The Creative Process: How to Harness It to Produce Inspiring Work Using Four Archetypes
OVERVIEW: This guide provides a unique framework for understanding the creative process and effectively using it to create inspiring work.
What is the creative process?
Google the “creative process” and you’ll eventually come to an English political scientist and psychologist named Graham Wallas.
In his 1926 classic, The Art of Thought, Wallas summarized the creative process in four basic stages:
- Preparation: The mind prepares for the creative solution, which requires study and thinking intently on the subject—whether it be a musical composition, a new invention, a mathematical formula, or a business dilemma.
- Incubation: A germination period follows. The person steps away from the problem and takes up some form of activity like daydreaming, walking, or meditating.
- Illumination: Often as a flash, a brilliant idea shoots across the mind, frequently during a mundane task or while one is involved with something else.
- Verification: The idea is tested to determine its validity. The composition is scored; the mathematical formula, proven.
Although variations of this creative process were developed over the last century, Wallas’ four-stage framework remains.
As creative professionals, how can we use this framework to create our best work?
The answer: Adopt the patterns of behavior associated with each stage of the creative process.
Let me explain …
Table of Contents
- The Archetypes of the Creative Process
- The Student: The Archetype of Preparation
- The Wanderer: The Archetype of Incubation
- The Light: The Archetype of Illumination
- The Scientist: The Archetype of Verification
- Harnessing the Archetypes of the Creative Process
- Pitfalls in The Creative Process
- Additional Reading
The Archetypes of the Creative Process
As I shared in Creativity Revealed, behind each stage of the creative process lies a specific archetype.
What is an archetype?
Psychiatrist Carl Jung observed that the psyche consists mainly of images.
Many of these images are of a collective nature. That is, they are found all over the earth in our myths, dreams, fairy tales, and legends.
Jung called these universal mental images archetypes.
Archetypes are set patterns of behavior for our interaction with the world.
Each stage of the creative process follows a set pattern of behavior. Each stage evokes specific types of images and emotions.
These four archetypes do not represent “people” or “personalities,” but rather styles, qualities, or characteristics of people who produce creative work.
The four archetypes of the creative process are:
Now, let’s explore each archetype and stage in greater detail.
The Student: The Archetype of Preparation
The qualities of the Student include open-mindedness, child-like wonder, curiosity, dedication, drive, a capacity for intense focus, and a genuine love for learning.
The Student is a Beginner
The perennial Student perceives the world at large from what the Buddhists call Beginner’s Mind.
In The Dancing Wu Li Masters, author Gary Zukav explains that this is a characteristic of a master in any field:
“Whatever he does, he does with the enthusiasm of doing it for the first time. This is the source of his unlimited energy. Every lesson that he teaches (or learns) is a first lesson. Every dance that he dances, he dances for the first time. It is always new, personal, and alive.”
That is, the Student is open and ready to learn without preconceived notions and beliefs about what he is studying.
“One prerequisite for originality is clearly that a person shall not be inclined to impose his preconceptions on the fact as he sees them. Rather, he must be able to learn something new, even if this means that the ideas and notions that are comfortable or dear to him may be overturned.”
The Student seeks wisdom and counsel from various sources of knowledge. He loves knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
The Student makes new connections, perceives new patterns, and sees old things in fresh ways.
Because of his openness and humility, he avoids what psychologists call “functional fixedness”—looking at a problem from a familiar viewpoint.
The Student is Curious and Loves Learning
A trademark quality of the Student is curiosity.
Just like the tiger curiously sniffs, prods, and licks a newly-discovered object, the Student explores his subject of interest using all available intellectual and intuitive faculties.
The Student dedicates himself to learning and to improving his craft.
This uncommon level of dedication and enthusiasm is also a hallmark quality of those we label as “genius.”
The true Student can be an expert in his field or a master at his craft; however, he still possesses the willingness to grow, a gratitude for his gifts, and a sense of profound humility for his own ignorance.
From this position, the Student learns, evolves, and finds new creative insights.
