In the days of Ancient Greece, it was believed that no human was more creative than the next, but that some were more receptive to being struck by lighting-bolt moments of divine insight. It was a thing of hair-raising synergy between the supernatural and the natural. It was how poems were written, how brush strokes moved across canvases, how mathematical concepts were downloaded and taught to the masses.
During this period, the city of Athens produced a battery of profound thinkers—including Socrates, known as the Father of Western Philosophy, his student, Plato, whose writings often explored innovative perspectives on justice and equality, and his student, Aristotle, who made massive contributions to metaphysics and mathematics. There was also Homer, who remains one of the most revered poets of all time.
Athens was not a metropolis of decadence per se, but of fascination with the human experience. Its streets were crowded and swathed in filth—public bathhouses surrounding its bustling marketplace. The wine poured out as philosophical ideas were exchanged and theatrical presentations were performed. Athenians were adventurous spirits and lavish dreamers with an expansive culture of thinking—not only producing the Parthenon and birthing the concept of democracy, but building ships and traveling far to Egypt and Mesopotamia to gather inspirations for architecture, language, medicine and more. They were a perpetually curious society, always attuned to wonder—welcoming the strange and unknown. Why, though, was this city such a magnet for brilliance?
Perhaps, one might theorize, it was their allegiance to enchantment, and above all, to getting out of their own self-gratifying way.
Socrates, who once said, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom,” taught that inspired ideas could only land into human consciousness when a person was “beside himself,” and “bereft of his senses.” He spoke of having a divine attendant spirit, a daemon, who he declared had been with him since childhood. These magical entities were believed to be available to assist humans in ushering fresh concepts, epiphanies, and modes of invention into the natural world. Socrates obeyed the inspirations and instructions of his daemon blindly and devoutly. His philosophical contributions were only ever about tapping into an invisible realm and allowing himself to be an instrument for receiving them.
The Ancient Romans had a similar idea to the Greeks, believing that every living human had an actual “genius” that was assigned to him or her beginning at birth. This means that, according to them, there have never been any artistic or musical prodigies in human existence, but rather, willing receptors—minds in a perpetual state of listening and waiting for genius to flow through them. If the Ancient Greeks and Romans could speak to our modern society, they would likely say that when Freddie Mercury wrote “Bohemian Rhapsody,” he had an inspired being looming over his piano, asking that he channel the melody and chord progression. They would say that when Karl Lagerfeld was in his Paris studio, curled over his sketchpad, he was in a séance with his genius, being guided through his next iconic design.
This approach to creativity thrived until the Renaissance period, when human intelligence was thrown into the spotlight to take the credit for it all. This opened up the gates for man to run with torches held high, basking in all of the glory, but also carrying the burden when met with an undesirable outcome (in the event that the work crashed and burned into a humiliating level of disgrace). Mysticism was laid to rest. Rational humanism was born. With this, brought the notion of scarcity, and most likely, bred the culture of artistic hierarchy, perfectionism and imitation.
Today, our social media-driven world is oozing with more opportunities than ever to rip off the likeness of others. With a mere scroll and a click, we can screenshot memes and quotes, copy blog posts, and pin the styles of dress we wish to emulate. Selfies are oftentimes captioned with words that were not at all originated by the mind of the poster, yet made to seem as though they were. It has become a playground for hiding behind a facade of who we want the world to believe we are. We exist in a culture of influencers where no one wants to miss out, and everyone is in fear of being out-liked by the next person.
But what aspects of our modern thinking compel us to imitate those we admire? Is it entitlement? Laziness? Greed? Or, more specifically, does it originate from the fear that there isn’t enough genius to pass around? That the universe is not abundant with advancements, inventions, and untold interpretations, but in a state of near famine—causing us to squeeze and strain for every bit of creative juice from within ourselves and others? And, if so, what if we revisited the ancient concepts of what genius might be? What if we took a magnifying glass to some of the most influential entrepreneurs and artists of our modern day, finding evidence that contrived imitation is not only reductive, but a slap in the face to the undiscovered ideas that may be looming over us, tugging at our sleeves, longing to be filtered through our individual uniqueness?
Long before Jessica Simpson built a billion-dollar fashion empire, she was a young pop star competing for the spotlight against Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera—oftentimes standing in their shadows. While they were dominating the covers of magazines and MTV TRL appearances, and sweeping the awards shows with history-making performances and accolades year after year, she and her management team and label executives were strategizing for how to convince pop junkies that she deserved to be ranked among them.
Although Simpson’s debut album Sweet Kisses, spawned a Billboard Top 10 hit with the 1999 single “I Wanna Love You Forever,” her appeal only came in staccato-like bursts. Her efforts would start to soar, only to slam into yet another wall.
With her label executives hoping to elevate her star status, they orchestrated a more sensual image for her second album, Irresistible. For the title track (also released as the first single), the opening line revealed Simpson cooing in a breathy voice, evocative of something one would hear on an advertisement for a sex hotline. The accompanying music drew back the curtain for Simpson’s first appearance as the doe-eyed temptress. Her spray-tanned flesh was strapped into various sexy outfits, all exposing her midriff, while she gyrated her hips, and exhibited forcibly pouty and seductive expressions and hand gestures. Although the song reached moderate success, most fans weren’t buying it. They deemed her a “Britney wannabe.” Her image came off as contrived and unnatural—a knock-off of the original thing.
