In 1892, deafblind author Helen Keller was accused of plagiarism after a short story of hers, named “The Frost King,” was identified as being extremely similar to Margaret Canby’s “Frost Fairies.” An investigation followed and thankfully, she was eventually acquitted. Mark Twain wrote an amazing letter of support to Helen 10 years later:
Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that “plagiarism” farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men—but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite—that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest.
Fear of plagiarism can sometimes lead us to second guessing ourselves, and believing our ideas aren’t original enough to be worth spreading. As Mark Twain so eloquently points out, nothing is original. Rather than focusing on originality, shift your focus to authenticity. You may not be the first person to have thought of the idea, but does it come from the heart? Have you put your own spin on the idea, based on your personal experiences?
When Susan Cain gave her TED Talk about The Power of Introverts (one of my favourites), her simple idea was authentic, but arguably not original. She states that since introverts bring extraordinary talents and abilities to the world, they should be encouraged and celebrated. She spoke of her experience as a child, being told she was anti-social because she wanted to read books rather than play outside at school camps. The experience was hers alone, and no-one else could have told it quite the same way.
Authenticity is what makes your idea your own.
Speaker applications close 27.09.15. Do you have an idea worth sharing?