Thank you, Paul.
The notion that some people are simply born artistic—and that there is a profile that can help organizations identify them—is quite firmly entrenched. All the talk of genetic determination nowadays undoubtedly has a lot to do with that. But the idea that creativity is a predetermined personality trait probably appeals at a psychological level because it gives people an excuse for not innovating or initiating change themselves, reducing the problem of creativity to a recruitment challenge.
Significantly, the people least likely to buy into the idea that creativity is preordained are the creative geniuses themselves. Choreographer Twyla Tharp, for one, doesn’t subscribe to any notion of effortless artistry. As someone who has changed the face of dance, she’s certainly qualified to have an opinion. The winner of a MacArthur fellowship (popularly called “the genius grant”), two Emmy awards, and a Tony award, she has written and directed television programs, created Broadway productions, and choreographed dances for the movies Hair, Ragtime, and Amadeus. Tharp, now 66, did all this while creating more than 130 dances—many of which have become classics—for her own company, the Joffrey Ballet, the New York City Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, London’s Royal Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre. The author of two books, she is now in the process of simultaneously developing new ballets for the Miami City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and Pacific Northwest Ballet.
At her Manhattan home, Tharp met with HBR senior editor Diane Coutu to discuss what it takes to be a choreographer. In these pages, she shares what she has learned about fostering creativity, initiating change, and firing even top-notch performers when push comes to shove. In her suffer-no-fools way, she talks about her “monomaniacal absorption” with her work and the need to be tough, even ruthless, when that work is at stake. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.
In your book The Creative Habit, you speak of creativity as a very pragmatic, almost businesslike endeavor.
I think “habit” makes it sound a little dull. What I’m really talking about in the book is the enjoyment of creativity, which is something that everyone can have. I don’t believe in this Romantic idea of the suffering artist; I don’t believe in suffering anything. I think everyone can be creative, but you have to prepare for it with routine. There’s no other way around it. It’s an absolute mistake to think that art is not practical—or that business cannot be creative. The best artists are extraordinarily practical. The most creative painters I know mix their own paint, grind it, put in the fixative. They make use of everything they have at their disposal. In my own work, everything is raw material. But without proper preparation—habit, if you will—I couldn’t see that raw material or know how to use it.
Obviously, people are born with specific talents. In dance you see that some are better coordinated than others. I have not worked with children, but I do think that even in babies’ movements you can see that some children are more comfortable with their limbs than others are. This is not taught; this is something genetic. But I don’t like using genetics as an excuse—“I can’t do this because I don’t have that particular genetic gift.” Get over yourself. The best creativity is the result of habit and hard work. And luck, of course. I think we can all agree that the luck of the draw governs every day. Mozart was his father’s son. Leopold Mozart was a sophisticated, broad-thinking man, famous throughout Europe as a composer and teacher. Mozart’s first good fortune was to have such a father as that.
You advise people who want to be creative to get busy copying. Should we be worrying about lack of originality?
Of course not. What I’m trying to tell people is that they shouldn’t be held back by the great stuff other people have done. Brahms is the classic example here. He was a consummate musician, and because he was so respectful of the great composers and of Beethoven in particular, he could not get out his first symphony until he was in his mid-forties. What a waste of time was that, what a waste. And all because Brahms was totally intimidated. And you know what? There’s a kind of arrogance in that intimidation. We think that it has to do with modesty. To the contrary, it has to do with Brahms going, “Goddammit, my first symphony is not going to be better than Beethoven’s Ninth.” And excuse me, probably it’s not going to be, so why don’t you just do it and get on with things? Personally, I don’t worry about originality at all. Has anyone ever done what I’ve done before? Yeah, probably. But I’m not going to worry about it; I’m going to use it and get on with it.” – Diane Coutu