As this blog continues to develop I hope that it provides an opportunity for us to do some sharing. As I travel and visit as many districts as I can during the course of my term, I hope that my posts will help you to better understand the successes and challenges, both common and unique, faced by your colleagues around the province. In addition, I want to highlight the good work being done by the Association on your behalf and provide a better understanding of the what goes on behind the scenes. Lastly, I hope to use this forum to share resources and recommendations to help build capacity and understanding as leaders of learning. Your feedback is encouraged.

In this post, I would like to recommend a book that has made a difference in my professional life: The Creative Habit by highly regarded dancer and choreographer, Twyla Tharp. At the outset, I should disclose that I am 6’4” and weigh somewhere north of 230 pounds. When people first meet me I am confident that no one has ever thought, “Hmmm, he looks like he has a dance background.” 

While The Creative Habit is written from the perspective of a choreographer, it has little to do with dancing. Tharp opens up about her professional life, shares her methods for exercising her creative muscles, and makes her case that creativity is not a rare gift but something that we all possess and rely on daily. Tharp, who is now in her 60s, is a driven and determined professional who brings the same passion to her work today that she did when first starting out. To that end, some of her processes may seem extreme and not applicable to those of us as school leaders. However, there are many bits of solid advice that any school principal/vice-principal can draw on. 

Whenever I recommend a book, my decision is often based on the wear and tear that I have inflicted on the book. My copy of The Creative Habit is filled with my asterisks, handwritten notes, and a little water damage (I dropped it on the wet sidewalk rushing to catch the Canada Line) as I have read, highlighted, and reread numerous chapters.

As a dancer and choreographer, Tharp relies on strict daily routines to access and accentuate her creativity. However, just as we do in our professional lives, she does not sit around waiting to be inspired. Creativity, she explains, requires discipline and tenacity. Creativity comes when you are willing to invest both body and mind. She refers to the creative process of other artists and illustrates that even Mozart practised so hard that it led to his hands becoming deformed. Provided below are brief descriptions of some of Tharp’s insights.

  1. Creative preparation: Creativity is more about ritual and habit than it is about a lightning bolt of inspiration. Tharp argues that most people require some ritual or routine to enter the creative mindset. Often, there is a key element or ritual that provides a physical signal that you are entering that creative space.
  2. Creative DNA: Tharp believes that creativity is based on environment and personal history. She spends a great deal of time asking the reader to consider key questions to help define the reader’s creative history as a way of better understanding how inspiration has been woven through the reader’s life.
  3. Before you can think outside the box, you have to start with a box: Tharp describes her process for tackling a project and how she organizes her materials and thoughts to bring about a more creative approach. I connected with her process as I have a similar style when taking on a big project.
  4. Scratching: Tharp describes ‘scratching’ as a way to deal with obstacles like writer’s block. As school leaders we may not deal with writer’s block per se, but she provides insightful advice on how to get unstuck when working on a difficult project. You may have all of the elements for the project but you are missing the creative spark to set it in motion. Tharp offers a detailed list to fire that creative spark.
  5. Spine: The spine of any project is the basic foundation upon which the project is based. That spine may or may not be visible to the outside observer but to the creator it is the basis for everything.

The Creative Habit is an excellent book for anyone who is continually engaged in creative work. As school leaders, creative approaches and solutions are an important piece of the daily work that we do. The exercise and approaches outlined in the book are relevant and applicable … even, if you are not a dancer.

[Posted May 2, 2016]