Capture the Unique

*Originally published on Medium, 17 March 2016*

How do you catch a unique rabbit?

That’s a joke a late friend of mine used to tell.  It’s a tough joke to pull off, as it’s not very funny.  But Mike could pull it off.  He had a big personality that people responded to.  He was a Natural in every sense.

I was reminded of the joke recently during an interview with Venkatesh Rao on the Longform podcast.  Rao is an Aerospace Engineer turned independent researcher and writer.  The reminder was a comment he made, and I paraphrase:

“Garbage reading in; garbage reading out.  Unique input equals unique output.”

This statement resonated with me as it voiced something that I’ve felt for a long time.  That we don’t have unique ideas.  We are not unique thinkers.  Rather, our total output is equal to the sum total of our input.

By standing on the shoulders of giants 1 we can see farther and discover new truths by building on previous discoveries.  If we started from zero every time we’d still be banging rocks together to make fire.  So while our personal viewpoints are just a mash of whatever we’ve chosen to consume during our time here, the sum total of human knowledge is pushed forward incrementally by every “new truth” discovered during this mixing process.

At first glance this may seem depressing or make you think “why bother?”.  But the exact opposite is the truth.  The beauty lies in the recombinating these varied inputs, mixing and forming an output that is unique to you.  So it stands to reason that the opposite is also true; if you put in the same shit that everyone else is then you will get a very similar pile of shit at the other end.  Garbage in garbage out.

So how do we leverage this success?  How do we create output that is truly unique?  The answer lies in two parts.

First we must consume uniquely.  Unique to us, our industries, and our interests.  The only way to stretch and grow is to read books and listen to thought leaders that force us to do so.  “Read wide and deep” is a common phrase that carries the spirit of this, but that perhaps lacks the focus of study required to recombine these inputs into something of value to your segment that comes from only you; from the sum total of your inputs, decisions, and experiences.

Your choices don’t need to be totally obscure, and please don’t start acting like a prick because you are now reading authors that nobody has heard of.  But if everyone in your industry is reading Zig Ziglar then you might consider something along the lines of Adam Smith.

The second thing is captured in the following formula:

Consume<Create

Or in other words – output trumps input.  You’ve got to ship.

If the unique content consumed and books read and videos watched are the ingredients, and the output (in whatever form you focus on) is the steaming loaf of bread fresh out of the oven, it is the act of creating that is the mixing bowl that combines those unique ingredients together.  You can’t keep consuming without eventually creating something, no matter how good the content.  For it’s during the act of creation where you sort out what works and what doesn’t.  Where you firm up your personal philosophies and discard idea’s you once held true.  Where true learning begins to take place.

You’ve got to Create more than you Consume.

We are the sum total of our experiences and what we choose to focus on.  And our work reflects this.  Our ideas are not unique – there is nothing new under the sun. 2 But our output becomes, at a certain stage of learning and creation, unique to us and therefore unique to others.  Because if you choose your input well, and practice your craft consistently, then you can’t help but to eventually create something beautiful.  Nobody can write 52 bad short stories in a row.  3

So, how do you catch a unique rabbit?

U-nique up on him.

*

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Show 3 footnotes

  1. Expressed in a letter written by Isaac Newton, back in 1676
  2. Ecclesiastes 1:9
  3. From Ray Bradbury’s keynote address to Point Loma Nazarene University’s Writer’s Symposium By the Sea in 2001.  Lots of other great advice there.  See it on Youtube.

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