Creativity and Training Part 2
How do we get where we want to go?
This past week I ran a tap dance intensive for local tap dancers in the Boise, ID area. Dancers who were eager, enthusiastic, and skilled, came together to be challenged, learn, and grow. They desired the challenge of new ideas, deeper understanding, and physical prowess. The participants were kids. Still, they were focused and intent on learning. Over the course of the week, they changed. They learned that they could do more than they had before. They learned new ideas and began to see and hear things differently. They became different kinds of tap dancers.
For some of the sessions during the week I brought a friend, Justin Nielsen, to work with the participants. Justin is a phenomenal pianist with whom I’ve worked numerous times over the past few years. He has an ear for tap dancers and a joy for teaching – quite the unique combination. Justin offered the opportunity to play with each participant (one-on-one) for them to experience what it was like to improvise with a musician. This is a very important skill for tap dancers – playing with musicians – but something that is hard to learn or practice today. If you are coming up, and interested in such things, there just aren’t that many places to go to do this, nor enough people who can do this well to help guide you. But there we were, Justin and I, and a group of eager tap dancers waiting for the chance to play.
Improvisation is the act of making choices that were not pre-determined or preconceived, within a given context. Sometimes improvisation is expressed by the things that we do when we aren’t consciously thinking about what we should do. I see Tap Dance Land as an amazing microcosm for the study of improvisation. There is a form – the art of Tap Dance – that provides context from history and tradition, content from vocabulary, ideas about what is good from standards of execution, and much more. Tap dancing is not something that many people are immersed in. For most, we must learn how to enter and exist in Tap Dance Land. To learn, we engage in training. We train so that we can later make our own choices about how we dance. We can’t just do whatever we want. That would be an outright denial of the reality of the context of Tap Dance Land. Instead, we spend time taking on aspects of the craft so that our choices moving forward are relevant and related to the context we are in. To do this, we engage with the history and tradition, vocabulary, and standards of execution. Our choices begin to bear evidence of coming from some place – this experience of engagement. Others who also know where our choices are coming from will take notice. Even people who don’t know, will notice a particular quality around our choices – a kind of rootedness if nothing else.
Improvisation can be seen as the fountain of creativity. After all, when someone improvises, new things are just coming out of them like an endless flow of inspiration. What we don’t see are the hours upon hours of training that an improviser goes through, immersing themselves in their respective crafts. This training is different than the commonly quoted (and more recently debunked) 10,000 hours required for mastery. Training for improvisation is not a function of repeating the same pieces of content over and over again. After all improvisation is making choices that are not pre-determined.
What stays consistent is the context, and this is the first thing that we train. Once we understand our context deeply, we can begin to think about our choices. Getting better at improvisation may be described as making better choices. Making better choices is a function of change. How we think about choice-making and the process of change will guide us towards making better choices. Here are a few things I’ve encountered while exploring this area of my own life.
I Am Already Making Choices
I am continually in a process of choice-making. From the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep, choices are what I do. Many things work upon me to affect my choices, and many choices happen without much effort or attention on my part – like flying on autopilot. Nevertheless, all of my day is filled with choices. Change then, may begin with paying attention to the choices I am already making. As I pay attention, I can sort my choices based on a number of different metrics. What choices am I okay with having made while on autopilot? What choices do I want to be more conscious of? What choices am I making that seem to be beneficial to me and others? What choices, not so much? What choices incur little risk? What choices require much more? These questions help me focus my attention and energy as I pick which choices are important, which ones I want to change, and which ones I can leave to my autopilot.
I Have To Interrupt My Current Choices
As I become aware of my choices and begin to sort them, I come upon choices that I want to change. These may be things I do that I’d like to stop doing, or things that I don’t do that I’d like to start. These may be actions as simple as stopping using the word “like” when talking, or starting to wave to a neighbors when I see them, for example. In order to make such changes I must interrupt the habits of thought, feeling, and action that lead me to them in the first place. The ease with which we can make choices is built upon these habits. The patterns the support these habits are difficult to break. Interrupting the patterns might feel uncomfortable, dramatic, or annoying, but is necessary for any change to occur.
