Michael Ashcroft

August 20, 2021 17:09

Be original by not trying to be original

In his TEDx talk Don’t do your best, Keith Johnstone, the world-renowned expert in theatre improvisation, advises improvisers to be average. 

Photo by Gavin Allanwood on Unsplash

This is not because he wants average performances. He knows that improvisers want to be original, but when they try to be original their performances turn out mediocre. 

He gives supporting evidence for this in the form of world record breaking athletes. When do you think they broke the records? When they weren’t trying to. When they were trying to break a record, they used too much muscle tension and their performance suffered. Johnstone references the book Maximum Performance for this claim, which I haven’t read, so let’s just assume it’s true.

To be original is to create something new, something that hasn’t been done before. A new connection, a new idea, a new way of looking at or interpreting the world. 

By definition, anything we consider original was previously unknown to us. This means that originality must be accompanied by an experience of surprise.

I believe that true originality is possible. I don’t think this necessarily contradicts the widely-held view that everything is a remix. Actually, I think they fit together nicely, but I’ll talk about that some other time.

I agree with Johnstone that trying to be original interferes with any hope of creating anything original. Why? Because:

Trying is only emphasising the thing we already know. — F. M. Alexander

For something to be original means we didn’t already know it. Trying, no matter how effortful or ‘clever’, cannot create anything that surprises us. The original thing we want needs to arise, as if from somewhere else, in our awareness.

The way to be original, then, is not to try to be original. 

That doesn’t mean not to participate in activities that might produce originality, but to change the goal. Instead of striving for some kind of original outcome, we can decide to engage in an activity wholeheartedly and non-judgementally. Playfully, some might say.

It’s only by ceasing any background commentary along the lines of “this isn’t original, that wasn’t original, need to be original” that anything resembling originality might actually show up.

But there’s a trap here. The harder you try not to think of a pink elephant, the more pink elephants traipse through your attention. 

What you want to do is stop trying, but without trying to stop trying. And how do you do that? 

I recommend you start here.


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