The Pathological Originality Test

In the Shadow of the Wood - Finnegan's Wake, 3rd and Spring Garden St.

37, day six.

I am obsessed with originality. I coined the term “pathologically original,” or “pathological originality” to describe my particular slant on the whole thing. I like these terms. They describe the phenomenon clearly. They are engaging and easy to use. More importantly, they return only 13 and 15 hits, respectively, on a Google search. This is far higher than the number I would prefer – zero, although a negative number would be even better – but it is acceptable. It means it is not a term that is out there being used that I simply didn’t know about. It is just a turn of phrase people come up with while writing that fits what they need in the moment.

Pathological originality, not surprisingly, is not as rare as you might think. You might be pathologically original, too, and not even realize it. I know, I know, it is pretty serious. Thankfully, there are ways to diagnose this condition. Unfortunately, and I hate to be the one to tell you this, there is no cure. Pathological originality will plague you for all the days of your life, and affect everything that you do. For example, right now, this article has unintentionally taken on the familiar format of “pretending that some character trait is a serious medical condition and writing about it as if this is a direct mail letter or 11 o’clock news report designed to scare hypochondriacs.”

It is bugging the hell out of me.

So how do you know if you are “obsessed” with originality, rather than just really digging it? Please note that I am talking about “normal” obsession. I use the word the way it is normally used in casual conversation. There is also the psychological condition “obsession,” as in, the O in OCD. The colloquial and clinical conditions have some things in common, but they are not identical. The clinical condition is, of course, much much worse. That being said, I strongly dislike the idea that once a term has been claimed by the scientific community it can no longer be used in its colloquial sense. The word “salt” referred to that rock stuff that tastes salty long before scientists decided to use the word to refer to specific compounds produced by the reaction between acids and bases. Every time a scientist says “well, salt really refers to…” I want to smack them in the face and tell them to go back to building a better mousetrap.

Man, mousetrap scientists are the worst.

Back to the point(?). How do you know if you are obsessed with originality rather than just really digging it? There is a simple, two point method of determination. It applies to concepts, objects, and properties other than originality. You could, if you wanted to, substitute “originality” with “bacon,” or “My Little Pony.” Or, I don’t know, “feet.” It takes all kinds.

  1. Does your interest in the concept, object, or property exceed the amount of enjoyment you get from it?
  2. Does your interest in the concept, object, or property exceed the objective worth you believe it has?

Answering these questions honestly requires serious, hard lined self analysis. Let us tackle them one at a time.

  1. Does your interest in the concept, object, or property exceed the amount of enjoyment you get from it?

Think about that. It is tricky, because the word “enjoyment” is so fickle and subjective. It comes down to a ratio between enjoyment/pleasure and frustration/effort. It helps to work backwards. Let us say you see a movie. It could be any movie, but I will invent a hypothetical film for the purpose of discussion. It is called “Stealing All the Sevens, the Movie.” It is about a young ex-chef/blog writer who gains the ability to physically interface with mathematics, and becomes increasingly obsessed with acquiring all of the sevens and stockpiling them. It turns out in the end that the sevens were planning an assault on humanity, and this young hero’s ability was an attempt by the threes to give mankind a way to fight back. Wow. That has “cult classic” written all over it. What’s Uwe Boll doing these days?

Ahem.

You see the movie, and you enjoy it quite a bit. Over the next week, you think about it, and talk to your friends about it, and read an article online about the special effects. Two weeks later, another good movie comes out, and you more or less forget about Stealing All the Sevens. You don’t literally forget it. You just move on to something else. In this case, you derived a good deal enjoyment from the film, but you did not put any effort into it other than the cost of the ticket, or derive any frustration from any part of the experience.

