Know Your Stage

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Updated July 28, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

In 1926, London School of Economics co-founder Graham Wallas published The Art of Thought, in which he described a four-stage creative process. The first three stages were adapted from physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, and Wallas’s descriptions are in quotes:

Preparation: “the stage during which the problem was ‘investigated … in all directions’”—think about exercises, rituals, and routines that stimulate your mind.

Incubation: “not consciously thinking about the problem”—this is about consciously letting go of the problem and relaxing your mind. It might involve going for a walk in nature, or relaxing in a shower.

Illumination: “the appearance of the ‘happy idea’ together with the psychological events which immediately preceded and accompanied that appearance”—the eureka moment, where an answer comes to you, either quietly or striking like a bolt of lightning.

Verification: “the validity of the idea was tested, and the idea itself was reduced to exact form”—the phase where an illumination is tested through feedback or, in science, proofs and matching theories.

Whether it’s a 60-second speed writing exercise, or a song that takes 5,000 hours to perfect and record, every work goes through this linear process. You can look at any creative product through this lens. For example, virologist Jonas Salk spent his preparation phase cooped up in his windowless basement laboratory at Pittsburgh Municipal Hospital, working 16-hour days to figure out the polio vaccine. In exhaustion, Salk entered his incubation phase, retreating to the monastery at the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi in Italy, a magnificent structure permeated by natural light. That’s where the illumination happened. Of course, Salk attributed the discovery to his environment—but it’s important to consider that he was taking a break when the breakthrough happened. And lastly, the verification phase: in addition to testing two children at two Pittsburgh-area institutions, Salk injected himself and his family with the vaccine in his kitchen.

While most processes have start and end phases, in the creative process, a verification stage may also double as a preparation stage of a different project, which then starts a new cycle. Some people, upon getting new ideas for their project near the finish line, grow reluctant to draw their work to a close. That’s how the creative process can go on forever; it’s our job to draw it to a temporary close.

The value of the work is recognized when a version of the work is deemed finished. We must make the infinite finite. It is possible to update and iterate—many books have revised editions (like this one!), many albums get remastered and remixed—but the original work needs to be complete enough for people to watch, touch, listen to, taste, read, see, or experience in some other way. For example, you might find that getting the resources and support you need to make the best version of a book happens only after you complete and publish an article on the topic. That’s when the creative process can be seen as linear, for a single piece of work. A separate creative process can start over again once you decide to turn that article into a book.

Seeing this linear process is the key to understanding how to make each piece of creative work happen. The process can be straightforward and simple, like an assembly line. From this perspective, the goal of your creative process is to create a steady, predictable, and uninterrupted flow of creative work. Your creative process also should prevent you from getting blocked, fixated, or tormented by the excitement of new ideas or fixation on perfection.

Identify Your Bottleneck

In his 1984 business fable The Goal, Eliyahu M. Goldratt wrote about how any improvements or optimizations made to a single process are an illusion, unless they’re at the bottleneck. This is often the slowest step, or the weakest link. In their book Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers, Mihnea Moldoveanu and Roger Martin describe this constraint as a “rate-limiting step,” and illustrate it with the example of the flexion hip joint, which gets in the way of even the fastest sprinter from being even faster.

This idea applies to your own creative process. It’s important to take a critical eye to your work and assess which part of the process is limiting you. If you’re not happy with your results, it’s easy to blame an absence of audiences or an unfavorable algorithm. But both of those are lagging indicators of high potential creative work and the promotional work that activates the potential.

Here’s a list of questions you can ask yourself to see which stage you’re getting stuck in the creative process, at the preparation, incubation, illumination, or verification stages:

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