Every idea starts messy, keep moving


The messiness of our ideas can often be daunting or discouraging. But if we stick through the mess, if we keep working on the idea, we not only end up with something polished and powerful, we set ourselves apart from the 90% of others who gave up.

Writers are all too familiar with the mess of creativity. When a writer first sits down to write, the words on the page end up being more of a jumbled mess of lines and phrases than any sort of cohesive piece.

If you sit and watch an esteemed painter you’ll see a similar process: the painting always starts out with some sporadic lines, a splatter of color here or there, a blending of shapes and hues. How a painting start and how it ends are typically two very, very different things.

Non-artistic endeavors are just as messy when they are first born. Lawyers and educators have stacks of paper with words and doodles scribbled all over them. Managers start with drafts of drafts of report formats before they get it right.

The beginnings of any work involving ideas is going to be messy. This is particularly true of good ideas.

Working through the messiness of an idea makes room for what psychologist Graham Wallas referred to as the third, or Illumination, stage of creative thought.

In thinking creatively the four stages Wallas outlines are: preparation (in which we gather our tools or wits), incubation (where we consider the task before us subconsciously), illumination (upon which, after some toiling in the messiness of ideas, we have a revelation), and lastly verification (in which we evaluate the idea that has resulted from our efforts).

Of the illumination stage that comes from working through the mess of an idea, Albert Rothenberg and Carl Hausman capture Wallas’ thoughts in the book The Creativity Question by explaining:

“The final flash, or click… is the culmination of a successful train of association, which may have lasted for an appreciable time, and which has probably been preceded by a series of tentative and unsuccessful trains. The series of unsuccessful trains of association may last for periods varying from a few seconds to several hours.”

It’s tempting to step back from the moments just after our ideas have begun to evolve–when we’ve got a few sentences on the page, or a few strokes on the canvas, or a few words in a map–and say that the idea isn’t any good.

It’s easy to let those first moments of exploration determine our creative worth; to put down the brush, close the laptop, crumple up the paper, and consider ourselves a failure.

But the messiness of ideas is there for a reason. It’s to help our brain make sense of the chaos within itself surrounding our ideas. Ideas are, you’ll be wise to remember, not singular, tangible things.

The messiness of our first explorations should be a welcome sign that we’re sorting the necessities of any idea out, polishing the initial concept, and turning something fractured and chaotic into something more concrete and valuable.

This is the heart of creativity in actuality, despite the fact our subconscious makes much of the ugly process take place behind the awareness of our consciousness.

When you sit down to explore an idea, embrace the messiness of it at first. Once you’ve sorted through the mess and the idea has had a chance to evolve, only then will you be able to determine its value.

Don’t give up when things look messy, just keep moving through it all.