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The Creative Habit

A couple of years ago my now-fiancée, Erin, told me I should read this book, “The Creative Habit” by Twyla Tharp. Tharp is one of the most prolific and acclaimed choreographers of all time. I thought the book sounded interesting and I would eventually get around to reading it. Well I finally did get around to reading it and it is amazing. I wish I had read it a couple of years ago when Erin first told me about it.

There is a lot of information in this book that appeals to me as a former musician and a current writer/blogger. However, there is also a lot of information that appeals to me as an athlete and coach. Being creative, according to Tharp, is about forming good habits and rituals. Being creative is about work and consistency and skill. These traits are no less important for athletes and coaches, in my opinion.

Let us start at the end. In the “Acknowledgements” at the end of the book, Tharp first thanks her agent and collaborator. The second person she thanks is her personal trainer!

“I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, an my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours.”

This is a woman who loves to move and to sweat and every day begins that way for her. It is her ritual and it something sacred to her. Her creative expression is often through her body so exercising her body every day is a way to keep the creative juices flowing. If only we could get her doing Crossfit! Imagine how much more of a badass she could be!

Another point that Tharp drives home is skill. The artist must know her craft. “Prima ballerinas work as diligently and carefully at the barre as any novice. (Actually they work more diligently on basics that lesser dancers might consider beneath them.) The great ones never take fundamentals for granted.”

The parallels to what we do are evident. Focusing on the fundamentals is important for all athletes at all levels. Skill is necessary to build intensity. Tharp highlights this fact with an example from da Vinci.

You double your intensity with skill.

Leonardo da Vinci

“In his notebooks, in discussing the power of the crossbow, Leonardo da Vinci makes reference to doubling its degrees of ‘fury’ through applied technique and dexterity. This is a useful metaphor for your creative efforts: You double your intensity with skill.”

Practice and skill alone are not enough, however. Artist’s need to focus on their weaknesses because they can make great gains there just like athletes.

“Every artist faces this paradox. Experience–the faith in your ability and the memory that you have done this before–is what gets you through the door. But experience also closes the door. You tend to rely on that memory and stick with what has worked before. You don’t try anything new.”

Tharp advocates that one should constantly be expanding his or her skill set. She not only advocates learning new physical skills but also reading and educating yourself on many varied topics. It is clear from reading her book that she is extremely well-read and knowledgeable in many areas of life. Thus you do not need to be a dancer to appreciate her and benefit from her ideas.

Never have a favorite weapon.

Miyamoto Musashi

Maybe by now you are convinced of the benefits of working on your weaknesses and improving your skills and deepening your knowledge of various subjects. Excellent. However, be cautious of one major pitfall: multitasking.

“The irony of multitasking is that it’s exhausting; when you’re doing two or three things simultaneously, you use more energy than the sum of energy required to do each task independently. You’re also cheating yourself because you’re not doing anything excellently. You’re compromising your virtuosity.”

I, for obvious reasons, will not argue with that. Do not, under any circumstance, compromise your virtuosity!

Did you find this article helpful? Do you have any other good books to recommend on the subject? Please leave a comment.

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