Arc and Interruption

The Five Stages of Creative Life and the Crises That Intervene

Marc Zegans

The primary thread in my professional life over the past thirty years has been an attempt to understand, engage, and foster innovation and creativity in professional practice, public service, and the arts. For fifteen years or so I worked with foundations as a teacher, trainer, and advisor, focusing on strategic grant making, innovation in philanthropy, portfolio development, and program evaluation. Initially this work complemented my primary roles as executive and research director of the Innovations in American Government Program, a joint venture of the Ford Foundation and Harvard’s Kennedy School. Later it developed into its own practice.

Animating this work was a deep-rooted fascination with the conditions that contributed to and impaired the lives of creators and innovators operating in different terrains, engaged in varied projects, and facing wide-ranging opportunities and challenges. Eventually, following this driving passion led me in the direction of the arts, where I established a career working with individual artists as a creative development advisor. I began this foray into creative lives with two simple organizing principles: I would meet artists where they stand, and I would learn how to meet them well.

Satisfying these principles in practice turns out to be quite a feat because the narrative arc of a creative career is complex — it rarely follows a smooth and strictly cumulative trajectory. Instead, as I came to observe, artists’ careers pass through discrete developmental stages punctuated by acute crises of meaning. When successful, artists resolve such crises by establishing ways of finding and making meaning that differ sharply from those that had previously proved effective.

To meet artists capably, I came to understand, we, as supporters of artistic endeavor, would do well to attend to their internal life at each stage of development. Yet, the stage models employed in arts support have tended not to focus on the internal dynamics of creative development. The “emerging-midcareer-established” model, for example, ranks artists along metrics of productivity, visibility, and influence. These metrics have little to do with understanding and appropriately responding to the succession of challenges that an artist encounters over the course of a full career. Accordingly, I thought it might be of use to grantmakers to share how I have begun to see the pattern arc and interruption that shape fulfilling and productive creative lives.

In what follows, I will introduce you to a punctuated model that sees internal artistic development in terms of five distinct stages: developing discipline, achieving mastery, enacting self-authorship, attaining eminence, and creating legacy. Transitions between stages are not smooth. Each is initiated by a crisis that appears when the artist’s worldview provides guidance inadequate to that artist’s emerging needs. To proceed, the artist must find means of resolving each crisis in a fashion that provides a structure of meaning adequate to the next stage of development. Understanding these transitional crises and providing support for artists to proceed successfully through them represent a potent opportunity for grantmakers who wish to extend best practice.

The account I provide here characterizes a creative life as organized by expressive desire and developmental challenge; describes a four-part cycle of progression, crisis, transition, and metamorphosis that functions as the superstructure for an artist’s creative development; presents the punctuated model of stages interrupted by crises, which I introduced above, and briefly suggests implications for practice.

The Heart of the Arc: A Summary of the Five Stages of a Fulfilled Creative Life

The entry to each stage of the artist’s creative career comes with the answer to a framing question. For the student hoping to be an artist, the central question is, How do I begin? The answer is, develop discipline. For the artist just past apprenticeship, the question is, How do I enter the life of a working artist? The answer is, work to achieve mastery of your role. For the artist who has accomplished the task of becoming a working artist, the question becomes, How do I stand out? The answer is, find your true voice and write your own script. For an eminent artist, the question is, How do I make a contribution that truly counts? The answer is, attend strictly to the quality of your work and become both a good citizen of and a leader in your field. For an artist entering late life, the question is, How do I continue, and on what terms? The answer is, operate from your heart, bring your complete self to what will become your final bodies of work, dispense your gifts, bestow wisdom, and attend with love to what you will leave behind.

The Cycle of Growth

The cultivation and pursuit of expressive desire unfold in a four-part cycle: (1) progression within a given stage of development; (2) crisis expressed as a loss of meaning, motive, and sometimes self; (3) transition initiated by recognition of a new developmental challenge; and (4) metamorphosis through which artists establish new sources of meaning and motivation and creative identity.


An artist decisively located in a particular stage of development works within a stable structure of meaning. This structure is defined by a working construction of self and an expressive language that consists in a grammar, vocabulary, and cluster of structural metaphors. When the artist’s structure of meaning is stable, proficiency develops cumulatively. A painter works on the stack, and the paintings get better.

Under such conditions prior accomplishment and social recognition of the results are accurate predictors of future contribution and, therefore, a reasonable basis for funding decisions. By contrast, when a given structure of meaning is spent, past production will not correlate closely with subsequent performance. We can begin to determine what support will be most appropriate for artists between stages by developing our intuition about what it means to be trapped in a crisis of meaning.