Your friend, on the other hand, did not get off so lightly. She cannot stop talking about it. She spends time online writing about the film’s themes and characterization. She argues on Reddit about what the ending actually meant, and whether the sevens can ever really be stopped. She writes fan fiction about our inspiring but relatable hero. She becomes part of the online community. She starts a blog. A year later, and a great deal of her time is spent answering angry comments about her blog posts, writing enough fanfic to keep her fans happy, and watching bad movies and television shows just because they feature the cast and production team. She has crossed the line, past casual interest and into deeper, darker waters.

In other words, she is obsessed.

Don’t get me wrong. Obsession of this kind is not necessarily a bad thing. It can provide structure and community and focus and all that jazz. That being said, if your friend had to honestly assess how many moments of fun she had due to her interest in Stealing All the Sevens vs. the number moments of frustration, she would have to conclude that the latter far outweigh the former.

Chances are, though, she would never do this calculation. People are inclined to justify their obsessions as straight up entertainment. To admit that you are obsessed is to admit that you are a little bit crazy. For some reason, people do not like to do that. To admit you have derived more frustration than joy from something you love makes it sound like you wasted your time. It is a reasonable interpretation, but it is also wrong. There is more to life than straight up entertainment and joy. There is more to entertainment than straight up entertainment and joy. If something gives your life structure and meaning, then it is valuable. As most obsessed people know, obsession is, in many ways, superior to joy. Because it is deeper.

All of that being said, the determination of whether your interest exceeds your frustration is the easy part of the equation. Let us now turn to the more difficult part

2. Does your interest in the concept, object, or property exceed the objective worth you believe it has?

Sure, Stealing All the Sevens: The Movie is great. It might even be an underrated masterpiece. However, if you blog about it, write fanfic about it, and are a major part of its online community, you are almost certainly giving a greater amount of attention than its objective worth warrants. Again, there is nothing wrong with that. I am not saying it does not deserve this attention. The issue is, why are you writing fanfic about Stealing All the Sevens rather than, say, Doctor Who, which you also quite like? You are doing this because you like it more than Doctor Who.

Don’t think I’m not flattered.

The point here is that you put, to assign a number to it, 567 times as much work into your Stealing All the Sevens fandom than you do into your Doctor Who fandom. Even if you are a serious fan, if you are at all able to objectively assess the relative worth of these two works, you have to admit that Stealing All the Sevens is not 567 times better than Doctor Who. How could it be? I don’t think good entertainment has that kind of granularity. Therefore, your interest in the concept, object, or property exceeds the objective worth you believe it has.

In other words, you are obsessed.

The nice thing about this test is that if you fulfill one of the two criteria, you almost certainly fulfill the other. It is much easier to do this with objects and properties than it is with concepts.

Originality is important to me, and it provides me with enjoyment. Producing something original, or reading a science fiction story with a concept or conceptual twist I have never before encountered is deeply satisfying. However, the number of decent ideas for stories I have rejected over the years and the amount of time I have beat myself up for saying something remotely derivative paint a clear picture. My pathological originality has provided far more frustration than it has enjoyment.

I think originality is important. We need new ideas, new methods of execution, and new twists on old favorites. Otherwise everything will get stale. However, I do not think originality is more important than execution, or production value, or emotional engagement. I feel that originality more important than these things, but that does not match my objective assessment. My interest exceeds the objective worth I believe it has.

In other words, I am obsessed.

There are a few more ways to tell if you are specifically obsessed with originality. These are the things that I do. You may have others.