The Student Lives in Wonder
Albert Einstein noted the enchantment experienced by the Student:
“The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the source of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.”
Wonder at reality drives the Student onward.
Poet Rainer Maria Rilke instructs on how to remain a Student:
“Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
The Student Works Tirelessly
The capacity for intense focus is another attribute of the Student develops.
For the Student works tirelessly on a problem or to acquire a new skill.
The Student is tenacious in his pursuit of “living the questions.”
Those who are prepared for them discover breakthrough ideas.
In Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s research on creative geniuses, he found that at least ten years of steady work at a discipline or craft was required for mastery.
Psychologist Howard Gruber’s research concurs:
“Perhaps the single most reliable finding in our studies is that creative work takes a long time. With all due apologies to thunderbolts, creative work is not a matter of milliseconds, minutes, or even hours—but of months, years, and decades.”
The Student Prepares the Way for The Wanderer
Preparation often includes an experience of utter frustration.
The Student pushes his mind and his abilities to the limit and exhausts every conceivable area of discovery.
When the mind reaches an impasse, the next stage of the creative process awaits.
The Wanderer: The Archetype of Incubation
After the Student prepares through hard work and dedication, knowledge must take root.
The sought-after, illuminated idea or connection must germinate.
This germination occurs by way of the Wanderer archetype.
The Wanderer is open, patient, allowing, noncontrolling, flexible, appreciative, and unattached to beliefs, rules, or conventions.
The process of incubation cannot be forced. It happens of its own and it takes time for higher consciousness to resolve the problem.
The Wanderer archetype evokes images of the lone, aimless traveler—carefree and relaxed in the moment.
The Wanderer moves with the wind, remains unattached to ideologies, concepts, and theories.
As the proverb instructs, “Bend like the willow; don’t break like the oak.”
The Wanderer Surrenders to the Moment
While the Student is direct in his acquisition of knowledge and skill, the Wanderer is allowing, surrendering to the moment.
Although the Wanderer may appear detached from life or responsibility, he actually has an innate appreciation and love for the beauty around him and for life itself.
Poet Rudyard Kipling understood the need to lay the conscious mind aside and embrace the Wanderer:
“When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey.”
The Wanderer Lives Simply and Waits Patiently
A person aligned with the field of discovery tends to live simply, given that his basic needs have already been met.
As such, he is carefree and present.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart reflects on his creative process:
“When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer—say, traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them.”
This study published in Nature demonstrates that taking breaks improve problem solving and creative abilities.
The Wanderer is Accepting
Acceptance of the creative process is paramount, as novelist Henry Miller notes:
“Every man has his own destiny: the only imperative is to follow it, to accept it, no matter where it leads him.”
The ego, however, often gets in the way. Our Western, masculine-dominated culture constantly challenges us to do something—to always take action.
In our “doer” culture, we are not comfortable with the notion of allowing an idea to germinate.
In fact, modern society doesn’t welcome the Wanderer. Especially in the business world, the primary values are on deadlines, speed, and constant activity.
Somehow, individuals are expected to generate awe-inspiring ideas and creative results while sitting at their desks or in back-to-back meetings all day.
Perhaps the only place where we still welcome the Wanderer is in the arts, where a poet or painter is allowed to wait for his muse while roaming the woods or sitting in cafés, staring into nothingness.
If the Student doesn’t surrender to the Wanderer, creative insight is unable to manifest. The creative process stops.
The Wanderer Enters Flow
Requiring a profound level of letting go, the creative act is preceded by an effortless state, void of any resistance.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi termed this state of allowing as flow.
Fully absorbed in what we’re doing, we achieve a Zen-like one-pointedness of mind.
The mind becomes silent, or at least, the mind resides in the backdrop of conscious awareness.
In this state of flow, events unfold effortlessly, whether one is in the process of writing a poem, washing dishes, peeling a potato, or pruning the garden.
The “actor” behind actions and the “thinker” behind the thoughts dissolve.
In these moments, we glimpse at what sages teach: everything is happening of its own.
