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Since I am a teacher, I pretty much have the summer off (not counting all the work of taking care of two teens, a home, etc.) The summer is winding down (although you’d never know it from the heat here in Texas), and with the start of school comes the comfort, predictability and productiveness of a more regular schedule.

The cordial question everyone will be asking each other is, “How was your summer?” And I will answer, “Good, bad, hot, cool, fun, trying, interesting, boring.” So what exactly DID I do? I incubated. I took time to slow things down in my life. I taught a few summer art classes and took a seminar on creativity. I spent a week in Florida with my family and a week in Santa Fe by myself. I’ve learned it is very important to spend some downtime just thinking, or not thinking but just being. It’s also important to put yourself someplace different; it doesn’t much matter where, as long as it’s not your own home. Creativity requires time, space, stimulation and novelty. Our brains need time to rest and take a break from the usual in order to recharge and come up with new ideas and solutions.

Incubation is defined as one of the 5 stages of creativity. When I first learned about the scientific documentation of the creative process, I was a bit insulted. How dare academics squeeze the abundance and magic of creativity into a linear and definable process! However, the more I studied, the more I learned that creative people have a lot in common when it comes to generating their creativity. It’s not just a flash or a dream, it’s a somewhat logical process, which varies from person to person, but follows a real, enumerable path.

On a side note, although many use the word “creative” to describe artistic pursuits, I see it as applying to everyone in any kind of position where they are making choices, whether it be business options, life decisions or what to make for dinner.

The Five Stages of Creativity
from “Creativity, Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention”, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

1. Preparation. During the initial stage, you immerse yourself, gathering all the information you can find about what you want to do. You read a lot, talk to others, ask questions, maybe take a class. This process further arouses curiosity, the one essential ingredient of creative innovation.

2. Incubation. Go do something else, something completely unrelated to your issue. During this period of time, your unconscious mind is churning, combining ideas, ignoring rationality and thus coming up with insights and novel ideas you could never come up with consciously.

3. Insight. This is what is known as the “aha moment”, although in reality it is rarely just a single moment. It is when things start to come together, the pieces of the puzzle start to fit and conscious connections are made. You may have several insights over a period of time. Most creative people say their insights occur during “idle” time, such as when they are gardening, showering or taking a walk.

4. Evaluation. This is the hardest part of the creative process, and often what separates the great from the average. As the saying goes, “Coming up with ideas is easy, finding ones worth pursuing is not.” This is the period where you and/or people you know decide which of your many insights to develop and which to discard.

5. Elaboration. The final step is where the hard work is done. Refine your thoughts and ideas. Test them out. Try and fail and try again. Take action to take your idea into reality.

This process is not entirely linear or even reproducible. Every creative person has their own method and every creative choice will have its own path of resolution. Sometimes you need to go back and forth between incubation and insight a few times, then back to more preparation. Sometimes insights appear slowly, over a period of years. Sometimes incubation lasts for months, sometimes hours.

Did a summer of incubation work for me? I believe it did although I’m not entirely sure what problems I have solved, and maybe I won’t find out for a while. I do know it felt great to relax, see some new scenery and do some different activities. You don’t have to wait for summer to do some incubating of your own. Think about some ways you want to improve yourself or problems you want to find a solution to. Do the preparation – read, talk, think, write. Then enjoy some incubation and be on the lookout for your insights and solutions. I’m looking forward to mine!

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The best way I have found to nurture my creativity is to hang out with preschoolers. They have a sense of wonder about the world that comes naturally because they haven’t been here very long and truly do wonder about pretty much everything. Just watch a small child play with his set of little cars. He will line them up all around the room, sort them in various ways, play out elaborate scenarios with them. Take a walk with a toddler and be prepared to stop every five steps to observe a bug on the ground, chase a squirrel or touch a flower. They see everything with fresh eyes. This is what being creative is all about – seeing the world in new ways.

It’s a lot to ask of an adult. We have seen our share of bugs, read this book a million times and just don’t have the patience to sit on the floor and put together more Legos. What to do? Slow down. Just spend an alloted time, an hour, even 15 minutes, and try hard to put yourself in the mindset of a 3 year old. Just for that short period of time, forget all your adult things – forget your errands list, your work troubles, your family issues. Turn off your technology. You can turn it back on in an hour. It’s hard, but just try. Then, take a very slow walk, noticing all the cracks in the sidewalk, colorful flowers and all the tiny things around you. Shop in a store and go slowly through the aisles, looking at all the colorful products and packages. Imagine things you could do with these cans or where you can go wearing those clothes. Consider how this thing got to where it is. If you have a small child or know someone who does, spend time just playing with them, and absorb yourself in it. It will feel boring at first, but do it anyway. If you really pretend you are a small child you will find the wonder. A renewed sense of wonder lifts both your mood and your creative thinking.

Buddhists call this mindfulness or being in the moment. Three year olds are always in the moment. They are not thinking about what is going to happen in the future, or even in an hour, they are just happy to be doing whatever they are doing right now. The adult compromise to this is mindfulness. We need not ignore our future, but we do need to appreciate the present much more than we do now. We need to not rush through our days only to get to the next fretful day. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, make that the most important thing right now. Really immerse yourself in it. Use all your senses to soak up the experience.

Say you are having lunch in a restaurant. Chew slowly. Savor and really taste your food. Feel your food go into your body, nourishing your organs. Watch the people around you. Observe them as if you are observing an alien race of creatures. Try to figure them out and imagine what kind of person they are and what they are saying. Listen to the conversations around you, or better yet, listen, really listen to the person you are with. Don’t think about what you are going to say next, or the workload this afternoon, or anything else that has to do with the future. Just listen, taste, smell, feel and look.

Do we want to be three year olds all the time? Of course not. We need to be adults, taking responsibility for our actions, staying safe, planning and preparing. Just try being a three year old for a few minutes every day. Eventually you will be able to incorporate the benefits of wonder into your adult life. Slow down, notice everything, be in the moment. Your mind will thank you for it.


Hi! I'm Susan Stein and of my many passions in life,
two of my biggest are art and children. In the process of teaching children art, I also teach them problem solving, brainstorming, inventive thinking, originality, working with others, hand eye coordination, and so much more. It doesn't matter if you're good at drawing or not, everyone will benefit from experiencing art.

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