Moving from one phase of artistic life to the next is a kind of death. Artists find crisis at this juncture because they do not understand the nature of the challenge or how to respond to it well. To do so, they must discharge their present self-concept and cultivate its successor. They must also abandon their present means of expression for a more mature creative language, yet they lack examples and relevant procedures that would help them do so. Learning how to embrace this death well and how to open to the next version of their lives as artists improves the prospects that artists will proceed effectively to the next stage.


As artists begin to move out of creative crisis, they enter a period of transition between the old and the new. In contrast to crisis, which is marked by loss, unknowing, conflict, and fear, transition has a decisive clarity. Its sharpness arises from the artist’s acknowledgment that the old language and methods no longer serve and from the artist’s emerging ability to look ahead. The artist begins to envision the self he or she can be and starts to articulate plausible means of becoming this person.


During metamorphosis artists establish new sources of motivation and meaning expressed in novel visions of themselves, and they imagine concretely how they might be able to work differently as a result. The internal dialogue that takes place in metamorphosis sculpts an emergent vision both unfamiliar and undeniably real. Metamorphosis is complete when the artist has sufficient expressive resources to begin working from a developmentally appropriate revised identity.

Stage and Crisis: The Fulfilled Creative Life, a Model

Fulfilling creative careers depend on artists negotiating a sequence of developmental challenges that alter their creative identities and affect the strength and direction of their expressive desires. Each stage on this path is shaped by a central defining task. The sequence of crisis, transition, and metamorphosis through which artists proceed on their passages from one stage to the next is the mechanism by which an artist recognizes the new task, commits to its fulfillment, and remakes his or her self-concept into one capable of fulfilling its demands. Between the five previously named stages are four separating crises: (1) role crisis, (2) differentiation crisis, (3) extension crisis, and (4) continuation crisis. Let’s consider each stage and intervening crisis in turn.

Developing Discipline

An artist in this position is concerned with acquiring the basic skills needed to envision and develop a body of work that fulfills its own intentions. The stage begins the moment an individual makes a concrete commitment to become an artist.

Whether artistic discipline progresses via formal training or self-study, its acquisition demands deep immersion in source material; focused, energetic reflective practice; regular and consistent production of new work; development of a robust appreciative system; and fruitful integration of critical feedback. The artist developing discipline is, however, fundamentally concerned with acquiring potent technique.

Role Crisis

The transition from artistic apprenticeship to artist goes beyond putting the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle; it entails a redefinition of self. The need for such reformulation often precipitates a crisis of role. This crisis arrives in the form of two questions: What does it mean to enter the social role of a working artist? and Do I truly want to accept this set of responsibilities? New artists typically are not emotionally well prepared to meet these questions. They want to be rewarded for doing the same thing they know how to do well — to be art students. Therein lies the conflict.

A common strategy for artists faced with this conflict is to turn the question over to the gods. Rather than determining to be an artist and then discovering one step at a time how to proceed, they render their future role contingent on events outside their control. “If a gallery that pays my bills picks me up, I’ll be an artist.” “If I get signed by a major label, I’ll be a musician.”

So long as a prospective artist cedes determination of the course of his or her creative life to outside agents, he or she remains in developmental limbo. When this individual stops making contingent arrangements and is able to say with conviction, “I am an artist, and I will do what it takes,” the next stage of creative development begins.

Achieving Mastery

An artist’s principal aim is to make and share meaningful work. To achieve this end, a new-minted artist must develop capacity for self-management and reflective practice. He or she must also learn how to be a high-functioning member of the tribe. Yet, many do not understand that achieving self-mastery in a social context is a necessary developmental task, and they approach the development of social acumen with a mix of dismay and overt resistance.

This reluctant posture drains energy, hinders creative progress, and disempowers the young artist. Its logic is defective because it aims low and because it is rooted in a thin conception of the creative self, one premised on the belief that to survive an artist must inevitably bargain bits of him or herself away. Simply asking, What’s the least I can give away and get by? will not suffice. Rather, the young artist must ask, What can I do that I might thrive?

A useful answer must provide a thicker concept of creative identity than that which splits the young artist into a pure self who creates, and a practical persona that secures life’s necessities in self-abasing ways. Such a concept sees the development of social acumen as an aspect of self-mastery, one that expands an artist’s opportunities for creative growth and meaningful contribution. When young artists find that they can adopt a more extensive view of their own creativity and that they can develop an authentic, capable, empowered, socially implicated creative identity, they tend to find the premise liberating. It is at this point that they begin to advance in their pursuits.

