Which of these two statements do you believe to be true? (1) Originality of thought is essential to my career. (2) There’s nothing new under the sun.
Is it possible for both to be true?
I began my professional life in the academic world, where the development of, debate around, and claiming of original ideas is key to professional advancement. As a graduate student, at the University of Virginia, I first had to get “permission to proceed” from the assembled faculty in order to move from the Master’s program to the PhD level. A big part of that permission came from your professors’ analysis of how likely you were to have something original to contribute to the world of theory and criticism, or historical studies, or whatever field of specialization you ultimately chose.
I developed a theory of how ordinary readers made sense of rhetoric, specifically in Charles Dickens’ masterpieces, based on some philosophical constructs derived from German and French philosophy – but ultimately resting on some Ancient Greek and Roman rhetorical models. My professors determined that the idea was original enough, I proceeded and ultimately earned a PhD, wrote a book based on my dissertation, sold roughly five copies, and never had cause to debate those ideas with anyone again.
So when I had a chance to write speeches for the Governor of Virginia, I jumped at it, unable to resist the opportunity to put my academic ideas into practice.
The State Secretary of Education, who recruited me, actually put it this way: “Morgan, how would you like to test that academic BS of yours in the real world?” He knew I would be unable to resist that in-your-face challenge.
I averaged five speeches a day for the next two years, and was indeed tested in many ways. Chiefly, the work was a priceless education in real-world speechmaking. I was hooked, and I’ve never looked back.
Ideas in the political world are rarely original. Politicians adhere to one side of the political divide or the other. Programs are put forward precisely because they’ve been tested somewhere else and found to work. (The worst ideas are promoted solely for ideological purposes – like Mao’s Great Leap Forward, they mostly kill more than they save.)
What counts in politics more than originality of program is voice. The speaker has to voice the concerns of voters in a unique way or no one will pay attention. It’s a measure of authenticity, passion, and commitment. So when then-Senator Joe Biden was caught plagiarizing British politician Neil Kinnock, and subsequently other acts of plagiarism were discovered, Biden’s 1988 Presidential run was over. Melania Trump’s theft of a couple of paragraphs during the most recent Republican National Convention (from Michelle Obama’s earlier speech) was widely noted and embarrassing. It didn’t end her husband’s Presidential run, since he was the principal, not her, but it did mar the occasion and cause voters to take her less seriously than they otherwise might have.
Most of my coaching work in recent years has been in the business world, and I’ve been struck how all too often people claim ideas as original when in fact they’re not, and how too little time people spend on developing their unique voices.
In business, like politics, the best ideas are copied freely (it’s called benchmarking) and re-used constantly. There’s nothing wrong with that – business people like politicians ultimately should be practical and do what works, not what they wish were true – but if you do borrow an idea, you should give credit to its source. My first book on speechwriting and speech-giving, Give Your Speech, Change the World, has been out in the marketplace for fourteen years. Many times, I’ve had the experience of having my ideas played back to me by speakers, at conferences, in workshops, and in articles on the web.
There’s nothing wrong with that — indeed, it’s gratifying to see the spread of ideas I care deeply about — but credit should be given. And you should find your own original voice. I give credit to the Ancient Greeks and Romans as appropriate, and to my other sources.
Originality is essential – originality of voice. And there is virtually nothing new under the sun. So give credit, find your voice, and keep faith with the human project. It’s not OK to steal ideas without giving credit. It is OK to take ideas, make them your own, put them in your own original voice, and honor your sources. In fact, it’s required.