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Why original doesn’t mean new

Posted in the following categories: Creativity

Andy Weir is one of my favorite sci-fi authors.

If his name doesn’t ring a bell, his novel-turned-blockbuster-film, The Martian, should.

Most people would agree he is original—no matter how you define the term.

Yet, he claimed the exact opposite in a recent conversation on Adam Grant’s podcast.

“Believe it or not, I don’t think my stories are that original,” he explained.


His first novel, The Martian, was about an astronaut stranded on Mars. A 1960s movie called Robinson Crusoe on Mars has the exact same plot.

His second novel, Artemis, was about a criminal living in space. That’s very well-trodden ground (see, among others, Guardians of the Galaxy).

His latest novel, Project Hail Mary, is a story about a first contact with an alien. That’s been done before—numerous times (see, among others, Contact).

Weir made a name for himself by bringing his own unique vision into these old plotlines.

One of his signature trademarks, as he explains on Grant’s podcast, is his “obsessive attention to scientific detail.” He geeks out on hard science and goes to great lengths to ensure that his stories are as technically accurate as possible.

He then makes all that hard science fun by infusing his own blend of wit, humor, and sarcasm into the mix. (“They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially ‘colonized’ it. So technically, I colonized Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!,” as Mark Watney exclaims in The Martian.).

There’s a false assumption that for an idea to be original, it must be new.

When I first started writing, this assumption was paralyzing. Whenever I thought I’d come up with a “new” idea, I’d eventually discover that someone else had already written about it. I’d scrap the idea and go back to searching for that elusive originality unicorn (which vanished the moment I thought I spotted it).

But original doesn’t mean new. “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to,” as Jean-Luc Godard says.

No one can look at the world through your two eyes. Once you put your own unique take on existing ideas—once you bring your own quirky perspective to them the way that Andy Weir does—they will be original.

So if you’ve got an idea for a new business, a new book, a new film, a new fill-in-the blank, and it’s been done before?

It doesn’t matter.

It’s all been done before.

But it hasn’t been done by you.

P.S. I’ve got three additional podcast appearances to highlight from my publicity tour for Awaken Your Genius. All three episodes have been quite popular and shared widely.

  1. The Jordan Harbinger Show (also on Spotify).
  2. Pulling the Thread with Elise Loehnen
  3. The Accidental Creative with Todd Henry
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