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Whether you work in a creative field such as the arts or you otherwise find yourself tasked with inventing creative solutions, you may find yourself facing the complexities of the creative process. First of all, we talk about the creative process, but the process of creating anything hardly conforms to the neat and tidy confines of one unified series of tasks. Creativity is inherently messy. I think it’s even the case that the messier the process, the more innovative the result. And “the process”—if it even makes sense to refer to it as such—is hardly linear. We don’t progress from one step to the next in neat, clearly defined stages. Instead we can find ourselves repeating tasks, departing on productive tangents, getting lost down unhelpful rabbit holes, or even revising our own goals and intentions midway through. All of that is fine. Divergent thinking (thinking unlike anyone else) is going to be an individualized, even lonely endeavor that often feels disorienting, frustrating, and potentially discouraging. But if we can expect that, we can overcome those paralyzing and debilitating challenges. And the end result—that moment of discovery or illumination—be well worth all the mess.

I would never prescribe a set creative process to anyone or try to reduce “the” creative process to any standardized series of steps or neat formula to be a followed. But, if you’re looking for place to start and a generalized guide to follow, you may wish to consider my five I’s of creativity: Intention, Invitation, Intuition, and Insight. Let me lay these out for you.

Intention: Most people think that “intention” is synonymous with “purpose” but “intention” means actually to look within, to think ABOUT something, to conjure up an image internally. Think of it as the opposite of “extend”: instead of reaching outward, we are reaching inward. Set your intention by envisioning the end result you want to achieve. Maybe even go beyond that and envision the effects of that result. I suggest going a step further and envisioning how you’ll feel about the end result of what you’ve accomplished. You don’t have to envision the steps you’ll be going through or the details that you’ll need to work out at this point. Just picture the end as far out as you can and the impact (hey, another I!) of what you’re looking to do. Create and hold the visions in your head and try to fill in as many details as you can for right now.

Invitation: When you invite someone over to your house, you are opening up your home and your generosity to them. You are preparing to welcome them into your space and to receive their presence. This is just like the invitation stage, which is characterized by a sense of openness. Invite all passing possibilities into your brain. Invite these strangers to sit at your mental table for coffee and have a brief chat. Don’t turn anyone away at first. Be open to every possibility, even the ones that you would normally shy away from inviting in. Remember, you can always decide to throw them out later, but you won’t be successful with thinking outside your own box if you don’t entertain all the possibilities, including—and especially—those that seem unfamiliar or downright uncomfortable for you. Be open, welcoming, and receptive.

Intuition: As part of the creative process, be prepared to be guided by forces and motivations other than your own reasoning. This might be scary and unfamiliar to many of us, but what have you got to lose by following a gut feeling? While you are inviting ideas in from the outside world, let your internal feelings guide your assessments of them. Does this notion give you a good feeling? Does this concept make you feel icky? If you ask yourself why you’re experiencing these feelings, you may find that there is a reasonable explanation or you may find yourself excited or repulsed by an idea for no good reason at all. I always try to rest assured that my unconscious mind knows an awful lot and I should trust it. There maybe powerful reasons for certain feelings that I am not able to fully understand through reason. Be open to not only your feelings but what you find yourself doing that seems outside of your own control. Do your thoughts seem to keep coming back to one particular idea or one mental image for no apparent reason? That’s your intuition trying to tell you something! Go with it and see what happens!

Insight: Invitation and Intuition can be messy and even overwhelming stages because you need to sort through so many possibilities and begin envisioning how they might work together. But keep engaging with the ideas that swirl around you, no matter how messy or overwhelming. Let your unconscious mental processes do a considerable amount of work for you. Even when your’e taking a well-deserved break and watching comforting TV (I love The Golden Girls and get inspiring insights from watching it that hit me out of nowhere), the deeper and harder-to-access machinations of your mind are still at work. By the time an insight hits you like one of those lightbulb moments, it had already been brewing in your mind beneath the level of consciousness for quite some time. But that moment of insight eventually reveals itself. A lot of times the moment of insight isn’t even the solution to your problem or a clear formulation of the final result, but it can be a sudden understanding of the entire situation where it all makes sense and the path to the answer is clear, visible, and ready for you to take action. The moment of insight is characterized by clarity, understanding, and usually a sense of simplicity: “OH! This is what it’s all about!” It doesn’t matter if you’re working on a poem, a presentation, an academic article, or a complex “people problem,” there is usually a moment of “ah ha!” that immediately precedes and precipitates the advent of the solution and the path forward. But it’s the moment of insight that shines a light on that path.

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I hope you find these stages useful. There are many other I words that came to me as I was developing this set of stages (inspiration, impact, improvisation—all of which are relevant to creativity) but I think this streamlined, four-step process will be a help. I turn to it consistently and I hope it helps you as well.

Just remember: the creative processes is allowed to be, even needs to be, messy. Let it be messy and go back through the stages as many times as you need. Sometimes once you’ve reached an insight, you find yourself setting a new intention and that’s fine! With experience you’ll gain greater familiarity and confidence with the stages as well as the potentially complex challenges and feelings that can accompany them. It doesn’t matter if you take a circuitous route that doesn’t make much sense. Just keep moving, take the pressure off yourself, and let the brilliance come to you!