Success in the endeavor is predicated on making original work and serving it well. Serving the work well requires development of robust skills, relaxed confidence, artistic intuition, and expressive fluency that results in pieces of increasing depth, proficiency, and meaning. It requires also that the working artist achieve social entry and acceptance, appropriate venues, and necessary resources. The successful working artist must also capably scan the environment, cultivate social skills, and recruit means of support adequate to his or her needs.

So long as an artist continues to attract resources, build social capital, create original work, and find satisfaction, he or she can remain in the role of “working artist” indefinitely. Many artists find this to be an attractive and fulfilling option. Others, however, wish to move on. They feel a call to discard the scaffolding of being one artist among many and to enter a new, bolder stage of creative development, one in which they become true authors of their creative lives. Achieving this capability begins with a struggle for differentiation.

Differentiation Crisis

The transition from achieving mastery to enacting self-authorship is a shift from performing the social role of an artist to being fully expressed as an original voice. In the self-authorship stage, an artist’s work is guided by an effort to produce signature work. The transition from a role-structured to a work-structured creative identity entails shifts along three dimensions: (1) the primary locus and method of the artist’s work, (2) the central developmental task to be accomplished, and (3) the organizing imperative that drives this work.

A self-authoring artist works from voice rather than from an estimate of the requirements of the field. Hence the self-authoring artist says, “This is the film I have to make,” rather than “I must do this, if I want to make it as an artist.” Accordingly, the organizing imperative of a self-authoring artist is not the externally cued “I must,” voiced by the younger artist, but the fierce internal volition “I will!”

To undertake self-authorship is to grant oneself the authority to do one’s truest and most deeply motivated work. Such a grant comes at high cost. Torn between the call to doing one’s “real” work and the loss of safety in numbers, artists often freeze. This begins a period of reckoning that can be understood as a crisis of differentiation.

Like the artist in role crisis who avoided transformation by making the question of artistic identity contingent on acts of god, artists newly embroiled in a crisis of differentiation develop strategies that attempt to answer the call without changing the persons they are. In particular, they become work avoidant, even when they receive outside validation of their projects’ merits. They defer work on signature projects in preference to work that is familiar but not distinctly theirs, because outside validation cannot substitute for coming to terms with the self-limiting thoughts and practices that stand in the way of moving ahead on one’s own terms.

An artist in the midst of differentiation crisis will be unable to execute until he or she rejects group identity and comfortable practice in favor of self-determination. When an artist says with conviction, “I grant myself the authority to do my deepest and truest work,” the crisis of differentiation has come to an end.

Enacting Self-Authorship

In the self-authorship stage, one’s status as artist and one’s membership in the community are givens. With these resources in place, the artist struggles to begin producing work that can be the product of no other. Often, this quest unfolds in the context of a struggle to produce a defining piece of work, after which the artist arrives at a period of sustained product fluency.

We can better understand the agon of arriving at defining work by drawing a distinction between work that is original and work that is truly self-authored. Artists early in their career are sometimes capable of startling originality, but it is rarely the product of genuine self-authorship because young artists necessarily operate from less than full self-awareness. They are incompletely cognizant of the forces that have shaped their preoccupations, motives, and methods, and they act in response to transmitted values, rather than those maturely selected through conscious reflection.

While work that emanates from such an artist can be vibrant, forceful, and riveting, it cannot be a definitive statement. To create work that is a defining act of self-authorship, the artist must go through a complex and often harrowing process of self-engagement, revelation, and selection. There is no shortcut.

In struggling to complete such work, artists are forced to come to terms with the past and find the mental resources they need to advance beyond it. They must also end relationships and find allies who are capable of supporting them in the full expression of this work. Through the process of completing significant signature work, the artist becomes able to say, “From here on out, I will write my own script.”

Extension Crisis

Not everyone is an artist’s artist, and not everyone wants or is able to sit on committees, talk about the future of the field, teach master classes, and go to awards dinners. Nonetheless, some do arrive at a point where engaging exclusively in primary practice is no longer fully satisfying. When producing signature work alone ceases to fulfill an artist, a crisis of extension ensues.

In a crisis of extension an artist feels called to assume new social responsibilities and yet frequently experiences the urge as a betrayal of the self-authorizing identity that he or she has fought so hard to achieve. As with previous creative crises, the torn artist is negotiating between a desire for something more and an older conception of self that cannot satisfy this yearning. To resolve this conflict, the artist must author a commitment to an identity no longer exclusively defined by the products of his or her own voice. The artist who decides in favor of attaining eminence works on and for, rather than simply in, the field.

