Art Experiences

Posts Tagged ‘problem solving

person thinking

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!


As much as we all love our freedom, we often want to be told what to do, because life sure seems easier that way. We want to know the steps, we want to know what to do next. We often follow a preset roadmap of life even if we are not completely comfortable with it because that’s what others have done and it looks like it’s worked out okay for them. It is hard to truly be in touch with what you want. There are many inspiring experts out there (and here and here) to show you how to live your passion and I highly recommend spending time with their work. What I want to address here is how to solve some of our everyday problems by dealing with the duality of creative freedom and the need to follow instructions.

As an artist and generally creative person, you can pretty much guess that I am not very good at following instructions. This is an over-generalization. In some cases, I am great at following instructions and want to do so. In the real world of life we’ve got to do laundry, stop at red lights and fill out forms (not necessarily in that order!) because we want the end results – the clean clothes, undented car and cell phone rebate. Being creative doesn’t mean being rebellious.

One thing I really enjoy is do it yourself home projects like assembling cabinets, putting in a new mailbox and installing a shower head. I like the sense of accomplishment at the end, but I also like following the step by step instructions that tell me exactly what to do next. I don’t have to figure it out, it’s all figured out for me. The enjoyment is in the methodology, a start to a finish.

On the other hand, in some circumstances I love unpredictability. When I am painting, I have no idea what the end result will be or even how I will get there. I feel free and positive about this, I do not want a set of instructions on how to paint a landscape. The painting will evolve as I work on it and it may not even turn out to be whatever I initially intended it to. The enjoyment is in the journey, creating a surprise ending.

When I read a great book or watch an exciting movie, I don’t want to know in advance how it ends. I want to follow the twists and turns and guess and then be dazzled by the ending!

Teaching art has a similar buzz for me. I plan out what the lesson will be and often it goes as planned. But just as often a child will ask a question I did not plan for and I need to come up with an answer on the spot. Sometimes I try out a new lesson or project and the children take it in a different direction than I planned. I need to quickly reevaluate and change direction to go with their interests and needs.

I did not have this seemingly inherent flexibility when I started teaching young children. I remember my first year teaching preschool,  I would be flustered when a carefully constructed lesson took a detour. “No, children. Do it this way, follow the steps.” And being the three year olds that they are, they kept doing it their way anyway. Were these children bad or rebellious? No, their way IS the right way. Parents often get frustrated with this behavior as they try to make their children do things the “right” way, in other words, the parent’s way. Teaching became a lot more relaxing when I jumped on the children’s bandwagon and channeled  their natural inclinations. Parenting is also less stressful when we realize there is more than one way to do almost anything, and our own way isn’t always the right way for our child or anyone else.

The past few weeks I’ve been working on reorganizing a room in my home to become a study. It has been a junk room for decades – a place to put things we didn’t know where to put. Finally I got up the courage and resolve to tackle this large task. This is not the type of project I generally enjoy (thus the decades factor) and I’ve been trying to put my finger on why. It could be that it’s a bit boring or overwhelming. It is a large task and must be broken down into steps. However, the steps are not outlined for me. There is no instruction booklet to tell me to place this document in this file and stack these containers here. No “Step One, Step Two.”

So how am I supposed to do this without an instruction manual? Maybe this is part of the reason I have put it off for so long. I had no idea where to start. No idea what Step One is. I checked out some organizing websites and books. It’s cute to paint some stencils on the wall or put your pencils in matching boxes, but these resources did not give me what I needed – Step One. As I thought about this project, it occurred to me that I might try to apply the same lessons I had learned teaching art. Have a plan but go with whatever happens. Get in touch with your gut feelings. This comes naturally to children; you know exactly what that toddler is feeling right now. We adults have spent so many years tempering our feelings and believing what others tell us we should feel that we have almost lost touch with our feelings altogether. But that is the topic of a future post.

I emptied the contents of the room into my living area. After throwing away the obvious, I was still left with a lot of stuff. I tackled the art related things first. I felt confident with that. I went with my gut feelings – I tried not to think about an item too much. (Am I going to need this in the future?) I just made a snap choice about it. I purged, gave away and grouped together various supplies. Time consuming, but not too stressful. Then I tackled the furniture. Again, I tried hard to gauge how I felt at my desk over by the far wall and judge if it feels better next to the window. It took a while and some rearranging, but I finally decided the best place for my desk, bookshelves and other furnishings. I was left with papers. Decades of papers in boxes, bags and piles. Not art papers, but the papers of living – bills, receipts, forms, notes, statements, checks, you name it.

I was paralyzed and overwhelmed. I sat in the middle of all my papers, looked around and cried. Well, at least I was in touch with my feelings! Papers are not my thing. I don’t know what to do with them, where to start. I lacked the experience and confidence to make any choices. I knew getting rid of it all wasn’t the right thing to do, but what was? The more I tried to figure it out, the more frustrated I became. I kept thinking, “What is so hard about filing papers? Millions of people do this every day.” Well, this self-defeating way of thinking made me feel even more inept.

Time to call in the expert. I am a big believer in doing what I know and letting other people help me with what they know. I’m lucky enough to have a friendly accountant who “gets” me and can show me the other side of my issues. She came to my house and we sat in the middle of the papers. Again I felt the choking feeling in my throat. I took a pad and a pen and wrote down what she told me to do, step by step. Start on this pile because it is a recent one. Step one, make a file folder for the next piece of paper you pick up. It’s a bank statement, so put the name of the bank and account number on the tiny slip of paper and slide it into the plastic top of the folder. Put that in your file cabinet. Find the date of the bank statement and place it inside the folder in chronological order. Step two, rinse and repeat. Just do that over and over again until you are done. We went over various paper scenarios I might run into and outlined the steps to take in each case. Wow. This is so much more manageable now that I have instructions.

So what’s the takeaway? In some situations, going with your real feelings is the way to get things done and done right. It’s the only way to feel satisfied that you are doing the right thing. When it feels right, it is right. Other times we need to express the feeling and then put it aside in favor of instructions. Following the steps is the only way to get these tasks done and done right. You are indeed a very lucky person if you have the confidence to use both these strategies on this wonderful road of life.

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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