  • You avoid using cliches and popular turns of phrase.
  • You never quote anyone, be they famous, someone you know, or yourself from earlier in the day.
  • You are frightened to death of being derivative, and when someone points out, say, that your story about girl who can possess spiders is vaguely reminiscent of Animorphs, you want to slap them in the face with a mousetrap. Um…carefully.
  • You are so frightened of being derivative that when you tell a joke that gets big laughs in one social group, you are reluctant to tell it in another group because you don’t want to copy yourself.
  • You get into arguments with people over whether something that is widely considered original is actually original.
  • When someone around you comes up with an original idea or suggestion, your brain immediately forces you to come up with a more original idea or suggestion. You don’t necessarily say it out loud. You just have to come up with it.
  • You don’t wear clothing with logos, words, or geek-identifiers on them, because you are worried that people will assume you are part of a personality and interest package, and you can’t stand that idea.
  • You throw out ideas for stories or works of art because they vaguely sort of kind of remind you of something you might have heard about before.
  • You come up with legitimately original ideas, and then several days later they don’t feel original any more because you have acclimated to them. You move on.
  • You are constantly frustrated with your creative medium for its inability to deliver a fundamentally different experience, or to match the abstract and unformed idea you have in your head.
  • You have the desire to do things in your chosen medium that are difficult to engage and not entertaining, simply because they are original.
  • It drives you crazy that well executed stories are more popular than original ones.

I, for one, am proud of being pathologically original, even if it causes me great quivering piles of frustration. For example, I was going to say “no end of frustration,” and then I didn’t. Pathological originals are responsible for a great deal of the forward momentum in all fields, whether it be art, literature , or science. Because their originality frequently outstrips their execution, they often do not get the respect they deserve. There are a lot of pathological originals that show up in “most important people you’ve never heard of” lists. They tend to push their medium forward, and let other people figure out how to make it engaging or relatable.

The example that has been on my mind lately is Spike Milligan. Have you ever heard of Spike Milligan? Many people haven’t, even though he is one of the most important comedic writers and creators of the 20th century.

I first ran into Spike Milligan on the Muppet Show. My wife’s obsession with the Muppet Show is exceeded only by her obsession with Doctor Who, so it is and will continue to be a major part of my life. I don’t mind. Jim Henson was, after all, pathologically original.

The Spike Milligan episode of the Muppet Show is bizarre. When I first saw it, I had no idea who he was, other than some old comedian. He spends the episode being strange. To put it in perspective, Gonzo, the Muppet Show’s token pathological original, is very impressed with Milligan, and remarks that “it’s about time they got some sophistication on the show.” At one point Milligan is worried that he is too offensive. Kermit assures him that he is not. Then Milligan pulls down his trousers to reveal American flag boxer shorts. Kermit kicks him off stage. The longest number in the episode is a Milligan act that Kermit, in a confused tone, announces as “The Intergalactic Brotherhood of Man, Including Things. It is as strange as it sounds.

For years, this was my only exposure to Spike Milligan. I thought he was just some wacky old comedian with some kind of fringe appeal who hit the public imagination for a few years, during a period when the Muppet Show as a little starved for guest stars.

I had no idea.

I did not hear anything more about Milligan until I listened to a really excellent history of British comedy. Spike Milligan, as it turns out, was the creator and lead writer of something called The Goon Show. The name sounded familiar. It was a radio show on during the 1950s. It also starred Peter Sellers, who you might have heard of. But the genius behind it was Milligan. The Goon Show pioneered a number of different comedic techniques, as well as the use of sound in radio. It was also the source of the world’s funniest joke, which I just learned right now. Without the Goon Show, there probably wouldn’t be a Monty Python. Without Monty Python, there wouldn’t be…I don’t know, gravity. Certainly modern comedy as we know it would be very, very different. Also, lumberjacks would be taken more seriously.

Milligan preferred rehearsals of the Goon Show to actual performances, because that was the first time he said the jokes out loud. By the time he said any joke again, he was already tired of it. Often times, Milligan rewrote jokes over and over and over again, just because he was bored of them as soon as he heard them performed. That is the purest example of pathological originality I have ever heard of. I am going to have to work pretty hard to top that. If you are a pathological original, you might have thought that, too. I don’t think I ever will top it, but I want to.

By the time Milligan was on the Muppet Show in 1978, he had been doing comedy for almost forty years. In all of that time, he never settled on a style. He never stopped experimenting. Of course he was weird to the point of near inaccessibility. How could he be otherwise? If everyone “gets” what you are serving, then you are not really being experimental, and you are not truly being original.

