Authenticity and originality


Authenticity, originality, and being real are all the craze. My managers had ‘authentic leadership’ courses, and everybody and their sister are writing ‘original works.’ Why is that so important to us?

Authenticity and originality

First, some definitions. I think I like this Wikipedia entry on authenticity:

Authenticity is the degree to which a person’s actions are congruent with his or her values and desires, despite external pressures to social conformity.

In other words, authenticity is about being yourself. Are you doing things that match your outlook on the world?

If you’re ‘authentic’, you are likely to be happier, and others are likely to view you more positively.

That’s cool. So, authenticity is something to strive for. Since being viewed more positively also makes it easier to sell something, marketing has jumped on the authenticity bandwagon. Of course, when you boil it down to ‘looking authentic’ instead of ‘being authentic’ makes this really cynical. But that’s marketing for you.

Originality is somewhat different:

An original work is one not received from others nor one copied from or based upon the work of others.

Basically, originality is about creating a work of art that hasn’t been done before. From research, we know that when you find a new piece of music you like, or read a new story you like, your brain rewards you with dopamine. So finding something new is rewarding. If something is original, and you like it, the response will be stronger than if it’s something you’ve already seen, even if you like it. Hence, originality is good. And hence, marketing has jumped onto this bandwagon as well.

But like everything else, you can take it too far. I don’t know if it’s because of the endless marketing, or just something in ourselves, but we’ve become obsessed with being authentic and original. These days, if you call something original, it’s good, if you call it authentic and original, well then, it must be awesome. Vice versa, if you want to say something very negative about a work, you need only call it derivative. But is that fair?

Vinyl veneer

We all want to be unique and original. But not everything or everybody can be original and unique. There are billions of us, and we are all individuals, but are we really all that different? Of course not. There’s a good chance you and I are — in fact — a lot like everybody else.

And if you look it up, we’ve only put originality on a pedestal since the 18th century. It’s a cultural development, not a law of nature.

So now what? You want to be authentic and original but deep inside, you are just like everybody else. Well, lucky you, you can just use the trappings of originality and fake it. This question on Quora sums it up nicely ‘Can I buy a vinyl if I dont have a turntable, just for show?‘ Yep, fake it till you make it. Or rather, don’t make it. If everybody puts vinyl records in their house, then it’s no longer original. It’s fashionable. Oops. It happened with Buddha statues as housewarming gifts, with lava lamps, and with who knows what else.

If you put vinyl records in your house just to impress people, you’re not being authentic. You’re trying to be a hipster. A special snowflake. The thing is: it’s just the trappings of being original. And it can even make you less authentic, and so less likeable.

Luckily, there’s a solution: maybe just accept being like everybody else.

It’s good to be the same

I love my wife. One of the reasons I do so, is because we like the same things. Not all the time, and not everything, but we can watch the same TV shows together, and listen to the same music, and agree on a lot of subjects. That’s not boring, it makes us happy to be together. I like hanging out with my friends who like the same video games and other geeky things.

So, personally, I say, be authentically like everybody else. You know how much easier life is when you want the default? Ask anybody who’s actually special about trying to fit in.

And this extends to original novels, and movies, and music, and everything else. There are thousands of years of stories out there, and that means everything has been done. However, I haven’t seen or read everything. So something might not be original, but it might be original to me. And that means, it will work equally well.

And when I’m done reading that non-original book, I might want something similar, but slightly different. Is that wrong? No. I have dozens of fantasy series in my bookcase. Do I like them? Yes. Are they all original? No, they all copy things from Tolkien. Oh, and Tolkien also copied from those before him and from mythology. And mythology is one big pile of shared ideas (ever wonder if Jesus was really born on Christmas? Answer: probably not, but it happens to be around the solstice)

Something doesn’t need to be wholly original, it needs to be different enough to be fun. Or more of the same, if that is what people want. Sitcoms are basically the same thing over and over again, and those are popular, at least for a couple of hundred episodes.


Screw originality, screw fake authenticity.

Just be authentic in not being original.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy author/blogger from the Netherlands