The 4 Phases of Creativity

4 Phases of Creativity | How to Get Unstuck & Work at Your Edge

When I was in Nashville for Tribe Conference, I spent twenty minutes on stage chatting with Jeff Goins about my blog to book publishing journey. I spent the rest of the weekend in the audience with my notebook, capturing all sorts of good advice and nuggets of wisdom from speakers like Tim Grahl, Ali Worthington, and Charles Lee.

One of the talks I was particularly inspired by was from Todd Henry, founder of Accidental Creative and author of Herding Tigers: Be the Leader that Creative People Need. In his keynote, Todd talked about creativity, productivity, and passion. Here’s what I took away.

The First Thing to Remember

Wondering if you’re doing things the “right” way? Todd reassured all of us that everyone’s just figuring it out as they go. Next, he said something I’ve been thinking about ever since.

“If you’re doing work that matters, you’ll have rough edges. The marketplace wants you to be predictable, but when we get too comfortable, we stop growing.”

Being comfortable is something I seek out in my personal life. I’m partial to cozy blankets, house slippers, hot mugs of tea, and oversized cardigans. But in my creative life, I try to lean into just the right amount of discomfort. Not so much that I’m filled with anxiety all day, every day, but enough so I’m working close to my edge—that is, challenging myself to push just a little bit further than I think I can go. This past year, that meant writing a new book which forced me to work through emotional roadblocks I needed to overcome in order to help others on the same journey.

4 Phases of Creativity (via Wild Words): What happens when you’re feeling stuck creativity? Todd Henry has a framework to help you avoid the common trap of getting too comfortable.

4 Phases of Creativity

From Todd’s vantage point, the creative path is filled with constant reinvention and constant growth, and here’s one framework for how to think about it.

Phase 1: Discovery

This phase is an unhindered path, free of debris, fallen trees, or obstacles requiring you to take a different route to arrive at the same destination hours or even days later. You’re right at the beginning, discovering something new about yourself, experimenting with a new craft, or exploring new style of writing all together. Maybe the fiction writer in you is hankering to write personal essays, or the poet in you wants to try her hand at screenplays.

Phase 2: Emulation

In this phase, we’re developing basic skills, taking a cue from other writers or artists we admire. It’s a season of finding your voice. I don’t know about you, but I copied a lot of people back when I first started writing seriously in high school. I used first lines from other poems, and modeled my budding voice after confessional poets like Sharon Olds and Anne Sexton.

A word of caution: Although this phase is a good place to be, there’s a strong chance you’ll get stuck if you don’t branch out into the next phase.

Phase 3: Divergence

Now comes the twist. Once you’ve honed your voice, the divergence phase often involves becoming known for something—a particular style or point of view. It’s easy to stay here (for a good long while), but it’s also a good idea to “start making intuitive leaps with your work and defining your own style.” Risky? Maybe. Worth it? Probably.

Phase 4: Crisis

If you’re in crisis, you’ve likely amassed a unique body of work. You have a platform. You’re known for something, and you’re good at it. Then you want more. Todd says “you’re no longer taking new territory, you’re simply protecting what you’ve already done.” Yet even though we’re craving something new, there’s a real fear in taking the first steps. We risk failure, and in a way that feels even bigger than before. What do to? Either go back to the first phase—deepening existing skills or learning something new—or, stay here and become stagnant.

So the question to ask is: Where are my comfort traps? Where are the places you tend to get too comfortable, ultimately leading to getting stuck when you’d rather be uncovering new sources of inspiration?

What about you? Leave a comment and share which phase you think you’re in!