Translating the Creative Process with John Michael Schert


John Michael Schert (@jmschert) is a ballet dancer who studies and teaches the creative process.

John Michael is a classically trained ballet dancer, having performed with the American Ballet Theater, one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world. He moved on to become a founding member at Cedar Lake Ballet, and for four years performed with Alonzo King LINES ballet.

In 2004 John Michael co-founded the Trey McIntyre Project and served as the company’s executive director and dancer for 9 years. In that time he built a nationally recognized and sustainable arts organization, which toured in Vietnam, China, the Philippines, South Korea, around the US, and which was recognized by publications like the New York Times and PBS. But what is to me even more impressive is the impact that Trey McIntire Project had on local communities, especially in their hometown of Boise, Idaho. The company paved the way for the impact an artistic endeavor can make within a community.

Since the fall of 2013 John Michael has stepped away from his performance career and become a visiting artist and social entrepreneur at the Chicago Booth School of Business where he mentors students and works with faculty to examine the creative process. Recently he has been speaking from stages and consulting around the world on the underutilization of artists and the creative process within business. We met because he was a keynote speaker at last year’s Design for Dance conference.

Always Be Cross-Training – How Multiple Disciplines Will Help You Succeed

I am always cross-training. I’ve just returned taking letters to the post-office, meaning that I ran there and ran back. I could have used Shyp or driven to the Post Office but it took less time to run, and besides, I was cross-training.

I don’t mean cross-training in just the traditional sense. While I do find it valuable to run in addition to studying ballet, I was actually doing a lot more. If we could have fMRIs while I was running we would have seen a lot more activity than from just my running circuits. I was training. Specifically, I was training  jeté en tournant.

I cannot actually do jetés nearly to that degree, but I was mentally rehearsing even while running. A little like the scene in Billy Eliot where he is leaping down the street, whatever it is I am doing, I am always practicing.

There are always more obstacles, bigger challenges. You’re always fighting uphill. Get used to it and train accordingly.

The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

There is always going to be someone more talented than me. So I practice getting used to it, and train accordingly. I didn’t start dancing ballet at 8 years old like most professional dancers, or drop out of college to work for entrepreneurial titans like marketer Ryan Holiday. Consequently, to make up the time, I think critically and hustle.

Think Critically

Cross-training doesn’t just mean doing an activity that complements a primary purpose, like running might complement ballet. It also means thinking hard about specific directions you’d like to go. Though I’ve flirted with the idea of starting a new company, I haven’t done so because I’m not convinced that doing so is the best use of my time, talent and resources. Instead, I’ve begun to advise several other companies, simultaneously learning, cross-training a skill-set applicable for my own business, and helping out. All for a few hours a week.

As a result of a talk I gave at Design For Dance, I’ve begun to explore Design Thinking. Instead of spending $40,000 and two years in school, I’ve begun to get acquainted with the domain by readings – a lot! I might found another company company in the future and I might go back to school in design. Right now, I’m thinking about what I’m interested in and looking for the connections across disciplines. In other words, cross-training.

Becoming a Ballet Dancer – How I Study Ballet 7 Days A Week

I have been taking ballet class every single day for more than three months. This is an accomplishment the lack of which I often hear people bemoan in their exercise routines: they want to do more, but don’t. I’ve been there, too – wanting more exercise than I actually do. How, then, have I managed this seemingly heroic feat of fitness proficiency?

I also record regular videos of my practice at
I also record regular videos of my practice at

My answer is simple: I haven’t. It hasn’t felt like a challenge. It is no longer an insurmountable task for me to try to accomplishing a regular fitness schedule. It has not been a challenge. I see this also in my personal training clients – going to the gym and working out daily strikes many people as an impossible feat, but when they are actually exercising regularly it feels easy. What changed?

Pleasure in Movement

The biggest difference I see between people who exercise regularly and those who don’t is the pleasure in movement. This by itself won’t make the exercise habit, but the lack of pleasure will probably break it. If you haven’t found a form of movement or exercise that you enjoy, yet keep looking. I went through a dozen martial arts before find some that I wanted to study. I also have some thoughts on community, that shape the kinds of training I do.

Start small

Using the model, I made one small change at a time. Since I was already somewhat familiar with ballet, this meant taking one ballet class. When I found that I liked that, I scheduled one more. I had planned to just take one a week for three months. I quickly moved to 2 a week, 5 a week and now take between 7 and 9 classes each week. It is hard to believe at first, but when we start with (and celebrate) small changes, they quickly grow bigger and then can go exponential.

Begin With Yes

The next biggest thing is that I never ask myself “would I like to go to ballet.” Sometime if I’m injured or ill or out of town for work, I am not able to make a class. But when I’m home I never “Would I like to go” because sometimes the answer to that question is “No, I do not want to take ballet today. I do not want to get out of bed!” Instead, the tacit assumption I hold is “I’m going to ballet.” Or even: “I am going to ballet.” Starting from this standpoint it is much easier to actually get to class.

Beginning Ballet

I vividly remember the first time I stepped foot into a ballet studio. I was 18, a freshman in college, and so excited to have discovered a new world of dance. I was wearing tight corduroy pants that day and coming in off of my psychology 101 class. Curious, excited and not at all knowing what to expect I stepped into the ballet studio.

Now, I wonder how I ever went back after that first day. Shamefaced and humiliated to find that I was the only guy in a class full of beautiful women, doing movement that I had not known previous was possible for the human body to do. And I was trying to “dance” in corduroy, where my teacher and all of the students in the class were wearing tights.

And yet, I did go back. Something about that first class and my early exposure caught my imagination. The pointe shoes, the elongated legs, the fluidity of the students taking their arms in elegant circles. The students’ limbs seemed almost to reach beyond the boundaries of the room.

Pointe shoes (Photo: Kryziz Bonny)

I continued taking class all of the rest of that year and in fits and starts through the rest of college. Rarely did I step away from the barre, as ballet offered at Reed College was just a twice-weekly barre class – no practice working off the barre, no center work, and no leaps. And yet even that little bit was enough to instill in me an appreciation of ballet that has lasted more than ten years, and that will, I don’t doubt, last the rest of my life.