3 Takeaways from “The Creative Habit” by Twyla Tharp

I avoid dancing at weddings, playing softball at picnics, exercising in group classes and other public displays of physical coordination. It’s not merely that I’m embarrassed by my lack of grace and rhythm. I want to avoid the injury and mayhem that resulted in the past — broken bones, black eyes, and tripping and falling into an African drum band.

So I was unsure if a book about creativity by Twyla Tharp, one of the world’s most notable choreographers and dancers, would speak to me.

But “The Creative Habit” has an intriguing premise that mirrors one of my own deeply-held beliefs—creativity “is the product of preparation and effort, and it’s within reach of everyone who wants to achieve it.” And it is an inspirational reminder that no matter your natural-born talent, creativity takes a lot of practice and continual hard work.

Tharp shares dozens of specific ideas for how to stimulate creativity and produce creative work including practical exercises that anyone can apply, no matter their craft.

Here are three key takeaways:


1. Establish a Good Start-up Ritual

 The first obstacle to creativity is fear. Fear of the empty stage, white paper, blank screen. Fear leads to distractions, procrastination, and paralysis – all excuses to avoid doing something that might fail. But it is also the barrier to doing anything at all.

A good start-up ritual immediately bypasses those fear-generated obstacles and prepares you to do the hard work creativity requires. Tharp tells the story of the writer Paul Auster never leaving the house without a pencil. As a kid he always wanted to be able to get an autograph. But he credits that simple habit as being the reason he became a writer. He says, “if there’s a pencil in your pocket, there’s a good chance that one day you’ll feel tempted to start using it.”

Instead of putting a pencil in your pocket you might say a mantra, visit a place, or do an activity. But the point is to develop and stick to a “start-up ritual that impels you forward every day,” bypassing obstacles and entering a receptive, open state of mind ready to capture the first spark of an idea.


2. Think Small to Think Big

Sometimes, in spite of your diligent preparation, the Big Idea doesn’t come when you want it to. So Tharp recommends “scratching” for little ideas that might trigger the beginning of a larger one. The trick is to first immerse yourself in references, materials, and experiences that interest you. The goal is simple: uncover the smallest idea that inspires you to start working and the rest will follow.

Tharp illustrates her point by including a story Robert Pirsig tells in his book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

When Pirsig was teaching a university course in Montana he had a student who struggled to complete an essay about the United States. He advised her to focus on something smaller — their hometown of Bozeman. When she was still stuck, he suggested the town’s main street. Finally, out of anger and frustration, he told her to “start with the upper left-hand brick” of the opera house on that main street. That worked! Afterwards she said she “started writing about the first brick, and the second brick, and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn’t stop.”


3. Be Prepared for Luck

You need to know how to prepare to be creative. But you also have to be prepared to be lucky. Meaning, you have to be ready to let go of your plans so you can seize the happy accidents that will transform your work into something more.

One of Tharp’s rules for “scratching” is a great example of how good creative habits prepare you to be lucky – she says to always scratch for more than one idea and then look for ways to combine them. “Luck” may take the form of a perplexing contrast, unexpected intersection, or poetic metaphor that launches a brand new area of exploration.

In spite of years of high-quality arts education, my teachers never taught me a process for coming up with ideas. They taught me how to talk about ideas and craft them. But they expected that my ideas would come purely from talent and inspiration, not discipline. I now realize how odd and disappointing that is.

That’s probably why one of the most profound professional experiences I’ve had was documenting my team’s creative process and then teaching it to others. I developed that process over years and decades of life experience, trial and error, and the valuable input of other creative people who had already successfully done the same.

“The Creative Habit” is accessible, universal, and practical. Tharp is refreshingly transparent and generous in sharing her own creative process. Her ideas are applicable to any creative discipline. And her exercises support and strengthen any creative pursuit.

I only wish I read it sooner—and it taught me to dance a little better.

I want to remember what I read. So I doodle key takeaways on Post-it® notes and stick them to my wall. Hunting for the ideas keeps me engaged, doodling them is fun, and looking at them later makes me feel good. I figured: Why not share them?


4 Takeaways from “Epic Content Marketing” by Joe Pulizzi

Although I prefer a good novel to a marketing book, reading Epic Content Marketing by Joe Pulizzi was not terrible even on a beautiful summer afternoon. Plus, it satisfied a crucial metric for me: translating the key concepts to doodles was fun and satisfying.

First, Pulizzi spends some time helpfully defining what content marketing is and what it’s not. He includes a few similar definitions so you can pick what works best for you. Here’s a mash-up that I like:

Content marketing is creating and delivering interesting information that drives profitable customer action.

At a previous employer I had arguments with ex-journalists about the importance of driving action with our content, so appreciate the validation.

The rest of the book was equally strategic and tactical, easy to dig into or skim, and full of practical and actionable advice on how to run a content marketing program for companies large or small.

Although targeted to newbies with an accessible, empathic tone, there is enough there there to help those who have been at it for a while to reinforce, enhance, or tweak their approach.

I read it in one afternoon. And if I can, you can too. It’s good and not hard. And you’ll likely learn things.

Here are four key takeaways


1. Find your niche

Don’t be all things to all people. It’s kind of obvious, but also perhaps hard to remember when you feel you’re competing with the universe of content on the Internet. To be cost effective and useful and drive outcomes, you need to focus. Content marketing is no different from regular marketing. You need to know the problems your customer struggles with and where your business makes the most money. Pulizzi’s simple formula to develop your content strategy is 1) identify the questions your customers most frequently ask through search terms or, better yet, just talking to them, 2) figure out which ones relate best to the products or services that make you the most money, and then 3) develop content that fits that niche.


2. Plan it out

Plot your customers and their questions against phases in the purchase path. And then figure out if those are really the most important questions at each of those times. You should plot each persona separately. You can do this in a simple chart — personas down the Y axis and phases of the purchase path with corresponding questions along the X axis. Then, at each of the intersecting points figure out what answers you can provide and in what format. Content marketing is often mostly a lead gen and retention thing, so you may notice that there is more to do at either end of the cycle than in the middle.


3. Reuse and recycle

Once you have a good story you want to tell, re-purpose it in as many formats as possible. Turn a white paper into a series of videos or a webinar. Turn an e-book into a SlideShare (which Pulizzi says is a vastly underutilized format in B2B marketing, by the way). Turn everything into social media posts. And then keep at it to maximize its value. Everything should always point back to your owned channels.


4. Measure what matters

Data and analytics are critical, but can be overwhelming. Some is more important than others, and is useful for different audiences. Ultimately, the primary metric should be if your content is increasing profits and customer happiness. Everything else is a means to get there. Secondary metrics could be increasing or improving leads or saving costs or time to purchase. And supporting those could be metrics around views, likes, rankings, visits, shares, etc. The point is, don’t get caught in the weeds and miss the big picture. And, especially when you’re managing up to the executive level, primary metrics are the most relevant.

Satisfied, validated, and perhaps a tad smarter, I’m going back to Jazz by the brilliant and inspiring Toni Morrison. May she rest in peace.

I want to remember what I read. So I doodle key takeaways on Post-it® notes and stick them to my wall. Hunting for the ideas keeps me engaged, doodling them is fun, and looking at them later makes me feel good. I figured: Why not share them?