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Blog // Adaptability
December 3, 2020

Twyla Tharp On Choosing Which Friends To Keep

We all know the childhood advice to choose our friends carefully. Twyla Tharp suggests we should be just as careful when choosing which friends to keep.

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp is the first book I recommend when asked about the creative process. It’s full of lessons and examples from Tharp’s long and illustrious career in choreography and dance. The Creative Habit is also completely free of the usual abstractions, clichés, and romanticisation of art you often find in books about creativity.

So when Tharp released a book on growing older (Tharp is now 79), it promised to be something special.

Keep It Moving: Lessons for The Rest of Your Life doesn’t disappoint. With a beautiful mix of honesty, wit, and just the right amount of storytelling, Tharp lights up a path for us to follow towards enjoying our transition to old age.

Tharp On Choosing Which Friends To Keep

Keep It Moving is a rebellious and counter-cultural book. Tharp contends that society encourages people to become quieter, smaller, less mobile and more conservative as they get older. In contrast, Tharp’s advice pushes against this, encouraging you to express yourself, take up the space you are entitled to, and continue to move and enjoy your body.

One piece of advice in particular stands out – selectively revising the circle of people you spend time with.

Tharp uses the example of dancers who, as they age, are fighting the decline of their physical ability. It’s a battle they will lose. The best a dancer can do is lengthen the window of time when their experience and skill allow them to dance at the highest level, but when injury and the inevitable process of slowing down haven’t robbed them of the ability to perform.

Tharp says they can only do this with a positive attitude. If the dancer indulges their doubts or feelings of uncertainty, or internalises the negative attitudes of people around them, then they won’t have the energy for the fight. They will give in early.

Saying no to negativity and people’s negative attitudes is the same as saying no to bad food or other bad habits. It’s an investment in your potential.

“The older I get, the more I say no.”
– Twyla Tharp

The Wisdom Of Choosing Your Friends Carefully

The wisdom around carefully choosing the people you spend time is deep and vast. Jim Rohn famously said, “You are the average of the five people you spend time with.” Study after study confirmed that the people in your social circle are predictors for your weight, your health and your happiness.

In Algorithms to Live By, Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths describe the way people have smaller social networks as they age. This isn’t, as commonly explained, because of some deficit in older people’s way of life. Rather, it’s the result the way older people “…strategically and adaptively cultivate their social networks to maximize social and emotional gains and minimize social and emotional risks.”

When I wrote Seven Kinds of People You Need in Your Creative Universe back in 2011, one thing that stood out was the response from creative people I admired. Artists, craftspeople, musicians, and folks who had started and ran successful creative business all agreed that being intentional about the people in your life, and particularly those you called friends, was crucial to being at your best and doing your best work.

Tharp’s Method For Auditing Your Social Circle

How do you decide which friends and acquaintances to keep? Tharp suggests you let dopamine do the work for you. Draw two columns on a piece of paper. Go through the people you know, and notice how you feel about the prospect of seeing them. The ones who make you feel good go in the right column. The ones who don’t go on the left.

What matters here is how positive the people make you feel. Not how nice, or pretty, or popular they are, but how interesting, inspiring and stimulating their company is.

Now look at both lists and think about where you spend the most time. Is it with ‘…people who bring the best out of you or people who bring you down?’

It Begins With Saying No

Tharp says you should ‘give yourself permission to say no’ to people on the negative side of your list. It says a lot that we feel we need permission to do this. But it’s so true.

None of this is easy. Saying no to people is hard. It might take some effort to reconfigure your social life. But to maximise the creativity and freedom you experience, you need to minimise your exposure to cynicism and negativity.

As Parker J. Palmer puts it, we build our well-being by ‘…choosing each day things that enliven one’s selfhood and resisting things that do not.’

In the same way that we invest in our physical health by eating well and exercising, we also invest in our emotional health by consuming good ideas and spending time with people who inspire our potential.

And, as we get older, taking care of health becomes more urgent than ever.

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