The Collaborative Habit: A book review by Bob Morris

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The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together
Twyla Tharp
Simon & Schuster (2009)

“In the end, all collaborations are love stories”…at least the best of them are, and they must be.

As is my custom when a new year begins, I recently re-read this book and The Creative Habit while preparing questions for interviews of thought leaders. The insights that Twyla Tharp shares in them are, if anything, more valuable now than when the books were first published.

It would be a mistake to ignore the reference to “habit” in their titles because almost three decades of research conducted by K. Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University clearly indicate that, on average, at least 10,000 hours of must be invested in “deliberate,” iterative practice under strict and expert supervision to achieve peak performance, be it playing a game such as chess or a musical instrument such as the violin. Natural talent is important, of course, as is luck. However, with rare exception, it takes about ten years of sustained, focused, supervised, and (yes) habitual practice to master the skills that peak performance requires.

Tharp is both a dancer and a choreographer and thus brings two authoritative, indeed enlightened perspectives to her discussion of the life lessons for working together. Many of the same requirements for effective collaboration on classic Disney animated films such as Snow White and Pinocchio must also be accommodated when members of a symphony orchestra and of a ballet company collaborate on a performance of Stravinsky’s The Firebird.

Tharp characterizes herself as a “career collaborator” who identifies problems, organizes them, and solves them by working with others. Many of the stories she shares in this book “involve the world of dance, but you don’t have to know anything about dance to get the pint. Work is work.”  Her book, she suggests, “is a field guide to a lit of issues that surface when you are working in a collaborative environment.” She proceeds to explain why collaboration is important to her – “and, I’ll bet, to you.” Her narrative is enriched by dozens of memorable anecdotes from her career as dancer/choreographer but almost any reader can identify with her experiences, especially with her struggles.

She addresses subjects and related issues that include

o What collaboration is and why it matters (also what it isn’t)
o How and why collaborations challenge and change us (for better or worse)
o How to work effectively with a “remote” collaborator

Note: Given the latest communication technologies (e.g. Cisco’s TelePresence), “remote” does not mean “distant” but physical separation makes mutual respect and trust even more important to those involved.

o How to collaborate with an institution by overcoming problems with infrastructure, intermediaries, and a “deeply en grained” culture
o How to collaborate with a community (e.g. an audience)
o How to collaborate with friends (there’s both “good news” and “bad news”)

In the final chapter, “Flight School: Before Your Next Collaboration,” Tharp stresses the importance of involving others in our efforts. “By standing in our way and confronting us, talking with us as friends [who care enough to tell us what we may not want to hear] or by collaborating with us, other people can help us grind our flaws to more manageable size. For example, my lifelong collaboration with Frank Sinatra.” I’ll say no more about that. Read the book to learn more.

As is also true of The Creative Habit, this is a book to re-read at least once a year, if not more frequently. Beyond its immense entertainment value, it offers rock-solid advice on collaboration, a human relationship that is more important now than ever before in every area of our society. Thank you, Twyla Tharp, for so much…including the fact that you are Twyla Tharp and share so much of yourself in your books and even more in the art you continue to create. Bravo!

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Twyla Tharp, one of America’s greatest choreographers, began her career in 1965, and has created more than 130 dances for her company as well as for the Joffrey Ballet, The New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, London’s Royal Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre. She has won two Emmy awards for television’s Baryshnikov by Tharp program, and a Tony Award for the Broadway musical Movin’ Out. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 1993 and was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1997. She lives and works in New York City. Her books include Push Comes to Shove: An Autobiography (1992) as well as The Creative Habit and, more recently, The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together, also published by Simon & Schuster (2009). The last two are available in a paperbound edition.


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