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  • Jan Flynn

When An Idea Moves In: The Five Stages of Invention

So you have this  idea. . .

And now it won’t let you alone. It interrupts you while you’re at work or grocery shopping or running errands.  It makes you turn off the podcast you’re trying to listen to, demanding that you pay attention to it instead. It has you muttering to yourself while you’re walking the dog. It causes you to stare vacantly into space while in the middle of a conversation. It pokes you awake out of a sound sleep, all because it has something new to tell you about itself.

Having a new idea is like having an excited little kid come to live with you.

 Except that nobody else can see or hear the little dickens, so others are mystified by your lack of presence, your drifty air of preoccupation. If they could only see what a precocious darling your idea is, they’d understand. But at this point, you can’t even tell them it exists. It’s too fragile, to likely to blow away in the draft of other peoples’ curiosity or indifference.

This is how you know you’ve reached Stage 2 of the creative process. The roller coaster has already sent you up and down its first hill, just to goose your anticipation, and now it’s making that slow creaking climb up the impossibly steep slope.

Do you notice how I’ve already resorted to two metaphors to try to capture the

experience of being caught by an idea? Kids, roller coasters. What else? Birth is a metaphor that gets called off the bench frequently to convey creativity, the act of taking anything from idea to tangible reality.

I hang out with creative folks enough to know that, while we’re all having unique experiences, there’s a lot of commonality in the arc that goes from interest to idea to new, tangible, thing — whether that’s a song, a book, a painting, a product, or a new dessert. There are stages. Maybe not the same stages, in the same order, for everybody, but it helps me to know that whatever comes of my time with this particular new idea, I can almost certainly look forward to the following progression:

Stage One: I Think I’m Having An Idea!


We can go back to the birth analogy here, because this part is a lot like learning you’re pregnant. You’ve been thinking about it, feeling kind of dreamy and wouldn’t-it-be-nice-ish, a few tantalizing visions dancing in your head, and then one morning it gels. You know even before you write the first note or doodle the first sketch — whatever is your equivalent of peeing on a test stick — that something new is taking shape, something that wants to have a life of its own. The Art Genie has just granted you your wish. You’re excited, breathless, pumped, and suddenly as protective as a mama bear.Your idea is a tender new shoot, and you’re not going to let anyone or anything near it until it’s got some starch.

Stage Two: Oh, my God, I have an idea.

As described above. The idea just won’t stop with the gestating. One after

another, possibilities and potentials pile on top of the original germ, and while you’re trying to fulfill the obligations of daily living all you really want to do is to go somewhere quiet and incubate.

Stage Three: Now What?

So, this thing is here to stay. You’ve said yes to it. Now is when you squeeze the rest of your life up against its margins and get to work on bringing this thing into the light.

You’re researching, or testing, or outlining, or sketching. And at some point you realize: this is going to be a lot of work. A lot of work. It’s like while you were

setting up your base camp, expecting to spend a day or two rock climbing, there’s been an unannounced geological shift and now you’re faced with a mountain to climb.

The temptation is strong to hang out in base camp. Gather more equipment. Wait for better weather. Find a better map.

Don’t do it. The thing about this mountain is, it has no actual solidity until you start climbing it. And if you hesitate too long, the whole thing will just evaporate like mist. Up you go, one step at a time.

Stage Four: What Was I Thinking?

You’re deep into your project. Invitations are going unanswered, emails languish in your inbox, the patience of your spouse and children is wearing thing. The first flush of excitement is far behind you now, although each day you encounter both tiny victories and defeats. You slog onward.

Now it’s like you’re rowing a boat across what looked like an inviting, tranquil lake. But you’ve lost sight of either shore, and your oars are too short. This is

when you discover you have stowaways: Self-Doubt and The Critic. They laze at either end of your little boat, offering their advice while you manfully row.

“Why exactly did you think you could do this?” asks Self Doubt.

“Your form is lacking,” observes The Critic. “There are  other boat-rowers who do this beautifully. Leave the boat-rowing to them. You’re just not good enough.”

“He’s right. What will people think?” agrees Self Doubt. “Wouldn’t it be better to stop all this and get back to your family? Don’t you think you’re being self-indulgent?”

The more you listen to them, the stronger blows the wind that is whipping the water into whitecaps and stalling your progress.

Luckily, you’ve met these guys before. They show up dressed differently

each time, but once you recognize them for who they are, you know what to do. Throw them overboard and keep rowing.

As soon as you do, the wind dies down just enough and you glimpse something on the horizon. Head toward it with everything you’ve got.

Stage Five: Did I Do That?

Just when you think you can’t take another step, or pull those oars one more time, or whatever metaphor we’re torturing at this point . . . you step up to  the summit, or you scrape your hull against the sparkling sand. You’ve made it.

Literally. You’ve made something. It may be rough, it may need  refinement, but the point is that your idea has become something tangible. In the world exists a

new song no one has ever sung before, or a new story no one has ever heard,  or a painting or a sculpture no one has ever seen, or a dish no one has ever tasted. It’s turned out differently than you first pictured. It’s taken on its own life. It exists independently of you.

You step back and wonder at it. There’s your idea, manifest. It doesn’t seem possible you did that all by yourself.

And you know what? You didn’t. The satisfaction you feel is the result of tapping into something bigger than yourself. I’ll leave you to decide what that is. But if you’ve ever created anything, you know what I mean.

Will it make you rich? Famous? Loved? Possibly. Probably not. That’s not the point.

You’ve given an idea life, and it has turned right around and done the same thing for you.



How about you? What stages do you go through on your journey from concept to reality? Please share.

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