How to Be Creative in 5 Stages (Or, Why You’ll Never Fit Into a Cubicle)

I’m sure you’ve heard about the 5 stages of grief before:

1. Denial, 2. Anger, 3. Bargaining, 4. Depression and 5. Acceptance

But did you know there are 5 stages to creativity, as well?!?!

And NO, they’re NOT the same as the stages of grief, no matter how similar they may feel to you right now. (Hello, bottle of wine and tissue box as I slump into a corner below my looming deadline… oh, trust me, I know!)

If you’re in any kind of a creative profession, or generally consider yourself a creative and original thinker, you need, need, NEED to know about these stages of how to be creative!

I swear your work process, your life, and the life of those around you will greatly improve if you understand how creativity works through five stages and what to expect in each one. (Hint: happiness & sanity!)

The truth of the matter is that a lot of the frustration we feel as creative individuals functioning in an industrial world comes from the framework imposed upon us by a society that only knows how to praise what’s measured (see: productivity lines and production “outcomes” by the piece).

And that’s precisely why doing creative work often feels like much the same as going through the 5 stages of grief:

  1. Denial – I still have plenty of time to meet this deadline! I can take a creative nap now and let ideas just simmer for a bit.
  2. Anger – What do you mean we’re all out of wine? Do you understand I have work to do and deadlines to meet? *Slams door, melts into a puddle of tears*
  3. Bargaining – If I only sleep four hours tonight, dear Muse, will you still allow me to be creative and totally productive tomorrow? I swear we’ll catch up on sleep once this deadline is over!
  4. Depression – F*ck this shit! No one cares, anyway.
  5. Acceptance – No, I can’t come drinking tonight. (*Hate my life, sigh!*) I’m spending the weekend working. I have that deadline to meet on Monday. Almost there…

But shouldn’t creative work be joyful and fun and exciting?

Isn’t this why we’ve fought our parents and our teachers and society in general with all our being to continue doing our profession with the utmost creativity?

Wasn’t the reason why we thumbed our noses at the “desk job” and “regular work” so we could create and explore and overcome and succeed and create some more?

So what happened?

Industrialization caught us in its clutches is what happened. (Dun, Dun, DUN!)

Everyone slaving away working at a regular job telling us we shouldn’t be fooling around is what happened.

Industrial expectations on our creativity by our bosses, our colleagues, our well-meaning friends and family even is what happened.

But have you ever considered that creativity has its own flow and rhythm?
That creativity and creative work have in fact their own process that needs to go through its own distinct stages before it gives birth (and in order to give birth) to something original and creative?

After all, it stands to reason that original and creative ideas can’t be produced by the same methods that mechanical work gets done. So are we trying to fit into a robotic mold?

The New Old Model: The 5 Stages of Creativity

This is precisely what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues in his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

It’s a wonderful and eye-opening book which brings together the author’s research in creativity and his insights gleaned from dozens of interviews with creative people in all fields (from writers to physicists to mathematicians and astronomers) many of whom have won high distinctions (such as the Nobel prize) for the creative work they’ve offered the world.

In this book, Csikszentmihalyi discusses, among other things, the 5 stages of creativity that have been traditionally acknowledged by many generations of creatives and creatively minded people.

Reading about these 5 stages has helped me contextualize and understand my own work process. And I hope they’ll do the same for you:

The five stages, as Csikszentmihalyi writes about them, are:

1. Preparation

“The creative process has traditionally been described as taking five steps. The first step is a period of preparation, becoming immersed, consciously or not, in a set of problematic issues that are interesting and arouse curiosity.”

If you’ve been wondering why your boss never understands how you work, here’s your key in this very first step: “becoming immersed … in a set of problematic issues that are interesting and arouse curiosity.”

You know what most people never do? Become immersed in anything.
And you know what most people always avoid like the plague? Problematic issues that haven’t yet found a satisfactory solution.

The industrial world wants to give us a set of instructions (certified by a degree that proclaims our worth) and it wants us to repeat those instructions without questioning or searching ad nauseam and possibly ad mortem (that’s death!) without wasting any of our “precious” productivity on curiosity.

No wonder creatives walk around in denial. How else would we be able to dive into these fascinating problems and “waste time” “playing around” with possible solutions?

(Which brings to mind another story by one of my favorite creatives, David Ogilvy. As he writes in his books, when asked by Rolls Royce to create their new ad, he spent two weeks reading everything he could about the new car, never writing a single word until he finally stumbled upon the legendary sentence: “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.”

Two weeks without writing a single word?!? Talk about immersion! So many people contact us thinking we can do a total redesign of their website and write killer new copy for their business in under 3 business days. Ha!)