In a 2003 interview with Rolling Stone, while Simpson’s career was in the midst of a revival, provoked by the explosive popularity of her reality show, Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica, she reflected on that period, saying, “…I felt like I had to do what they did, like, I had to show my stomach and dance. But that’s not me.” Later that year, after her third album, In This Skin (still her most successful to date), spawned the hit “With You,” Simpson became a household name. It was the first time she had ever co-written any of her own music, and it was the first time her real personality had ever been given a mic. During this period, she also landed her first major film debut playing Daisy Duke in the Dukes of Hazard adaptation.
Nick Lachey, Simpson’s husband at the time, spoke candidly about the sudden explosiveness of his wife’s appeal, saying her career kept taking landslides in previous years because she had never publicly stepped into the truth of who she was—the adorably ditzy, relentlessly needy, and occasionally bratty Texas-born girl from modest means who so sweetly served up a schadenfreude of endless bloopers. The girl who didn’t know that buffalo chicken wings were, in fact, not buffalo meat, and who was confused as to why cans of Chicken of the Sea tuna were not packed full of chicken. Who drove her husband crazy with her careless spending habits, and her tossing of dirty clothes and wet towels onto the floor. Who belched loudly and whined about folding the laundry. Also the girl who was never made for performing choreographed dance routines, but who wanted to sit on a stool and belt love songs from her heart.
American became infatuated with Simpson—not despite her air-headed nonsense, admittedly spoiled conditioning and brow-raising quirks, but because of them. Imitation intended to launch her but, instead, had chained her. History proved that it wasn’t until she gave herself permission to stop imitating her competition—allowing genius to work its magic authentically through her—that she forged a real career.
Naja Dev, known by her fans as “Naja Nail Guru,” is a Los Angeles-based celebrity manicurist and television personality who has worked intimately with a slew of A-listers. She claims to have witnessed many stars rise, and countless others burn out. She has also encountered her fair share of wannabes, though she knew that Lady Gaga, whom she met in 2009 in preparation for her “Love Games” music video, wasn’t one of them.
With only 666 friends on Myspace at the time, Gaga walked into Dev’s West Hollywood salon as an unknown recording artist, only recently signed to Interscope Records. She was eccentric in her presence, giddy in her expression, rushing through the door like a whirlwind. Dev knew from the first encounter that Gaga would be a sensation. “There was something about her that I couldn’t put my finger on. It was just a very real devotion to the artistic process,” she says. “She didn’t want to be what the labels were telling her to be or who anyone else had been who had sold millions of records before. She was going to be who she really was as an artist, and she was going to share it with the world.”
Dev swears, too, that her own oath to originality set her apart from the other thousands of manicurists in LA who were clawing their way across Hollywood, dying to work with the likes of Lady Gaga, Mary J. Blige and Katy Perry. She swears that her refusal to be a replica of anyone else—in terms of artistry, technique and personal presence—is why her work has appeared across red carpets, in iconic music videos, and on countless magazines and album covers. ”If everyone stopped trying to copy the people they admire and just become the best ‘them’ they could ever be,” says Dev, “they would be surprised with what they could accomplish.”
In an acceptance speech at the 2015 Grammy awards, recording artist Sam Smith confessed that he once failed to align himself with this mentality, and that success only found him when he did, saying, “Before I made this record, I was doing everything to get my music heard. I tried to lose weight. I was making awful music. It was only until I started to be myself that the music started to flow and people started to listen.” He nearly swept the Grammys that night—taking four home, including the award for Best New Artist.
Gina “Gigi” Butler, Founder of Gigi’s Cupcakes, leaned into this concept more than a decade ago when she opened up her first storefront in Nashville, Tenn. Having failed to realize her dream of achieving country music stardom, she claims that God whispered into her consciousness, urging her to contribute her talents to the culinary world. A gifted baker for decades, friends and family members had long requested her sweet confections for events and private parties. Led by her inspiration, she pulled from the vault of old family recipes and decided to monetize her passion and skill. But she wouldn’t do what any of her predecessors were doing—no. She would be devout in her use of only the freshest and rarest ingredients, she would design her own style of swirling the frosting, and she would give each variety of cupcake a unique name and personality.
Butler swears that her multi-million dollar net worth, along with her brand having become a national franchise boasting roughly 100 stores, can be attributed to not only a tenacious work ethic, but a burning enthusiasm for radical authenticity and originality. “The secret to a successful life is not about being perfect. It’s about being original,” says Butler. “People admire originality. If you’re copying somebody else—no matter how perfectly you try to do it—you’ll never leave your true mark and you’ll never experience real fulfillment.”
Perhaps total originality is impossible, as every influential artist or entrepreneur in history was shaped, in some way, by those who came before them. Truly, everything that moves us is somewhat of a remix. Still, the avoidance of blatant imitation is not impossible. Consciously emulating a person one admires or envies is not flattering. Imitation is icky and violating to the person one is ripping off, and it’s disrespectful to one’s own gifts. It may turn a few heads or lure a few listening ears initially, but will eventually throw up roadblocks in the progression of one’s journey.
When you suck away at someone else’s flavor, or mirror their appearance, personality or style, you rob mankind out of the luxury of experiencing you. Of having rendezvous with your genius, of unpacking your gifts, and seeing art born from your collaborations with the divine. Because the last thing the world needs is another reductive version of something or someone it has already seen.