Elizabeth Streb is an extreme choreographer, MacArthur Foundation Fellow and the visionary behind the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics. Behance’s 99% recently published a brief, but terrific, interview with her entitled On Taking Big Risks and the Power of Action. Her thinking brought to mind the article that I am republishing here, one of the very first that I wrote, on the lessons that artists’ creative processes hold for business innovators.
Innovation–the creation of a product or process that is radically new, unique and different–is the holy grail in today’s business world. What many of those who beat its drum rarely mention is that the path to true innovation is rooted in pure creativity. To innovate brilliantly requires facing down the deepest challenges of the creative process: high anxiety, ambiguity, seemingly impassable roadblocks, even failure.
Although the business world has tried to translate creative processes into business-speak, I find artists the best guides on navigating and channeling creativity effectively. Their processes are rooted in tolerating, working with and even valuing uncertainty and failure. Their lessons carry great weight for those seeking to understand and catalyze creativity in the business world–to innovate brilliantly.
Here are my five go-to reads on the creative process–from a choreographer, a novelist, an acting coach, a violinist and a screenwriter.
Creativity is a discipline, an idea addressed in each of the books listed here. No one makes the point more clearly, however, than Twyla Tharp.
Tharp is one of America’s leading choreographers. She leverages her decades-long experience as a pioneer in the dance world to lay out a primer to producing exceptional creative output, accessible and relevant to artists and non-artists alike. Each chapter concludes with simple, effective exercises to stimulate creative thinking, devices she herself has used repeatedly in her work. She makes brilliance sound and look appealingly easy.
Steven Pressfield is a former marine and the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire and Tides of War. I haven’t read any of his novels. The quote from Esquire on the front of my dog eared, paperback copy of The War of Art says “A vital gem … a kick in the ass.” That pretty much sums it up.
A quick read, one I come back to regularly for inspiration, Pressfield leads you on a forced march through the landmine-strewn fields of creative resistance, gives you straight talk about “turning professional”, and then gently lays out the satisfying prize for facing down creative fears: deep emotional sustenance. It’s awesome.
Pressfield writes for anyone struggling with creative resistance, including, in his words, artists, entrepreneurs and those aiming for tighter abs. Couple The War of Art with Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and you have the ultimate right brain/left brain boot camp for personal mastery.
This is the only book on this list that is a How To for a specific type of artist. I picked it up out of curiosity about Adler, one of the 20th century’s preeminent acting coaches. She worked with Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, among others.
It turns out that Adler, in Brando’s words is “much more than a teacher of acting. Through her work she imparts the most valuable kind of information–how to discover the nature of our own emotional mechanics and therefore those of others.” And–to continue Brando’s thought–to use this information as the basis for creative output. She’s a strict disciplinarian, demands complete obedience to her approach from her students and weaves together a set of creative tools that are of value to anyone considering a leadership role in business.
Nachmanovitch, a violinist, is the near diametric opposite of Steven Pressfield. Gentle, spiritual and soulful, he coaxes the reader through the joys and perils of the creative process, alluding to the love that drives people to creative endeavors and expression.
This is a heady, intellectual take on creativity–Nachmanovitch’s reference points range from the Greeks, through German philosophers, to Zen Buddhists and beyond. Free Play is the only book on this list to address creativity in the context of working as a group, albeit briefly. It’s a nourishing read.
If Nachmanovitch is loosely spiritual, Cameron is directly so. The Artist’s Way is Cameron’s twelve week “creative recovery” program, grounded in her belief that creativity is an act of spiritual expression. Creative-types know the book well and have strong opinions about it.
I’ve done the program through. I loved it. And I took elements of it with a grain of salt. I viewed it as a path of creative discovery, rather than recovery. And while I did use it as a catalyst for my own artistic endeavors, I also often substituted the word businessperson for artist and found it to be equally useful and effective as a catalyst for my professional creativity. The business version of the book–which I haven’t read–is entitled The Artist’s Way at Work.
Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings is one of the few email newsletters I subscribe to. In mid-September she featured five books on fear and the creative process. The Creative Habit and The War of Art were two of the five. This week–as an antidote, perhaps–she’s featuring seven books to catalyze playful creativity–in adults.
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