5 Stages of creativity– and how to create ideas that fascinate

I love the creative process. Yet I hate it, too.

Creativity is almost always a love/hate/love relationship.

Creativity is a glorious, and frustrating, and absurdly difficult but infinitely rewarding process of transforming a boring idea into a fascinating one.

Why is it so glorious, yet so frustrating?

In my experience, every creative process has 5 emotional stages.

5 stages of the creative process Sally Hogshead
Click image to tweet!

From the start of a project all the way through execution, you’ll probably hit all 5 stages along the way. I’ll show you why there’s one stage that’s more critical— and more brutally frustrating— than all the other stages put together.

Here’s how to diagnose which of the 5 stages you’re in

Stage 1: Possibility
You’re coming up with all the easy stuff. You might have some interesting starter ideas, but really, you probably have nothing. It feels like fun, free-range exploration. You’re probably saying to yourself, “Here’s a cool idea. Here’s another one. And another. Man, I’m pretty good.”

Stage 2: Doubt
As you begin to look at your ideas more closely, you realize, um… they’re actually not that great. Doubt sets in and uncertainty set in. You might become defensive, and start questioning the process, and yourself.

Stage 3: Agony
The most grueling of all steps in the creative process, this stage is a red-blooded struggle. Nothing seems to work. Your co-workers get stressed by the perceived lack of progress. You worry that you’ll be exposed as a hack. Ughhh. Suddenly, the whole project seriously sucks.

Stage 4: Epiphany
You’ve done it! You’ve just invented a big, new idea. With a burst of energy and relief, your breakthrough has happened.

Stage 5: Finesse
Now you’re crafting the raw idea to be more strategic and purposeful. Your skill and training really begins to shine through, as you hone and refine your concept into the best possible execution. Now you gain momentum with focused, purposeful engagement. The goal is in sight.Here’s what to teach your clients about the creative process:

Before the process begins, tell your team (including your partners and boss):

“I realize we have a limited timeline, and that we need to craft our solution ASAP. But if we truly want the best result, we can’t shortcut the process so drastically that we end up presenting and producing a lame idea. Lame ideas are expensive. They cost as much to execute as a brilliant idea, yet generally get pretty mediocre results.”

Then, before the creative process begins, build in enough space to embrace the struggle of the Agony— time to get past the quick and easy ideas, and actually bring your clients something that will be persuasive and memorable enough to deliver the results that everyone needs achieve on this project.

What helps YOU be your most creative? Any tips you can share with the rest of us?

Leave a comment, below!

Don’t miss a single fascinating tip!

Sign up to receive updates on our latest blog posts, offers, and more.

Blog post email and popup form

About the author

Sally Hogshead

Sally skyrocketed to the top of the advertising world in her early 20s, fascinating millions of consumers for clients such as MINI Cooper and Coca-Cola. Since then, she’s published two New York Times bestsellers on the science of fascination, and is one of only 172 living members in the Speaker Hall of Fame. Over a million professionals have taken the Fascination Advantage® personality test to discover how others perceive their communication.


  1. RosalynWilliams

    You got me on this one, Sall. I gotta comment. As a long term creative I gotta add a couple of steps. creation (idea) discovery, repetition, changes, set (finalize), perform (release)!     Essentially, the work is missing from your process for me. I find in my work, creating new films and plays with artists most people want to skip THE WORK. Go for the emotions of the process. I like to say there’s no way around it. You have do it in spite of how you feel. So you might as well skip the theatrics. We create weather or not we feel like it. We are in service of the story that must be born because the world needs it.     Jesus carried the cross UP hill.     Nobody told you the road would be easy.  I don’t believe HE brought me this far   To Leave me.    Creating is absolutely DIVINE!     We are so connected to our spirit when it comes together and is finally delivered to the audience.     Do YOU!    Love ROZ  http://www.rosalyncoleman.com   

  2. ShelleyCarter

    I agree with your 5 emotional stages Sally. It seems to happen every time. What I would like to add is that it’s interesting to consider why many people still think that coming up with ideas needs to be a social process. You don’t hear about novelists, playwrights or painters holding brainstorming meetings where they get all the artists they can find and make long lists of ideas together. Great designers, and managers, including myself tend to come up with many of their best ideas in the solitary space of their own minds, or when working alone at desks and computers. It’s important to remember that we don’t need a big meeting or some fancy process to generate ideas: a brain, some desire, and some time are all you need. However, simply because you don’t need brainstorming meetings doesn’t mean they don’t have value. It’s just important to know what that value is before we get a bunch of people in a room and risk wasting their time.     If everyone does their homework, clarifying the problem, identifying objectives, and individually trying to come up with solutions and ideas that fascinate prior to a meeting, a brainstorming session can be extremely productive within a short period of time. 