The Wanderer Enters a Trance
The “eureka moment” of creative inspiration often occurs after a period of reverie or trance.
Walking peacefully after a meal, driving aimlessly on a country road, or taking a shower, we allow the creative impulse to shine upon the mind.
In his later years, psychiatrist Carl Jung would sit by the lake of his private Bollingen stone castle for weeks at a time, playing in the water, sand, and rocks until he felt the inspiration to write.
The composer Johannes Brahms describes the Wanderer’s way:
“I have to be in a semi-trance condition to get such results—a condition when the conscious mind is in temporary abeyance, and the subconscious is in control.”
Brahms’ observation is common to many musical composers.
The Wanderer Enters an Altered State of Consciousness
Creativity researcher John Curtis Gowan notes three ubiquitous phases of incubation:
- The prelude ritual;
- The altered state of consciousness or creative spell, during which the creative idea is born—starting with vibrations, then mental images, then the flow of ideas which are finally clothed in form; and
- The postlude in which positive emotions about the experience suffuse the participant.
Playwright Neil Simon acknowledged this altered state of consciousness by saying:
“I slip into a state that is apart from reality. My mind wanders—even when I talk.”
Brain research is showing the importance of downtime and doing nothing. When you wander, the brain isn’t idle.
Instead, it’s completing the unconscious tasks of processing and integrating conscious experience.
This happens naturally when you sleep … and when you wander.
The Wanderer Remains Open and Empty
We identify the questions in the preparation phase.
In the incubation phase of the creative process, the mind remains open to receive the answers.
Pablo Picasso divulges the secret to his art:
“The painter passes through states of fullness and of emptying. That is the whole secret of art. I take a walk in the forest of Fontainebleau. There I get an indigestion of greenness. I must empty this sensation into a picture. Green dominates in it. The painter paints as if in urgent need to discharge himself of his sensations and his visions.”
“Emptiness” personifies the archetype of the Wanderer.
In pushing the mind to its limits, the Student’s mind becomes full.
Now, the Wanderer must let go of everything he thinks he knows and come to a state of emptiness.
Neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen explains that the brain “disorganizes,” which removes fragmentation momentarily to allow the creative impulse to arise.
If the mind does not eventually surrender the question, the “space” is not available for the answer to present itself.
The Light: The Archetype of Illumination
The experience of the Light is often likened to a mystical experience.
In The Varieties of Religious Experience, psychologist William James had this to say about mystical experiences:
“Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge.
“They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.
“They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for aftertime.”
The Light has many names from many traditions: God, Divinity, Inner Teacher, Brahman, the Higher Self, the Kingdom Within, Intuition, Daemon, Inspiration, Revelation, Creation, Spiritual Vision, Universal Consciousness, the Muse.
The list goes on.
The Light is Our True Nature
The etymology of intuition is, “knowing from within.”
The root of inspire means “inner breath.”
What is this inner knower—this breath from within?
Sages, relying not on external observation but an inner, subjective realization, tell us that consciousness itself is the inner knower and the light within.
Indian sage Nisargadatta Maharaj explains in I Am That:
“Realize that your true nature is that of pure light only, and both the perceived and the perceiver come and go together.”
Carl Jung called the Light the “primordial vision” and saw it as an impersonal quality, separate from the personality of the artist:
“The poet’s work is an interpretation and illumination of the contents of consciousness …
“The primordial experience is the source of his creativeness; it cannot be fathomed, and therefore requires mythological imagery to give it form.”
The Light is a Higher Source
Throughout time, great creative geniuses have intuited the impersonal nature of inspiration.
Meaning, they respond to their genius or creative work with humility, knowing they cannot take credit for what unfolds during the illumination phase.
William Blake called God the “Poetic Genius.”
Giacomo Puccini said his greatest opera Madame Butterfly was “dictated to me by God.”
Both Brahms and Beethoven appealed directly to the “Creator Himself.”
Like Aristotle before him, Rudyard Kipling looked to his “Personal Daemon” for inspiration.
