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Ex Materia

How Faith Can Unleash Your Creativity in a World Where Nothing is New

CH 2: Nothing is New

Note: the following is the second chapter in a book that I wrote called Ex Materia: How Faith Can Unleash Your Creativity in a World Where Nothing is New. If you haven't already, I would recommend reading Chapter 1 before launching into Chapter 2. 


One of my greatest creative struggles came in the realm of originality. I would see people creating so many marvelous things, but I would feel like all my ideas were cliche.

As I explored scripture looking for answers to my creativity problems, I realized that the book of Ecclesiastes has a lot to say on the topic of originality. Take a look for yourself:

"That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one might say, ‘See this, it is new’? Already it has existed for ages which were before us." (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10)

Nothing is new.

We cannot create ex nihilo

We are always building upon what has come before us. Even if we write a fictional story, we are using concepts and pre-existing laws of nature. If we draw a picture of an alien, we have hundreds of thousands of images already in our mind from movies, comics, and illustrations. Even if we did not, we would be bound to an earthly understanding of living creatures. We might make our alien look humanoid, simply because that is all we know.

Even innovators are not hitting upon ideas that are totally new. Someone invented the light bulb, but they didn’t invent light.

When I stumbled upon this truth, I found it to be both refreshing because I could finally cut myself some slack on my endless pursuit of originality.

A Totally New Color

Are you having a trouble getting a grasp on the fact that we can’t create ex nihilo? Perhaps an example would help.

Consider this: we cannot create a totally new color. Our eyes perceive color based on waves of light, and we are limited in our perception of those waves. We can mix colors and create tints and shades, but we can never create or even imagine a totally new color. Think about this fact for a moment and let it sink in.

The concept of new colors is something our finite minds cannot grasp. Sure, we can consider the fact that there may be colors in existence that we cannot perceive, but we cannot even begin to imagine them. Why? It’s because they are beyond our mental capacity. They are outside our framework of existence.

We cannot imagine, much less create, something completely new. It is beyond us.

What About the TV or the Internet?

I know what some of you are thinking, “Weren’t things like the TV or the Internet totally new?”

It might seem like this is the case because these things revolutionized the world. At the time, there was nothing else like them. Ultimately though, they were based off of things already in existence: the idea of communication, the physical resources needed to make a computer, and the science behind them.

The TV, the internet, the radio, and everything ever made was created out of something else. Even the ideas for them were birthed out of a need or even previous ideas.

Forced Limitation

Most people do not like to be limited. And yet, we’re stuck in a world where nothing is new. I’d call that a pretty serious limitation.

People tell us we can do anything we want if we set our mind to it. If they are a Christian, then they might even quote Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but this is not how life works; it's definitely not the way creativity works.

As creatives, we all have a set of limitations. The inability to create ex nihilo is one we all share. Other boundaries come in the form of finances, time, resources, health, authority, and even risk.

As creatives, it’s good to push boundaries at times, but we also need to work with what we have.

The Big Black Camera

When I was younger and just getting into photography, all I had was a small, low-end camera that I would borrow from my mom. I couldn’t afford to buy a professional camera, but I didn’t let this limitation stop me from doing something.

I started a blog, took my mom’s camera with me everywhere I went, and I shot hundreds of photos every month. I pushed the boundaries with this point-and-shoot camera. I mastered the elementary concepts of photography.

One day, there came a moment when I knew I needed something better. It was time to take the next step. I needed one of those big black cameras. You know, the “fancy” ones with interchangeable lenses; they’re called DSLRs.

I got my first job working at a fast-food restaurant to earn enough money to buy a DSLR. Eventually, when I had the money to break through my financial boundary, I was ready to use the new camera to its fullest potential because I had spent countless hours practicing and working with the old one.

Application: instead of waiting for all your ducks to be in a row, start experimenting and working right now. Even if it’s just practice, it will prepare you for what’s ahead. That way, when your ducks are all in a row, you’ll be ready to meet your fullest potential.           

In a way, you’re actually putting your ducks in a row yourself rather than waiting for them to all line up on their own.

Being Faithful in the Small

As you can tell, I’m a strong advocate for embracing your current situation. Some people will sit around all day wishing they had this or that, and they end up missing out on a lot of opportunities that are right in front of them.