I Have To Envision A New Way
An interruption is useless without a vision for a different way. If we are not filled with a new idea, a new kind of choice, or a new outcome to hope for, why go through the trouble of the interruption in the first place? Being free of the habit is good, but without a vision that replaces it, we are left more susceptible to returning to the habit even after being free. A vision places something good, something that we want, in our minds eye. The preciseness of the vision is important. It enables precise goals to be expressed which in turn require precise intention and aim to hit. We can know when we have achieved the desired shift. We can know when our vision has come to life. Without a vision we are stuck in some kind of cycle, seeing our choices, interrupting them, but then returning again to our same choices, only to try to interrupt them again later, with no end to cycle.
A Daily Process
Making better choices is a daily process. It takes ongoing intention. We have to continually decide to make better choices. We have to want to stick with the process. We have to deeply desire to become the kind of better person we envision for ourselves. Change is not a one-and-done process. It is the inner workings of conscious formation. We get to be involved in this process. A big part of that engagement is deciding to do it. Every day. Every moment. Who we are becoming is always happening. We are always becoming. If we are working to change, then we are always involved in that change. The process is always happening.
One thing is important to say here. Rest is a key aspect of this process. Maybe we don’t succeed in our endeavor on a given day. Rest, and begin again in the morning. Maybe our energy is depleted after trying for a time. Rest, and begin again later. Self-awareness, interruptions, inner transformation, change – these are not for the faint of heart. But neither are they for the over achiever or perfectionist, necessarily. Love is a necessary undercurrent for any of this as we saw last week (LINK). The distortions that arise in love’s absence as we attempt to engage in inner change can lead to much unnecessary pain. With love present, the balance of engagement and rest will bring life to the process of change in a way that is good for us, and those around us.
With love undergirding our daily process towards a clear vision that fuels the interruption of our habit of thoughts, feelings, and actions, what is left that is needed? Specific means. That is, the specific resources one needs to enact the change. If we are trying to acquire knowledge, do we have access to that knowledge – through books, videos, or a teacher? Or are we at a lack of resources? If we are trying to change a particular way in which we relate, do we have the resources – maybe friends or a mentor – that can help support or guide us through the process of inner transformation? These specific means are exceptionally important. Without them all our visioning and intention will go for naught. The more specific we are with identifying the means we require, the more likely the journey will be focused and efficient.
Focusing on the Vision and the Process
This is it. This is the training – that is, the process of growth that happens so that when we come to make choices (whether in Tap Dance Land or outside of it), we make better ones. There are a lot of moving parts, and many things come to bear on this process. Engaging with such training will require time and space. It may mess with things that may have been neatly arranged. It will require journeying deep into the inner landscape of oneself. At many stages of the journey there will be desired outcomes, failed attempts, successes, and pleasant surprises.
Focusing on the vision, who we want to become, and the process, the way in which we get there, can help. Specific outcomes of attempts to change – and our attachment to those outcomes – whether they were successful or not, mean less than how they fit into the larger journey. For example, this is my vision: To be the kind of person for whom good choices are the natural outpouring of my own being. The choices are easy, require little thought, and aren’t seen as heavy lifts. This vision keeps me excited. I hold on to the idea that this is actually possible, and find energy to do whatever may be needed to get me there. Some days it is little more than holding my tongue. Other days it is finding the right words. On even other days, it is stepping away from work to rest or stepping into work with more focused energy. Some days I make better choices than the day before. Some days not so much. Reminding myself of my vision – keeping it before my mind’s eye – while also remembering whole journey help’s me stay hopeful.
For the follower of Jesus there is deeper thread. Our vision of who we are to become is tied to the revelation we have of who Jesus is. We can keep Jesus before our mind’s eye, and allow our vision of Jesus to draw us towards who we are to become. As followers, we become who we become in light of who Jesus is. The two things are deeply connected.
That said, I will leave you with these three questions to ponder for yourself.
What kind of person do you want to become?
What kind of creativity would you like to flow out of you?
What kind of training will get you there?
If you’d like to share your answers, feel to do so in the comments, or drop me a note here.