Twyla Tharp on Creative Motivations

As part of the new direction on 43 Folders, Merlin Mann recently highlighted this video interview with choreographer Twyla Tharp. In my view, Tharp’s book The Creative Habit is essential reading for anyone who takes their creativity seriously. Her advice is based on years of hard work and stellar creative achievement.

Tharp talks about the classic conflict between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations that all successful creators must resolve. (The discussion of motivation starts at 1.07 on the video.)

Intrinsic motivation means you love doing the work for its own sake, regardless of what others think and whether you are rewarded for it. Extrinsic motivation refers to the rewards you can gain from your creative work. Money is the most obvious one, but artists and creatives also yearn for other extrinsic motivations such as fame and recognition:

it is a slippery slope … those who are going after something because they want something else from it – they want recognition, they want reputation, they want glamour, they want money, they want success – instead of just doing the job at hand and seeing whether these things come along with it. It’s about making the dance, in my case, that you’re really curious about and trusting that others will be interested in it and that if it has a sincerity and a truthfulness to it and if you really tried something in it – and guess what? You guessed right! And it has a really wonderful feel to it people will sense that and all this other stuff will come. But if you’re working in the studio for notions that it’s going to engender X dollars – X dollars have nothing to do with making a dance. They do however have to do with paying for the studio, trying to afford the dancers, some kind of income, paying your own bills, so yes it’s a problem.

Tharp is the voice of experience, but you may be interested to know that creativity researchers agree with her – studies have shown that people are usually more creative when focused on intrinsic motivations (absorbed in the work itself) than when they are focused on extrinsic motivations (executing work for a paid commission, or in order to gain status or recognition).

Thanks to Merlin for pointing out the interview. He also draws our attention to a free sample of the first chapter of Tharp’s book The Creative Habit .

You and Your Motivations

Do you recognise the conflict between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations?

How do you put aside the distractions of money, fame etc and stay focused on the work itself?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post


  1. I am a spiritual/self-help writer/speaker. I find my creative habit or state of mind most glorious, even exulted, when I hold a tension in my consciousness between the thought I am articulating and the audience who is receiving it. I am not the “creator” but the creative servant of both.

    This is most apparent when I find myself in a state of surprise at what I am saying or writing. Or when in my counseling work or workshop facilitating, I design an excercise or meditation that is perfect to the transformative experience.

    The challenge for me is accepting and responding to the reward of gratitude. People come up to me saying I have “changed” their life, or “healed” a deep wound.

    Yes, I am an artist and I am able to make “perceptible” things and meanings that did not “exist” before. It is my talent, my destiny and my devotion. Artists make things perceptible – we bring things to light for our audiences.

    I do face the dilemma of meeting my needs and placing extrinsic value on my “creations” and my talents. Most of my life I have lived as if all money I earned was “profit” and failed to make a primary consideration recognizing and meeting my needs. This has been foolish. There is no selfishness in meeting my needs.

    Again the relationship to my audience grounds me. When I place a price on my work I help my audience perceive anticipatory value. It heightens their attention. They get “more” from the artistic experience from their investment of attention and money.

    Maybe the future will bring a new level of consciousness to us all. All artists should be supported. All creative energy brings benefit to humanity and the future – whether the “creations” are deemed brilliant like Twyla’s or ordinary. We must nurture artistic impulse and skill because the future requires imagination. As citizens we call for education that brings out the artist in each child of which the greatest model is Waldorf Education.

    Enough for now. Thanks for inspiring my thoughts. Twyla is amazing.

  2. Faith

  3. “Do what you love and the money will follow” — occasionally.

    Having fun for fun’s sake is called a “hobby”.

    Even when I’m focused on a creative activity related to my business, I ask myself, “How will this contribute to the bottom line?”

    I use creativity to generate lots of ideas. Then I analyze them for their revenue potential.

    I like the motto, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

  4. Of course I want my blog to be profitable. But, when I sit down to write — I enjoy the process and expressing my thoughts.

    I think it comes down to loving what you do. If you love what you are doing, the final product will have the potential to be at its best. If the only thing driving you is money, it will probably turn out lackluster.

  5. Of course I want my blog to be profitable. But, when I sit down to write — I enjoy the process and expressing my thoughts.

    Nicely put. Extrinsic motivation is often what drives us to sit down at the desk. But once we’re there, it’s time for the joy of work to take over …

  6. When I actually enjoy the process of my creation, it certainly puts me into the flow, and I feel particularly fortunate. But even if the process lacks enjoyment, the end result is usually reward in itself (extrinsic?). If I also get recognition from others and/or make money with it, it is the icing on the cake.

  7. Yes, of course that tension is always there. I am an artist and a writer and i also teach classes in intuitive expressive painting. I want to be wildly successful and make scads of money being who I am and doing exactly what I do.

    When I bemoan the fact that I don’t have hordes of people banging down my door wanting to participate in my painting workshops my husband always reminds me that “You’re not selling crack cocaine”, by which he means that I’m not selling people an easy creative fix and that what I am offering is challenging on psychological, emotional and creative levels.

    And when I am particularly frustrated I might spend a half day or so walking around and muttering and wondering how I can change what I do to make it more attractive to a larger audience.

    And then I remember that doing that means it won’t be any fun for me because it will no longer be creatively satisfying.

    And then I go back to the joy of creating what I want to create, and birthing my own authentic vision into the world, and getting lost in the joy of tapping into my own creative source and once again, all is right with the world.

    Thanks for another thoughtful post. And yes, just LOVE Twyla Tharpe’s book!

  8. You’re not selling crack cocaine

    Sage advice – I’ll have to use that (with attribution to your husband of course 🙂 ) with my clients!