7 Things the Ballet Can Teach Us About Work
The best performances reflect an approach to success worth emulating
I love the fall season in New York. Everything seems to come back to life once September rolls around and the arts kick into high gear, igniting the city with blasts of creative energy. People begin flocking to music, theater and dance performances.
A few weeks ago, I went to see the San Francisco Ballet (SFB) at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater during its first visit to New York in five years. The SFB is America’s oldest professional company and has achieved great acclaim for its overall excellence and emphasis on new ballet choreography.
The thrilling three-part program I saw, a mixed bill of two classically oriented dances (“Trio” and “Suite en Blanc”) and a contemporary one (“Ghosts”), was utterly captivating.
(MORE: Why a Love of the Arts Will Help Your Brain Age Better)
Ballet Is a Microcosm of Successful Approaches to Work
Are you familiar with the famed song “At the Ballet” from the award-winning Broadway musical, A Chorus Line? It depicts ballet (and ballet lessons) as an antidote to a problem-riddled childhood because, as the chorus says, “Everything was beautiful at the ballet.”
Well, everything is beautiful at the ballet. But that exquisite perfection is the result of a great deal of creative intelligence, effort and teamwork.
As I watched and admired SFB's virtuosic performances and lush costumes, sets and music, it struck me that the total package encapsulated all the values and steps I believe make for career success. Here they are:
1. Listen intently. Ballet dancers hinge every move and gesture on the musical score’s rhythm and emotion and the choreographer’s instruction. To do otherwise would result in failure.
We tend to forget how much we can learn by simply paying attention to others’ concepts and expert guidance, particularly in these tech-driven times when so much is competing for our attention. Lending an ear and being truly "present" to what others are saying are vital for learning new skills and absorbing valuable ideas at work. They're also great ways to make your colleagues feel respected and spur their productive cooperation. So, lean in, make eye contact, speak less and listen conscientiously.
2. Take many steps. Top ballet dancers don’t think in terms of reducing the number of steps in the dances they perform nor do they believe they can cut back on their practice and rehearsal sessions and still manage to excel on stage. The SFB website explains: “Dancers' lives are full of daily ballet technique classes and rehearsals. A typical workday can start with an hour-long class, followed by four to six hours of rehearsal, often concluding with a two-hour evening performance.
“It takes roughly 8 to 10 years of training to become a professional ballet dancer. Training ideally begins when a student is between the ages of 7 and 10. Beginners attend technique class once or twice a week. By the time a student is 15 years of age, he or she will be taking 10-15 classes per week.”
There are no shortcuts to achieving excellence. Keeping your footing while spinning and performing gravity-defying ballet acts requires sustained focus, practice and perseverance. So does developing and executing elegant, simple and helpful solutions in other fields.
“A large part of a ballet dancer’s job is to make the difficult look easy, says the SFB site. "Ballet dancers strive to create the illusion of effortlessness.” Continuous effort while holding the bar high also enable workers in other fields to create masterful products and services.
(MORE: How to Master Anything at Any Age)
3. Collaborate face-to-face. The ballet is all about direct contact between dancers, but that kind of partnership and collaboration is becoming a rarity in many other occupations.
Our tech tools allow us to connect with anyone but the typical manner in which we communicate these days — via teleconferencing, instant messaging, emailing and texting from cubicles, home offices and vehicles — often reduces the effectiveness of teamwork and distracts us from focusing on a bigger picture.
I believe it’s important to meet colleagues both in person and on Skype on a more regular basis than many workers now do. Nothing beats face-to face contact and interaction when it comes to brainstorming, resolving problems and building both team spirit and a sense that ownership of one's work matters.
4. Smile through it. Ballet dancers perform stunningly difficult maneuvers with total grace and a smile on their faces. You'll never see a grimace or hear a sigh when watching a top troupe take on unfathomable challenges. They want to delight the audience — a display of suffering wouldn't help their cause.
There’s a vital takeaway for any kind of worker here: No one but the already miserable (who, as we know, prefer like-minded company) wants to be around a complainer.
There may be a lot to moan about at your job, but whining will not improve things. First, make the decision to be happy, focus on reducing your overall stress level and developing a more exuberant, grateful attitude. Then lend a critical eye to your own performance and do everything you can to improve it. Finally, team up with others who want to iron out the kinks in your organization and brainstorm ways to achieve that goal.
(MORE: Unconventional Career Advice You Need to Hear)
5. Show some leg. I love how ballet costumes swirl, swish and cling, highlighting the magnificent muscular bodies of the dancers while also revealing their emotional core.
In the workplace, it’s vital to reveal and tap into your humanity. This is especially true when you hold a leadership position. Expert skills and an excellent work ethic are important, but nothing will take you further than revealing your human side. Avoid arrogance and defensiveness, own up to your mistakes, display warmth and empathy for your colleagues, solicit their ideas and be open to learning from them.
6. Lend a hand, take an outstretched one. Ballet dancers lift, entwine, lean on and support one another. That makes them terrific role models for what we need to emphasize in our own work environments. We should cheer one another on, provide constructive feedback, collaborate and mentor one another with the objective of enabling everyone to reach their potential. We should also be willing to ask for help when we need it.
7. Stay active, keep moving. The ballet stage is filled with action and the dancers never stop practicing to perfect their moves. You need to own your body to own your mind. Energize yourself and your environment by prioritizing fitness. Sit less — prolonged periods of sitting steal our health. Keep learning new skills. And take initiative to move yourself and your work forward. Sustaining motivation is in large part a matter of visualizing your goals and breaking them down into smaller steps.
A new ballet season begins in January. Below is a lovely video preview of the San Francisco Ballet’s upcoming performances. I hope it’ll inspire you to take some of the steps I mentioned.