I have been reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life-a treasure-trove of meditations on the creative life culled from Tharp’s long career as one of the world’s most acclaimed choreographers. Each chapter relates to a different aspect of creativity–think: Skill, Ruts and Grooves, Rituals of Preparation– and is accompanied by a handful of exercises to practice flexing your own creative muscles. It’s a quick, lovely and insightful read, which I highly recommend.
I’d like to highlight Tharp’s insights on one of the fundamental paradoxes faced by artists and rethinkers everywhere–that of finding the fragile equilibrium between seeking expertise and cultivating a beginner’s mind.
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. Inexperience is innocence, naïveté, and humility. It is a powerful ignorance that is summed up for me in an obituary I read of the All-American football player Ellis Jones. Jones, who died at age eighty in 2002, lost his right arm in an accident when he was eleven years old. But that didn’t stop him from playing guard offense and linebacker on defense in the 1940s at the University of Tulsa and later in the fledgling National Football League. “I played football before I got hurt,” said Jones of the accident that cost him his right arm. “It never occurred to me that I couldn’t keep playing. I guess I was too dumb to think I could not do it.” Inexperience provides us with a childlike fearlessness that is the polar opposite of the alleged wisdom that age confers on us, the “wisdom” telling us some goals are foolish, a waste of time, invitations to disaster. In its purest form, inexperience erases fear. You do not know what is and is not possible and therefore everything is possible.
It is that perfect moment of equipoise between knowing it all and knowing nothing that Hemingway was straining for when he said, “The thing is to become a master and in your old age to acquire the courage to do what children did when they knew nothing.” You cannot manufacture inexperience, but you can maintain it and protect what you have.
This balancing act–between confidence and humility, knowing and not knowing, fear and courage–is intimately tied to the concept of mastery.
Mastery is an elusive concept. You never know when you achieve it absolutely–and it may not help you to feel you’ve attained it. (Alexander the Great wept when he had no more worlds to conquer.) We can recognize it more readily in others than we can in ourselves. We all have to discover our own definition of it.
I particularly love Tharp’s definition of mastery–mastery as courage and optimism to face the unknown and faith in your own capacity to transform your discovery into something of value.
More than anything, I associate mastery with optimism. It’s the feeling at the start of a project when I believe that my whole career has been preparation for this moment and I am saying, “Okay, let’s begin. Now I am ready.” Of course, you’re never one hundred percent ready, but that’s a part of mastery, too. It masks the insecurities and the gaps in technique and lets you believe that you are capable of anything.
Mastery then, in the creative realm at least, is more mindset than benchmark, like that of the child at the edge of the forest, excited and a little nervous to get lost in the woods but confident to face and transform what she will find.
Source: Tharp, Twyla. The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. Print.