  3. DarylWoods

    It’s not just me? Very comforting to know the doubt and agony are just part of the process.

  4. AnnetteLynch

    Great concept Sally. Fascinating as always and a great support for the power of persistence.  I would add the importance of “Deciding” on one idea to focus on to move on from the idea of Possibility. I know some people full of ideas that never progress from this stage. Perhaps its the doubt that gets in the way, or the lack of decision? Decision and Action (as stated by Roz) overcome doubt.  Then there is the “commitment’ factor which will help the idea, the individual or the team stick at it through the stages of agony, to keep searching for that Epiphany.

  5. NancyMarmolejo

    Sally, I love how you took something non-linear and messy like the creative process and put it on a bar graph! Step 3 is so agonizing (perfect word there) and many people give up and quit at that point. But when the epiphany hits (I call it the “bubble up”), hope is restored.     Thank you for a wonderful overview of something that can often be hard to describe. 🙂

  6. Nela

    Hah, don’t I wish I could shortcut the Agony stage…    When I’m at that frustrating “nothing is working” stage, there are a few things that help a lot:    1. Remind myself that I have been through this before, and it turned out fine!  (it’s so easy to forget the difficulties once we’re over them)    2. Just keep creating without judgment, even if it looks like junk.  When I’m stuck I make it a point to sketch the stupidest solutions I can think of, just to keep the pen moving. After I get it out of my system, things flow easier.

  7. CindyBattisti

    “Lame ideas are expensive. Fascinating ideas are priceless.” Some of the lamest ideas have ended up being the biggest sellers… I guess this made them not lame but you cant tell that going in sometimes…

  8. Anne

    The AGONY period lasts much longer than the graph represents.

  9. DonnaSafko

    Sometimes the Epiphany is that an idea is good enough. Staying in agony looking for the perfect solution is often a waste of time. Creativity grows by going through this process over and over and not by getting stuck in it.

  10. DaveRoyce

    Excellent depiction of the mental stages. Does anyone else find stages 3 & 4 exceptionally lonely at times? I sure do…. Thanks Sally!!  

  11. JoshuaHall

    Sally,    I go through these stages while composing music. The final stage is release and accept. Releasing puts your ideas into the public forum where it will be judged and critiqued outside of your initial circle of friends and fans. Accepting the results of that and continuing to create is the most important stage in the creative process.     Peace,  Josh

  12. MarkKordic

    All of us have an aversion to change, especially when things appear to be going reasonably well. Sally- – thanks for outlining the creative process, which I align with the change process. Speaking from a faith-based leader’s perspective, we serve a God who makes all things new (Revelation 21:5). Truly, change and innovation are vital components of both biological and spiritual growth. Author Ken Boa writes, “The Bible focuses more on process than on product, because all believers are in a process (whether we resist it or not) of becoming the people God meant us to be. Without change, growth is impossible. Jesus was an innovator, a change-agent. So is every effective leader.” Your outline coincides with the process of change described through the Scriptures with the ultimate change (creative) agent being God Himself. Keep up the good work…it’s very practical and valuable.  

  13. DonovanDreyer

    I am coming out on the other side of the agony stage for an idea that is taking shape. What strikes me about the process as you’ve outlined it is that it is spot on for the “Provocateur.” I wonder what types of visuals would resonate for other Fascination types. If you haven’t done so already, this might make for a new project!

  14. Sandy

    Great article. Helps me understand why I do not alway move forward with ideas. Not to mention perfection gets in the way.

  15. Donna

    Enjoy your blogs, Sally. Fresh, creative, daring, succinct, and, in this case timely and reassuring since I just this morning bounced out of AGONY!    Many blessings upon you and your innovative work!

  16. Nicole

    Sally, you must be telepathic! I am sitting in front of my laptop and a storyboard of copious images, quotes and disjointed ideas…and my third mug of coffee in 2 hours. I am in the ‘Agony-on-the-fringe-of-Epiphany stage. AGAIN!  Thank you for the reminder that this is part of the process and this is journey is what makes the end result great – even fascinating. I have learnt to save the raw ideas discarded at the Doubt and Agony stages. What is ‘junk’ for one project could just be that stellar idea for another – creative energy stored and up-cycled.  P.S I love the script to explain the creative process to my clients – bonus appreciated. 

