I was motivated years ago to think differently about teaching when I began comparing the teaching of writing (which I do at a college) with the teaching of dance (which I do at my own studio). I had an inkling, a faint perception that these two disciplines were deeply and inherently related — “fundamentally akin” is the phrase I have used more than once. In allowing my internal comparative analysis to evolve over time and for that inkling to deepen and solidify into more workable concepts, I realized that writing and dancing intersect with regard to two critical elements: creativity and performance, my two favorite things!
Indeed, these two categories — creativity and performance — can actually encompass, or at least touch, nearly every aspect of human experience. We don’t even need to think grandly to find that claim to be true. We know that writing a novel is an act of creativity and we know that the star of an opera surely has an understanding of performance. But even a simple text message, a voicemail, or even a mere wave down the street can be both creative and performative. In each of these instances, we share a feeling, we communicate a thought, we dare to affect someone else. And we change our selves as well. All creative and performative acts change the world, even if only in small ways and even if that world only exists within a person or within our selves.
But to create and to perform means much more than to communicate. Because in rendering these, we invite ourselves to go through an experience. By “experience,” I mean a true “living through,” a moment or series of moments occurring for a real body in a real time and place and with real transformative effects. We could, therefore, further define “experience” as a “living through” with “time spent,” “changes felt,” and “knowledge gained.” Of course, all experience is enabled by the senses. We, as humans, do not download bits of data in a stream of ones and zeros. No, there’s really nothing reducible about our infinitely rich sensations synthesized into a world of perceptions, narratives, thoughts, and feelings. With all of these emerging, interacting, and both enhancing and inhibiting each other, the complex phenomena of the human inner world is impossible to apprehend in its entirety. And their inherent nature as subjective processes defy measurement, categorization, and objective empirical study. No wonder we often describe intense experiences as “magical moments.” Fleeting, ephemeral, and mystified, our most transformative experiences thwart scientific convention and expose its limitations.
I’m not against science by any means. If my scientist friends and colleagues present a vaccine for a deadly disease, backed up by data showing its safety, efficiency, and necessity, I’ll take it! Science is good at creating vaccines. Science is good at a lot of things. Its practices and perspectives save countless lives every day and make life a vastly better experience for us all. But can science usefully dissect and analyze the transformative internal experience of an eight-year-old dancer performing for the first time on the stage? Can we measure in numbers the degree to which she is changed forever? Can we discern, with any sort of meaningful accuracy, the categories of shifts in perspective that will shape her perception of herself for years to come? No. And such is the elusive, magical miracle of human subjectivity.
This kind of thinking is how I came to see writing, dancing, and all the arts — as well as creativity and performance — as “subjective skills.” That’s what I teach — subjective skills. You may have heard the phrase “soft skills” in professional settings. I laugh out loud when I hear that phrase; there is nothing “soft” about “people” skills! They are hard. Hard, both in terms of difficulty to master, and hard in terms of the obstinate fearlessness required to change how we feel and act in the world. So, subjective skills it is — the skills involved in the experience of being a human in this infinitely complex world. That’s what I teach.
So with this expansive, yet barely adequate vision of what I’m in interested in, we begin to see the relevance and connections to the “hard” disciplines. All human endeavors are inherently subjective. Let me emphasize this through repetition: all human endeavors are inherently subjective. The mathematician’s insatiable drive fueled by curiosity, the biologist’s passionate love for living things, the physician’s noble quest to save lives, the physicist’s fascination with the rules of engagement governing invisible particles — these are all intensely powerful and personal feelings. Human motivation, no matter the context, transcends even the most sophisticated of formulae. Whether designing an experiment, presenting a paper, or performing a surgical procedure, we are all creators and performers.
I think creativity and performance, with all their experiential and transformative elements and potentials, are worth studying for their own sakes as well for the sake of understanding and bettering all of human inquiry and achievement. Put that way, is there a more universally relevant set of interests and questions than that of “subjective skills?” Personally, I don’t think so, and that’s why it’s so easy to find myself as enchanted and enamored (aren’t these words subjective as hell?) with the prospect of teaching them.
Can such things ever be taught? I can hear you asking the question in your head right now. No, of course not. But they can be discussed, engaged with, and practiced. We can become acquainted with the realities of being human the same way we become acquainted with any individual human. We spend time with them, we ask questions, we figure out which parts we like best, and we allow ourselves to be led by our own intuitive feelings. As a creativity consultant and teacher (work with which I am wholeheartedly in love), I can’t teach you to be creative or to perform. But I can introduce you to these concepts and their entire network of friends. I can create an atmosphere conducive to exploring, engaging, and enchanting. I can invite you to mingle with the unfamiliar but fascinating. It’s a party — a mingling of scintillating personalities — I hope you’ll never want to leave.