Creativity is a loaded word and the creative process is full of paradoxes.

The most obvious paradox is the undulating frustration and euphoria we experience during the creative process. We can all relate to the agony of staring at a blank canvas feeling blank ourselves and then the sudden strike of genius we have while lost in the mundane task of washing dishes. Our relationship with creativity can often feel like an erratic romance, throwing us from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other.

Then there are the paradoxes of structure versus chaos and familiarity versus novelty. Grit versus spontaneity and elusiveness versus clarity. All these opposing experiences are a part of the creative process, making it what researchers have described as ‘a beast as complex to conceptualize as beauty’ and a phenomenon ‘with too much baggage.’

However, the more we understand what creativity is and its inevitable paradoxes, the more able we are to manage the creative process, have a fulfilling relationship with it and get better results.

So Then, What Actually is Creativity?

Throughout history, countless definitions of creativity have emerged, each providing a unique perspective.

Plato famously described it as ‘a divine madness, a gift from the gods.’ More recently, it has been defined as ‘the process of using imagination and skill to invent a unique product or thought‘ ‘achieved from a combination of conscious and subconscious information processing’. Although definitions may vary, most researchers agree that creativity involves producing something new that also has value.

Everyone has their way of working through the creative process but in the research, a creative process is generally laid out as follows:

  1. Preparation: Effort learning and practicing to acquire knowledge, skills and expertise
  2. Generation: Produce new ideas, whether through conscious reflection or unconscious incubation
  3. Insight: Consciously experience the emergence of a new idea that strikes as an aha moment
  4. Evaluation: Assess the idea to determine whether it should be discarded, retained, revised, or amended
  5. Externalization: Express the idea in a concrete, observable form

Below are the paradoxes I witness in the creative process and some suggestions on how to best manage them to help you develop your creative process or, at least, to feel more comfortable in it.

Structure ←→ Chaos

Creating the right relationship between structure and chaos is personal. Some of us are suited to live and work in an environment that is more dominated by free-form than structure and routine. While this often leads to more access to imagination, there can be downsides to this especially when we need to work with others and be on imposed deadlines.

We often romanticise the experience of creative chaos which we see in our minds as magical, free-spirited and a true commitment to creativity itself. In our modern world, most creatives need to figure out how to contain the chaos and have an overarching structure that allows them to access their imagination and flow whilst also delivering on external expectations and requirements. Get the support you need to hold yourself accountable and uphold boundaries that may feel foreign to you but are important for the work to come to fruition.

Others struggle with letting themselves be in the chaos. They focus so much on external and internal pressures that it gets in the way of getting lost in the moment, in their imagination, in their ability to conceptualise, run with an idea and see where it takes them. It can be helpful to have rituals you repeatedly engage with to help you access what researchers call ‘conscious generation’.

Rituals are usually sensory-based as in, they tap into your senses and signal to your brain that it is time to get into flow. For example, dimming the lights, turning on specific music, lighting incense, making yourself a coffee before shutting the door, turning off your phone and closing out tabs on your computer. It’s also helpful to ritualise the closing of the container. It can be difficult to shift from flow back to ‘reality’ so taking a moment to zoom out from your work, appreciate it, note where you’re at and where you want to dive back in next time, can help you transition.

Familiarity ←→ Novelty

Being in new environments, having new experiences, interacting with new people are all known to spur creative thoughts and ideas. However, routine and safe, familiar environments also foster creativity. If we have too much of one and not enough of the other, it can be hard to progress through the creative process.

When we are in the preparation stage, a familiar refuge is important to have access to when we are exhausted from the newness of building new skills and knowledge. Novelty is key when we want to feel inspired and engage with the imagination. Familiarity can be important when we are wanting to move into conscious generation and flow as we talked about with the rituals above.

Creativity almost always requires taking risks and having the courage to go down an unworn path. Having the ability to move back into familiarity from being in novelty will help you recuperate and build up the courage and confidence to once again engage with the unknown.

Grit ←→ Spontaneity

This can be one of the hardest paradoxes of the creative process. It requires grit and resilience in order to create those seemingly spontaneous moments of creative genius. Very rarely are you going to have an aha moment in the shower if you haven’t put in the work to develop your skills and knowledge that got you there.

In this world of instant gratification once we’ve had a taste of creative spontaneity we want it all the time. But there is no forcing it, we need to trust the insights will arrive and create the downtime needed to allow the hard work to subconsciously incubate. Once the insight comes, that’s when the hard work really starts. We then need to move back into grit in order to evaluate and double down on bringing the idea into fruition in whatever concrete form it takes.

It’s important to have grit as a skill. The grittier you are the more experiences of creative insight you’ll have. To build grittiness you need to be aligned with your passion and purpose and cultivate perseverance. The key elements to this are 1) setting clear short and long term goals, 2) building resilience to deal with setbacks, 3) being consistent in your work and 4) having a support network to lean on.

Elusiveness ←→ Clarity

As we all know, the creative process is not linear, it moves forward then back then left and right and back again. Progress and results can feel elusive and the desire to procrastinate, put work on the back burner and even give up can loom large. Having perspective is important so that you can remove yourself from the weeds regularly enough to see the forest for the trees and gain a sense of clarity and direction.

Oftentimes, when creating something new and valuable, we hit dead ends or realise what we thought was a genius insight doesn’t warrant being molded into a concrete form to show to the world. This can feel demoralising and often invites self doubt and rumination. It’s important to have the self awareness to know when you need to take a break or when you may need to abandon something and start over.

With a growth mindset these pivots can be seen as a part of the process instead of discrete failures. Creativity is often very subjective anyway. What matters is that you are able to zoom in to create and zoom out to get clarity as often as you need. Learning to feel comfortable with the elusive nature of the creative process will give you the stamina to remain committed and reach new heights.