Many of us have been trying to figure out how to best sustain creativity and innovation amid changes in where, when, and how we work.
So it’s a timely moment for the arrival of a new book on creativity by record producer Frederick Jay “Rick” Rubin, a former co-president at Columbia Records with a remarkable resume of commercial and creative breakthroughs. The co-founder of Def Jam Recordings with Russell Simmons and one of the forces behind American hip-hop, Rubin and his collaborator Neil Strauss have written the new book The Creative Act: A Way of Being as an invitation to “Take art seriously without going about it in a serious way.” (p. 354)
The book is both too rambling in its structure and unsatisfyingly lacking enough behind-the-scenes music-industry anecdotes. But Rubin’s musings contain some helpful reminders for all of us, including for improving how we give feedback to our collaborators. Take it from Rubin, who has coached many sensitive, dramatic, and high-earning creators that, “When sharing observations, specificity creates space. It dissipates the level of emotional charge and enables us to work together in service of the piece.” (p. 376) When receiving feedback, “It may be helpful to step away, reset, and return with a neutral mind. Criticism allows us to engage with our work in a new way.” (p. 193)
A set of exercises offers practical guidance, including changing the time of day when you complete routine work tasks and inviting an audience. (“Even if your art is non-performative, such as writing or cooking, it will still likely change with an observer present.”) (p. 185)
Tips for people interested in learning from successful artists include:
- Know the difference between imitation and inspiration. Use your appreciation of someone else’s mastery to inspire improvements to your own work. Rubin writes that “The objective is not to learn to mimic greatness, but to calibrate our internal meter for greatness. So we can better make the thousands of choices that might ultimately lead to our own great work.” (p. 50) He shares an example of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys hearing the Beatles’ album Rubber Soul and thinking, “‘If I ever do anything in my life, I’m going to make that good an album,’” a thought that motivated Wilson to write the hit song ‘God Only Knows.’ (p. 238)
- Anxieties are natural and to be expected. Neuroses are often part of developing something new for popular consumption, Rubin writes. “Concerns about releasing a work into the world may be rooted in deeper anxieties. It could be a fear of being judged, misunderstood, ignored, or disliked. Will more ideas come? Will they ever be this good again? Will anyone even care?” (p. 196-7)
- Rest can offer a vital change in perspective. “Sometimes disengaging is the best way to engage” (p. 87) through meditation, vigorous exercise, time spent in nature, or pursuing an altogether different creative endeavor. Rubin also outlines the value in establishing alternate conditions to usual methods; in the workplace, this might take the form of changing a habitual writing style—switching from the comfort of long paragraphs to short ones, for example—or moving from a laptop to a legal pad.
- In addition to audio, recording should take the form of notes, too. Detailed note-taking enables fluidity later on. “When outside observers come into the studio, they often can’t believe how clinical the process looks. They imagine a big music party. But we’re constantly generating detailed notes to focus points and experiments to test,” says Rubin, who explains that almost every spoken word in studio sessions is written down. “Faithful note-taking by a connected observer helps prevent special moments from getting lost in the churn of excitement.” (p. 302)
The most useful part of the book is a list of non-starters, “thoughts and habits not conducive to the work.” (p. 139) Tips on the importance of working flexibly include not:
- Mistaking adopted rules for absolute truth.
- Thinking you can only do your best work in certain conditions.
- Requiring specific tools or equipment to do the work.
- Thinking anything that’s out of your control is in your way.
To be sure:
- Rubin rambles with metaphors: artists are orchestra conductors, or wildlife, or water. It’s hard to imagine many other leaders in their fields being given more than 400 pages to expound without clearly connecting chapters or themes (The Creative Act is arranged into 78 loose “Areas of Thought”). The artists Rubin cites are largely white, male, and older or deceased. (He also naively writes that “Success has nothing to do with variables outside yourself” (p. 219), discounting the barriers that many creators encounter based on their identities, responsibilities, and positions in their fields.)
- Rubin writes that whether it be a horror film or a country album, “Genres come with distinct variations on rules…As soon as you use a label to describe what you’re working on, there’s a temptation to conform to its rules” (p. 100). He’s committed to abandoning many of the rules that characterize other business books and artists’ autobiographical reflections. But he forgets that mastery of the rules of a form can provide a foundation from which to break them; a good example is Questlove’s memoir Mo’ Meta Blues. Rubin should have created more structure for his reader to make use of what he’s trying to communicate.
- Entrepreneurs may benefit from the book’s unconstrained style and the inspiration it offers, but should know that Rubin is heavily interested in self-instinct and spirituality.
- On fruitful collaborations: “When I work with artists, we make an agreement: We continue the process until reaching the point where we are all happy with the work. This is the ultimate goal of cooperation. If one person loves it but another does not, there’s usually an underlying issue worth paying attention to. It likely means we haven’t gone far enough and the work hasn’t reached its full potential.” (p. 372-3)
- Limitations can be opportunities. Constraints, either imposed or introduced, can be tools when they’re taken seriously: “The painter Yves Klein decided to limit his palette to one color. This led him to discover a shade of blue no one had ever seen before. The shade itself was seen by many as effectively becoming the art, and was later named ‘International Klein Blue.’” (p. 208)
The bottom line is that a reader who doesn’t take Rubin too seriously and is open to a leisurely read will enjoy the experience. Fans of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, and other bands that have worked closely with Rubin may be let down by the generalities if they’re seeking step-by-step process notes and anecdotes. They may be better served by listening to Broken Record, an interview podcast that Rubin co-hosts; his interview with Robby Krieger and John Densmore of The Doors about the realities of creating and distributing breakout work is a highlight.
The 2021 video series “McCartney 3, 2, 1” featuring Rubin in conversation with Paul McCartney is also worth watching. For more about the inner workings of cultural economies, we suggest Atlantic editor Derek Thompson’s book Hit Makers. And for further recommended exercises for unblocking individuals and teams, see guidance from Sarah Stein Greenberg of Stanford’s design institute, the “d.school.”
You can read all of our book briefings here.