And, in recounting his experience with the creative process, Mozart said, “What has been thus produced I do not easily forget, and this is perhaps the best gift I have my Divine Maker to thank for.”
The Light is Infinite Energy
Composer Richard Strauss had this to say about the source of his inspiration:
“Composing is a procedure that is not so readily explained. When the inspiration comes, it is something of so subtle, tenuous, will-o-the-wisp-like nature that it almost defies definition. When in my most inspired moods, I have definite compelling visions, involving a higher selfhood.
“I feel at such moments that I am tapping the source of Infinite and Eternal energy from which you and I and all things proceed. Religion calls it God.”
The words these creative individuals use to describe the Light vary greatly.
However, they all clearly point to a power beyond their personal egos—a subjective experience of a Higher Source—for their creative inspiration.
The Light is Ineffable
The Light cannot be accurately described with words.
The source of creative inspiration is not found in a concept, formula, theory, or process.
It is said to be ineffable, only realizable through an inner subjective realization—the realization of the nature of a higher source within us.
The Light Comes in a Flash
When unimpeded, inspiration can come on a person very suddenly.
The genius often envisions the entire answer in a flash.
Mozart, for example, would experience an entire piece of music in his head, all at one time, not through a linear progression:
“All this fires my soul, and provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance.
“Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once. What a delight this is I cannot tell!”
French poet and novelist Jean Cocteau describes a similar experience of illumination that occurred for the creation of The Knights of the Round Table:
“I was sick and tired of writing when one morning, after having slept poorly, I woke with a start and witnessed, as from a seat in a theatre, three acts which brought to life an epoch and characters about which I had no documentary information and which I regarded moreover as forbidding.
“Long afterward, I succeeded in writing the play and I divined the circumstances that must have served to incite me.”
The Light is a Revelation
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche explains illumination:
“The notion of revelation describes the condition quite simply; by which I mean that something profoundly convulsive and disturbing suddenly becomes visible and audible with indescribable definiteness and exactness.
“One hears—one does not seek; one takes—one does not ask who gives: a thought flashes out like lightning, inevitably without hesitation—I have never had any choice about it …
“Everything occurs quite without volition, as if in an eruption of freedom, independence, power, and divinity.”
For the Light to unfold, the individual surrenders to it.
The individual, at least momentarily, transcends the ego. This creates a sense of detachment from everything “out there.”
Then, the “creative genius” simply becomes the channel for the Light.
Playwright Neil Simon accentuates the humility of the genius: “I don’t write consciously—it is as if the muse sits on my shoulder.”
The Scientist: The Archetype of Verification
Following the unfolding of illumination, the Scientist takes over.
The role of the Scientist is to verify the discovery and to translate the revelation into something comprehensible to others.
Once again calling upon the cognitive resources utilized by the Student in the preparation phase, the Scientist now seeks to verify and communicate the discovery to the world.
The Scientist possesses what creativity researcher Edward de Bono calls “value sensitivity.” That is, he is able to see the value in the new creation.
And he possesses the knowledge and experience to validate it (at least, initially).
In the verification stage, the mathematical formula is proofed.
The composition is performed.
The image first presented to the mind is drawn onto the canvas.
And the prose of a literary masterpiece is captured on paper.
The Scientist Refines the Work
The term Scientist is used rather loosely as the act of translating the intangible to the physical domain.
The moment of “creation” unfolds through illumination, preceded by preparation and incubation.
Now, the Scientist must confirm and communicate the revelation.
In the verification phase, the illumined ideas become crystallized.
The Scientist is Challenged to Translate the Light
Translating the revelation into a cohesive, comprehensible form can be painstaking.
Many notable creatives like Friedrich Nietzsche, Jackson Pollock, and Vincent van Gogh went mad while trying to verify their internal inspirations.
Artist Vincent van Gogh attempted to describe the process of translating the intangible into the tangible:
“How it happens that I can express something of that kind? Because the thing has already taken form in my mind before I start on it.