2. Incubation

“The second phase of the creative process is a period of incubation, during which ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness. It is during this time that unusual connections are likely to be made.”

You may have just gotten excited over that definition. I bet it explained and confirmed a lot of your intuitive understanding about how your creativity works. (I know it did for me.)

But do you know what the non-creative person just read between those lines?

And, excuses for daydreaming!

Because if you’ve never felt that nearly-magical process that takes place in your being (because it’s not really confined just to the mind, is it?) when you’re sitting “distracted” not consciously trying to solve the creative problem you’ve been brooding, you can never understand how powerful and necessary the period of incubation is for bringing new ideas to life.

(Although it should be clear. See: 9-month pregnancy period. Yet the world still seems not to get it!)

So worry not, dear creative friends. Just shut out the naysayers of the world, brush them off your metaphorical shoulder, and go incubate like a cucumber in a greenhouse. Gestate at your heart’s content. We get it!

3. Insight

“The third component of the creative process is insight, sometimes called the “Aha!” moment, the instant when Archimedes cried out “Eureka!” as he stepped into the bath, when the pieces of the puzzle fall together.”

And the unfortunate (or rather inconvenient) thing about the third stage of creativity for the industrialized world is that it conforms to no deadlines.

You can’t fake, hurry, or rush that snap! and pop! of insight as distinct ideas come together to provide an original solution. No matter how many (bubble) baths you take trying to “recreate” your own Archimedean moment.

All you can do is offer your creativity the space and time to brood and wait for it to happen.

Now try explaining that to your boss or client without getting them frustrated! *Good luck!*

4. Evaluation

“The fourth component is evaluation, when the person must decide whether the insight is valuable and worth pursuing. This is often the most emotionally trying part of the process, when one feels most uncertain and insecure.”

As if it’s not enough that doubts and insecurity strike you from all sides as you have to evaluate the worth of your new ideas (because, let’s face it, not every new idea is worth pursuing), try explaining that the idea didn’t really work (yet!) to an industrially minded person. Oh boy!

This, I’m certain, is why really bad and terrible ideas go into production. The ones that leave you scratching your head wondering what the f*ck-lid-y-doo went wrong. Because some industrial boss insisted that the idea was good enough; or some poor creative person in the throws on insecure evaluation couldn’t muster the balls to say: “Actually, this won’t work. Gulp!”

And even when you do get the guts to speak up, it only means you need to start thinking all over again. Gah!

No wonder doing our work feels like the stages of grief! We’ve just lost all that “valuable time”! At least that’s how the world sees it.

5. Elaboration

“The fifth and last component of the process is elaboration. It is probably the one that takes up the most time and involves the hardest work. This is what Edison was referring to when he said that creativity consists of 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

Great. So after all of that, we’re just about to begin perspiring?! (Time to take the booze out. You’re gonna need it!)

No wonder we’re constantly angry at the world and at our work! And constantly falling towards depression.

The deadline is nigh and you’re only just beginning! Arg!

Wow-wee! We must be real crazy!

And you still want to be a creative after that?!?

Just kidding. Of course you do!

And you know why? Because nothing feels your heart and being with greater pleasure than seeing something yours, something truly yours, get released into the world. You know you’re leaving your footprint on the journey of this crazy adventure of the human race and that’s really what counts in this world–in our world!

The truth is that being a creative person in a world that values bare industry and production without room for thought and experimentation can be very hard.

But the point here isn’t to get angry at the world and then go get drunk. (We already do that anyway).

The point is to state the difference so we can accept it, embrace it, and find ways to make it work. To make our creativity work within the framework of this world.

Telling your boss or your clients, “pardon me, but I need time to incubate this idea,” ain’t really gonna fly any time soon.

But that’s precisely why you need to understand that you need that time. So you can build it into your schedule and protect it any way you can.

This is why when I get a new project and ask to agree on a deadline, I calculate ample “lying on the couch and contemplating the ceiling” time between the start and end dates of the projects.

Because I need to incubate. And take baths. And elaborate. And evaluate. And start all over again when it simply ain’t gonna work no matter how I twist it.

And it’s for that same reason that when I used to write at an office, I’d always put my headphones in and look busy typing or reading. Because I couldn’t say “I’m incubating.”

But understanding and accepting the stages of my creative process has been what’s saved not only my love and excitement for creativity but also my sanity. I may not fit into the industrial model, but I know that I don’t have to.

Do you find yourself going through the 5 steps of creativity?

What step do you love/hate most? How do you explain this process to others?

Let’s all share our grief creativity in the comments!