. If we take originality as meaning the first, we can flesh out the definition as being something without direct inspiration. First-order originality can only be assigned once; to the absolute first individual/group to spawn the idea (or to make it visible, as we have yet to mass produce technology capable of reading minds.) Second-order originality is attributed to anyone who devises the same notion, without direct prompting (i.e. encountering the first-order idea) but that comes after the first-order idea. Consider a math prodigy who unintentionally re-discovers theorems long-ago codified by great mathematicians; his creativity is unquestionable and he merits the term originality in that, had he existed before many of the greats, it is reasonable to assume he’d have produced the same material and thus have been ‘first’. But it is important to distinguish this individual from Fermat, Caley, Newton and the other greats who did come first; in this sense, being born in ages gone-by seems advantageous. (There is a not-insignificant turmoil within me at this further distinction. I vehemently want to brand all non-first creativity as that and that alone. Unfortunately, that would unfairly minimize the exceptional work of those who ‘re’-produce the work of others unwittingly. While an asterisk and a link to the first-order original is always deserved, to ignore the potential for first-order originality simply because it’s occurrence was temporally inconvenient for the author is a slight on creativity.
Now, I am fully aware that this is a nit-picky look at an esoteric distinction, but I believe that these definitions enrich the words by adding layers of precision and meaning. Granted, the information density plays a very limited role in the speed at which information is conveyed between people, meaning these distinctions aren’t necessarily practical. (Unfortunately) I find a significant appeal in the elegance that distinctions like these provide. What’s more, this difference heavily informs my opinions on education reform, which I will get into soon.
For now, I bid you toodles
P.S. To all of my Torontonian friends who are caught in the rain or flooded out of house and home, I wish you the best of luck and would happily house you for a night or to. Just reach out to me.