Attaining Eminence

Eminence is different from fame. Fame is celebrity, recognition. Eminence is standing out as a consequence of superior performance. Eminence, though, is not simply an elevated status; it can be a kind of performance, an intentional practice that involves the assumption of social authority. The artist moving from self-authorship to eminence adopts a plural motive structure, one that extends beyond the warrior’s determined insistence “I will” to the leader’s concern with who we are and where we must go.

The production of work for eminent artists changes meaning accordingly. They begin to think in terms of a duty to craft because they are aware that their work speaks not only for themselves but also to and for the field. For the eminent artist, making one’s best work is no longer a response only to personal desire; it is now a citizen duty.

An artist remains engaged in the process of attaining eminence so long as his or her primary concern is with cultivating influence through citizen contribution and the production of work marked by its excellence. Eventually, however, the attractions of pursuing artistic influence and the rigors of producing exemplary work can begin to wear thin.

Continuation Crisis

Whether an artist has pursued a steady path of production and incremental development of craft, emerged as a distinctive voice, or functioned in an eminent role, at some point this individual becomes aware that life is finite. This awareness gives rise to the disquieting questions, How do I continue? and On what terms?

The answers to these questions need be neither grim nor morbid. A fulfilling resolution can come as a release of stricture and a loss of anxiety that brings fresh energy for creative work. Such keenness for new creative work can manifest as vibrant material presenting novel subject matter or employing fresh methods, as exemplified by Matisse’s “cutouts.” It also reflects a diminished need for external validation, and a greater desire and capacity to engage fully and creatively with each moment. But how does this existential boost come about?

The process of internal change that provides a path to successful late-life adaptation is a release of past socialization and prior ambitions in favor of a return to self. During earlier stages of the artist’s career, meaning was defined by accumulation of discipline, skill, social connection, reward, and reputation and by projection of self through promotion of one’s work and strategies of influence. In later life, the desire for accumulation can begin to lose meaning, and the urge to self-inflation that underwrites the practices of projection diminishes in attraction.

An artist may come to recognize that he or she is entering a period in which meaning and fulfillment are found in precisely opposite mechanisms. Rather than gathering, building, and standing out, the artist who thrives in later life finds meaning in relaxing into the moment, discovering humor in the limitations of one’s smaller self, connecting with and channeling the larger Self, and in bestowing wisdom on those who seek it. Consequently, the point of departure for an artist’s work changes. The late-stage artist finds that for the work to be vital, it must be motivated by love. Having let go of the need for accumulation, the artist becomes animated by a desire to bestow wisdom on those who seek it, and to dispense what gifts he or she has still to offer, a process that continues, through legacy, beyond the artist’s physical death.

To accommodate this work, the artist must develop a self-concept that embraces trust in self, freedom from the inhibiting burden of the past, and engagement with life. Such an artist, having arrived at wry self-acceptance, embraced life as it is, and become alive to the moment, is fully awake. But the turn to brightness does not come easily.

Most artists do not lack models of artists who have thrived late in life; it is simply hard to grant oneself permission to step into the shoes of one’s beloved grandmother or grandfather. And so, an artist, unready to imagine the possibility of being an elder, stretches, strains, and struggles to remain “relevant” or falls prey to listless depression, until something shifts and the artist’s inner dialogue changes: “I would come to grief if I shared with no one what I have learned.” “It matters to me what I leave behind.” Spurred by this inner dialogue, the artist comes to embrace the freedom of great age and the art of crafting legacy.

Crafting Legacy

A grounded artist intent on creating legacy accepts that he or she does not know how things will end and sees the structure of the situation as a stimulus to action. The artist understands that the art of creating legacy requires live engagement, informed but never governed by accumulated experience. It is a process of working intentionally, accepting what comes, offering what one has, and producing that which is needed.

The artist engaged in creating legacy is balanced: accepting and offering, a swinging gate through which life and expression pass simply. The practice of creating legacy continues until the last breath because fulfilled artists do not stop working.

Implications for Practice

I came to this model working closely with artists, listening to their stories, and seeing them through their struggles. Artists are made unduly vulnerable by a lack of information about how the structures of meaning that shape their creativity change over the course of their lives. We can profoundly benefit working artists by giving them access to a better understanding of how creative lives progress, by funding skillful professional support, and by embracing these same understandings in the practice of grant craft.

By so doing, we honor their creativity and free ourselves to serve them well.