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An original piece on clichés

On an average day, reading newspapers, watching the news, hearing commentators, watching films or surfing the net, you come across one cliché after another. A cliché is a phrase, image or idea that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.

Now, what struck me as a parent is that for kids, there is no such thing as clichés. To them everything is new, everything is original. They haven't yet seen how we portray the typical Mafioso, how a greedy business executive acts, how a sports coach responds after a loss or how to recognise a tacky pick-up line. So this begs the question: When does an idea become a cliché? When does a phrase, image or opinion become overused?

Since we all take in different forms of information, and respond differently, what is a cliché to one might be a creative insight to another. It often is hard to establish objectively what is really original. I’m talking about most things that you’ll encounter in a week, not truly new ideas like E=MC2 or the scary ideas that Darwin came up with in his time.

Some observations

  • The fact that a cliché may be a truism doesn’t mean that you heed its message. Spending too much time staring at your phone is bad for you, such a cliché... It might even be the overexposure itself which makes you immune to the message.

  • Clichés can be contradictory: ‘The first shall be the last’ versus ‘A good start is half the work’. This clearly demonstrates that wise lessons, supposed to help you navigate through life, can contradict one another.

  • A cliché in one context can make a difference in another. Imagine that the doorbell rings just as you sit down for dinner; you expect to be asked either to donate to some charity or to try a new energy supplier. These are the clichés you’ve become used to. Instead, you find two men and a woman, well-dressed and carrying a luxurious folder and tablet with a sleek commercial running, trying to sell you the newest Ferrari. I don’t know if they will succeed, but this experience is definitely not cliché.

  • Combining two clichés might offer a new insight. I've often thought that the modern Silicon Valley strategy of ‘Fail Fast’ comes from the combination of Murphy’s law: 'Anything that can go wrong will go wrong' and the conviction that ‘Persistence wins’. Quickly flush out all the things that will go wrong anyway, but keep at it, you might have a winner at your hands.

Your own clichés

It took me a while to set myself to writing my book The Fearless Monkey. I was afraid to add my two clichéd cents to the vast amount of clichés already out there in Business Book Land. Hasn’t everything already been written? Then somebody told me ‘Yes, it's all out there -- but some people need to hear it from you.’

I made the leap, and through a combination of the above observations -- and maybe even a truly unprecedented thought -- something creative came out of it. So you, too, can be fearless; hopefully become the next Einstein or at the very least create your own mix of clichés.


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