Why It's So Hard to Create Original Work In the Face of Conventional Wisdom

Everyone endures a particularly cringeworthy period of life. For me, that period was 4th grade.

We had just emigrated from Bulgaria, and figuring out the cultural norms of the United States was tough. I didn’t speak English. I used a fork and knife to cut my pizza slice at lunch. I couldn’t play kickball. And I gave up all hope when I was presented with a breaded, deep-fried, sausage on a stick you Americans call “a corn dog.” Every day was something new, and every day I hated that I was different. 

^^ Me before I was confronted with the realities of American cuisine

That meant a few things. It meant eating lunch alone, and always feeling like an outsider. As an adult, I’m able to reason my way through the situation and understand why it happened. But as a 9-year-old, those experiences re-wired my brain and warped my thinking for years to come. 

We moved, and I got to start 7th grade with kids who didn’t know me during the fork-and-knife pizza days. I still remember walking into my new school thinking, “You can be whoever you want to be here.” So, naturally, I over-corrected.

Suddenly, I worshipped at the altar of conformity and conventional wisdom. I hated advice like, “Always be yourself,” because being yourself, in my mind, rendered a vivid image of sitting alone at a cafeteria table. I was over-the-top nice, I never had an opinion, and I ate pizza with my bare hands like a savage. I was boring, and it was exhausting. 

By the time I graduated college, I had friends, I was generally well-liked, and I was never alone. But now, not only did I still feel like an outsider, I also felt like a fraud. This is referred to as “normative social influence,” a type of conformity in which a person publicly accepts the views of a group but privately rejects them. It’s a pretty lonely way to live. 

Five years ago, I moved to New York, which gave me a clean slate. Starting The Profile was the most honest and original thing I’ve done. I decided to stop pretending, but you can’t quit this habit cold turkey. It haunts you in weird ways. First come the anxious questions: “Who could possibly care about my opinion?” “Which writer’s style should I imitate?” “Who will ever read this thing?” But then come the questions that matter: “What is my voice?” “Who am I writing this for?” and “What the hell do I actually believe?”

Last week, I got to meet two of my favorite writers: James Clear (author of Atomic Habits) and Tim Urban (author of Wait But Why). Tim explained just how hard it is to create original work in the face of conventional wisdom. “When you’re trying to create something truly original, you make a bunch of mistakes,” he said. “Originals are a mess.” 

In this life, we only have two options: create or imitate. Independent thought is hard and messy and often unpopular, but it’s also liberating. We trip up so many times because we care about the crowd’s opinion. There’s a “right time” to get married, have kids, quit your job, build a company, and eat pizza with a fork and a knife. Who decides that? Hopefully, it’s you. 

I recently read author Anna Quindlen's thought-provoking commencement speech (h/t to James Clear for featuring it). Save it, print it, frame it. Here’s what she had to say on originality:

“Nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great ever came out of imitations. The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself. 

“This is more difficult, because there is no zeitgeist to read, no template to follow, no mask to wear. Set aside what your friends expect, what your parents demand, what your acquaintances require. Set aside the messages this culture sends, through its advertising, its entertainment, its disdain and its disapproval, about how you should behave. 

“Set aside the old traditional notion of female as nurturer and male as leader; set aside, too, the new traditional notions of female as superwoman and male as oppressor. Begin with that most terrifying of all things, a clean slate. Then look, every day, at the choices you are making, and when you ask yourself why you are making them, find this answer: for me, for me. Because they are who and what I am, and mean to be.”

“This will always be your struggle whether you are twenty-one or fifty-one. I know this from experience. When I quit the New York Times to be a full-time mother, the voices of the world said that I was nuts. When I quit it again to be a full-time novelist, they said I was nuts again. But I am not nuts. I am happy. I am successful on my own terms. Because if your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all. Remember the words of Lily Tomlin: If you win the rat race, you're still a rat.”

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