If you’re unwilling to do small things, you’ll never find success and do big things. This is a strong biblical principle that applies directly to creativity. Check out the parable of the talents in Matthew 25.

A wealthy man entrusted some money (talents) to three of his servants. Two of the servants were wise and put the talents to work; they invested and made more talents for their master. The third servant was foolish though, and he buried the talent he was given. He was scared that he might invest the money and lose it.

We as creatives can succumb to this same fear if we’re not careful. We can feel like we were given the smallest amount of talents and think that we’re not capable of doing anything great with it. But that’s a lie. All God is asking of you is to be faithful with what you are given.

And you can’t be faithful with what God gives you when you’re focused on what other people have.

At the end of the day, this is what we must remember: everyone has different circumstances. We’re all dealt a different hand of cards, but our degree of success is in how we play them. We can sit around wishing we had someone else’s situation, or we can begin to live our current life to the fullest potential.

Pushing Boundaries

I’ve talked quite a bit about working within your boundaries, but there’s also a lot be said for pushing them.

In the parable of the talents, two of the servants took their talents and did a lot with them. I’d say they that they took their limitations and pushed the boundaries as far as they could. They didn’t just make a little money. Rather, they doubled it!

We must work within our boundaries, but we should also push them and get as much out of them as we can.

One way to do this is to take your limitations and figure out a way to make them work in your favor. Think leverage, not limitation.

Everyone’s a Copycat

Think leverage, not limtation.

I know too many creative people that are not doing anything simply because they are too afraid of being a copycat.

Perhaps it’s because they are still stuck with fears from school that they will accidentally plagiarize someone. Or maybe someone has accused them of being unoriginal, so they are scared to death it will happen again.

We are enslaved to the idea that we can only do something if no one else is doing it.

But here’s the thing: on a fundamental level everyone’s a copycat. No, I’m not saying we all blatantly rip off other people’s work and call it our own, but, as we’ve already established, nothing is completely new. We are inspired creators who, whether we care to admit it or not, are not free from influences.

However, do not use this as an excuse to bathe in mediocrity and unoriginality.

Is it Ethical?

We are enslaved to the idea that we can only do something if no one else is doing it.

To deny your creative influences would be to deny your very work.Again, I’m not advocating or promoting plagiarism. We should never directly copy someone and claim it as our own. Instead, we need to find things that we like and allow them to influence and inspire us.

Every artist has his or her share of influences, and even after years of work and experience those influences still show. It might not be as easy to notice, but trust me, they are still there.

The roots of a tree are not always obvious, but we know they exist. They are working silently under the surface to affect the very life of the plant. Even a master painter like Picasso had his share of inspiration.

To deny your creative influences would be to deny your very work.

To deny your creative influences would be to deny your very work.

The Line Between Originality and Cliché

We may live in a world where nothing is new, but that doesn’t mean we should settle for mediocre and unoriginal work.

While we can’t ever create something totally new, we can at least try to be different.

Imagine two dots with a line drawn in-between connecting them. Label one dot “overdone” and the other “underdone.” All ideas live somewhere on this line. (see figure 1)

Figure 1

Figure 1

This isn’t a perfect representation of creative ideas though. We live in a complex world, so, if we want to grasp how original an idea is, we have to make a more informative chart.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Instead of one line with two points, we’re going to use a simple two-data chart (see figure 2).

Running horizontally is the originality of the concept (the degree to which people have done it before). Going vertically is the originality of the execution (the degree of uniqueness in how the concept is implemented or done).

Let’s put this thing to work with a real world example.

In 2014, Adam Lewis Greene launched a Kickstarter project called Bibliotheca. Basically, it was a multi-volume reader-friendly Bible. Let’s apply our chart to Greene’s idea.

His concept? A Bible.

Being the number one selling book of all time, and with millions of copies being printed each year, the Bible is pretty low on the originality scale. People own multiple copies of the Bible, and with the rise of the YouVersion Bible app, people can read it whenever and wherever they want. You can even get a free Bible from a hotel room. Thanks, Gideons! 

