The Art of Thought: A Timeless Theory of Creativity

Graham Wallas, the author of The Art of Thought

Hop onto Amazon for a minute to see the glut of creativity at our disposal. There are almost 35,000 books listed under the word “creativity” that promise to make us better at work, more focused on our passions, and even more skilled in the bedroom. The authors even make all of this seem easy.

So many authors promise to unlock the secrets of creativity and get our minds on track, although the results are badly mixed. One book, however, stands above most of the rest. It just happens to be one of the earliest modern books that tackled the creative process. Graham Wallas wrote The Art of Thought back in 1926. This is the granddaddy of all those other books and it holds up splendidly to this day.

Like many privileged gentlemen of the era, Wallas was a man with many interests. He started as a schoolmaster. Rather than taking communion as part of his job duties, he resigned in protest and joined anti-religion think tank. The reform-minded educator/psychologist later co-founded the London School of Economics prior to the turn 19th century. At the ripe age of 68, just four years prior to his death, Wallas convincingly detailed the creative process with the publication of The Art of the Thought. 

Wallas set out to explain how great ideas come to fruition with what he called “scientific explanation.” He distilled the creative process down into four important steps: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification.

These steps provide a convincing framework for how the mind works and how creativity can be harnessed by anyone. While the process is only a few steps long, Wallas’ theory requires time, hard work, and a little bit of luck to be into action. There are no shortcuts or life hacks here. Instead, there’s a practical breakdown of how we achieve something great.


Those “eureka” moments that people seem to have don’t come out of thin air. Instead, they require heavy preparation. The mind needs something to draw from, whether it’s a quality education, life experience, or skills learned on a job. Without some sort of foundation based on research, we find ourselves floundering.

Wallas background was in education, so he stressed research. As he wrote in The Art of Thought, “a body of remembered facts and words which gives him a wider range in the final moment of association, as well as a number of those habitual tracks of association which constitute ‘thought systems’.’’

Of course, history has shown that a formal education isn’t required to come up with great ideas, as a number of college dropouts have achieved success.


The creative process is organic and naturally forming. During the incubation stage, we unconsciously let ideas gestate and take form. Wallas stressed the importance of “mental relaxation” and modern research backs up the importance of that notion. Stress can be good for us in small doses, but an unyielding amount makes us worse at making decisions and less healthy.

A healthy amount of relaxation, combined with a reasonable of amount sleep, has been proven ways to improve creativity. Wallas realized this almost 100 years ago.


It’s in this stage where the idea takes hold. This is the moment that where we say “aha!” and furiously begin scribbling notes. Wallas calls this the “final flash” or “click.” These flashes of insight might be sudden, but they’ve been percolating for a while. Our research combined with a healthy incubation period helped bring this idea to the forefront.

As any entrepreneur or researcher knows, a good idea is just the beginning. To turn a great idea into something practical requires lots of work, planning, and testing. This brings us to the final stage in the creative process.


The final stage, verification, isn’t too unlike the initial step of preparation. Verification requires research based on fact rather than the freewheeling incubation stage. It’s here that we put our ideas to the test to see if they can truly work.

Wallas often wrote about creativity with scientific discoveries in mind, but his four-stage process is applicable to any field. A business idea doesn’t need to follow the laws of science, but it does need to follow the rules of economics in order to succeed. There’s a logic required for both the verification and preparation stages that can’t be ignored.

Modern Uses

Wallas’ writing style shows its age compared to modern works about creativity. Beyond the outdated prose and formal style, however, is the basis for countless works being published today. His four-stage process (preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification) remains one of most convincing theories about creativity. The Art of Thought provides a fantastic framework for those wondering how great ideas can come to fruition.

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