Has the world run out of ideas?

Is humanity collectively running on empty—or recycled fuel?

Is humanity collectively running on empty—or recycled fuel?

I was watching a question-and-answer video with a well-known social media guru last week. Halfway through, he looked into the camera and emphatically said that all ideas have been done before. You’ll never come up with anything new, so don’t bother trying. The important thing, he maintained, is execution… getting your ideas rolling… even if they are old hack.

At first, I found his advice very disheartening. But it did get me thinking.

I flashed back to a presentation on creativity I saw some 15 years ago, one that I’ve never forgotten. It was by an 80-something former Madison Avenue creative director—a man who had crafted well known, pioneering work in his day. At the end of his riveting lecture, he pulled out an old-school carousel and projector and—with no introduction or context—began projecting images on the wall in rapid succession.

After the first few slides, we realized they were pictures of ads, from all different times and industries. BUT, strangely, they all shared the same basic headline:

Not all _______ are created equal.

One said: Not all banks are created equal. Another: Not all steak sauces are created equal. It went on and on—cars, computers, dish detergents, cigars—he had dozens of them. As he flipped through his show, the room erupted into laughter.

His point was that people often morph into copycats, especially if they’re under pressure, tired, lazy, or just can’t think of anything.

When I had watched the social media guru’s video, it was on my iPad. “A ha!” I thought. “An iPad is an original idea!” Then I second-guessed myself. You can trace the iPad back to a laptop, which goes back to the CPU, which has its roots in television, cinema and photography.

Was the social media guru right? I wondered. Are all ideas reprocessed cheese?

I glanced over at my iPod. That was an original idea in its time. No, it wasn’t. You can draw a line from the iPod to the Discman and CDs, to the Walkman, transistor radio and earphone, and radio. So radio was the original idea, and that was what, a century ago?!?

The internet? Its lineage goes back to the telephone system and telegraphs. Social media? Chat rooms and bulletin boards were the geneses there.

As my mind thumbed through our modern marvels, much of today’s ideas seemed more evolutionary than revolutionary. I didn’t find much solace in culture, either—with all the formulaic sitcoms, Broadway revivals, endless movie sequels, rubberstamp pop music, and listicles galore. Ugh.

Most everything seemed to take something and reinvent it. They may have done an amazing job, even groundbreaking, but it was still rehashing, really.

But then, is that so bad?

As a person who makes his living as a “creative” in marketing, that last sentence will likely amount to charges of heresy among my peers.

You need, however, a certain creative prowess to turn the familiar into the fresh, over and over. Truly unique, renegade, slap-us-in-the-face breakthroughs are extraordinarily rare. And most times, the world isn’t ready for them anyway.

We may complain about the familiar, “seeing it before,” or being bored, but there’s a comfort in the commonplace. And when the run-of-the-mill is turbo charged in some way, it both stimulates and comforts us.

Yes, I hate the mundane, too. I’m embarrassed for hacky, cheap clowns imitating comedic legends. I whine about plots I’ve endured for the hundredth time. Or yawn without shame at a singer that sounds like 5,000 other crooners. But every so often, someone will take the elements I’ve seen or heard before and combine them in a way that utterly nukes my senses.

It may not be brand new, but it’s new enough to surprise, delight, intrigue, stimulate, or engage me.

And isn’t that what great ideas are all about?

As for the social media guru, I’ll let his cynicism about ideas drop from my consciousness. There’s plenty of good stuff to go around. And once in a while, if we’re lucky enough to recognize it, there’ll be spectacular stuff.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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