There is a good chance you’re working on something new right now: a story, game, song, or open-source library. You’re enjoying the challenge and the creative process. The final result, you tell yourself, might resonate with a group of people. Then, a well-meaning friend mentions something she recently stumbled across. “Isn’t this pretty similar to what you’re working on?” You put on a brave face, but your heart sinks.
Back home, you critically examine your idea’s doppelgänger and confirm that someone is indeed doing something quite similar to what you’re doing. In fact, they seem further along and have already solved a few problems that had you stumped. You take a deep breath as a wave passes over you: ‘I’ve poured so much time and effort into this.’ The belief in the originality of your idea fed your confidence, but now it’s just another version of something that already exists.
I recently spent a day with an inspiring book on modern architecture. What struck me was the incredible variety. Just as writers strive to do with words, and artists with paint, architects work to push the boundaries of what’s possible within the shared boundaries of materials and physical laws. Cooking, photography, poetry, and websites are all similar in that regard. In artistic pursuits, original expression sprouts from the same ingredients and constraints.
We humans tend to be shortsighted, though. When a new project is announced, it's often met with, “Do we really need another one of those?”
The answer is yes. Always yes. There's room for endless varieties of similar ideas to take root and co-exist, each with a unique twist. There are people why email can't be better. There are people waiting for the to-do list app that finally clicks for them. Others are searching for a conference that speaks to who they are and what they stand for.
A few years ago, some friends and I started an online community called Uncommon in Common. A social network: how original! With hundreds of such things, some with billions of users, you might say it's a solved problem. But there wasn’t one that suited us. We wanted a welcoming, peaceful front porch filled with thoughtful conversation. We wanted a place that encourages a healthy relationship with our screens, a community free of ads and addictive feedback loops. Free of FOMO. We called it the next small thing on the internet.
Uncommon wasn’t an idea that appealed to a billion people. But for those who found it, there was the joy of discovering a place just for them.
Imagine a band recording its first album. Months of practice and sparsely attended shows have led to this moment. On their way to the recording studio, the car radio plays a new guitar-driven, uptempo song about relationships, eerily similar to theirs. Would they turn their car around in defeat? ‘We thought we were on to something, but it turns out someone else had the same idea.’
Here’s the thing: originality isn’t what sets your idea apart. You are.
Whatever you are working on, you have your own motivations, skills, beliefs, and priorities. You have past experiences that shape your work, and hopes and values that shape its future. Even though something else solves a similar problem or fills a similar gap, the end result will never be the same.
There is room in this world for you and your idea. There is room for another band, another book, another conference, app, game, or community – because only yours is uniquely yours. You don’t compete against someone else’s project. The competition is between you and unfinished. Believe in it, see it through, and share it with the rest of us.