If you’ve ever thought about the creative process, you may have wondered how we go from idly musing about something one day to having an epiphany many days later in a completely different context. Creative accretion is one type of catalytic activity that helps us understand what’s going on.
Accretion is normally used to describe how stellar systems are formed. The gravity of a particularly heavy molecule in the void of space attracts smaller particles to it, and the smaller molecules stick to the heavier one. The heavier molecule is now that much heavier, so it attracts even more smaller objects to it. Play this out over billions and billions of years and you get every known physical object we see.
As I’ve often shared here, as much as we think our own inner processes are unique to us, if we pay close enough attention, we can see how much our processes follow patterns that are similar to what’s going on in the world. Creative accretion works much the same way as stellar accretion – one particular idea becomes the one that other ideas stick to, and new ideas stick to it, and so on for days, weeks, months, or years until finally the idea comes out full-formed.
I was thinking about creative accretion because I shared some ideas with TeamPF this week that have been accreting for a few years, much like the post on Creative Giants. Dots were finally connected that I’d left up in the air – or, to switch metaphors, I had stashed a lot of these in my idea garden and “forgotten” about them.
Except, like those stellar objects floating in the void of space, the ideas were still exerting force on me. They were still pulling other ideas to them or being pulled into other ideas to make a new synthesis.
We often don’t notice creative accretion because it’s happening below the level of conscious thought. When we have one of those Eureka! moments, it seems like it came out of nowhere, and, indeed, sometimes those insights do come from some new source. But sometimes, it’s just that accretion has been in play and it’s reached a tipping point – accretion, then, is one of the catalysts for the two dynamics of change.
Accretion Is a Blind Process
Like any other natural process, though, accretion is a blind process. Think of emotional accretion, for example: a particular emotion – say, anxiety about whether someone dislikes us – gains some mass and motion and starts to pull other emotions toward it. As those emotions get stronger, our responses to situations are altered, normally for the worse. The usual outcome is that the original impression becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It would be fantastic if accretion always led to better outcomes, but, alas, that’s not the way it works (without some practice).
Usually, when we talk about things like decision inertia, accretion is the catalyst for that inertia. When people come to me for advising, they often come with a lot of decision inertia, and one of the challenges of what I do is to not accept the assumption that the course of action my client is working through is the all-things-considered best course of action. If I don’t question that, we find that three months down the road, we’ve been working on the wrong thing. If I question and confirm that it seems to be the best course of action, then we can recommit to that course of action with enhanced clarity.
When I look at courses of action that aren’t actually the right fit, what I normally see is that there’s some compelling part of the course of action that has been stuck to other parts. For instance, the founder or executive might be getting pressure from long-term employees who have been treated functionally as partners but without the power and compensation of partners, so the company’s big dilemma becomes whether or not to make those employees partners. When you look under the surface, though, you can see poor executive leadership, poor business strategy, and a chronic avoidance of tough conversations, all of which have gotten stuck to the idea of partnership, when in fact, there are many different components of the problem that have been merged into one big one (partnership).
It’s easy to see this problem with hindsight, experience, and distance, but it’s really hard to see it when you’re going through it. It’s hard to read the label when you’re stuck inside the jar.
5 Ways to Catalyze Your Creative Accretion
I’ve been thinking a lot over the last few quarters about ways to nourish the incubation process. I think of it much more like planting seeds: the seed is going to develop on its own schedule, but you can give it the proper nutrients and environment so that it will be stronger and healthier when it grows.
To be clear, there are some ways that you can accelerate your creative process, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day.
Here are a few ways to foster your creative accretion:
- Consume broadly: The more broadly you consume information, the more likely you are to pick up an unexplored idea that sticks to the ones you’re already considering
- Give yourself time and space: It’s a bit like the lost-keys phenomenon. When you’re looking for your keys, you can’t find them. When you stop looking, you remember that they’re in your pocket.
- Tend your idea gardens: Every once in a while, tend your idea gardens. You’ll see creative cross-pollination and likely make some new combinations of ideas that you can then let grow on their own for a while.
- Keep vision/concept boards and mindmaps in your field of view where you work: I’ve heard quite a few of my author friends mention that they place the table of contents or their mindmap in a few places around their house and offices so it’s top of mind. I think an unintended benefit of this is that it gives the project creative mass so that it enhances the accretive process. There’s also an upshot here that the accretive process is biased towards things that matter.
- Play with snippets without forcing them to be done: Sometimes ideas come in small snippets that you don’t know what to do with. Allow yourself some time just to play with that snippet, whether it’s writing 200 words about it or building a mindmap around it. If it seems to finish itself, great. If not, kick it back to your idea garden so it can accrete. You never know what it’s going to stick to or what will stick to it, but the fact that it came up for you is a good indication that it’s been accreting for a while.
I don’t mean for the list above to be the definitive list of ways to foster your creative accretion – you may have your own ways to do it. What I most wanted to highlight here is the same thing I discussed in Demystifying the Creative Process: when we understand the creative process and its components, we can take steps to more constructively harness and cultivate our creativity.
The more you catalyze your creative accretion, the more frequently you’ll have rich epiphanies. (Tweet this.)
Mark Permann says
Thank you for writing this article! I found it by Googling creative process. You both confirmed and completed components I was already aware of in creative work, which makes it feel more trustworthy. I love your analogy of accretion, it rings true to me. Most helpful is your encouragement to play with snippets without forcing them to be done. I’ve always done that, but never comfortably, thinking I “should” finish. When, looking back, the things that were meant to finish, did 🙂