“The first attempts are absolutely unbearable. I say this because I want you to know that if you see something worthwhile in what I am doing, it is not by accident but because of real intention and purpose.”
Van Gogh found the verification stage “absolutely unbearable,” as many other creative geniuses can attest.
The Scientist Verifies the Creative Illumination
Other times, the Scientist’s verification is effortless.
After working several hours every evening for 15 days on an equation, mathematician Henri Poincare did something different.
He drank black coffee and couldn’t sleep:
“Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making stable combinations.
“By the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions, those which come from the hypergeometric series; I had only to write out the results, which took but a few hours.”
Chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, the creator of the Periodic Table of Elements, reported falling asleep while he struggled through exhaustion to categorize the elements by atomic weight:
“I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper. Only in one place did a correction later seem necessary.”
Harnessing the Archetypes of the Creative Process
Now let’s look at ways to embody the four archetypes of the creative process:
How to Evoke the Student
The purpose of the Student is to learn, discover, and explore.
- Start with a beginner’s mind. Let go of everything you think you know and look at the world with the eyes of a curious child.
- Adopt a growth mindset where you fundamentally believe you can learn anything. That’s the truth!
- Explore topics that truly interest you. Our brains learn approximately ten times faster when we’re interested in a topic.
- Develop habits that support constant learning, like reading 20 pages every day and taking notes on what you learn.
- Commit to reading more books. Although blogs and articles have their place, books promote deeper learning.
- Ask more questions. Brainstorm ten questions about your topic of interest and then go explore to discover the answers.
The Student helps you learn technical abilities, skills, or knowledge.
How to Evoke the Wanderer
The purpose of the Wanderer is to remove all barriers and resistance—a momentary emptying of the mind—so the Light can shine through.
- Learn to meditate and consciously breathe to quiet your mind.
- Gaze out at a landscape or stare up at the clouds.
- Go for a walk in nature.
- Listen to the rain.
- Tap a nap.
- Dance, play, laugh—do anything that puts you in a carefree mood.
- Let go of wanting to know the answer.
- Stop striving. Stop trying. Just be.
The Wanderer helps you get out of your own way.
How to Evoke the Light
The purpose of the Light is to allow the inspiration to shine unto your conscious mind.
- Pray to a higher source (within yourself or outside of you).
- Call forth your inner teacher or higher self.
- Enter an altered state of consciousness (however you can).
- Trust. Have faith. Stay open.
The Light connects you to the source of creativity.
How to Evoke the Scientist
The purpose of the Scientist is to verify the truth behind your creative inspiration.
- Stay committed and devoted to your areas of interest.
- Know there is always more to learn and discover.
- Manage your internal energy so you have the stamina to improve your work.
- Ask questions like, “What’s great about this idea? How can I use this? How can I build on this?”
The Scientist helps you confirm and refine the creative work that came through you.
Pitfalls in The Creative Process
I hope you found this tour of the creative process enlightening and instructive.
My studies into creativity and creative genius highlight that this process is truly available to all of us.
We unconsciously block the creative process when we fail to align with the appropriate creative archetypes at the right times.
For example, many of us struggle, for varying reasons, to align with the Student.
Distracted and full of self-doubt, we fail to launch ourselves into a discovery process of constant learning.
To remedy this, find something you’re interested in and dive in. Find ways of installing habits that promote learning.
But many of us are already constant learners. (Anyone willing to wade all the way through this massive article qualifies.)
For this group, the error is often in identifying exclusively with the Student archetype.
This group is afraid to let go, to drift, to wanderer. They don’t create a space for incubation. And so illumination never comes.
The remedy for this is simple: Allow yourself to just be. Be “lazy” for a little while. Gaze at the sky. Smile gently at yourself. Lighten up.
Trust in the creative process.
It has worked for many that have come before us.
It works for us too.
The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius by Nancy Andreason
On Creativity by David Bohm
Creating Minds by Howard Gardner
Reflections on the Invention in the Arts and Sciences by Brewster Ghiselin
Creativity Revealed: Discovering the Source of Inspiration by Scott Jeffrey
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