  17. Kymberly

    I’ve seen it spelled out in shorthand:   “This is AWESOME”…… “This is OK, but”… “This Sucks”….. “I Suck”….. “Well, Maybe”….”This is AWESOME!”

  18. AndrewChapman

    Thanks, Sally! I love how this fits perfectly with the concept behind Seth Godin’s book The Dip.     We have to face every idea and venture with two things in mind:    1. The Agony/Dip will occur.    2. Will we do what it takes — or is the reward on the other side big enough — to push ourselves past the Agony/Dip when it occurs?    It’s too easy to be enamored with the magic of it all in the beginning (the “honeymoon phase”) and forget to ask ourselves, “When this becomes a real slog and I’m experiencing resistance from every direction, will I truly care enough about this idea to see it through?”    If we can be honest with this self-assessment ahead of time, we can spare ourselves a lot of energy spent on pursuits we truly were never going to see through to the other side. And that energy can then be put toward those pursuits that we genuinely are willing to fulfill.    But boy, is that difficult to assess in Stage 1!

  19. GStafford

    My creativity is driven by people. I try to keep in touch with actions and thoughts blowing in the wind. Then I like to blend a captured idea with something that is not normally connected with the topic but yet has the same attributes or differences,

  20. Erika

    I actually embrace the agony stage because I have to go through this stage to access those inner depths of fuzz.

  21. MimikaCooney

    Totally agree here Sally creativity is a love/hate thing for sure! I’m in the middle of the Agony phase with a project and it’s sucking the fun out of it. Any tips for breaking through the pain?

  22. LisaWin

    I love this. I find that for me the agony stage is usually about 3 quarters of the way through the process. I feel like nothing much is getting done for those first 3/4 and then when the epiphany comes it all comes together and gets finished so quickly.

  23. EllaBirt

    Dear Sally – You are one of the people that keeps me moving forward. I’m a solo-infopreneur who doesn’t have a professional support system, and I look to genuine and innovative leaders online to keep me motivated. Thanks for being you!

  24. Joseph

    This is brilliant. I just newly formerly discovered I am a creative. These 5 stages are so helpful. I spend a lot of time in the possibility stage and get stuck in the doubt phase and boy know the agony stage all too well. I get to the end only on things that really FIRE ME UP. So spend time figuring out who you are and find what that is for you.

  25. Adam Halpern

    It’s very refreshing to see the reality of the creative process laid out so beautifully. And it’s much less grizzly than the old sausage making analogy.

  26. Hernan

    Well there is a reason why it’s a called a process. Although I loved this 5-stage process I would add, from my personal experience, another stage that we might called: “Disengagement “. In order to go from the “agony” stage to the “epiphany” stage you should go through a stage where you forget everything about the project you are working on and engage in other things, put your mind at ease, and let your unconscious do the work. You’ll realize that when you go back to the project the great idea will emerge triumphant. Hope this tip helps when you are stuck in the agony stage. Watch a movie, go out for a walk, do something you enjoy doing or just relax and give a break to your thought process, it a way also to have some perspective once you get back to create.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Posts

We live in an always-buzzing world, pulled in all directions—by shiny objects, constant chatter, loud images, and text alerts.

Your brain travels through the world like a tourist walking through Times Square for the first...

The majority of an iceberg lies below the surface. The same is true with some people. Their personality strengths wait just below the surface.

Personalities with primary MYSTIQUE Advantage reveal a fraction of themselves and...

In the book FascinateL Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation, Sally Hogshead outlined the same seven triggers that the Fascinate System, and the premise of her 2014 book How the World Sees You is based...
Related Posts

We live in an always-buzzing world, pulled in all directions—by shiny objects, constant chatter, loud images, and text alerts.

Your brain travels through the world like a tourist walking through Times Square for the first...

The majority of an iceberg lies below the surface. The same is true with some people. Their personality strengths wait just below the surface.

Personalities with primary MYSTIQUE Advantage reveal a fraction of themselves and...

In the book FascinateL Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation, Sally Hogshead outlined the same seven triggers that the Fascinate System, and the premise of her 2014 book How the World Sees You is based...
Send this to a friend