The Life Cycle of a Creative Idea And A Technique for Growth

It starts with a brilliant spark – a metabolic reaction, a flash of light in your mind, like the kind scientists have discovered happens at the moment of human conception. A new idea is birthed.

This is the incarnation of your innate creative genius in its simplest form. But what do you do with this Little Bang, this glimpse of the Creator God’s image in us? Do you stop, satisfied with the beauty of the thought alone, acknowledging that it’s likely all downhill from this point forward?

Or do you harness the energy of the moment to activate your idea into something real, a work of art, a product or service – an actual innovation that can change other people’s lives for the better?

If your goal is to make something of your idea, it’s good to recognize that there’s a life cycle to every creative inspiration.

You can actually plot it. On a Map of Creativity, the X-axis is time, starting at the beginning of an idea and extending outward to all eternity. The Y-axis is Awesome, starting from 0.00% awesome and extending upward to infinitely awesome, like so:



Here are the stages:

1. First Inspiration

When an idea is brand new, it is up high – a lot of awesome and zero time investment, poised at the starting line.


Some people leave their idea here, up on the vista, and spend their lives looking at other people’s completed projects and saying, “I thought of that first!”, which is a form of glory-seeking avoidance.

Do you do anything about your new idea? This is the first choice. If you’re courageous, willing to face suffering and ridicule, you may choose to begin. But don’t wait long. There’s activation energy, and at this point you’ve got it, but if you let it dissipate into the atmosphere, it will likely never return.

So jump.


2. The Pit

If you have the courage to leap from the lookout point, you almost always will fall hard. Ideas are like baby birds. They almost always crash into the ground cover.

It falls into a the pit of discomfiture, an in-between, that seems to go on forever. Down in the valley is where the true, unglamorous life of creating happens. Your idea is young and ugly. You spend a lot of time working it, but it just seems to get worse, or perhaps it levels off at low-level bad.


Often, and tragically, we quit somewhere in this pit. Speaking of innovative ideas in corporate settings, Gijs van Wulfen cites an innovation expert:

Of every 7 new product/service projects, about 4 enter development, 1.5 are launched, and only 1 succeeds.Robert Cooper

Perhaps the idea really stinks. Or perhaps there’s a kernel of greatness in it, but we give up to soon. We decide the idea wasn’t that good to begin with, and perhaps we’re not that good at spotting ideas either.

Every great work work of any value I have ever helped to create has, at some point, felt like a total disaster.

Before I knew about this valley, I just figured I sucked at creating things. Then I began to realize other people experience it, too.

If you’re making a prototype widget or writing a song or crafting a business plan to quit your miserable day job, you will at some point think it’s not worth the pain, and want to quit.

In Think Like a Five Year Old, I talk about the 3 lies of creativity. It is here that The Lie of Lowered Expectations, a.k.a. Self-Defeat, shows up. Jesus met this lie in the desert, when the Liar Satan said to him, “You’re hungry. why don’t you eat?”

This lie appeared before Jesus had ever done anything with his brilliant creative gift. It hit Jesus in his weakness, after a long period of paucity, with the temporal satisfaction of sustenance, and shows up over and over, in every project, even to a seasoned veteran. It appears in every valley between initial inspiration and final completion, which is every day that we lose the drive that pushes us to do the thing we’re supposed to want to do but somehow don’t.

Luckily, if you persevere, and if what you’re making is honest and produced with a sense of craft, something interesting will begin to happen.


3. Growth

Like a flower in a sidewalk crack, the idea begins to grow. Perhaps it’s something serendipitous and unforeseen, such as the real-time writing feature of a start-up called Writely that eventually became Google Docs. Perhaps it is simply gut level stubbornness, where you refuse to let your original flash go.

Whatever it is, if you stick with it long enough, eventually the idea turns upward, and what you end up with is, if not as good as the original flash of infinity that got you started, a finished project worth sharing with another.



4. The Hill of “Finished”

I know an academic who had missed a manuscript deadline every year for thirteen years. He could never decide his work was good enough to share with others.

When you make things, there’s a fallacy of “finished.” Your idea never finishes, per se; you just decide to quit working on it. This decision to end can be extrinsic; often it is only a deadline or a commitment to share it with other people that keeps you from slaving on an idea forever.

It’s unlikely that the final product is as pure and brilliant as your initial idea, but it’s possible. Maybe it’s even better. The point is, it’s finished, and it’s been released into the wild.

Not that you do it for this reason, and not that it happens every time, but sometimes, other people even like it, and you begin to receive adulation and perhaps compensation. It’s at this time that the second lie appears, and it’s more insidious than the first. It’s called the Lie of Self-Glory. This lie will convince you to stay comfortably here on the hill. It will tell you to never return to the valley.



5. The Long Tail

After you declare the idea finished, it eventually starts to fade into a long tail where it generates an afterglow of benefit to you and others.



By this, hopefully you’ve already recognized that it’s time to start anew. In fact, if you wait until the tail to start again, you’re going to go through another bad valley.

The best kind of creative life is one in which you’re beginning the next idea while the previous idea is peaking. This is called the sigmoid curve, and I write about it in Think Like a Five Year Old.

One last thing in this life cycle of a creative idea – don’t wait until post-release to start the next thing, because you will have waited too long. The worst thing for any creative is to bask too long in the glory of something you’ve done. Click here to learn why.


Apply This Now

Much of my work is directed to church leaders. I think there’s a strong correlation between the creative life and the life of growing a congregation of Jesus followers. One of the church statistics that has fascinated me is that churches hardly ever grow after their 15th year. Statistically speaking, there is a dramatic reduction in baptisms in congregations after their fifteenth year. 86% decline; 14% grow by transfer, and only 1% truly grow.

There’s a lesson here for churches (which also applies to companies and anything with intent to grow).  When you don’t have anything, you make. When you’ve made something – especially if it’s good – your goal inevitably turns to managing and holding on. Before we know it, you’re living in the long tail, comfortable and unwilling to go through the pit of discomfiture again.

So we make the long tail sacred. And we decline.

If you’re a pastor, analyze each ministry in your church along the path of a creative idea. Draw a map like the one above and plot it with each ministry. On the whole, where would you put your student ministry? Is it growing? On the long tail?

And do the same with each area.

Finally, what’s your biggest innovation in your ministry in past year? Do you have any ministry right now in the life of the church that’s on the front end of this map?


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).