Four stages of just about anything

Four repeating stages

It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a book, governing a country, running a business, becoming sick, or getting well, everything is in process. There are four repeating stages of just about anything. Do you know where you are in the cycle?

Winston Spencer Churchill wrote:

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public[i].

Four repeating stages

  1. Play
  2. Search
  3. Master
  4. Dissolve

Understanding these four repeating stages can give us insight into making better decisions. They originate in the work of Giambattista Vico, an Italian philosopher who wrote New Science in 1725.

Vico used the technical language of the rhetorician. And that can be frighteningly unpronounceable, or just plain forgettable. At the end of this article, I’ve included a footnote on Vico’s four stages.

Here is something easier to grasp.


For Churchill—and maybe you, too—the thought of writing a book is thrilling. The silent truth is that most people would rather have written a book than write one. But writing a book is an adventure into the unknown.

This stage is spontaneous and imaginative. Play is loose and open. There is no goal, just experience. This is where the very young excel. It’s a natural endowment of healthy lifeforms. We play only for enjoyment. Play is nature’s way of teaching us to develop our new faculties.

Extend this idea of play to business. The play stage is a game of ‘what if’, loose planning, or scenario generation.

When you don’t know what to do, you make something up.

Do something and see what happens. Many scientific discoveries happened by accident.

Play doesn’t require you to know what you’re doing. But it is a teacher. There is always a first time for everyone. Play is interaction with the world. The enemy of play is judgment.


This is where you develop judgment. Learning is the primary function of the search stage. This is the search for identity, direction, meaning, and capability.

At this point you’re confronted with the question, what will I do and why?  Where should I invest my time and energy? What should I abandon so I can focus my effort?

Nature is efficient. What gets stimulated grows, what doesn’t, dies. Synaptic pruning occurs at the onset of puberty in mammals. Our biology has its own timetable.  The very young can learn multiple languages easily. By the time foreign languages are taught in school, the prime learning opportunity has already passed.

Use it or lose it.


You know what you’re doing. You’ve decided what to do, and have spent a long time practicing it. It may not take the ten thousand hours, that’s so often bandied about, but you have significant experience.

Mastery isn’t just efficient, it opens new horizons.

Take the everyday example of driving a stick shift. At the student stage, much of your attention is focused on the mechanics of the vehicle. This leaves little room for looking where you’re going. But with practice your brain adapts. Operating the vehicle becomes spontaneous. You free attention to notice and respond to what’s going on around you.

Mastery is a learned reflex. Yet mastery is only effective if it remains relevant. And change, either personal or environmental, triggers the next stage.


It’s time to shed your old skin. The previous stage has run its course. Dissatisfaction, wear-and-tear, exhaustion, or boredom can trigger this stage. Or, more positively, you can stop doing what’s been previously successful in anticipation of change.

Now is the time to reevaluate meaning you assigned during previous stages.

The play stage was unconscious, energetic, and in the moment. In the search stage, you looked for direction, commitment, and improvement. The mastery stage allowed you to become aware, adept, effective, and efficient.

Why does what you loved yesterday, now seem so meaningless? Such questions are indicators of change wanting to happen. What used to be relevant, no longer is. This is all part of human growth.

Anticipating what’s dying is a survival mechanism. Mastery in a defunct skill, business, or profession is no longer economic currency. It’s time for a change.

Quit while you’re ahead may be the perfect time to let go and start something new. The lifecycle loop begins again.

In the words of Monty Python: And now for something completely different.

Although Winston Churchill is best known for his courage and leadership, he was a well-paid and prolific writer. In 1953 he won the Noble prize for literature. Churchill finally flung his work out for the general public to read, only to start writing anew.

Footnote graphic



Metaphor is used to make a comparison by explaining one thing in terms of another. This is a way of introducing a new concept in terms of something already existing. So don’t bring your bucket and spade to a sandpit for start-ups.

Metonymy is a change of name with an association of the same meaning. Churchill is using this device when he refers to his book as a monster. Hollywood refers to the movie industry. Washington means the government.

Synecdoche refers to something by the name of one of its parts. The pen is mightier than the sword. (But don’t insist on that when facing a swordsman.) The pen stands for the power of the written word, and the sword is military might.

Irony is used for comic effect by saying the opposite of what is meant.  Irony pokes fun at the status quo because values have shifted. It has elements of play, the stage seeking to emerge. Irony is a trigger for generating new meaning.

[i] Churchill, 2 November 1949, Grosvenor House, London (cited in Langworth, Churchill: In His Own Words)