The Four Steps to Creativity

Don Draper from the television series Mad Men could have his endless supply of whiskey, lie in a state of pure inebriated stupor for half the day and then rise from his chair, burst into a boardroom and electrify Sterling Cooper with a thunderbolt idea. How did he do it? According to Graham Wallace, the co-founder of the London School of Economics, he probably did it with four steps.

1. Preparation

2. Incubation

3. Illumination

4. Verification


In the 1940s, advertising executive James Webb Young wrote a nifty little book on this process called “How do you get Ideas?”. He began the book by describing how new ideas are really just old ideas joined up in a different way. To come up with a new idea, you need to amass ‘old’ ideas. You must acquire knowledge. This is the preparation part. Advertising legend David Ogilvie describes how when he landed an account for Rolls Royce, he immersed himself into three works of solid research of the company and of car-making in general which eventually culminated in his famous line “ at 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise comes from the electric clock”.


The incubation part needs your mind to wander. It needs to swim around your subconscious brain in as many random and diverse directions as possible. You need to forget about the problem and do something else. The human brain is wired to predict events before they happen. In order to be able to do this, there is constant parallel processing of hundreds of chains of thoughts taking place at every hour of the day in your subconscious mind. Different permutations and combinations are explored and their outcomes compared. Random dots are connected together. This kind of processing can only happen if the mind can wander freely without being forced to focus on one target. This is why it is enhanced by doing something very mundane. Finding something dull forces your mind to wander off. This kind of mind-wandering or 'incubation' is what allows you to ‘think outside the box’. The mind is free to run wild and make unconventional connections between different ideas. This explains why people with attention deficit disorders such as ADHD have a high degree of creativity. James Webb Young points out this was why Sherlock Holmes used to drag Dr. Watson off to a concert right in the middle of a case. Activating your emotional brain centers can help ‘release’ your focus and concentration. This is how Don Draper’s approach can be explained. He demonstrates the worst way of ‘switching off’ but it is the principle of 'switching off' that is key.


The illumination stage remains difficult to explain. There are different schools of thought as to what actually happens during an ‘aha!’ moment. One possible theory is that while there is a buzz of activity taking place in the subconscious mind, links form between ideas which are all competing to enter the conscious mind. If one set of linked ideas is particularly salient because of strong connectivity, it suddenly emerges in the conscious mind. You can’t force it. You have no conscious control over when this happens – you only know that it does. A flash of brilliance suddenly appears while you do something completely unrelated and your conscious mind has 'forgotten' the problem you are trying to solve.


The verification stage of creativity is the ‘focusing’ stage. So far, you have been on the hunt for different and diverse components. Here, you zoom into the key components to identify the ones that will give rise to a solution. You now need to start thinking about your problem. This stage needs a tight control over attention and you perform ‘convergent thinking’. You need to concentrate. The mind must not wander.

The formula for perfect creativity involves knowledge, daydreaming, an ‘aha!’ moment and finally some focused thinking. Although the ‘aha’ moment is notoriously elusive, approaching creativity in this step-wise manner can lead you closer to it. This four step process can be applied to any problem, task or challenge you might be faced with one day – from painting an abstract masterpiece to designing a start-up business. Unlike Don Draper of Mad Men, there is no need to resort to whiskeys and cigarettes – all you need to do is simply switch off once in a while and get completely distracted. The irony is that in the long term, alcohol would make Don Draper lose his extraordinary talent. Alcohol destroys the ability to learn new knowledge and control attention and he would no longer be successful at stages 1 and 4. You need all 4 stages for that ‘aha!’ to work.


Wallas G. (1926). The Art of Thought. New York: Harcourt Brace

Guildford J. P. (1967). The Nature of Human Intelligence. New York: Mc-Graw Hill

Baars B. J. (1988). A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness. NY: Cambridge University

White H. A., Shah P. (2006). Uninhibited imaginations: creativity in adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Pers. Individ. Dif. 40, 1121–1131

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