“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” - Pablo Picasso
Artist after artist, throughout time, touts discipline, not inspiration, as the catalyst for their great work. And yet, their works are clearly inspired. As Johannes Brahms said, “Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.” And now scientists of the 20th and 21st century agree -- there is a process behind creative and inspired thinking and it looks a lot like work.
Although psychologists and scientists have long studied the process of inspired thought, one theory has prevailed. It is a theory crafted back in 1926 by Graham Wallace -- The Four Stages of Creativity.
Preparation. Not preparation of the canvas; preparation of the mind. Think of it as brainstorming the project at hand, entering “What If” thinking and considering the challenge from many perspectives. In doing so, you're also seeding subconscious thought.
Incubation. Many scientists are working to understand the subconscious mind and those studying creativity understand that it plays a key role. Found often in the modern day concept of “Sleep on it,” the incubation period has no time limit, but Einstein among others advocated for this period of consciously interrupted workflow.
Illumination or Insight. This is the light bulb moment of cartoon fame. The time when things click or fall into place. But all agree there is no forcing this moment and no predicting it either. Wallace described it as a series of leaps. Is this stage the “Inspiration” that Picasso speaks of? And, if so, we can see why he tells us we will find it working. Because it will only come after the first two stages, which looks a lot like the daily work of artists and non artists alike.
And the final stage...
Verification. Or one could say, “Get back to work.” For it is in this stage of the process that one applies and tests the insightful idea against the reality of the project at hand. Another consideration is that this process is not a one-off occasion for a grand scheme, but instead a system or technique, repeated again and again, on any given project. That notion, that this process might happen infinite times as you strive to create something, re-establishes the importance of craftsmanship and discipline. Clearly inspiration is a complex process and not as it is often represented -- a moment, isolated from working and given as a gift or “found.” Instead it is a product of creative work or work done by this creative-thought system.
So, next time you wonder how to “find” inspiration, ask yourself instead how you plan to bring inspiration into your life’s work.