Every once in a while, I’ll be doing something mundane—cleaning my bathtub, making dinner, or any number of other things on the relatively uninteresting to-do list of a childless adult—and I’ll try to imagine the first person to ever do it. Who were they? What were they like? What did their friends think when they said, “You know what I think I’m going to do today? Use some slightly unfriendly chemicals and see if I can turn this porcelain from pink to white. It had to be white at some point, right?”

It doesn’t take much creativity to think about the person who first invented something. For instance, the person who came up with the first crude ancestor of our modern lawnmower, I can sort of guess, was probably just the least lazy person looking for the answer to the question “Is that a wolf running through the tall grass towards my house, or just a stiff breeze?” If you’ve ever seen the movie Robots, you know that someone who invents something simply sees a need and consequently fills a need. (If you’re less familiar with Ewan McGregor’s filmography, you might better remember the proverb, “necessity is the mother of invention.”) So as long as an invented thing is not apparently useless or poorly thought out, it’s not too hard to imagine what brought it about. Not only that, but many inventions have pretty good documentation of exactly who came up with them—or at least the most ambitious person who was involved in the process. So inventions aren’t as interesting to me.

I find far more fascinating the people who take someone else’s original thought and try to adapt or improve on it. Take, for instance, that dinner I was cooking. This particular dinner was a corned beef brisket with root vegetables I popped in the Crock Pot while I was at work. My mom has made corned beef and cabbage dinners for my family for as long as I can remember, but I couldn’t use her recipe because I needed to do it in the Crock Pot in order for the timing to be right. As a child of the information age, I was blessed with the ability to simply Google “crock pot corned beef” and find something that fit my needs. But someone, at some point in history, had to have looked at their slow cooker, looked at the brisket they just bought from the store, and said, “I bet I can put these two things together.” Who knows how many dry briskets that person made before they figured out how much water to add? And who knows how many iterations of that recipe existed before they discovered that adding beer increased the flavor? (Side note: I like to think that the first person to add beer to any given recipe was just the first fun-loving, laid-back person to give it a whirl.) I love to imagine the pioneer bakers and chefs of the world, taste testing hundreds of recipes, suffering through some really bad ones, asking themselves the question of “What could make this better” and somehow, inexplicably, coming up with the answer “tarragon!”

This goes for literature, as well. Movie adaptations of books, remixes like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, modernizations of Shakespeare, Shelley, and Alcott. Writers of those new screenplays and novels looked at some original work, saw something wonderful, and still decided that it had room for positive change.

Certainly, the lawnmower went through several generations of Dangerous Push-Powered-Death-Machine before landing on something remotely useful for cutting grass without killing someone. Creating something where nothing really existed before must take a fair amount of discipline. But it seems to me that the lateral movement of creation takes more daring. It’s one thing to say to yourself, “I think the world could use this new thing I’m going to make,” but it’s a completely different thing to say, “It may not be broke, but I want to fix it.”

I personally struggle with the idea of original thought. When I sit down to write, I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of those who have come before me and have already expressed to the world the thoughts that are in my head. So perhaps it is ironic that when I look down from my perch clinging to the side of Mount Progress that humans have been climbing since the dawn of our time, I am impressed—not by the people who first discovered a foothold, but by the people who dug it out and made it beautiful for the people who came after them.

I know I should probably thank God for the prehistoric mastermind who first thought of using fire to cook food. But I more often find myself thanking Him for the people who figured out when that food needed more tarragon.

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