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The rising marginal cost of originality

David Friedman describes what he calls the marginal cost of originality:

Suppose you are the two hundred and ninetieth city planner in the history of the world. All the good ideas have been used, all the so-so ideas have been used, and you need something new to make your reputation. You design Canberra. That done, you design the Combs building at ANU, the most ingeniously misdesigned building in my personal experience, where after walking around for a few minutes you not only don’t know where you are, you don’t even know what floor you are on.

via Ideas: The Rising Marginal Cost of Originality or What is Wrong with Modern____.

I’m not sure how true to life this is. Many reputations are built on excellence rather than originality. Looking back, it is easy to say that all the first ideas were easy to discover and are gone, but that’s just because we can’t conceive of the next big innovation — if we could, we would be the one innovating.

Quality is what counts — each city planner might experiment and make failures, but as long as they are trying to make a better quality building rather than just an original one, they are making progress. Every great idea is preceded by a torrent of bad ones, if we don’t try bad ideas, we will likely miss out on a lot of good ones.