Now we get to the painful part of the article. At least, it might be painful. A lot of people believe they are original. You can believe anything you want. Thankfully, we live in the information age, and these things are testable. An internet search for “originality test” was very disappointing. Most of them required pitching an idea to someone and having them judge if it is original. That is fine, if you have someone you trust, but I am looking for a test you can do yourself. There are a few others, but they are multiple choice. Let me repeat that, as it bears repeating. The originality tests. Are multiple choice.

Sigh.

Fortunately, there is a better way. There is one I have been using for years, to test if the phrases I come up with are legitimately original. I will be up front and say that this test only applies to people whose originality lies in the area of words and writing. For a visual artist, or a musician, you will have to find your own tests. I do not understand those fields well enough to create a test for them. Okay, here it is. Without further what have you, I present:

The Pathological Originality Test

Come up with five different phrases you think are original. Google them, one at a time. If there are zero or only one or two unique hits, congratulations! You are original! Wait, wait, wait, no you are not. There are a few rules you have to follow, or else it doesn’t count.

  1. The phrase has to be short. No more than five words. It is easy to come up with a unique phrase of ten or twenty words. In fact, a twenty word phrases is more likely to be unique than not.
  2.  It does not have to be perfectly grammatical, but it has to be coherent. It should be the kind of thing you would actually say. “Monkey tired wash pizza flatworm” is obviously not going to have any hits. It doesn’t count.
  3.  It has to be interesting. This is subjective, but it is easy enough. It is also the most important rule. You are not just trying to beat the system. You are trying to demonstrate to yourself your own originality. It has to be something you might want to write about, or that you might click on if it was the name of a blog post.
  4. If it is a phrase that is interesting because of the way it is worded, you are done. One example: I came up with a name for a food blog that I liked a few years ago: The Scourge of the Seven Seasonings. Zero hits on Google, so it counts. It cannot be rephrased, because it is interesting specifically because of the phrasing.
  5. If it is a phrase that is conceptually interesting, then you need to reword it and check it a few times, to make sure the idea is original and not just the precise wording. The one I just came up with is “bananas don’t like yellow.” I find that mildly amusing. Zero hits. I also tried “bananas hate yellow,” “bananas hate the color yellow,” “bananas don’t like the color yellow,” and “a banana’s least favorite color is yellow.” Zero hits on any of them. Apparently no one else is interested in how bananas feel about their own color. People have very strange priorities. In this case, you can exceed the five word rule. You are just trying to determine whether or not the concept is original.
  6. No proper nouns. It makes it too easy.
  7. A fun variation on this that I play for laughs sometimes is to try it with domain names. I’ve been playing this game for years, long before Daniel Tosh started doing it, and still no one out there has snagged noonesgotyournose.com. It’s a sad, sad world.

If you passed the test, then congratulations! You now have some small and arbitrary evidence according to some random guy on a blog with no credentials that you are legitimately original! Assuming you want to, and everything else in this article jived with how you think about yourself, you now have my permission to call yourself pathologically original. Of course, there is a pretty good chance you’re more comfortable coming up with your own phrase. In any case, welcome to the club! We don’t have special jackets or a secret handshake, because, well, I’m sure you understand.

We are happy to have you, you poor bastard. May god have mercy on your soul.

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2 thoughts on “The Pathological Originality Test

  1. Originality is not measured by whether something has been done before, but whether you are creating it or copying it.

    • That is a somewhat different definition of originality. Micro- vs. macro-originality, if you will. It isn’t enough for me. For example, if you created a story about elves and small people destroying a ring to defeat a dark lord–even if you had never heard of Lord of the Rings–it wouldn’t really be an original work. It would be generatively original, but not actually original. In other words, it would only be original to you. That is not the kind of originality that drives me in particular.

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