Printing a Bible is probably one of the most unoriginal things Adam Greene could have chosen. If this is true, then what made Bibliotheca go viral, acquiring over $1.4 million in funding (Adam’s original goal was $37,000)?

His execution was highly original. Sure, he was printing a Bible, but it was no ordinary Bible. It had no verse or chapter numbers, no study notes, no footnotes, and no section headings. It also had a killer design, making it a highly sought after item for its aesthetics. The detail was superb, all the way down to a special typeface designed specifically for the project.

In a feature bloated society, Adam Lewis Greene stripped the Bible down to the basics. Virtually no one else in the world was doing what Greene was doing.

Application: even if what you want to do isn’t new, there’s a way to execute it differently than everyone else.

Repackaging

Here’s an interesting fact about Bibliotheca. It wasn’t a new idea; it was actually an old one repackaged in an excellent way. The Bible didn’t use to have all of the verse numbers and “fluff” it has today. Greene’s project was actually taking the Bible back to its roots.

Bibliotheca is a great example that shows that, despite there being nothing new under the sun, you don’t have to be completely original to create something wonderful.

Fear can hold you back all day everyday if you let it.

Originality Won’t Last

What once was original no longer is. Touch screens were once highly original, now they are a dime a dozen. Companies use to make touch screens a big selling point, but now they’re a given.

What’s the takeaway? Originality changes whether we like it or not. It’s easy to see this as a curse, but I think it’s actually a blessing in disguise.

It can keep us humble. It prevents apathy. We’re kept on our toes because if we buckle down for the long ride, we’re going to get left behind. And it lets us know that the things we create aren’t eternal. We aren’t Yahweh. We can’t create ex nihilo.

The fact that originality changes can remind us that nothing is certain in this world. Ideas and innovations will come and go, but Yahweh will never leave our side.

It’s Been Done Before, but You Can Do it Differently

I’ve been blogging for over 5 years, and one important lesson that I’ve learned is this: everything has been talked about before, but there’s still a way to make it new and different.

I wouldn’t be writing this book if I didn’t believe in this fact. The subject of creativity has been written about by thousands of people, most of whom are more well known and experienced than I am.

When I started to write this book, I had a bad case of the “I’m too young” fears. Ultimately, I decided to turn my fears around and use them to my benefit. I realized that I should write this book because what sets me apart is the fact that I am so young. I have a different perspective on things that older, more experienced people might not have.

Writing a book on creativity has been done before, but I figured out a way I could do it differently.

Fix What’s Not Broken

There’s an old saying that I don’t agree with: “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” While I understand the sentiment behind this statement, I don’t agree with it when it’s applied to creativity and innovation.

There are plenty of products, inventions, and ideas that aren’t broken; they are still working and thriving to this day. But here’s the thing: they might not be broken, but they definitely aren’t perfect.

This is exactly why so many people are trying to make a better wallet. Visit Kickstarter.com any day of the year, and you are likely to find at least two or three people trying to create a better wallet. The prevalence of wallet projects on Kickstarter is so interesting that an article was recently written about it. Writer Nitsuh Abebe examined the wallet trend and attempted to explain the phenomenon. Basically, it all comes to down to people wanting something better and different. 

Traditional wallet designs still work and are by no means “broken”, but there are plenty of people out there (myself included) who think that it can be done better.

Application: What does this mean for you and I as creative individuals? It’s a challenge. This year, find something that isn’t broken and fix it. It could be the leadership structure in your business, the creative process you go through to find new ideas, or even the way you make your morning coffee.

So What’s the Point?

Over the course of this chapter, we’ve looked at how the Ecclesiastical message of “nothing is new under the sun” applies to creativity.

We as creatives strive so hard after originality that not hitting the mark constitutes an embarrassment and a failure. Where is the hope beyond the hopelessness of Ecclesiastes? Simply put, it is in Yahweh.

For the Christian artist and creative, a reliance upon Yahweh is essential. When we strive after the wind for new ideas, we can feel defeated and out of control. Thankfully, knowing Yahweh can give purpose and meaning to a life where nothing is new.

There’s more to the story though. There are practical steps we can take to fully embrace the concept of ex materia creating. Let’s go deeper.